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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Biggie Biggie Smalls Is The Illest

I always enjoy when hip-hop artists sample themselves. It makes the music recursive, and for me, “recursive” is synonymous with “good.” You can hear self-sampling in “Nas Is Like” by Nas, “The Score” by the Fugees and many songs by Eric B and Rakim. The most recent self-sampling track to cross my radar is “Unbelievable” by Biggie Smalls, from his album Ready To Die. Here’s the instrumental.

[iframe_loader width=”480″ height=”360″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/IdL2e1MrTgY” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen]

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Freedom Jazz Dance

My friend Leo has a new jazz quartet. At their debut performance a couple of weeks ago, they ended the show with a mashup of “Solar” by Miles Davis and “Freedom Jazz Dance” by Eddie Harris. “Freedom Jazz Dance” is a favorite of mine, and a lot of my fellow jazz nerds agree. People love it because it’s so catchy, but it’s a peculiar kind of catchy.

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Eric B and Rakim

In 1987 I remember having my ears grabbed by this thing on the radio called “Pump Up The Volume” by MARRS.

Now that mashups are so common, this track doesn’t sound particularly remarkable. But in seventh grade it was startling to hear a house music track full of random samples. “Pump Up The Volume” was part of the same UK dance music movement that spawned the KLF’s “Doctorin’ The Tardis” and “Rush” by Big Audio Dynamite. I wasn’t enough of a hip-hop head in 1987 to recognize where the phrase in the title comes from, but now I do, it’s from “I Know You Got Soul” by Eric B and Rakim. Listen at 0:43:

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Nas Is Like

If I had to pick a single track to explain to an alien or time traveler what hip-hop is and why it’s so awesome, I think I’d pick “Nas Is Like.”

Nas has a great flow full of powerful imagery, but what truly sets this track apart for me is DJ Premier’s production. It’s a complex web of samples and scratches that tie together so seamlessly as to be much greater than the sum of their parts. A lot of the samples are from other songs by Nas himself. Here’s a diagram of all the samples, click to see it bigger:

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Impeach The President

Hip-hop sampling has a way of elevating obscure tracks into the cultural pantheon.  “Impeach The President” by the Honey Drippers is a perfect example (the president in question is Nixon.) While the song itself isn’t well-known outside of sample geek circles, I can guarantee you’ve heard its opening few seconds. According to WhoSampled.com, it’s the most-sampled breakbeat in history.

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Human Nature

For a long time, “Human Nature” was not my favorite song on Thriller. It took me many years to wise up to how awesome it is. Maybe it’s a gender thing. I played it for Anna last night and she swooned instantly over the delivery, arrangement, melody, the whole thing worked for her. I’m slowly opening up to it too. I was amused to learn that it was written by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis of Toto. I don’t know if they or Quincy Jones thought up the synth intro and outtro, but both are gorgeous.

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Mashups as micro-mixtapes

Back in 1966, Glenn Gould predicted that recorded music would become an interactive conversation between musician and listener. He described dial twiddling as “an interpretive act.” He was wrong about the dials, but right about the main point, that technology would make listening to music more like making music. Anybody with iTunes instantly becomes a DJ. It doesn’t take much more software than that to produce your own electronica. Some copyright holders and their lawyers are feeling a lot of anguish about this development. For the rest of us, I think it’s an exciting new opportunity, a chance to restore music to its rightful and natural state as shared property, a dynamic conversation anyone can be part of. Continue reading