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Blog Content Strategy: Riff Great Content

Formulate new ideasIt’s 11pm and your mind is just buzzing with ideas.

You’ve just read a fantastic blog post, a real game changer, and you want to write a blog post on the exact same topic. The original author isn’t someone you’ve heard of, and everything is free on the internet, right?

Your mind is buzzing because you know you can rewrite that post for your audience and generate a tonne of interest and conversations – after all, that’s what tribute bands do all the time: they sing someone else’s material and get paid to do it, and what’s more, if they can do it, so can you, right?

Very wrong is the short answer, it’s copyright theft, plagiarism and you really don’t want to be doing that.

The long answer… music is often licensed and used with permission. Yes, those tribute bands pay to sing those songs and play that music. If you listen to music in your place of work, that music is licensed. In the UK, it’s by the Performing Rights Society. The US has three organisations that deal with this: ASCAPBMI and SESACSOCAN deals with this in Canada, or one can contact the publisher directly to obtain the permission. Yes, the copyright is often held by the publisher when it comes to music and lyrics, although with other types of music, art and writing, the copyright holder varies.

When you read a book, if you look at the front you will see a short but boring section that thanks various organisations for the right to quote other authors, mention characters they’ve created, and thank copyright licencing organisations for allowing the use of certain lyrics that are relevant to the story.

Don’t believe me? Got a copy of a Stephen King novel? (Everyone has a Stephen King novel on their bookshelf, along with a Dummies guide to something). Open the book up and you’ll find the recognition before the first chapter. King is a prolific user of other people’s lyrics, and whilst people might forgive him for not asking permission (he is Stephen King after all), he and his publishers still ask and obtain permission for everything  he quotes.

So how can you riff off of someone else’s work and not destroy your reputation?

Meet Steve Winwood. He’s a singer of some rather catchy tunes, and he was big in the 70s (I was too young to remember), the 80s (I vaguely remember) and the Naughties. Yes, in 2004, 21 years after his song “Valerie” was a smash hit, it became a smash hit again, only this time for a Swedish musician by the name of Eric Prydz.

This is a re-recording of the original “Valerie”, the 1987 version. And it’s a nice enough song, a catchy chorus that you’ll be humming all day. No, don’t thank me for it ;), it’s always a pleasure to share an earworm.

Meet Swedish DJ Eric Prydz. He took a sample of Winwood’s music and remixed it.

Not only will you not get that out of your head, you will be amazed at the video and the dancers.

So what has Eric Prydz and Steve Winwood got to do with riffing content?

Well here’s the deal. Prydz was thrilled with how his end track finished up and before he started using it, he sent a copy to Winwood to see what he thought. Winwood loved it, but he noticed the lyrics didn’t precisely fit the new tune, nothing that dancers and clubbers would notice, but Winwood did. So he offered to go into the studio with Prydz and re-record the lyrics so they were 100% perfect fit.

Next… the video with the dancers, led by Australian choreographer and dancer Deanne Berry. The video was declared too raunchy, and had a day time version and a night time version. The “night time” version. The video is rumored to have stopped gym attendees  in their tracks and bring entire gyms to a standstill when the video came on. Former British PM Tony Blair admits to falling off of his rowing machine the first time he saw the video.

This riff, this collaboration, led to Berry doing other workout videos to dance tracks (coordinated by the Ministry of Sound), and releasing a “follow up” video to Irene Cara’s “What a Feeling”. The dancers were now working flat out as well as participating in photo shoots, guest appearances  and interviews.

The collaboration also led to Prydz being the only person being allowed to sample Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. Yes, the only person ever to be allowed to sample Pink Floyds work and remix it.

Do you think this would have happened if he’d have just sampled “Valerie” and released it?

When an artist takes pride in their work, they get permission to co-create and recreate. In short, they attribute their work. Yes, they may not have had the original idea but they can show their skill in developing it further and transforming it into something new. This is a similar premise to fan fiction.

The most famous fan fiction of all time is probably 50 Shades of Grey, which started out as fan fiction of the Twilight saga. E.L Leonard is a huge fan of Stephanie Meyer and this lead to her creating her own versions, her own tributes to the characters created by Meyer. Over the years momentum gathered for the stories, and they gradually led to Ana Steel and Christian Grey hitting the big screen in 2014, played by Dakota Johnson and Charlie Hunnam. And not all the fans are delighted as Hunnam now needs extra security!

