The case for sampling

My friend Adam, a non-musician but devoted music fan, asked me why sampling is good. He’s used to hearing me defend sampling from the accusation that it’s bad, but he’d never heard a positive argument for it. In case you’ve ever asked the same question, here’s my answer.

Sampling lets you actively engage your record collection, iTunes library, etc

The vast majority of my musical experience has been through listening to recordings, and the same is true of everyone I know. The real pleasure of music is participation, and historically recorded music hasn’t been participation-friendly. It was a humongous deal for me to discover that I can interact with my record collection beyond deciding which song to listen to when.

Sampling has some of the same satisfaction of learning how to sing songs I like, or how to play them on the guitar. As with learning songs the old-fashioned way, sampling lets me remake recordings to my own tastes. I’ve learned through extensive experimentation that what I really like is to hear the song’s major hooks repeated in groups of eight at a medium slow tempo over an 808 drum machine playing a hip-hop beat. Sampling helped me discover that, and it’s transformed my approach to my own compositions too.

Expediency leads to spontaneity

I know a lot of drummers. Some of them are world-class musicians. But they aren’t usually available to me. If I just want to try out ideas over a certain beat, the logistics are a big problem. I don’t have a drum kit in my apartment, and if I did, it would drive my neighbors crazy. Even if that weren’t a problem, I don’t have the right mics or acoustic environment to do a decent recording of live drums. Meanwhile, I have a hard drive full of the best drummers in recorded history in every conceivable style, with an essentially limitless selection of others a few mouse clicks away on the internet. How could I possibly pass up the opportunity to practice and write along with Clyde Stubblefield or Questlove or Max Roach?

It isn’t just beats that can inspire new tracks or compositions. A short instrumental passage, a vocal phrase, a fragment of speech, a sound effect or atmospheric sound — any of those things can inspire new work. The effortlessness and immediacy of sampling creates such a wealth of possibility that the challenge becomes choosing from among all the new ideas. This is a much nicer problem than sitting there thinking, “I wonder what Duke Ellington’s brass section would sound like over this part? I guess I’ll never know.”

People get bored, computers don’t

A great way to write songs is to set up the basic groove on a loop and then let it play continuously for a few hours while you hang out, eat lunch, fold your laundry or play video games. The best creative work is done by your unconscious mind, and your unconscious mind likes to work while your conscious mind is busy doing something relatively uninteresting. This reality is an awkward fit with the reality of collaborating with other humans. Even if I could have a band at my beck and call, it would be completely wrong to ask them to loop a phrase identically for hours while I hung out eating oranges and reading my email. Fortunately, the computer has no objection to this way of working.

Freedom from permission

I don’t just mean legal permission, though that’s a thorny set of challenges in and of itself. For a lot of would-be samplers, the major obstacle is a sense of moral guilt. Many of us feel guilty “stealing” someone else’s idea. I resisted sampling for years out of guilt.

It’s strange to have so much power over sound. If I want a human to play the Funky Drummer beat exactly at a certain tempo for a certain length of time, I need to convince them to do it. If I just want to loop the Funky Drummer beat in Recycle, the computer is always happy to oblige me.

Should sampling make me feel guilty?

What do I owe another musician by sampling them? Let’s assume I’m not making any money off my work, just giving away copies to my friends. Is it cool if I do this without the original performers’ consent? There would be no hip-hop or electronica at all if everyone was “properly” hesitant to use unauthorized samples. I do try to get permission when it’s reasonably possible. Many of my musician friends have volunteered the use of samples of themselves with the understanding that if I ever make money from something, they get a cut. Meanwhile, if it’s just for experimentation or teaching, I’m free to use the samples as I wish. In a perfect world, this is the relationship I’d have with every recording artist.

Some copyright holders are only too happy to license samples, it can be a great source of income. But some musicians don’t like having their ideas altered and manipulated beyond the bounds of their personal taste, no matter how money it might make them. The Beatles, for instance, have never cleared a sample and are unlikely to change their minds. Meanwhile, if I’m sitting alone in front of my computer and I find a little slice of Beatles music that sounds great as a loop, Paul McCartney and his lawyers are nowhere in sight. It’s nearly impossible to resist the pleasure of sampling all that incredible music, and with a few pieces of software and some free time, anyone can do it. I respect Paul McCartney’s body of work like few others, and I consider it the sincerest form of flattery to sample from him. It’s too bad Paul McCartney doesn’t see it that way.

