Interpolation and How It Has Reintroduced New Audiences to Past Music
Ava Max, Doja Cat, and Bon Jovi all have something in common when it comes to their music: they have all interpolated older songs into their own, new works. Interpolation as defined by the U.S. Copyright Office “involves taking part of an existing musical work…and incorporating it into a new work.” Although not a new concept, interpolation has become increasingly popular with today’s artists. Interpolation has many positive benefits including sparking a new subsect of songwriting; however, there are some concerns with interpolating music. While these concerns should not be ignored, interpolation should be seen as an excellent example of achieving and balancing the original intent of intellectual property rights—protecting and awarding musicians for their artistic contributions—while also encouraging new creative and transformative works.
Although interpolation may sound similar to sampling, there is a key difference between the two. Interpolating a song means recording new audio of a preexisting musical work — typically the lyrics, melody, chord progression, or some combination — while sampling generally involves using a portion of a preexisting sound recording of an older song — or several — in the new song. Thus, interpolation is the creation of a new recording entirely, while sampling is the creation of a new work from existing sound recordings to use in a new, transformative piece. This also means that, unlike sampling, an artist looking to interpolate a preexisting work need only procure a license from the “musical work’s copyright holder,” rather than seek permission from a specific owner of a song recording. For instance, one would have to ask Dolly Parton to interpolate the chorus in “I Will Always Love You” but would not have to also ask Whitney Houston’s estate. Sometimes this means an artist has to seek out who owns the rights as songwriters can license or sell their rights to music publishers, performance rights organizations, and other entities.
The use of interpolation has increased in recent years. As Rolling Stone reported, music publishers have actually been hosting songwriting camps where one of the criteria is to create a new song by pulling inspiration (and the lyrics) from the publisher’s musical catalog. Furthermore, current popular artists have engaged in interpolation frequently. Ava Max, for instance, interpolated Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” for her song “Not Your Barbie Girl” and interpolated Desmond Child’s “If You Were a Woman (and I Was a Man)” for “Kings and Queens.” Although not a new concept—Bon Jovi interpolated the same Desmond Child song for “You Give Love a Bad Name”—the concept has become more well known and popular in recent years given its benefits and advancement of copyright’s purpose.
Interpolation has many beneficial uses including allowing new artists to become popular and explore new genres, reinvigorating the popularity of songs from previous decades, and advancing the mission of copyright. Newer artists via interpolation can capitalize on previously successful melodies and by adding them into their songs hopefully can generate success like Coi Leray’s “Players” which interpolated Grandmaster Flash’s hook from “The Message.” Although some may view this reuse of older songs as akin to film producers making sequels rather than new, more creative works, this is a misplaced concern. Interpolation actually allows artists to create brand new music by combining entirely different genres. For example, Ariana Grande interpolated “My Favorite Things” from the Sound of Music, a classic musical, for her song “7 Rings,” a modern pop hit. Moreover, interpolation brings benefits to the original copyright holder as it reinvigorates older songs. Hypebot tracked a few different songs from current artists that interpolated older songs, such as David Guetta & Bebe Rexha’s “I’m Good (Blue)” which borrows heavily from Eiffel 65’s “Blue,” and found that the original song received a boost in popularity once the new song came out.
This also leads to increased revenue for the holder of the original copyright. A few months after her album came out, Olivia Rodrigo credited Hayley Williams and Josh Farro from Paramore for interpolating their song “Misery Business” into her song “Good 4 U.” It was then reported that Williams and Farro had made $1.2 million in royalties. This may explain why, as Rolling Stone reported, publishers are starting to host songwriting camps where songwriters are specifically asked to interpolate songs the publisher already owns the rights for, as the interpolation industry is generating an economic boom for copyright holders.
There is a concern, however, about who is actually benefiting from interpolation as music publishers continue to buy the rights to songs from songwriters. For instance, Stevie Nicks has sold a majority of her publishing rights to the publisher Primary Wave, which was the same company that offered the interpolation songwriting camp. This could lead to a situation in which artists are not benefiting as much as these large companies who have collected and bought the rights to artists’ most catchy songs in order to interpolate them in the future. This could also lead to a mad dash by companies to buy the rights to catchy songs from younger artists—potentially resulting in younger artists not being able to see returns for future interpolations. However, there is also significant motivation for artists to voluntarily sell since the sums publishing companies are willing to pay can sometimes exceed what an artist hopes to make, such as Universal Music Publishing Group paying $400 million for Bob Dylan’s catalog.
Lastly, interpolation is an excellent example of the mission of copyright. It protects and provides rights for the songwriter, along with compensation when someone wants to interpolate their song, but the process to acquire the rights is fairly simple as the new artist only needs to acquire the rights from the musical work’s original copyright holder. Although there could be complications if there are multiple rightsholders implicated, i.e. an artist wants to use a beat from a song that sampled another song, like in the case of Lil Nas X, interpolation can be one of the easier copyright licensing processes as an artist typically need only ask for a license from the copyright owner of the musical work. This is no doubt part of why interpolation has become so popular but also it allows artists to more quickly and creatively transform older songs into fresh and new music compared to the lengthy process of waiting for something to enter the public domain — such as Steamboat Willie being finally set to enter the public domain next year after multiple copyright term extensions. This encouragement of creative and transformative works is part of the purpose of the Copyright Clause.
The use and nuances of interpolation is captured by the recent release of Miley Cyrus’s song “Flowers.” Many people have commented that “Flowers” sounds or at least seems highly related to Bruno Mars’s “When I Was Your Man.” Professor Joseph Fishman of Vanderbilt Law School in an article for Billboard said this, however, was not a case of interpolation because the only major similarity are the lyrical themes — not even precisely the lyrics themselves. Nonetheless, there may be a growing movement to expand what counts as an interpolation. Musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding, co-hosts of the Switched On Pop podcast, have discussed how songs that essentially capture the “vibe” of a song, without actually re-recording any particular vocals or composition, could be an example of interpolation — as evidenced by OneRepublic giving Peter Bjorn and John a songwriting credit on their song “I Ain’t Worried” as it sounds similar to “Young Folks.” In situations like this song and “Flowers” without clear, direct uses of elements from other songs it mainly seems to be up to the artist whether they give any credit to past songs, but all of this sets up an interesting dynamic between publishers, artists, and copyright holders.
In conclusion, intellectual property rights in the U.S. were designed to protect artists and their creative works while also enabling others to appropriately build upon past creations to encourage more creativity and innovation — interpolation furthers that goal. Not only does interpolation embody these values but has the added bonus of reconnecting newer audiences to past songs. It is only a matter of time before the songs made in interpolation bootcamps make it onto the radio and streaming services which will inevitably have people asking “where have I heard that before?”