But E.L Leonard isn’t the only one to write FanFic and make it big, Cassandra Clare (The Mortal Instruments series) started out writing fan fiction and in this article she shares why she thinks it’s no bad thing that her fans do it. Meg Cabot, author of the hugely successful Princess Diaries shares her policy on fan fiction here and also shares why she will never read it, even though she’s written some herself.

Christian and Ana really are nothing like Bella and Edward, although they once may have started off that way. The author makes no attempt to hide where her inspiration comes from. The best fan fiction is like a sampled piece of music – it becomes something new in the process and includes its origin.

And that’s the key to content creation that’s inspired by someone else, it isn’t borderline plagiarism, it’s something stronger and fantastic in its own right. Unless you grew up in the 80’s you would have no idea that “Call on Me” was a riff off of “Valerie” unless you read the sleeve of the CD or the download page; it stands up on its own legs.

From Sampling to Content Marketing

When you link and attribute, you are riffing, or sampling the work of another writer. You are showing how you think, how you synthesize ideas and how you can interpret and extrapolate data. When you show your sources, you show respect to the other authors and if what you write is valuable (and it should always be valuable) then the original author will share your content too – it makes them look good.

So far I’m the only person to link riffing content with Call On Me and Fan Fiction. You saw it here first. You may see articles on content riffing, it’s not a new concept but this is the only one with live demonstrations of how it works for everyone involved. You can now link to this post and take the conversation further for your own audiences. Just like Call On Me spawned thousands of videos of women wearing leotards and legwarmers, this post will start conversations, and I hope you add to it here in the comments or over on your own blog.

The next time you read a great article, forget about rewriting it in your own voice.

Create a new piece of work that benefits your audience. They’ll thank you for it,  just like Steve Winwood thanks Eric Prydz for introducing his music to a whole new generation and giving parents music in common with their children.  Although I can’t imagine there are too many children happy with the thought that they are sharing Bella and Edward with their parents. 😉

Sources:

http://thedjlist.com/djs/ERIC_PRYDZ/bio/

http://djmag.com/node/7307

http://www.femalefirst.co.uk/health/Eric+Prydz-146.html

http://www.ilovecallonme.com/aboutthevideo.html

About Sarah Arrow

Sarah is one of the UK's leading bloggers, Forbes listed 3 times. Join her on her blog and blog better in 30 days.

65 comments

  1. Thanks Sarah, was prompted to read this mainly because I AM old enough to remember and love Steve Winwood!! I am also old enough to have had the plagiarism rules drummed into my tired brain. However, it was terrific to read how karma has worked for that young man and his links to SW have benefitted so many. Goes to show what I always believe – what you put out there ripples back to you too.
    Have a great week and thanks for all the help with my blogging xx

  2. Crediting your source is common sense. It is something taught in school (actually even pounded into you). There will always be a tiff between people who create something and those who are inspired by the original.

    Sometimes, like in the example you used, the inspired work does better than the original, BUT it doesn’t discount the original.

    Thanks for the real life POSITIVE example of crediting sources and the good karma that is associated with it.

  3. I used 3 different American blogs on my chosen topic over the years, and then discovered that there is nothing similar for South Africa, so based on this I began my own. I often refer to the different blogs, especially when I use the ideas from them. I have adapted and changed their ideas to suit my chosen audience and often refer with links to them on my pages, so that my audience can see how the original worked and how my topic of the day has been changed.

  4. I always look at it this way. If I wrote an article or created any kind of original work and someone just took it without any notification or acknowledgement, I’d be very upset. That way of thinking helps me to always give credit where credit is due.

  5. This article does make a lot of sense. As a lifestyle blogger, I am constantly inspired by other bloggers. There would be a particular makeup look I would try to re-create or style and outfit in a certain way. Sometimes, a fiction idea appeals to me and then I would give it my own take. Acknowledging the person who inspired you is something I always do. It is not only the right thing to do, it also accumulates good karma on the internet!

  6. This is so interesting! I had no idea that 50 Shades and the Mortal Instruments started out as fan fiction. I’m an avid reader of both series.

    Thanks for such a unique perspective on content riffing!

  7. This is a very interesting piece. I’d not heard of riffing before. The way I understand it is to take a quote/snippet from someone else’s website, link back to it, write your own, original content around the snippet then share it with the author of the snippet. I hope I’ve understood that correctly!

  8. I must be honest and say I had never heard of the term riff, but now I know what it is, and totally agree with you. I don’t think I have ever done copying specially after I went to uni and we got brain washed into always giving credit and using information properly.

    myunsettlinglife.co.uk

  9. Funny that I would read this today, as I’ve already decided to take a parenting blog post and “remix” it for my audience as a personal development piece.

