What should we call classical music?

Everyone can agree that the term “classical music” is silly, unless we’re specifically talking about European music of the Classical period.

The Mozart family played actual Classical music

It’s incorrect to call Baroque or Romantic or modernist music “classical,” even though we all colloquially do, to the annoyance of the classical tribe. It makes even less sense to call the music of Steve Reich or Julia Wolfe “classical.” So what should we call it?

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Please stop saying “consuming music”

In the wake of David Bowie’s death, I went on iTunes and bought a couple of his tracks, including the majestic “Blackstar.” In economic terms, I “consumed” this song. I am a “music consumer.” I made an emotional connection to a dying man who has been a creative inspiration of mine for more than twenty years, via “consumption.” That does not feel like the right word, at all. When did we even start saying “music consumers”? Why did we start? It makes my skin crawl.

Barbara Kruger - Untitled

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the verb “to consume” descends from Latin consumere, which means “to use up, eat, waste.” That last sense of the word speaks volumes about America, our values, and specifically, our pathological relationship with music.

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Goodbye SoundCloud?

I love SoundCloud. I love it for being an exceptionally easy way to share my music with people all over the world. I love the community aspect, especially the Disquiet Junto. I have all of my students host their portfolios there. But like a lot of the electronic musicians who form the heart of the SoundCloud userbase, I’m running into some problems with copyright.

Recently, I needed to unwind from a stressful morning, so I fired up Ableton, put in some Super Mario Bros mp3s and James Brown breaks, and went to town. I uploaded the results to my SoundCloud page, as usual, but got one of their increasingly frequent copyright notices.

SoundCloud copyright notice

I’ve uploaded a lot of material to SoundCloud that violates copyright law in various ways, and for the most part, no one has made any objection. I’ve occasionally used some long intact samples that triggered takedown notices, but my remixes and mashups are usually transformative enough to slip through the filter. Lately, however, I’m finding that SoundCloud has dramatically stepped up its copyright enforcement. A few months ago, I could have posted my Super Mario Bros/James Brown mashup without any trouble. Not any more.

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Why do people think music should be free?

The best way to get a professional recording artist angry is to say that everybody has a right to download their music for free. The outrage is well-motivated. Recording music at the pro level is expensive, in time as well as money. Just because it’s easy to pirate music, why have we as a society all of a sudden decided that it’s acceptable? Shoplifting is easy too, and we don’t condone that. My musician friends sometimes feel like the world has gone crazy, that in the blink of an eye their work went from being valuable to worthless. How could this change have happened so fast?

I have a theory, and if you’re a musician, or you aspire to be one, you won’t like it: people are right to expect music to be free.

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The Blurred Lines lawsuit

Marvin Gaye is one of the great singers and songwriters of all time, with a status deservedly approaching secular sainthood. Robin Thicke is a sleazy dirtbag who made a giant pile of money by knocking off one of Marvin’s songs to produce a rapey earworm,  accompanied by a porn video. Naturally, I side with Team Marvin, and am delighted that Thicke and Pharrell lost the lawsuit.

While my fellow musicians are gleefully crowing, other observers are worried that this case sets a bad precedent. Michaelangelo Matos is among them.

I encourage vocal fans of this verdict to demonstrate their solidarity by deleting and/or destroying every piece of music they own featuring an unlicensed sample or bearing a notable resemblance to an earlier piece of music. But they won’t, and they shouldn’t, because that would entail deleting just about everything. Even if you loathe Thicke, this is no cause for celebration, because the size of the Gaye estate’s bounty is only going to encourage more lawsuits like this one.

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Pop songwriting in the age of the Digital Audio Workstation

Bennett, J. (2011). Collaborative songwriting – the ontology of negotiated creativity in popular music studio practice. Journal on the Art of Record Production, (5), online.

My professional life at the moment mostly consists of teaching classical and jazz musicians how to write pop songs. While every American is intuitively familiar with the norms of pop music, few of us think about them explicitly, even trained musicians. It’s worth considering them, though. While individual pop songs might be musically uninteresting, in the aggregate they’re a rich source of information about the way our culture evolves. Bennett describes popular song as an “unsubsidized populist art form,” like Hollywood movies and video games. The marketplace exerts strong Darwinian pressures on songwriters and producers, polishing pop conventions like pebbles being tumbled in a river.

Tin Pan Alley

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TufAmerica suing Frank Ocean is ridiculous

Maybe, like me, you’re a fan of “Super Rich Kids” by Frank Ocean featuring Earl Sweatshirt.

Maybe, like me, you were especially delighted by the part at 1:59, when Frank unexpectedly quotes “Real Love” by Mary J. Blige.

A “record label” (really a group of lawyers) called TufAmerica heard that quote too, and now they’re suing Frank Ocean for sampling their property without permission. TufAmerica owns 3.15% of “Real Love.” They acquired this stake by suing Mary J. Blige, whose song samples “Top Billin'” by Audio Two.

Wait, except TufAmerica doesn’t own “Top Billin'” either. They own “Impeach the President” by the Honey Drippers, the opening bars of which have been sampled in thousands of songs, “Top Billin'” among them.

At this point, you may be getting confused. Isn’t that a rather long and convoluted chain of musical borrowings to be suing over? Audio Two didn’t do a straight sample of “Impeach the President,” they flipped it — they sliced the sample into individual drum hits and reshuffled them into a very different rhythm. Still, they made use of someone else’s recording, so, fine. But what does that have to do with Mary J. Blige? It’s distinctly possible that neither she nor her produces had never even heard of the Honey Drippers when they sampled Audio Two.

