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Composer Sarah Hopkins, Björk and the beauty of a co-writing credit

Tip Published Thursday 26 April 2018
Sarah Hopkins with her harmonic whirlies at Uluru (photo by Carl Erikson)

Brisbane composer Sarah Hopkins is the only other writer on Björk's latest album Utopia after Björk discovered Sarah’s track via a compilation album released in 1996

Björk reached out to Sarah for permission to use include the track on her album, and in return agreed to give Sarah a writing credit

Art’s Law Centre Australia recommends to always get offers in writing, and get legal advice before accepting any agreement relating to your music rights

For World Intellectual Property Day and its focus on women in innovation and creativity, we spoke to Brisbane composer Sarah Hopkins, whose name stands out on the credits of Björk's new album Utopia as the only other writer on the album, in addition to Björk herself and producer Arca. So, how did Sarah's Kindred Spirits from a 1996 compilation album arrive on Björk's Features Creatures track?

On 1 July of last year, Sarah received an email out of the blue from Björk. Sarah tells how Björk wrote that "she had admired my music for a long time and that she had a melody for a song that matched mine, Kindred Spirits, perfectly. So she wrote that she’d really love to include it on her next album and that of course she’d offer me writing credits."

Sarah continues, "I was absolutely delighted and wrote straight back and asked her to send me the sound file of the combined music so I could hear it before giving permission." After that initial correspondence, Sarah began discussing the work with Björk's record label One Little Indian.

How did Björk discover the track?

"Kindred Spirits is 4 and a half minutes long, it’s a piece for harmonic whirlies, which are a celestial sounding instrument I created. I composed and recorded the track in 1990, played entirely by my self-made instruments. In 1996 a really passionate advocate of experimental musical instruments, US producer Bart Hopkin, released a boxset of experimental music. It included my song and a two page feature in the booklet." Thanks in part to a good distribution network, the CD found a number of fans, including Björk, who told Double J that the album was a favourite of hers.

Sarah notes: "Features Creatures features Björk singing her melody plus some other instruments playing at the end of the track. It’s a fantastic and wonderful collaboration."

How does using Sarah's existing recording in Features Creatures result in a writing credit versus being a sample?

"My music, that piece, which I made the instrument, composed the music, performed the music, recorded the music and that inspired her to create it. So it’s definitely not a sample," Sarah explains. What steps did Sarah take to negotiate? After a few late night London-Brisbane phone calls, she got in touch with APRA AMCOS and spoke with Matt Cannings in Writer Services. His advice? Just get everything in writing, which Sarah then did: "I asked them to provide the offer in writing, and as soon as I did that things stepped up in terms of an offer."

With legal assistance from Sanicki Lawyers, Sarah ended up with an agreement and a credit she was very pleased with.

"She has credited my music so beautifully on the CD liner notes. Lyrics by Björk, written by Björk and Sarah Hopkins. It’s an equal co-write."

Kindred Spirits was used non-exclusively on that 1996 compilation album, allowing Sarah to place it in films and other uses. And of course, the music has brought a new cadre of Björk fans to discover her music. "I have a YouTube channel and suddenly I had a whole bunch of Björk fans on it saying 'Björk’s new album brought me here!' That was beautiful."

Sarah is very busy shipping her harmonic whirlies globally, and is in the recording studio working on giving Kindred Spirits another new, new life. As a prolific professional composer for four decades, how does Sarah describe the effect on her career? "I feel so passionate about it, and in my heart I feel like the best is yet to come."

"I feel so passionate about it, and in my heart I feel like the best is yet to come."

Some tips from Arts Law

And, dear reader, if you were to one day receive an email from a well-known artist wanting to use your music, what should you do? Clara Edwards from Arts Law Centre Australia, shared some very valuable tips on copyright and authorship.

In a situation like Sarah's, what is the difference between a writing credit and a sample? "A writing credit is essentially what the copyright act calls joint authorship," which comes with certain rights and everything that flows from those rights including royalties. "It’s a bit more of a substantial ownership under copyright."

And of course authorship can be unequal. You might not be the principal writer or composer, but if a person adds a lyric or a part, they can be attributed a writing credit because "that part they added in makes the song or defines the song," Clara explains.

In terms of sampling, sampling is using part of a work that already exists to create a new work. But this can be a grey area, and quite complicated. Clarifying the nature of a work often happens in the negotiating process.

Is there an advantage to a writing credit versus agreeing to your music being sampled? The advantage to a writing credit is "getting acknowledged as one of the authors of the work. So that you can:

A) have the protection from that, so if anyone else wants to use that work, you are a copyright owner and they have to seek your permission to use it.

B) The other important thing is you get a split of the income that comes from that work as well as the attribution that comes with being a writer on the track."

Clara elaborates that a writer can agree to a flat fee as an option, and "with sampling you might not get the same level of income, but you will usually get an attribution and that attribution will mean perhaps that you are associated with a successful artist and then people might go back and look at your existing work. It’s easy to do but the thing is you take the risk of either not being acknowledged or not getting income later on." The writer needs to consider what is most beneficial to them.

The takeaways from all of this should you receive a request to use your music?

  1. Get everything in writing
  2. Get legal advice
  3. Consider your rights and find out whether there are any other permissions that need to be sought across the other layers of rights (eg sound recording).

And a very important tip if you want to use the work of someone else, you need to ask, and unless written permission is given, you could be violating someone's copyright.

If you write to Björk saying you want to use her work in your song, Clara advises, just because:

"You might not get a response, you need to know that no response or silence is not copyright permission. You need to get written permission from the original copyright owner." Sometimes, a creator will use the work and wait for the copyright owner to come out of the woodwork, but that is not the ethical path to take.

So on World IP Day, remember to be a good IP citizen - like Björk!. It's your work, your livelihood.

Sarah Hopkins' Harmonic Whirlies Music 'Kindred Spirits'