Visual art is a vital branch of music entertainment. However, its creators and influences often disappear into the background. Look deeper into the issues and circumstances that arise when art is allowed to fade into the background with WBRU.

When you think of music, a few things might come to mind: iconic pop stars, the instruments, famous songs, or the swirling, warm images that you associate with a particular sound. However, the images that might occur to you less frequently, if at all, are those of album covers, music videos, and the visual art that surrounds every aspect of musical performance.

Often, these unique pieces of art are just as impressive as the tracks they support. Examples of this art appear throughout every genre, from Portugal. The Man’s use of Danny Cole’s incredible visuals during his world tour to J. Cole’s abundant, vivid imagery in his “Middle Child” music video (our article on this video is linked here). Visual art and music are inextricably tied, even though we don’t often give credit to the visual aspects of the music world.

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Danny Cole, the artist collaborating with Portugal. The Man, next to some of his work,

Yet, these visuals have their own complex histories. Just like music, these visuals are created by talented artists. These artists, however, do not receive the same level of attention in mainstream media. While many people may know an indie icon like Mitski, few know of the director Zia Anger who directed some of her most popular videos. This relationship in itself might not necessarily be a problem, but larger problems arise from the lack of close attention given to the music industry’s visual sector. Most significantly, visual artists’ work is often stolen to appear uncredited in the productions of today’s biggest stars.

Artistic theft has been happening across genres for years, as the demand for high-quality content rises with the growing numbers of people tuning into visual avenues of music entertainment. Music is increasingly not just a medium to listen to, but something to watch. Such pressure on visual content is creating a need for art in a way that, it seems, is making artists adjacent to the music industry feel the need to steal from their fellow creators.

I credit a mindless Instagram scroll for introducing me to my first example of this blatant plagiarism. Stephanie Sarley, an artist I had just discovered, posted a screenshot from her own Twitter. She cites the “Miley rip off” and explains that “big brands and names have to rob” since they don’t have the same abilities as DIY artists.

After seeing this post, I was compelled to learn more and know exactly what had happened with this “Miley rip off.” So, I dug deeper. I found a post from another artist regarding Miley Cyrus. The original offending post, in this case, was a collaboration Cyrus had done with Planned Parenthood. Almost immediately after, Becca Rea-Holloway posted a screenshot of Miley’s post with the following image showcasing her own cake. As the artist explained, the two were nearly identical with even her “exact handwriting” being copied.

These two instances shocked me. I couldn’t believe that the art I was exposed to daily via apps like Instagram was so often stolen from lesser-known creatives. Having just learned of these controversies, I expected mass outrage. I expected apologies. I expected Miley to credit and pay these artists. However, as I soon learned, none of these desires would happen. It’s rare that stolen art receives appropriate accreditations. The highest comments on Miley’s post are still ones that applaud her, and the accusations of theft are lost beneath the tides.

Miley Cyrus is not the first person to steal art, and she won’t be the last. Chris Brown has also been accused of stealing an artist’s work earlier this summer. In this case, the artist is Marius Sperlich, who creates evocative images by substituting body parts for more mundane objects such as beaches or thermostats. Someone else just happening to think of these exact, unique shots is practically unimaginable. Yet, Brown’s video for “Wobble Up” contains many near-identical images.

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Apparently my work got copied by the director who made the new @chrisbrownofficial @nickiminaj @g_eazy music video “Wobble Up” – without permission, without credit – along with works of other famous artists like @tonyfutura and @vanessamckeown  #changeindustry For reference: A concept of @tonyfutura got copied, too. (Last two pictures) Intellectual Property has to be protected at any cost! Now that the internet and social media proliferate content instantly. We need to make sure that the creative source is present from first launch. This unfortunately happens offers in the creative industry. Nowadays its very easy to copy things. For many the internet is just an open source of concepts, ideas and free content. Nobody cares about creation, originals and credit anymore. Especially if you are a young and an emerging artist….most cant afford a lawyer for a lawsuit. So most of them remain silent – We won’t stay silent. Thanks for your help.

A post shared by 🥶B E A S T🥵 (@mariussperlich) on

As Sperlich points out, “Nowadays, it is very easy to copy things. For many, the internet is just an open source of concepts, ideas, and free content.” He also reveals one of the dominating reasons credit can so easily be disregarded; many of these artists are unable to “afford a lawyer for a lawsuit.” This inability to financially compete with huge stars and an ever-silent public audience makes the theft of their art possible.

The list of examples goes on. In a Reddit thread, users revealed Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” music video to have startlingly similar visuals to photos from Toiletpaper Magazine. That video’s director, Dave Meyers, has also been accused of plagiarism in videos he directed for Kendrick Lamar and SZA. These claims have either been settled outside of court or have gone completely unaddressed since. Without the funds to fight the case, little can be done.

Of course, there are some examples of the accuser winning their fight although deeply rare. There is the famous circumstance of the Vampire Weekend album cover for Contra, which featured an old polaroid of a model. Reportedly, the model did not know she was on the album cover until her daughter happened to stumble upon it. The photographer claimed that the model released the photo, but the accidental star denied this claim. She ultimately settled with the band for an undisclosed amount of money once the photographer, who the band and the model sued for falsely selling the photo, became agitated and disappeared. These lawsuits were not dropped, but it is hard to tell from news coverage how they were resolved. In truth, it is hard to tell with the majority of these cases since there is often little new coverage and no database for these sorts of proceedings.

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When I stumbled across that “Miley rip off” post on Instagram, I didn’t assume that the unfair, illegal actions she took were only the surface of a much deeper problematic practice in the music industry. At first, I just thought it was simple: music is music, and visual art minds its own corner of the art world. However, as I dug deeper, I learned more about the not-so-secret plagiarism that defines the industry’s aesthetics. Not to say that there isn’t incredible original content generated to accompany music, but the ability to use other’s art without permission is a much-too-large part of the system. Currently, the music industry is ‘allowed’ to steal art because many artists’ small followings can’t create sufficient noise to force a response and because these artists can’t afford these expensive, lengthy battles.

Unfortunately, at present, there is little explicit action to be taken because there is so little conversation outside of artist communities about the depth of the problem. Currently, music listeners can simply become more aware of the visuals accompanying their favorite tracks. Take some time and learn who those directors are or who illustrated your favorite album cover. Follow some artists to keep tabs on the community. These small actions can reveal interesting stories that help expose you to art through a channel never previously explored. Then, it is vital to listen to artists when they call people out and read the articles that come out supporting them. Show that there is a need for that coverage and for consequence. Additionally, take a second to follow Instagram accounts like @diet_prada and @whos____who, which call out copycats in fashion and art. Soon enough, an avenue might emerge for these wronged artists to fight their battles with enough people supporting them to win. However, this process can only begin if we all take the time to acknowledge and hear the voices of people speaking up now against stolen art and recognize that the music industry runs deeper than sound.

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