Local Current Blog

Dozens of local artists unknowingly helped a producer plagiarize another band’s songs

A Twin Cities-based recording engineer has revealed that his album, which was released under the name To My Bees Knees and included contributions from 100 local musicians, was almost entirely composed of songs he had plagiarized from the Iowa City band Burn Disco Burn.

“It’s with my greatest heartfelt apologies that I send out this letter,” engineer Tom Smouse wrote yesterday, addressing the dozens of artists who contributed to his album in an email. “All of you had a part in the making and release of the album To My Bees Knees back in 2009-2011. You donated your time and efforts to reproduce an album of material that ultimately, I passed off as my own. What I did not tell you at the time is that I did not write those songs or lyrics.”

Smouse says he only wrote one of the tracks on To My Bees Knees, a hidden track called “Goodbye’s Never Change.” The rest of the album’s songs were lifted from Burn Disco Burn’s album Vegas Lit Places, which Smouse mixed for them back in 2002.

“We were shocked, saddened, and pissed off to discover that Tom Smouse had passed our music off as his own,” the members of Burn Disco Burn said in a statement today. “These feelings only intensified as we realized the scope of the project and just how many musicians and professionals were unwittingly involved. Make no mistake, this was not a case of someone building a song or two around a few of our lyrics or chord progressions; every song on the release was written by Burn Disco Burn — line for line, chord for chord. You can even hear some of our original performances on the recordings. As you can imagine, this all adds up to a massive artistic violation, as well as an unequivocal case of copyright infringement that we are taking very seriously.”

Smouse began piecing together the To My Bees Knees project in 2009, and in early 2011 he launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $5,000. The project included contributions from dozens of musicians across the local indie scene, including Chris Koza, Alicia Wiley, Ryan Paul Plewacki, and members of bands like Pert Near Sandstone and the New Standards. According to the Kickstarter pitch, 100 musicians were involved in some aspect of the recording project, and they all believed that they were helping Smouse produce original material.

“It was a kick in the chest for sure,” said Plewacki, describing what it was like to learn the true origins of the project. “Not just for the writer or we who contributed to it, but for a music community as a whole. I always felt that we who make music understand what goes into it, and see it from a side that the torrent pirates and executives at Spotify and Pandora don’t. Tom exploited other people’s intellectual property. This clearly illustrates that he has absolutely no respect for the responsibility that he held as a producer and engineer.”

It’s been said time and again that the Twin Cities is home to an especially collaborative, interconnected music community. Artists frequently appear on one another’s albums and help each other complete projects, often for little more than a bit of goodwill and the hope that something greater will come from the collaboration. Plewacki is just one of many musicians I spoke to who say they felt betrayed upon learning that the songs they helped record had been plagiarized from another band.

“This was a big shock to me,” says Carl DiLaura, who played bass on one of the tracks. “I’ve had a few dealings with Tom over the years. He managed one of my bands, the Gravities, for two years in the mid 2000s and that band, plus my band My Cousin Dallas, have recorded in his studio. It makes me wonder what happened to some of those unreleased songs. I’m shocked, really. The stigma of this hanging over Tom’s head means he’s pretty much done in the music industry.”

Smouse’s statement (which you can read in full below) leaves many questions unanswered. He has not responded to requests for additional information.

“The obvious question is, why do it in the first place? Why steal a whole record of someone else’s material and try to pass it off as your own?,” wonders James Osterholt of the Small Cities, who also contributed bass to the project. “And the bigger question is: why involve 100 other people in it? Why make it as public as possible, especially among active, well-connected musicians, the very people best positioned to smell the lie?”

Other collaborators expressed confusion and sympathy toward Smouse as they attempted to come to terms with his confession. “It still seems impossible to believe,” says Chris Koza, who contributed vocals for To My Bees Knees. “I feel badly for him, and whatever struggles he is dealing with surrounding this admission, but also what he must have been feeling over the course of the entire production of this album. I can’t imagine that level of stress. What he did was deceitful, plain and simple — and the fact that he engaged scores of willing and encouraging participants via Kickstarter is even darker. I think there are a lot of people who could and will feel badly about this, in which they have every right — many people worked together to make a great-sounding, conceptually unique, and cohesive album. Many of Tom’s family and friends will feel very confused and more than a little angry. I expect that Tom will find many of his music-professional ties severely damaged, if not permanently severed.”

