Late in 2018, the Grammy-winning Canadian composer/producer Frank Dukes recorded an album’s worth of short, sparse, melancholic musical motifs with students of Toronto’s Regent Park School of Music (RPSM). The resulting album, Parkscapes, was created to be a source of melodic ideas and rhythmic snippets to be reused for a fee – or “sampled,” in the industry parlance – by other musicians for their own recordings. Earlier this year, Dukes spoke to The Globe and Mail about the Parkscapes album and what the project could potentially mean to the school and its students. “You never know what can happen,” he said, “if you get sampled by the biggest artist in the world.”
And now we’re beginning to find out.
On Aug. 23, Taylor Swift (if not the biggest artist in the world, certainly one of them) released her seventh studio album, Lover. Dukes co-produced three of the album’s 18 songs. One of them was It’s Nice to Have a Friend, which incorporates the Parkscapes track Summer in the South. The haunting 57-second motif was composed by Dukes and includes the voices and instrumentation of RPSM students. Because of that, every time Swift’s Lover album is purchased or anytime the song It’s Nice to Have a Friend is licensed for use elsewhere, a portion of the royalties generated will go to the school to fund musical education in the city’s high-priority neighbourhoods.
The school has not disclosed specific terms of its deal with Swift (although it is known that Dukes is donating 80 per cent of his Parkscapes publishing royalties to the school). But, given the robust early sales of Swift’s album – it sold roughly 450,000 copies in its first day of release – the proceeds could be significant. Moreover, because Dukes works with such high-profile pop stars as the Weeknd, Frank Ocean and Camila Cabello, future royalties, sales and licences from Parkscapes samples could be a long-standing source of revenue to help sustain RPSM programs.
“I don’t think anyone in the normal sphere of music-making in Canada knows what this means financially,” Richard Marsella, the school’s executive director, said on Tuesday. “But we know we hit a home run.”
Fourteen handpicked students worked with Dukes and RPSM staff on the Parkscapes project. One of them played vibraphone on the Swift-used Summer in the South. “My friends call me ‘semi-famous’ now,” 18-year-old Thomass says. (For security reasons, the school does not give out the students’ last names.) “The whole process of the song being developed in the studio and then changing into the track that made it onto the album was transformative for me.”
RPSM students aren’t the only kids who have been involved with major artists or popular albums. In the mid-1970s, children from four different elementary schools of the Langley School District in British Columbia recorded choral versions of pop hits by such acts as the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney, David Bowie and Klaatu. Under the name The Langley Schools Music Project, the music (recorded in a school gymnasium) was re-released in 2001 as the compilation album Innocence & Despair, which became an underground hit and resulted in the music being licensed for use in a few feature films.
In 1979, the choir at Islington Green School in London added their voices to Pink Floyd’s satirical song Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) for the the conceptual double album The Wall. Although the school received a lump-sum payment of £1,000, there was no contractual agreement for future royalties on an album that went on to sell more than 12 million copies.
Director Marsella’s hope is that the involvement of Swift and Dukes with RPSM spawns more of the same, for his school and for others. “We’re a registered charity,” he said. “Every year, it takes us $2-million to keep our doors open. We’re hoping this causes a groundswell of other artists to do the same thing.”
Incidentally, RPSM has worked with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. Students ironically sang Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) and its line “We don’t need no education” on stage with the former Floyd front man for three Toronto concerts over the years. Each time, Waters paid an honorarium to the school that was, according to Marsella, “quite generous.”
In addition to Swift using Summer in the South, the pop star made a significant personal donation to the school. "This charity model works not only in terms of musical education, but also community building,” said Marsella, an indie-music artist who records and performs under the moniker Friendly Rich. “This is what good design looks like and what goodwill looks like. And hopefully it shows kids that their voices matter, and that they can dream big.”