How Not To Be Taken Seriously

| July 7, 2011

A young musician musters the courage to call up a famous producer. He knows the producer is well respected in the music business. His endorsement can make or break an aspiring picker’s career. “Please,” he asks, “just let me play my best song for you; I know you’ll be impressed.” “Fine,” said the producer, “be at my studio at 9am tomorrow and let’s hear what you got.”

At 9am they meet, exchange pleasantries and talk about their art and aspirations. “Whenever you’re ready…,” says the producer, and the musician knows this is his moment of truth. He plugs in, plays a couple of notes to tune his guitar, takes a deep breath and carefully starts playing the first notes to his song.

The producer has an odd look on his face and, a few seconds later, he signals to the musician to stop playing. “What is that?” he asks. “It’s my song,” says the musician. “No it isn’t,” says the producer, now visibly upset, “it’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Led Zeppelin.” “Well, yes, but I’m playing it on my Stratocaster, using my top-of-the-line Fender Twin amp… it’s my song… my art…”

“Get out of here!” yelled the producer, “and stop wasting my time!”

A young photographer musters the courage to call up a famous gallery owner…

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Category: All Posts, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (25)

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  1. :) What a way to convey the message !

  2. Robert says:

    I’ll remember this … the next time I’m greeted with “Oh, you’re STILL shooting film”, or as one Canon digital photographer remarked “I’ll be next to the guy with the ancient camera”. Easy to say, but there is a lot of pressure to conform to the norm and shoot digital … however, there is no reason, technical or asthetical for me to do so.

  3. Alister Benn says:

    A great story – unless of course the young guitarist was Jimmy Page! But of course not, he played a Les Paul :-)

    Nice one Guy…

  4. I hope that the famous producer would take five minutes to talk with the young musician about originality, creativity, and seeking one’s own inspiration rather than being an ass and kicking him out of his studio. The young musician may never have had the opportunity to receive that kind of feedback or be inspired to pursue his own path. The producer could have a much more positive and influential impact on the artistic development for the young musician by being kind and giving with some basic advice.

  5. Well said!

    Although it’s interesting to note that Jimmy Page did steal the intro to Stairway to Heaven, more here:

  6. Guy Tal says:

    Thanks everyone!

    Sarah, that’s a good point. Alfred Stieglitz, who was a photographic king maker in his day, is known to have given similar lessons to photographers who sought his advice. Some of them indeed took it to heart, among them such famous names as Eliot Porter.

    In a roundabout way, we may never even have heard of Ansel Adams if it were not for advice he received from Paul Strand, who convinced him to pursue photography professionally and switch to glossy printing. Coincidentally, Adams was introduced to Strand by Stieglitz.

    In reality, though, chances are gallery owners and others of similar stature also have a legitimate expectation that artists will “do their homework” before presuming to impress them.


  7. Robin Black says:

    You chose an excellent analogy to make an important point. Have you ever read Harold Bloom’s slim but important book “The Anxiety of Influence?” It’s literary criticism, but the discussion can just as easily be applied to other creative forms, especially photography. It’s always interesting to me to consider the point at which art departs from imitation and becomes an original creation.

  8. Heather says:

    Sarah makes an amazing point….

  9. Richard Wong says:

    Reminds me of the movie, Walk the Line, where Johnny Cash begs his way into getting the studio owners time to play one song. He got cut off for playing a gospel cover and was asked what he would sing if he were left for dead in a ditch so he starts singing Folsom Prison Blues.

  10. This is a very problematic story and example. I have actually quickly wrote a blog post about this and gave a couple of examples to why this story raises some serious questions about originality in today’s digital age. Please feel free to comment there

  11. Tim Parkin says:

    Interestingly if you walked into an orchestral audition and played one of your own pieces in an “original” style, you would be chucked out of the front door.

    Or walk into a most bars and ask for an audition and they’ll want you to play covers.

    And when I worked as a record scout, it was ‘usual’ for A&R to look for bands that fitted into an already successful genre – e.g. when Oasis got signed, there were loads of sound-a-likes getting signed millseconds later.

    Also, walk into a guitar store and most guitarist will be playing classical metal, goth or country licks trying to impress everybody.

    It’s the nature of the beast that the mainstream won’t appreciate the new, original, left field..

    I suppose this means most photographers are doing ‘classical landscape’ or ‘cover version bands’ – or playing wanky guitar licks ;-)

  12. Guy Tal says:

    Tim, that doesn’t contradict my point. There’s a big difference between saying “I’m about to play Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple” vs. saying “I’m about to play an original song” followed by Smoke on the Water…

    The missing piece is the distinction between “written by” and “performed by,” which is all but ignored in our genre of photography.