Samples have their own sonic and musical quality

Even if I could conjure any combination of musicians and instruments at will and had round the clock access to a flawless recording environment, I’d still want to be able to use samples. There’s a difference between a person playing a particular phrase repeatedly and the playback of a recorded loop. Even if a musician wanted to play a loop the way a sampler does, people can’t help but introduce slight variations of attack, subtle tempo changes, and all the other little nuances of live performance. In some styles of music, constant nuance and variation is a good thing. But sometimes you want the hypnotic, trance-like effect you get from identical looping. Electronica and hip-hop derive a lot of attention-grabbing power from the startling gap in a looped pattern, and the satisfaction when the loop returns right on time.

It isn’t just the musical content of the sample that creates its personality. It’s the recording itself, the particular interaction of the microphone and preamp and mixing desk and tape or digital medium. The magic of the Funky Drummer loop isn’t just in its beat — it’s the tape hiss, the equalization, the compression and reverb. A drummer might be able to recreate the musical performance, but not the exact sound.

In addition to their intrinsic sonic qualities, samples can be sonically manipulated in ways that live instruments can’t. I can instantly alter the pitch of a sample, stretch it out, filter sweep it, or rearrange its components in a different order. For maximum gratification, I love to hear live musicians and looped samples combined together.

Hearing a familiar sound in an unfamiliar context is exciting

Some of the coolest songs repurpose recognizable hooks, or even entire choruses, in new contexts. This technique is a foundation of hip-hop songwriting. Here are two examples that I like.

Janet Jackson ft Joni Mitchell – “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”

SWV ft Michael Jackson – “Right Here”

Shared ideas create community

By sampling Joni Mitchell, Janet Jackson invites all the Joni Mitchell fans into the room (and invites herself into consideration by Joni Mitchell fans.) When SWV samples Michael Jackson, they shine some of that Michael Jackson energy through themselves and out on us.

Individual ownership of music is a historical aberration

Ownership of ideas is a recent historical phenomenon, preceded by uncountable centuries of oral tradition in the public domain. Other world cultures don’t necessarily share our preoccupation with ownership. Even in capitalist America, we default to oral tradition in our daily lives. We have an intuition that you’re supposed to share music you like with people you like. It’s one of the basic ways we establish social bonds with each other. This custom isn’t going anywhere, no matter what copyright law might say. Sampling lets you share recordings you love, placed into new contexts, making new statements, while still connecting back to the past. This is a powerful emotional tool, and using it becomes irresistible once you get a taste of using it.

Sampling undermines our magical thinking about originality

It’s been my experience that there are no truly original ideas, only remixes and mashups of existing ideas. The completely original song is a legal fiction. It’s a useful fiction for managing intellectual property, but it’s problematic when it comes up against the collage-like nature of actually composing and improvising. The belief that new ideas spring magically into being from the ether reminds me of the once widely-held belief in the spontaneous supernatural generation of life. Now we know that all life on Earth evolved from previous life. Our ideas evolve according to the same Darwinian dynamics as the brains that produce and host them.

Sampling makes for a healthy intellectual culture

New ideas are always inspired by repurposing existing ideas. Copyright is supposed to motivate new ideas, but, as it’s presently enforced, it can have the opposite effect. When Disney transforms public-domain works into exclusive properties, that jams up the flow of ideas that made their wealth possible in the first place. There needs to be a free flow of ideas if ideas are going to keep evolving.

If sampling is so great, how is everybody supposed to get paid?

Our current copyright model emerged in the era of expensive printing presses, record pressing plants and so on. If a book was the only way to get access to the thoughts in the book, and the vinyl record was the only way to get access to the sounds on the record, it made to treat copies as valuable properties in and of themselves. In the computer era, copying is so routine and effortless that it’s impossible to meaningfully regulate it. You copy files every time you load a program from your hard drive.