  10. I really like this post! I’m always unsure of how to appropriately use what someone else may be saying and this really helped. Thanks Sara!

  11. I have to admit, I’m quite a prolific user of this technique. I’d spend too much time trying to create totally fresh concepts for clients who need several blog posts per week, if I didn’t! But, I learnt a lot from this post about the proper way to do it. Thanks

  12. Thanks Sarah….there’s so much to learn….BUT as an academic (as was). I’m not a great fan of people reeling off things as their own. It’s happened before in training I’ve attended and it’s so distracting…I’m sitting there thinking: ‘so are you going to acknowledge that you read that in such and such book….or……’…for me it compromises the credibility of the trainer (or writer). I think as I need to be mindful of this in the blogging arena…I would hate to get it wrong 🙂

    1. Indeed it does compromise the credibility of the trainer, and sources should be acknowledged, along with muses and sources of inspiration. Plenty of people talk about legally “stealing” content, in truth why steal when you can riff and everyone wins?

  13. This is great. I’m a bit behind with this one.
    Great advice and much safer system to use and shorter blogs.. joy!

    You are awesome.

    It’s also true what Rosanne has said and that’s there is sooo much material about blogging, freelance writing, content writing and how to’s and what to do and not to do that in the end, all of the buzz words go round in your head and you can’t help but churn them out.

    You really do help us to get round that and I must re-write my website content when I get time.

    1. I understand that Tony Blair fell off of his rowing machine when he saw it Cathy. It’s a video that caught the attention of a lot of people hence the day time and night time versions. Perhaps we need to see a version with all male dancers? 😉 Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings around the riffed video.

  14. Posting a comment as you’ve asked for comments as part of the 30 day challenge. Love the article and agree with what you’ve said. Love the Steve Winwood song – so far so good.

    Personally I can’t stand the cover, have heard it on the radio but not seen video before. Hate the video so much so that I can’t get very far into it. I’m obviously not the intended audience being a hetrosexual female and a feminist. I just want them to put some shorts on as I’m sick of seeing half naked women used to promote goods. That would be my point, know your client base. For me, this would be a deal breaker and make me less inclined to watch/return.
    I get that sex sells, had I been a heterosexual male I can totally see how this works. Can’t help wondering what the reaction would be if the exercise class had been all male? That might work for me, but that only tends to happen for comedic effect, I wonder why? (I could list reasons but trying not to hijack your post.) Might I suggest this is another example where content has been borrowed to good effect. http://youtu.be/YQ643U7ccpM . For balance purposes only of course! 😉

    Trying not to rant but thought it was a useful point that had not been raised. Know your audience!

  15. This reminded me of a song of which I’ve published one verse (out of four) so far. Each line refers to one, two, or three older songs; no more than one-and-a-half lines of any one of these songs are quoted. I call it “Love Is an Old Song.”

  16. First of all, I’m proud of myself because I read this article before the 30 day blog challenge, and here I am reading it again.

    I’m going to try some riffing. Have to admit, I’m a little nervous spreading somebody else’s peanut butter and jelly in the middle of my sandwich, but I’ll give it a shot. I hope my bread is good enough.

  17. Terrific advice for blogging, but I think it is also great life advice as well. We all know the phrase “pay it forward,” but perhaps we need to be reminded to “thank it backward” as well.

  18. I always mention where I got ideas for posts if it wasn’t my own idea, even if I’m not really doing the same topic as what inspired me. I agree that doing that is good for everyone.

  19. Can’t remember the 70’s? Only remember the 80’s vaguely?

    Less of the ‘youth-brag’ please Mrs Arrow (she says, while singing along loudly to one of her familiar 80’s memories in a viscose cardi. 😉

    That aerobic video reminded me of my days at Pineapple Studio lessons in town, after work. (Add: leg warmers, permed hair and less sex appeal.)

  20. Hi Sarah – I left you a comment about this back in Feb and we agreed to disagree. I am still of the belief that recreating a post and spinning are different. It’s odd that you say people shouldn’t copy what others are doing if it works. NLP teaches us to model excellence and indeed find out what works for other people and model it. This is the philosophy behind business mentoring. Indeed aren’t you showing us what works for your in terms of being a successful blogger and asking us to model it? This is the difference I was referring to. We can still agree to differ though.