    If you copy “War and Peace” in your own handwriting, is it your original book? If you paint a replica of “Night Watch” using your own brushes and canvas, is it your original painting?

    Nothing wrong with covers, as long as they are presented as covers and credit is given to the original.


  13. Rodney says:

    A great analogy but fails to answer one very important question particularly in respect of landscape photography.

    Who created the original? Its quite possible to create work that might be like someone else’s without being aware of it.

    After all God or evolution or geological forces take your pick is the creator. We as photographers are merely being selective in what and to a lesser degree how we show it.

    Perhaps its just in being first? If so theres no point in going to Yosemite or any other well photographed location because it would be impossible to guarantee your work is truly the only shot like that was ever taken.

    The analogy fails in this respect unlike making music the process of photography is about capturing something physical that already exists. Musical composition is an idea that exists only in the mind of the composer.

  14. Gary Wium says:

    @Tim. I agree.

    @Guy. Music copyright has two sides–50% publishing and 50% performance. If I write and record an original song that makes money I get both sides of the revenue stream. If I record a cover of someone else’s song I only get the return for performance rights. The publishing half goes to whoever owns those rights (unfortunately, it’s not always the original songwriter).

    Imagining photography in a similar 50/50 copyright situation is tenuous at best. If I like blown out highlights and a professional photographer who’s works I’ve never seen has made a career out of blown out images, should I have to pay that photographer half of the money I make on prints of my work that have blown out highlights? I think not. Should I have to give that photographer credit? Why? I’ve never seen the work. But, others who have seen said photographer’s work might say “your work is like…” or worse, “you’re ripping off…” Unfortunately, photographic originality is a slippery slope.

  15. Guy Tal says:

    Rodney, I don’t see this question as being any different for painting or music or other creative pursuits.

    There are quite a few songs, texts, and images whose origin is unknown. Just because you can’t *always* identify the original creator doesn’t mean you should not address those cases where you CAN.

    As for photography being about capturing something that exists; I’m not sure I agree. Photography can do that but can also go beyond it. The same is true for news stories describing facts of an actual event, which are nonetheless still protected by copyright laws. Or, how about paintings of actual models or real scenes? Should they be exempt from copyright protection as well?

  16. Guy Tal says:

    Gary, I don’t think there’s a slippery slope. Just because there are gray areas doesn’t mean that protection should not apply to those cases where original ownership CAN be established.


  17. Gary Wium says:

    With photography, I think “gray areas” abound. If someone sees a photo, goes to the place where it was originally taken and takes (or tries to take) the “exact” same shot… Do people do this? If so, who cares? Get a life gear head!! ;^) Anyway, I’m sticking with my slippery slope analogy.


  18. Wonderful analogy Guy.

    @Rodney, even if scenery like Yosemite has been photographed numerous times, its the light that photographers are actually capturing and that is continuously changing and no two photos will ever exactly alike.

  19. Rodney says:

    “Or, how about paintings of actual models or real scenes? Should they be exempt from copyright protection as well?”

    Well now that you mention it the copyright is with the artist not the subject is it not? Its not the scene thats copyright its the Artists rendition. What happens if you take photos of gardens for example are you then infringing the gardeners copyright? This is what you are implying.

    All Im trying to say is it is impossible to be 100% certain your composition of a scene has not been taken by someone else.
    Its unlikley to be exactly the same but subtantivley it could be similar.

    @Youseff I understand this but im not sure about Guy. I presume given his stated position that he would be very concerned that he might be infringing someone elses copyright.

  20. Tim Parkin says:

    @Guy – wasn’t meaning to contradict your point (which agree with).

  21. Stewart says:

    Good heavens folks, it’s a simple story about using your imagination, creativity and being original. It’s not meant to be picked apart about copy rights, grey areas or anything else. Must we complicate everything.
    Guy – you inspire me.

  22. Greg Russell says:

    Well said, Guy. The others have some interesting points, but what Stewart says is really the take-home message. In the fast-paced world of people trying to race one another for “the shot” its so easy to let creativity and originality slip through the cracks.


  23. Gary Wium says:

    @Stewart. If you think about it, it’s ALL about the gray areas. ;^)

  24. DJ Schulte says:

    Wonderful message… simply to forget the mainstream and predetermined — find your original voice/vision.

    I really like Richard Wong’s comment above about Cash’s audition and being asked to play the one and only one song if he were to die today. Spin that in our photography terms; say you were to die today and could only take on print with you to give God upon entering into heaven, the one and only one He would hang on his wall… which one would you bring with you?

  25. Stewart says:

    @Gary, Can not believe I ZONED out on that one. I stand corrected.