Sam Smith was the big winner at the Grammys this month. As well as the awards for best pop vocal album and best new artist, he took home two of the most prestigious prizes, record of the year and song of the year, for his worldwide hit Stay with Me. Unlike most music awards, record of the year and song of the year recognise the production team and songwriters, and one such songwriter who quietly received a certificate of recognition was Tom Petty.
In January, Petty reached an agreement with Smith for 12.5% of the royalties from the track due to a similarity between Stay with Me’s chorus and the verse melody in his 1989 track I Won’t Back Down. I Won’t Back Down is a nice enough piece of classic Americana, while Stay with Me is a fine piece of gospel-pop from the Adele school of ballads. (Both, incidentally, are trumped by Johnny Cash’s 2000 cover of Petty’s track from his excellent American Recordings series.) There is certainly some resemblance in the ten-second segment of Smith’s track in question, but it’s far from a rip-off: Slate’s Adam Ragusea describes it as a “motive”, an element of musical sequence used in every genre, and not something that Petty can claim to own.
Nevertheless, the case seemed to be resolved rather peacefully. Writing on his website, Petty said: “Let me say I have never had any hard feelings toward Sam. All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement. The word lawsuit was never even said and was never my intention.”
A representative of Smith described the similarity as “a complete coincidence”, speaking to Rolling Stone: “Not previously familiar with the 1989 Petty/Lynne song, the writers of ‘Stay with Me’ listened to ‘I Won’t Back Down’ and acknowledged the similarity. […] All involved came to an immediate and amicable agreement in which Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne are now credited as co-writers of ‘Stay with Me’ along with Sam Smith, James Napier and William Phillips.”
So far, so mundane. But this isn’t the first time Petty has seemingly been plagiarised. Shortly after the Strokes released the track Last Nite in 2001, parallels were drawn between its one-note intro and that of Petty’s song American Girl. The New Yorkers even admitted to borrowing it according to Petty in an interview with Rolling Stone and Petty just laughed and said he admired their audacity.
Perhaps Petty was being wise and not looking to waste his time; what court would really let him claim plagiarism over one repeated note? And besides, would it be worth all that time and effort for compensation from some garage rock band who, he might have thought, wouldn’t go on to much?
But surely Petty couldn’t sit by as the Red Hot Chili Peppers released Dani California in 2006, which borrows its entire verse from Mary Jane’s Last Dance, a single released by Petty in 1993. The similarity is uncanny, and surely could not be owed to coincidence. Petty’s reaction? “I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock & roll songs sound alike,” he said to Rolling Stone. Was he not tempted to sue? “If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe. But I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.”
So what changed? You might think it’s a case of an ageing rocker running out of money and getting desperate, but you would be wrong: Petty has never been more successful. In 2014 he achieved his first ever number one album in the US with Hypnotic Eye, and received rave reviews for his performances on Jimmy Kimmel Live, while continuing to sell out arenas across the States.
Perhaps the motive was jealousy? Petty has been writing, performing and releasing records for over forty years, and may have been irked by the handsome new kid on the block, Smith, appearing fully formed and reaching world domination status at the age of 22. Stay with Me has gone multi-platinum in Australia, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden, the kind of global success that Petty, who has had just one platinum record outside North America, can only dream of.
It’s not outwith the realms of possibility that Petty just wanted a bit of recognition for his contribution to pop and rock music over the years. That said, 12.5% of all royalties will certainly make for a healthy pension.