Ilan meets the Fugees

My youngest private music production student is a kid named Ilan. He makes moody trip-hop and deep house using Ableton Live. For our session today, Ilan came in with a downtempo, jazzy hip-hop instrumental. I helped him refine and polish it, and then we talked about his ideas for what kind of vocal might work on top. He wanted an emcee to flow over it, so I gave him my folder of hip-hop acapellas I’ve collected. The first one he tried was “Fu-Gee-La [Refugee Camp Remix]” by the Fugees.

I had it all warped out already, so all he had to do was drag and drop it into his session and press play. It sounded great, so he ran with it. Here’s what he ended up with:

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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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Booking me for workshops

I want to expand my private teaching and speaking practice. If you were to book me for a workshop or seminar, what would you want it to be about? Music production? Intellectual property and authorship? Music and math? Music and science? Music pedagogy? Improvisation and flow, both in music and in life generally? Something else?

Ethan does his thing

I’d be happy to visit your music classroom, non-music classroom, company, co-working space, or community organization. Here are some instructional videos of mine to give you a sense of my style.

I do traditional music teaching and production too, but I’m pitching here to people who don’t consider themselves to be “musicians” (spoiler alert: everybody is a musician, you just might not have found your instrument yet.) Group improvisation on iOS devices or laptops is always a good time, and it’s easier than you would think to attain musical-sounding results. Instrument design with the Makey Makey is a fun one too. If you have Ableton Live and are wondering what to do with it, a remix and mashup workshop would be just the thing. All of the above activities are revelatory windows into user interface and experience design. Group music-making is an excellent team-building exercise, and is just generally a spa treatment for the soul. Get in touch with your suggestions, requests and questions.

Sampling composers

Morey, J., & McIntyre, P. (2014). The Creative Studio Practice of Contemporary Dance Music Sampling Composers. Dancecult, 6(1), 41–60.

There is so much to love about this paper, starting with the title. You can read it the way it was intended, that dance music producers are composers. Or you can creatively misread it to mean that the dance producers are using samples of other composers. It works equally well either way.

Sampling consists of acts of listening, selecting and editing

In the age of the internet, effectively any sound that has ever been recorded becomes available raw material for new music. The challenge with sampling isn’t so much identifying possible sample sources as it is managing the vast universe of possibilities. The listening and selecting steps in the sampling process are really the hard parts. The editing and looping are comparatively easy.

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DJ Earworm on the art of the mashup

DJ Earworm is the foremost practitioner of the art of the mashup. I don’t think there’s a more interesting musician in the world right now. I was on public radio with him once! His main claim to fame is the United State of Pop series, where he combines the top 25 US pop songs of a given year into a single, seamlessly coherent track. I’ve scattered several of them throughout this post. He has started doing more seasonal mashups as well; here’s one from this past summer:

It’s rare that an artist talks you through their production process in depth, so I was delighted to discover that DJ Earworm wrote an entire book about mashup production. He wrote it in 2007 and focused it on Sony Acid, so from a technical standpoint, it might not be super useful to you. But as with the KLF’s pop songwriting tutorial, the creative method he espouses transcends technology and time period, and it would be of value to any musician. Some choice passages follow.

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Pop musicians in the academy

Together with Adam Bell, I’m planning some in-depth writing about the phenomenon of pop musicians (like me) teaching in formal, classically-oriented institutional settings. This post is a loosely organized collection of relevant thoughts.

School of Rock

What even is “pop music?”

As far as the music academy is concerned, all music except classical or folk is “popular.” People who make bluegrass or death metal or underground hip-hop might be surprised to learn that their wildly unpopular music is referred to this way. In the past few decades, jazz has moved out of the “popular” column and into the “art” column. I myself have made a small amount of actual pop music, but for the past few years have mostly been involved in the production of artsy electronica.

How classical musicians learn: an absurd oversimplification

Classical musicians learn The Western Canon by performing and analyzing scores. The defining instrument of this music is the piano. All vocalists and instrumentalists are expected to be able to think in pianistic terms. Students are part of a pyramid-shaped hierarchical structure with long-dead composers at the top, followed by long-dead music theorists, followed by living music theorists and conductors and academics, and so on down to the individual section player. There is a contingent of living composers whose role in the hierarchy is confused at the moment. Most student composers are expected to operate within a tightly bounded tradition, whether that’s common-practice tonality or one of the various schools of modernism. The analysis of large-scale structure happens only at the very advanced level, if ever. Recordings are something of an afterthought.

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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, 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 definition of music

There is no single universally agreed-upon definition of music. We know it when we hear it, but what you might hear as music, I might hear as noise. Who’s right? We both are.

The entire high modernist movement of the twentieth century was devoted to finding out just far you can push the limits of the conventional definition of music. John Cage considered all of his work to be music. A normal person would likely consider just about none of it to be music. I consider it some of it to be music, mostly extremely annoying music, and some of it to be clever or not-so-clever conceptual art. There isn’t an ultimate authority we can appeal to who will rule on whose opinion is the “right” one (though my NYU professors would disagree with me there.)

John Cage, noisemaker

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