Singer-songwriter Ashleigh Still summed up her reaction in one word: “Weird.” She says something felt a little off to her when she went into the studio to record a duet with singer/songwriter Brad Senne, but that she was happy to be included in such an ambitious project. “I can’t say that I’m surprised, but wow, I’m embarrassed for him,” she says. “And I admire his humility. My ‘takeaway’ is humble gratitude that my gift matches my passion. To do something like that, Tom must have been in a really low, dark place.”

“I just remember being in the studio with him and he had a very specific story about how he wrote the song. It was about a break up and being in a dilemma about moving to a different city,” remembers R&B singer Stephanie Devine-King, who contributed to one of the songs with her husband, Russ King. “I worked at Fuzzy Slippers with Tom and would have never expected to get an email like this from him.”

All online traces of the To My Bees Knees project have been erased save for its Kickstarter page, and Smouse says he has destroyed all physical copies of the release. (He’s also deleted the website for his engineering company, Smice Productions, and other online properties like his Facebook page.) As the countless musicians who were involved in the dubious project are left to process their surprise and disbelief, Koza says he wonders how Burn Disco Burn will move forward from such an ugly realization.

“As a songwriter who recognizes how much time is spent on generating ideas and cultivating them to the point of public presentation, the lion’s share of my sympathy is for the band whose material was blatantly stolen; who were run under the bus and left to lay there. Where is their silver lining in all of this? What happens to them? How do they reclaim their voice?”

Chris Mara, a studio owner in Nashville who was recruited to help with the project, says he encourages musicians to stay positive. “After hearing about what Tom Smouse has done, I feel my job is to explain how rare this act is,” he says. “It’s beyond rare. Artists: this will not happen to you. Please continue to trust each other and the recording engineers, studios and producers that you have trusted in the past, and those that you will entrust with your art in the future. Music is made and ideas are formed everyday in and amongst recording studios, rehearsal spaces, writing rooms, coffee houses, clubs, etc, etc – this must continue in order for the art of making music in a collaborative manner to exist.”

Here is the full letter Tom Smouse sent to the musicians involved in his plagiarized project. (In it, he notes that he has begun volunteering for MPR, which is an opportunity available to the public; he is not otherwise affiliated with the company.)

It’s with my greatest heartfelt apologies that I send out this letter. All of you had a part in the making and release of the album “To My Bees Knees” back in 2009-2011. You donated your time and efforts to reproduce an album of material that ultimately, I passed off as my own. What I did not tell you at the time is that I did not write those songs or lyrics; they in fact belonged to a band from Iowa City called Burn Disco Burn.

10 years ago when I started in the music industry, I had a dream of making my own album. I’ve admired so many artists I’ve worked with over the years. It’s inspired me to want to write, create, and release an album of my own material, although I didn’t play an instrument at the time. Nick Burd, Chris Ellis, Matt Heideman and Kathryn Musilek wrote and recorded an entire album, entitled “Vegas Lit Places” which was handed me to mix. All of the tracks except for the hidden track, “Goodbye’s Never Change”, were taken from this project and re-recorded.

As a constant professional in the music industry, I strayed from my core values. I can assure each of you that this is the only instance where I’ve taken someone else’s material and passed it off as my own. I respect musicians and the creative power they have. Music has influenced my life because of each of your contributions and relationships we’ve shared.

Since the release, I have not promoted, duplicated, sold, or handled the album for any reason. All material has been destroyed, as well as any attempt to pass off the album as my own.

As friends and professionals in this industry, I apologize. I realize the depth of hurt I’ve created and the lack of respect shown to Burn Disco Burn. I urge you all to check out their music and support them.

I have started to volunteer with Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) to give back to the local music community. I also want to encourage all of you to give me feedback and an opportunity to apologize on a personal level.

I only hope I can redeem myself to a community I have loved since moving up here.

Thomas Smouse

UPDATE: Burn Disco Burn have uploaded all of their original, unfinished tracks from their album Vegas Lit Places to their website.