By now we are all aware that the chorus of Sam Smith’s Grammy-winning song “Stay With Me” is melodically identical to the verse of Tom Petty’s 1989 hit “I Won’t Back Down,” with the exception of the third phrases. In case you’ve missed this story, here is the Youtube video that lays it all out:
Even though the recordings sound very different on their own, the melodies themselves are identical, so those bits of Sam Smith’s tune are legally the same song as the corresponding bits of “I Won’t Back Down.” This is pretty much indisputable, and it is in contrast to the ocean of sound-alike songs out there — for example the recent hits “Tik Tok” and “California Girls” — that seem like copies of each other but that are ultimately one or two notches removed from exactness to legally be the same song.
When news broke that Tom Petty would begin receiving royalties for Sam Smith’s song, many people — myself included — thought it was a little unfair to Sam Smith. Yes, these two songs are identical in a way that one couldn’t legally argue that the songs are different, but this particular melody is so simple and so universal that it is hard to imagine that Petty was the first person to write it, and Sam Smith’s recording unique enough that it feels like its own song. In an oft-cited article for Slate defending Sam Smith, Adam Ragusea went so far as to claim that he could find “a lot of songs that would be similarly simpatico,” which would mean that not only was Tom Petty not the first person to publish or record a song with that melody, but there would have to be many examples out there. Half-jokingly, I offered $80 to my first Facebook friend that found a perfect match that was published or recorded before “I Won’t Back Down,” thinking that it would only take a few music experts working for a few hours on their day off before one was found. But, two weeks later I am writing this and there have been no matches. This is an important issue, one that hits at the heart of what it means to be a musician in 2015, so I am doubling-down on the contest.
The Contest: I will give one hundred and eighty dollars ($180) to the first person who provides evidence of a song that was written before “I won’t back down” that contains the following ten-note melody in any key: It can appear any place in the song but it has to be exact, in the same way that Sam Smith’s song is exact. It must appear that way in a published version or a released recording (not a live version or outtake.) You have to submit it here and you have to be first.
This is not intended as a knock on Tom Petty nor as a dig at his detractors; if we can’t find another song with the exact same melody, we should all lay off of Mr. Petty and let him collect his deserved royalties in peace. Likewise, if it is proven that the melody is older than 1989, the year that “I Won’t Back Down” was released, Sam Smith should not have to share writing credit or royalties with Mr. Petty; in fact, we may discover an earlier songwriter that deserves his or her own cut of both of these songs.
The full terms of the contest are as follows:
- Submissions to the contest must be in the form of a comment on this blog post or on my personal facebook page. The timestamp of your comment will be the official timestamp of your entry.
- The submission must be verified by a recording or published sheet music. If a recording it must be cataloged on the Allmusic Guide as being released before “I Won’t Back Down” (April 1989.) If sheet music, it must be proven to have been published before “I Won’t Back Down.” If you submit a song title without proof, your timestamp remains valid for twelve (12) hours to give you time to provide proof. In the case of a dispute or an ambiguity the burden of proof is on the submitter.
- The melody can appear anywhere in the song, but all ten pitches and rhythms must be an exact match. The rhythms must fall on the same beats as the given example, including the rest on beat one of bars 1 and 3, and the melody should function the same way in terms of solfege (e.g. that last note, in whatever key, must function as “do.”)
- If I (Dan Reitz) become aware of a matching song before a matching song is submitted, the contest is over. If this happens I will announce it in the comments of this blog post.
- If you win the contest you agree to refrain from blogging about it or mentioning it on media until I have announced the win on my blog, for a maximum of 3 days (I will likely announce it immediately.)
- You will receive your prize after the announcement has been made.
- I am the ultimate judge of this contest and reserve the right to full authority over it. I reserve the right to cancel the contest for any reason or to disqualify a person for any reason.
This is a real contest with real implications, so feel free to take it seriously. I would be surprised if there is not a matching song somewhere in the bowels of recorded and published music, but I don’t think it will be easy to find. It may even be older than copyright law itself. Happy sleuthing.