But that isn’t the dumbest part of TufAmerica’s case. The dumbest part is that Frank Ocean’s quote (not sample) of Mary J. Blige makes no reference to the beat at all. He quotes the lyrics and the rhythmic contour of her melody, with different pitches and underlying harmony. Really, if anybody deserves to be making copyright claims over a groove here, it’s Elton John. The first time I heard “Super Rich Kids,” I thought, oh cool, Frank sampled the beat from “Benny and the Jets.”

A quick Google search reveals dozens of lawsuits that TufAmerica is involved in. The company is a notorious “sample troll,” like the equally odious Bridgeport Music. Their sole purpose as corporate entities is to buy up copyrights of old songs and then sue people who have sampled them. Sometimes they do this against the wishes of the original creators — George Clinton is delighted that the rappers have embraced P-Funk, but Bridgeport Music owns his copyrights.

Please do not feed the trolls

Even if you don’t care about hip-hop, or sample-based music in general, the practice of sample trolling should concern you. According to the US Constitution, the point of copyright law is “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” TufAmerica is not promoting the Progress of anything. If anything, they’re creating pressures that stifle the useful Arts. I’m hardly a wild-eyed radical for believing this — here are some think pieces on the harmful effects of sample trolling by the New York Times, Slate, and The Atlantic.

There is so much wrong with this lawsuit. Why should TufAmerica go after Frank Ocean in particular? According to WhoSampled.com, the opening of “Impeach the President” is the most-sampled breakbeat in history. Pieces of it appear in at least one commercial recording every year since 1987. Is it because Frank Ocean happens to be really popular right now, rather than his being the most egregious transgression against TufAmerica’s rights?

It gets worse. TufAmerica has a music imprint, Tuff City, which sells vinyl copies of “Impeach the President” on their online store. The page copy touts the track’s significance in hip-hop history:

Roy C and the Honeydrippers’ “Impeach The President” is widely considered to be the most sampled track in the history of hip hop. Artists such as 2Pac, Slick Rick, Nas, N.W.A, Ice Cube, Eric B & Rakim, Audio Two, Common and, many, many more.

The break at “Impeach the President” is virtually a blueprint for hip hop… the kind of track that broke big in the old school scene of the late 70s, and which is still bumping speakers today!

I guess no one in their marketing department has heard of irony.

CMU points out a further irony: “Real Love” was originally released on Uptown Records, which was later absorbed by Frank Ocean’s label, Universal, in the late 1990s. This means that Universal probably owns the majority rights of the track it’s currently accused of illegally sampling.

I know that we need to have rules about intellectual property. But shouldn’t those rules make sense? Unless the drummers who played the classic breakbeats happen to be listed as songwriters, they don’t get any money when people license samples of them. Clyde Stubblefield isn’t entitled to a dime when people license the Funky Drummer break. Why should a bunch of lawyers who have never played or recorded a note in their lives be able to extract money in situations like this? Why do we tolerate this kind of parasitism in our creative economy? Sample trolls are destroying America.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers unplugged

In case you don’t pay attention to such things, there’s a miniature scandal swirling around the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ performance at the Super Bowl halftime show.

Close examination of the footage reveals that the bass and guitar weren’t plugged in.

Red Hot Chili Peppers unplugged

Flea, the Peppers’ bassist, came forward and admitted that they used a pre-recorded track, and offered various excuses and explanations. I’m surprised to find myself writing about this, since if there’s anything I care about less than the Super Bowl, it’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But I was struck by Flea’s prevaricating; the whole thing points up the strangeness of live music in the age of technology.

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Originality in Digital Music

This post is longer and more formal than usual because it was my term paper for a class in the NYU Music Technology Program.

Questions of authorship, ownership and originality surround all forms of music (and, indeed, all creative undertakings.) Nowhere are these questions more acute or more challenging than in digital music, where it is effortless and commonplace to exactly reproduce sonic elements generated by others. Sometimes this copying is relatively uncontroversial, as when a producer uses royalty-free factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live. Sometimes the copying is legally permissible but artistically dubious, as when one downloads a public-domain Bach or Scott Joplin MIDI file and copies and pastes sections from them into a new composition. Sometimes one may have creative approval but no legal sanction; within the hip-hop community, creative repurposing of copyrighted commercial recordings is a cornerstone of the art form, and the best crate-diggers are revered figures.

Even in purely noncommercial settings untouched by copyright law, issues of authorship and originality continue to vex us. Some electronic musicians feel the need to generate all of their sounds from scratch, out of a sense that using samples is cheating or lazy. Others freely use samples, presets and factory sounds for reasons of expediency, but feel guilt and a weakened sense of authorship. Some electronic musicians view it as a necessity to create their tools from scratch, be they hardware or software. Others feel comfortable using off-the-shelf products but try to avoid common riffs, rhythmic patterns, chord progressions and timbres. Still others gleefully and willfully appropriate and put their “theft” of familiar recordings front and center.

Is a mashup of two pre-existing recordings original? Is a new song based on a sample of an old one original? What about a new song using factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live? Is a DJ set consisting entirely of other people’s recordings original? Can a bright-line standard for originality or authenticity even exist in the digital realm?

I intend to parse out our varied and conflicting notions of originality, ownership and authorship as they pertain to electronic music. I will examine perspectives from musicians and fans, jurists and journalists, copyright holders and copyright violators. In so doing, I will advance the thesis that complete originality is neither possible nor desirable, in digital music or elsewhere, and that the spread of digital copying and manipulation has done us a service by bringing the issue into stark relief.

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