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Who gets the credit?

Topics/tags: Rants, intellectual property, short, rambly

Tonight I went to the annual Jazz Band Potato Bar at Grinnell High School. At this fundraising event, both the Middle-School Jazz Band and the High School Jazz Band perform, and the Band Boosters sell food. As always, I enjoyed listening to the music and watching the kids perform. I appreciate the hard work the Band Directors do with these bands.

But I found one thing a bit frustrating. After the band played Hit The Road Jack, the Band Leader said That’s Hit The Road Jack by arranger Billy Smith [1]. I find that attribution troubling. The song Hit The Road Jack was written by Percy Mayfield (and made famous by Ray Charles). Why didn’t he say That’s Hit The Road Jack by Percy Mayfield, as arranged by Billy Smith [2]? Both composing and arranging are important tasks. However, if I had to choose which is more central to a song, I’d have to say it’s the composer.

We don’t say That’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, as arranged by Leonard Bernstein. We say something like That’s Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor as performed by The New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. We don’t say That’s All Along the Watchtower as arranged by Jimi Hendrix. We say That’s All Along the Watchtower by Bob Dylan and performed by Jimi Hendrix. Okay, we say That’s Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower, but more because we’re discussing a performance than an arrangement. If someone adapted Hendrix’s version of the song, we’d still call it Dylan’s song and might not even credit Hendrix [3]. The performer wouldn’t say I just played Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower, at least I don’t think they would.

Nonetheless, I regularly see the arrangers, rather than the composers, credited in programs. I wonder why. One hypothesis is that because schools often purchase or rent the arrangements there may be requirements that the arranger receives appropriate credit. But that still doesn’t explain why the composer can’t receive credit, too.

Arrangements can be transformative. I think, for example, of John Coltrane’s arrangement and performance of Rogers and Hammerstein’s My Favorite Things which goes far beyond the original [4]. I know that Coltrane receives [5] only performance credit, and therefore only performance royalties, even though significant portions of his performance are newly created music. So a model that provides that extra credit and compensation is valuable.

For students, arrangements are likely also essential. I expect that it is unlikely that a group of two-dozen or so middle-school students could each figure out their own part for Hit The Road Jack. So arrangers deserve both credit and compensation.

Nonetheless, in the end, the song’s the thing, as they say [6]. And credit for the song belongs to the composer [7].

[1] No, that wasn’t the name. I don’t remember the name of the arranger.

[2] I still don’t remember the name of the arranger.

[3] I think we should credit Hendrix. But it’s still Dylan’s song.

[4] I credit my Tutorial student AC for that particular example.

[5] Received?

[6] I’m not sure who says that, and my Web search reveals nothing. Nonetheless, it’s a phrase I feel like I’ve heard regularly.

[7] Or the songwriter, if you will.

Version 1.0 of 2019-01-11.