Copyright Criminals

This PBS Independent Lens documentary on sampling culture is a good one, and you can watch the whole thing on Youtube. Their resources and links page includes my Biz Markie blog post. Thanks Beautiful Decay for posting the videos.

Part one:

Part two:

Part three:

Part four:

Part five:

Part six:

Steve Albini says that sampling is cheap and easy. He’s right about that. Anyone with a computer and a few pieces of inexpensive software can do it. Mr Albini also thinks people should be “embarrassed by sampling, like a bad dance move.” It’s a funny analogy, because while I like the albums he’s produced for the most part, they aren’t dance friendly. Pick any song that you’ve danced socially to in the past thirty years and the odds are high that it was produced electronically.

Anyway, in response to the charge that sampling is cheap and easy, why is that a bad thing? George Clinton points out that rock and roll was originally all about cheap and easy: three chords, repetitive beats and structures, singable choruses. Now, rock music is expensive and difficult, and thanks to people like Radiohead, every bit as technically inaccessible as jazz or classical. This is why rock has mostly become every bit as lame as jazz or classical. Making an art form expensive and inaccessible makes it elitist and conservative. The big artistic risks are mostly being taken by the electronic musicians, not the guitar tribe.

The documentary makes the intriguing analogy between DJs and photographers. DJs are to traditional instrumentalists as photographers are to painters. You can’t make blanket statements about the validity of the entire medium; you need to go on a case-by-case basis. DJs and photographers have a lower barrier to entry than cellists or painters but the path to mastery is every bit as long.

We’ve become accustomed to lavish production values in our recorded music, and that comes at a steep price tag if you want live instruments and analog tape. The expensiveness of lavish, dense live recordings forces conservative choices. The effortlessness of sampling leads to more risk taking, more experimentation, more innovation. Also more amateurish nonsense, but that’s the nature of the beast. A low penalty for failure is a necessary precondition for success.

Even if money is no object, there are still some strong artistic arguments in favor of sample-based music. The loop is different from a human playing a phrase over and over. I used to play in an R&B group. The singer and I wrote the songs with samples and loops and then taught them to the band. We had a Miles Davis sample that the trumpet player was supposed to use for his part. He played it pretty accurately, but never with the exact phrasing, tape compression and ambiance of the original loop, and it never quite sounded as good. It was cool that he could riff and improvise, but it gave us a looser, jazzier sound than we were going for. The identical repetition effects you to hypnotic effect. Check out the squealing trumpet sample under Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe The Hype” – even James Brown couldn’t have that disciplined a horn player, not with all that insane noise swirling around. Humans get bored and distracted, they have opinions. Computers don’t. What if James Brown and band had been necessary to appear in person in order to create “Fight The Power”, and they had refused? What a loss.

The entertainment lawyer in the movie equates my sampling your song to me coming into your house, helping myself to the food in your fridge. Sampling might recontextualize old recordings in ways their creators find offensive, but very often sampled works add something of benefit to old recordings’ cultural standing. I’m thinking of all those classic seventies funk and disco songs with incredible beats but outdated lyrics and arrangements. George Clinton is outspokenly grateful to hip-hop producers for putting him back on the map, culturally and then commercially.

Meanwhile, the law is a serious obstacle. Clearing all samples in advance is crushing to the creative process, which depends on immediacy and spontaneity. It’s a lot cheaper and easier to get a license to perform or record a full cover of a song than it is to get the rights to a three second sample. Some copyright holders are laid back or indifferent, but some charge extortionate license fees. Erick Sermon had to pay Marvin Gaye’s estate a hundred thousand dollars for a sample clearance. Unless you’re a major pop star with serious backing, this is prohibitive, and we’re back to the conservatism imposed by high costs that plagues instrumental music.

Clyde Stubblefield’s reaction on first hearing how widely he was sampled: “Cool!” But he’s bitter about not getting credited. He’s not as upset about not getting royalties, maybe because he wasn’t getting those before sampling either – James Brown owns all the copyrights to “The Funky Drummer” and “Cold Sweat” and so on. Public Enemy explains they have to be secretive about their sources to not get sued. A healthier sampling culture would make it easy to use samples and encourage attribution and reasonable payments.

Sampling artists like to use the phrase “fair game” – I’ve used it myself to describe the contents of my iTunes library, and some of the musicians in Copyright Criminals use it too. What’s fair game? Depends. The Beatles are notoriously litigious copyright holders, but they themselves use unauthorized samples in “Revolution 9”, “I Am The Walrus” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” I’m hopeful that as sampling moves from the fringe into the mainstream, the law will eventually catch up and the absurdities will iron themselves out.

Update: this post and another of mine are quoted in a Brands Plus Music post about the impact computers are having on music making. It’s a good one, thought-provoking, worth a read.

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