  21. Brilliant post Sarah,

    I just love the use of the word ‘riffing’. I always worry that I may inadvertently copy someone elses work. So many of the same or similar words and phrases are used in our industry it seems impossible to sound original. You have made it clear that there are ways around adapting these words to become a brand new idea. Judging by the in depth detail of your post one of the main things to do is research.
    Thank you.

  22. This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time on so many levels. I go out and out to create original content because that’s me, part of my personality and my background in science. There it’s such a no no to pass someone else’s work off as your own because there is great prestige in being the first one to discover something. While great discoveries and breakthroughs are created by scientists learning their craft then putting it all together, it’s the final twist that completely changes everything. That’s what your examples demonstrate Sarah. That originality of thought transcends what has come before. In my current world of gluten-free I see so much utter utter nonsense written by people who regurgitated something that was regurgitated by someone who read an article they didn’t understand by a self-acclaimed expert. It drives me crazy that other people believe it all because they have no frame of reference to evaluate and challenge it. So that’s a another great reason for not copying ie stick to your own frame of understanding so that you don’t mislead people.

  23. Well, this was a worthwhile read this morning! I have often found myself wondering about this very issue, so thanks for naming and explaining it. When I read something that “I could have written…” I never rewrote because of the fear of plagiarism.

    (I was a huge Steve Winwood fan in the 70’s, but didn’t know about the stories you told.) Putting a new spin on a concept is what makes blogs so interesting. And giving credit where credit is due- most important. I’ll link and riff properly from now on.

    1. Hi Amy, Steve Winwood seems like a real nice guy, someone you’d want to riff with, if you were a musician. Credit where it’s due for me is like showing the working out in a complex equation, you can see where the inspiration and the logic appear. The sad thing is not many people do it, but if they did the world would be richer from all of those riffs.

  24. There is a great book called “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon that talks about taking someones work and putting your own spin on it. Many artists and actors draw inspiration from previous artists. But in this day and age of constant content with thousands of articles being written it is truly hard to get something new out. It’s almost as if the concept of being totally original s not possible anymore.

    1. I’ve not read the book Matt, so I can’t really comment about that. Does the author suggest you take without attribution and not acknowledge your source?

      Smart art followers everywhere will know the influences anyway, because they’re fans too.

  25. Hiya Sarah,
    What a great perspective …”when you link and attribute, you are riffing.”

    Rather than shrinking for fear of being accused of copycatting, when we feel moved by the Art of some CooL CaT, we can acknowledge, respect, attribute, share and carry on the conversation.
    Talk about lighting a torch!
    Thanks again for leading the way…
    Dawn Kotzer

    1. Hi Dawn, I love the lighting a torch aspect, as I read that I thought of the Olympic torch and how it’s carried miles, each person bring the light closer to the end goal.

  26. Hi Sarah – I’ve thought about this and I’m not sure I wholly agree. It actually takes quite a lot of skill to rewrite an article and if you are actually rewriting it for your audience you are indeed adding something to it. You are going to put your spin and your voice on it so it will be a new article. It is like re telling a story, everything you say will come though your own unique set of filters which means you will emphasise the things that are important to you and these will be different to those emphasised by the original article. I think there is a difference between rewriting and spinning an article. Spinning is just substituting words so that you aren’t producing duplicate content. Rewriting is re creating.

    1. Hi Ola, We can disagree 🙂
      A good writer can take an article and create it in their own voice and turn it into something new and add value with it. There are not that many good writers on the internet, despite what individuals will tell you.
      Fan Fiction is rewriting in a sense, but it’s a tribute and it doesn’t try to pretend its original.
      Often we see content ideas that are posted on a site like Copyblogger and then three days later on someone else’s site with the headline redone, but the article is all but plagiarised, and the writer saying it’s a fresh take. It’s not a fresh take at all.

      I have people do this all the time to me. I put up an infographic on 10 writing mistakes, it gets 1,000 pins. Then you see a flood of copy-cat articles from people who follow me. They’ve no style, they can riff and make a better piece, what happens when their muse is gone? What happens when I’m not there to copy from?

  27. Nummee article and love that you’ve used riffing (have kids that use that word all the time and never thought of it in content marketing terms) and quite honestly it’s a whole lot sexier than “curation.” Bah, what a bleh word (did I just say that!).

    Thanks for the earworm, now I’ve got to get busy and see if I can get it out of my ear!

    Have a great one…

    MamaRed

  28. A great explanation, Sarah, thank you. I get sampled every once in a while from one of the messages I send out, but I have always gotten attribution. And what usually happens is that someoe will like the words and add them to a great image and then post that on their site of Facebook.

    not only do I enjoy the blend of words and pictures, but I am psyched that someone would feel strongly enough about what I wrote to do that. I am humbled and honored at the same time. I feel great when they do this and write or tag me.

