The PyeongChang 2018 Olympics saw a big change in the rules of figure skating: competitors were allowed to perform to songs with lyrics for the first time. In this article, Eamonn Forde takes a look at how this will change the shape of the sport, and why it brings “huge opportunities” for music copyright owners.
Music and sport have had a peculiar relationship over the years – often a case of either being feast or famine. Not only has the half-time musical entertainment become an event at the Super Bowl but so too have the adverts during the (numerous) commercial breaks, most of which heavily feature music. But that’s one evening a year in the US. On a global sporting level, it’s even rarer – primarily because the biggest events mostly take place once every four years. But even then, it is slim pickings for music.
The World Cup has a lot less of the razzamatazz of the Super Bowl so musical links tend to be around cash-in singles for national teams that are probably best forgotten; or it’s broadcasters using a 10-second sting of an up-tempo track in their opening credits or deploying a lachrymose song as a soundbed for compilation footage when a team gets knocked out.
The opening ceremonies of the Olympics do use music but, after the last firework fizzles out, so does the music – until the closing ceremony. And then it goes silent for another four years.
The 2018 Winter Olympics are, however, proving to be a beast of a different stripe, with music a key part of the major events, notably the figure skating. But music use in this year’s event is where things take a very interesting turn for music copyright owners.
In the 1980s, classical music was the default setting for most figure skating performances, the most famous use being Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean skating to Ravel’s Boléro at the 1984 competition in Lillehammer in Norway. While Boléro was still covered by copyright laws at the time, many other classical pieces were much older and the composition rights had fallen into the public domain so were much easier (and cheaper) to use.
But the use of classical here was not just about allowing the event organisers to sidestep copyright laws (and hence copyright payments). There were also restrictions stating that any music used had to be instrumental only – so recordings that incorporated lyrics were deemed ineligible and, if they were used, the (foolish) competing skaters would have points deducted.
This year at the event in Pyeongchang in South Korea, however, things are very different due to a change in the rules enabled by the International Skating Union around the type of music that can be used – extending them to allow songs with lyrics for the first time. This was partly a move to make the event appeal to a younger audience, using contemporaneous hits as an audio hook as well as a form of sonic rebranding. (Interesting side note: ice dancers have long been allowed to dance to music containing lyrics but figure skating has always been a bigger audience draw.)
So that means there have been performances this year to Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee’s ‘Despacito’ (of course), Adele’s ‘Hometown Glory’, Beyoncé’s ‘Run The World (Girls)’ and songs by acts as diverse as Muse, Ed Sheeran, Imagine Dragons and metal band Disturbed. Suddenly current hits, pop classics and esoteric rock tracks were part of a major sporting event, used in situ rather than overdubbed, for the first time and reaching a massive global audience not normally exposed to such music.
“Suddenly current hits, pop classics and esoteric rock tracks were part of a major sporting event, used in situ rather than overdubbed, for the first time and reaching a massive global audience not normally exposed to such music.”
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 21, 2018
So far, so modern. But there is an additional licensing issue that has considerable implications not just here but also in future events that use music. The New York Times recently quoted music lawyer Steve Winogradsky on this issue and he said that the live nature of the event means that specific synchronisations are not required to clear the music as they would be in, for example, a TV drama or Hollywood film.
“They are basically live performances,” he said. “So there is no synchronization right as there would be in a pretaped motion picture.” As such, the music is cleared under a performing right that applies to a public and commercial setting. The copyright owners will still get paid, of course, under blanket agreements (just not anywhere near as much as they would under a straight synch negotiation); but there are limitations which mean broadcasters cannot use the footage outside of their Olympic coverage without incurring a separate licensing fee. But now that songs with lyrics can be used, it is a time of huge opportunity for writers of songs from the past few decades.
“Now that songs with lyrics can be used, it is a time of huge opportunity for writers of songs from the past few decades.”
– music lawyer Steve Winogradsky
The update to the International Skating Union rules also has an aesthetic value to the dances being performed on the ice, with chart hits offering different rhythms, musical structures and lyrical triggers compared to the classical music that has dominated in the past. This means that the style of dancing can and will change. In the coming batches of four years, we will be able to plot how lyric-centric pop music is changing the shape and the latitude of figure skating. It’s not just about making the performances more relevant to younger audiences – it’s about granting them a whole new set of sonic canvases for their choreography.
“I think [the new music rules] will evolve the sport over the next five to 10 years,” figure skating expert Jackie Wong suggested when speaking to The Guardian recently. “As people see these role models, like Adam Rippon or Eric Radford, I think there will be more folks who are able to express themselves differently – and cross some boundaries.”
“In the coming batches of four years, we will be able to plot how lyric-centric pop music is changing the shape and the latitude of figure skating. It’s not just about making the performances more relevant to younger audiences – it’s about granting them a whole new set of sonic canvases for their choreography.”
When the changes were announced four years ago as the Sochi games came to an end, there was a tremendous amount of fearmongering and bellyaching that “modern” music creeping into dances could ruin the sport forever.
Some bemoaned the music changes, arguing they would undermine the grace and austerity of the performances. “I think that there is something so regal about skating that might not carry with Top 40,” proposed skating coach Katia Krier when asked by the New York Times in 2014 what this could all mean. “I think it’s going to come off really corny. And even though people don’t have to do it, I’m afraid people are going to attempt it poorly, and then it will make the sport look even stupider.”
As with any use of music – classical or contemporary – it is just one ingredient here. But the feedback this year has been, in the main, that modern music has brought a new vitality to the dancing, giving it an edge and a vigour that had perhaps been dulled in the past.
There is also, via the lyrics, a Trojan horse opportunity for skaters to sneak socio-political messages into their performances in a way that was never going to be possible in the past. This year we have already seen the deft choice of music link into skaters’ own identities and become public statements of empowerment around gender, race and sexuality. Of course, some skaters may choose tracks for no other reason than they like the music or the artists who recorded them; but others can now think about not only how the shape of their performances can change but also how they can communicate a particular political narrative by matching their performance to particular lyrical themes.
As diversity issues shake up the music industry, music is now showing it can be used as an agent for change in other areas.