Sound Alike | Owl City vs. Death Cab and Toto


Tap tap tap. Is this thing on? Ahem….attention everyone. I have an announcement to make: Owl City can suck it.

Not only did Adam Young manage to steal a complete, iconic sound and claim it for his own (see The Postal Service video below), but he’s also stepped back into a whole other era and ripped off a hook from one of the greatest songs of the 1980s-acid-washed-MTV generation.

You Got Plagiarized!

The first time I heard Owl City’s “Fireflies” on the radio two summers ago, I was working on a film in Birmingham, Alabama. My friend Anthony was along for the ride, acting as my biyatch…I mean, production assistant. We spent a lot of time in the car and our only music option was the radio (no iPod hookup in the vehicle). Since we’re huge music fans (Anthony is in a band called Local Orbit) and we both like the same music styles, this was a pretty big bummer.

I remember it vividly. We were on the way back from a trip to the Dollar Tree where we bought props for one of the scenes. Just as we were sitting at an intersection waiting for the light to change, this song came on the radio. I asked Anthony if Death Cab for Cutie had come out with a new album. I mean, it sounded a lot like The Postal Service (Ben Gibbard’s side project), but I haven’t heard anything from PS in years. So it must be new Death Cab.

How could I miss a DCFC release? Was I falling behind on my music knowledge? Perhaps hitting 30 really does play heavily on your musical vocabulary. The horror! “OMG, I’m old! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up. Where’s my Hoveround?” etc.

Anthony assured me that there was no new Death Cab release. This was a one-man-band called Owl City, but boy howdy did he sound just like DCFC. I mean, just…like. And lucky for us, “Fireflies” was one of those catchy summer of (fill in the year here) songs so it was on heavy rotation. I swear we heard it like, every 15 minutes. The more I listened, though, the more I realized that not only did Owl City sound like another band, but he’d also ripped off, or “sampled” — however you choose to put it — a song that I grew up listening to. A song that was stuck in my brain, no matter how hard I tried. The problem was, all I could do was hum the chorus. I couldn’t seem to think of the artist, the song, or even more than just a few bars.

I sang it in my head over and over, trying to make sense of this mystery. I must have a photographic ear or whatever, because bits of songs get routed into my brain and they rarely ever make it back out again. I must have a Yottabyte  of auditory information swirling around in my head, waiting to be activated like the Manchurian Candidate at the hint of a few simple notes.

Finally, a few days later, it came to me. I had run into Publix to get a some things. As I absentmindedly hummed along to the  muzak being piped into the grocery store, I realized that they were playing “Africa” by Toto. That was it! That was the song! That skeezer ripped off the chorus from one of the most awesome 80s songs ever! Like, totally. Like Total Recall totally. Ahhhhnold would be pissed. Hell, I was pissed! I’m sure the guys from Toto were none too happy themselves. Royalties? Permissions? Anyone remember Men at Work’s sampling scandal in 2010?

Anyway, that really got my goat. I mean, it’s one thing to be inspired by something. Inspiration is one of the beauties of art. That’s what it’s all about. Reaching out and effecting someone on an emotional level. Imitation (although it’s the greatest form of flatter or whatever) is really just taking someone’s idea and copying it. To me, that’s the ultimate creative cop-out. Especially if you’re in the music world…imitation is hard to miss.

So, let it be known henceforth that I do not like Owl City. I will not like them on the can, I will not like them with some Spam. I will not listen  in my house, I will not listen with a mouse. I will call him out in a public square, ’cause that’s cheating. It’s just not fair!

Did I just rip off Dr. Seuss? That’s considered public domain, though, right? Please…nobody sue me.


Around the 00:46 mark, you’ll hear the offending piece from Owl City. Sound familiar?

To listen to Toto’s “Africa” go to this previous post from my blog: “Toto’s Africa” by Ernest Hemingway”.

And the final insult, The Postal Service.


3 responses »

  1. I know this was from a while ago, but let me take a minute to chime in on your analysis. I agree that a piece of Owl City’s song sounds just like a piece of Africa, but to say he stole the Chorus is a bit overboard. It would take me all night to tell you how many songs use the same 4 note melodies and chord progression at some point in a song. I find it very amusing that you mentioned Owl City’s sound as being a rip off of DCFC when it it can be argued that DCFC got their sound from Ben Folds. DCFC formed in 1997 right about the time Ben Folds “Brick” hit the charts. DCFC’s vocal melodies are a dead ringer for Ben Folds. With all that being said, I do not have a problem with any of it. I do not think that any of these guys necessarily stole from the other. As musicians and songwriters we are always influenced by our favorite artists and those that came before us and that translates into a sound a pieces of melodies that make it inot our music. this si how music evolves from one generation of artist to the another. You would have an arguement if speaking of Madonna Express Yourself and Gaga’s Born This Way, but not a 4 note melody in the middle of a song that has no other resemblence to another. And there is definitely not an argument of stealing when it comes to one guy music sounding like another. It’s callesd a genre, not stealing. Just my 2 cents

    • Thanks for the reply, Robert. I agree that sampling and inspiration are a part of the musical landscape. Food for thought! I don’t write music but I do write a fair amount of “wordy” stuff and I will admit that I get inspiration from other authors and things I have read. Point taken! Thanks for chiming in! It’s not a discussion unless you do.

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