    But every once in a while, someone will just post one of my messages and not tag me or ask and I am not exactly irate, but still I don’t feel so good about it. I think maybe in sound bit reality TV world we live in now, we forget that the creators of music and words and any kind of art are people first, taking a chance at sharing their hearts with the world.

    1. Hi Michael, I’ve sampled your images and shared them on Facebook, you’ve a lot of creative talent so it’s always a pleasure to share. It’s great that people attribute you correctly :), it warms the cockles of me ‘art as we say in Blighty 😉

      1. You’re a kind lady, missus, thank you. It wasn’t a big deal back at the beginning of the consumer web, but now it is. You’ve got a great article backed up by good research and a great example. My wife loves Steve Winwood, and that story is exactly how it is done.

  29. Great artists have always been inspired by what has gone before – but the art lies in adding something new to it, creating something unique. Sadly too many bloggers get that wrong and simply rehash, with no style or spark of innovation. Cynical traffic-whoring or pure laziness? I guess it varies. But it is not your work unless you invest your own ideas and creativity within it… and I won’t bother reading it 🙂

      1. Absolutely – let’s expose it for what it is! But on that note I cannot be certain I invented the phrase, I am pretty sure it’s a riff on something else by someone else 🙂

  30. Wonderful post! Those are some great stories, I’d never heard the Steve Winwood story and it’s a perfect compliment to your topic. I get inspiration all the time from unexpected places and there are times when a direct resource mention is required. There are also times when something I read sparks an idea. The idea of using someone’s content rewritten… that’s just cheating, plain and simple. Thanks for bringing this topic up for conversation.

    1. Hi Yolanda, I think rewriting is just sloppy, there are much better ways of creating content that using what other people have created and passing it off as your own.

  31. Sarah, thanks for explaining riffing. I hadn’t actually heard of it before. And yes, that song will now be going through my head all day. But that’s okay. It’s a good song and brings back memories.

    So, let me see if I have this right. The gist of it is that instead of re-writing a great article and calling it my own, I could take a snippet of that article, write my own totally new article around that snippet as sort of the main theme, but do my own take on it, and then link that snippet back to the original content. Am I right?

    Actually, what I’m going to do with this article is add “riffing” to the glossary I have started on internet marketing on my own site and link back here for further explanation on riffing.

    Thanks for giving me some ideas!

    1. That’s it perfectly Karleen 🙂
      And it would make a great addition to any glossary, as a self-fulfilling example. I’m going to add it to mine too, thanks for the idea 🙂

  32. Thanks for this Sarah – I’d be a bit worried about being accused of copying. There must be a fine line between riffing and plagiarism isn’t there?
    Would you advocate sending a link to the original author?Something like: ” hey, your article on xyz really inspired me, so I wrote this LINK.”
    Cheers, Jeremy

    1. Hi Jeremy, the key to riffing really well is to take a sample. In the examples, Eric Prydz only takes three or four lines of the original song and turns it into something new. If you are taking the whole of something and not creating something new, then yes you’re plagiarising.
      I think sending a link to the original author is always a great thing to do as it starts up all kinds of collaborative conversations.

      1. Sarah,
        You mean sending a link before publishing, right?

        There would a link in the new piece just written, wouldn’t there, that would arrive in the copyright holder’s inbox after the fact?

        The key is to communicate before hitting publish, right?

        1. Hi Katharine, the key for me would be to see if what I’m doing is riffing or copying. Plenty of people link out to other people’s articles and don’t say a word. The first they hear about it as a trackback in their WP dashboard. And that’s fine if a small piece of the work is reproduced. I’ve used both Winwood’s and Prydz’s videos in the article and I didn’t contact them for permission. The article is just their videos, there’s another 1,000+ words making it an entirely new piece.

          Good communication is a great thing to do, but sometimes you just don’t want to be in Steve Winwood’s spam folder 🙂

  33. I relish the idea. This is a new concept to me. I have noted that this means that the creator has to have a creative mind for the riff to be very engaging. You have certainly given me a new idea , because I have come across many articles that I could have my spin on it but because I know that it would be wrong to” Trouble” it I have left it alone. This would be a challenge but this is an idea with which to toy. Thank you.

    1. Hi Marlene, a touch of creativity and the world’s your oyster as they say. The only danger with riffing is that you run out of hours in the day to create your own stuff 🙂

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