Austin Kleon Says You Should Rip Off Other Musicians (and He’s Right)

Austin in Austin, appearing at the 2014 SXSW Festival.
Austin in Austin, appearing at the 2014 SXSW Festival.
Austin in Austin, appearing at the 2014 SXSW Festival.

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Rip off. Steal. Borrow. Copy.

All things us musicians, and especially songwriters, should be doing. Heck, I stole the very idea of stealing like an artist from a guy named Austin Kleon. Here’s what that means and how you can put it into practice…

The Idea of Stealing Like an Artist

Bestselling author Austin Kleon calls himself “a writer who draws.” And his trilogy of books on creativity shows this to be true. They’re short, easy to read, and full of sketches, doodles, and other unique forms of art. His first book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, teaches the reader how to rip off other artists. Let me explain what he means.

Stealing like an artist is all about letting your heroes influence your work. This means using their art as a springboard for your own. Take another artist’s creation and use it as a starting point for yours. Combine a bit of this artist’s work with a smidge of that artist’s work, then mix it around with what’s in your head and make it your own.

Kleon makes the point that you should always give credit to the artists who have influenced you. Be humble enough to admit you borrowed from certain people.

And to be clear, this is “influence,” not “plagiarism.” The former is honorable and adds value to the world. The latter is when you take the exact work of someone else and say that it’s yours.

How Musicians Can Implement This Idea

So as musicians, how can we implement the “steal like an artist” idea?

Here are some practices you can try out to better steal like an artist (not a thief), and not simply wait for inspiration to come knocking. Keep in mind, these are jumping-off points for your music.

1. Rewrite someone else’s song.

Look up the lyrics to one of your favorite songs. Then rewrite the lyrics in a way you would say it.

Next, look up the chords. Create your own chord progression using one of these methods:

  • Play the progression backward.
  • Play every other chord.
  • Mix up the chords in a random order.

Lastly, for the melody, try using only the first two notes of the original melody as the beginning of a new melody. To make your song even more different, change the time signature and tempo from the original.

2. Build your song from a pre-existing beat.

It’s not rare for a producer or beat maker to use a sampled snare or kick drum hit from another person’s song, but what if you built your song entirely on someone else’s beat?

Obviously, you have to keep things legal. So here are some options for starting with a pre-existing beat:

  • Find a beat on a public domain site like Freesound or SampleSwap.
  • Use a tool like Regroover to extract the sounds of someone else’s beat to build your own.
  • Ask the artist if you can straight-up sample their beat.

Whatever beat you end up with, go crazy editing it to your liking. Change the tempo, pitch it up or down, cut it up. Make it your own.

3. Borrow stage moves.

Many artists go through stage presence training. They hire someone to teach them how to move their bodies, hands, and how to interact with the crowd. You can get training and that’s fine, but a quick way to learn these skills is simply by watching other performers do their thing.

The next time you go to a concert or watch one on YouTube, watch how they move and how they look at and communicate with the audience. Then study them; borrow their moves. When you copy them on stage, it will be in your own way because you won’t move exactly like your idols.

4. Use a reference track for your… songwriting.

You’ve heard of using a reference track for mixing and mastering. But have you ever tried it during the writing stage?

You can use someone else’s song as an outline for your own. You’re not copying their song, you’re just using it as a guide for how you can produce your song. Make your song ebb when your reference track ebbs, and flow when it flows — match the song’s build, its beginning and ending, and its form and structure.

These are all ways to use other artists’ music as a starting point for your own. That’s how (and why) you should steal like an artist, and not a thief.

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