Good ideas may still be scarce, but digital copies of them aren’t and probably never will be again. There has yet to be a copy protection scheme for digital media that couldn’t be cracked by any reasonably bright thirteen-year-old. In an interview with The Guardian, Brian Eno says:

I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn’t last, and now it’s running out. I don’t particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate — history’s moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it.

What is this something else? Live performance? I use a laptop and samples for that too.

So how should the creators of my samples get paid? How should they get paid for any of the copying that goes into remixed and mashed up works? How do artists get paid for any kind of idea that can be rendered digitally if copying is so easy?

The question of how to make people pay for digital copies voluntarily haunts every creative professional. Sci-fi author Charles Stross lays out the problems in an articulate blog post here. The comments are full of intriguing suggestions that have some applicability to music.

I’m attracted to a model where we pay creators up front using the Kickstarter method or something like it, and having the copies just disseminate like dandelion seeds to raise interest in the next project. Giving away hours of stuff on the internet has made a lot of money for artists as diverse as the Grateful Dead and Lil Wayne. The fans want to show love to the artists. Maybe more musicians will just start asking the fans to donate directly via their web sites.

For most of human history, music was supported by the same invisible gift economy as any kind of mundane daily practice, like recipes or childcare routines or methods for opening coconuts. I’d like to see the gift economy make a comeback in music. Musicians are like religious leaders. Maybe the funding model should be more like church, where the fans view paying for music as a tithe. I’m a perfect customer for this kind of model. I’ve been looking to music for deeper meaning since I was a kid. I fill it with the reverent belief that I might have put into the spiritual world if I were inclined that way.

If I’m going to invest faith in my music, I need to know it’s on the up and up. It’s like when you meet a person, you want to know their connections, their family and friends. Knowing the connections creates trust. I want and am willing to pay for richer metadata along with my music files. I want context and background. My wish is for more liberalized sampling that comes with an ethic of explicit attribution. I buy music based on the basis of its being sampled in hip-hop or R&B songs all the time. I bought “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)” by the Chi-Lites when I found out that it was sampled in Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” I’d happily open my wallet for more access to a song’s guts. I want remix-friendly stems and karaoke versions. I want super-detailed liner notes that show me the whole musical supply chain. If I pay for “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” by Michael Jackson, I want to be shown a link to “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango. From there I’d like some context on makossa as a musical and dance form. I want seamless integration with Allmusic and Wikipedia and Amazon reviews and Whosampled and Youtube.

I want sampling to be legally easier because it would make music more participatory, and thus more fun and interesting

If I really like a song, I want a playable Rock Band or DJ Hero version. I want interactive MIDI lead sheets with the chords, the melody and the rhythms. I want the lyrics annotated so I can click through to see explanations of slang or literary allusions. I want to see production details: who played or programmed what parts, what gear they used, what software, what plugins. I want to be able to hear the tracks one at a time and remix them or mash them up with other stuff I like. It seems like all this should be possible in the age of digital music.

Making your own music is good and good for you

It’s been pointed out to me that if anybody can remix anything, it’ll result in a flood of crappy remixes. This is true. It’s also good and necessary. Amateur participation is about process, not product. The singing in most church choirs is pretty bad. Most amateur bands are pretty lame. It’s still fun and healthy to participate in church choirs and amateur bands. It’s good for you to play basketball whether you play like Michael Jordan or like me (badly.) It’s good to cook your own meals, even if you’re no Julia Child. And it’s good to make your own music.

We still need the masters to light the way, to discover best practices and teach them to the rest of us. But leaving the whole process to the masters cheats us all out of an essential social and emotional vitamin. If sampling is what’s giving the most joy out of the tools we have at our disposal, then people are going to keep doing it. I hope we can all work out a better deal with each other over the permissions and attributions.

2 thoughts on “The case for sampling

  1. This is the most in-depth article that I’ve read about the politics that surround sampling.

    I’ve already had some of these arguments in my head but you have taken the time to formulate a clear essay.

    Excellent work. I’m addicted to your blog now … lol

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