Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Sampling Dilemma

Zen and the art of Cultural Appropriation
Part 1: What it is and what it means

While largely considered a problem exclusively for DJs, copyright infringement via sampling someone else's track is an issue which extends into Live PA, if only because of the popularity of samplers, and samplers are very much connected to the root of the issue. It's something which I have been giving increasing thought as time passes, largely because I had once held the firm belief that sampling was wrong in an ethical sense, and at best a weak crutch for amateur composers. Being something of an electronica purist back then, I sincerely felt that the ability to make 100% original music through the creative use of technology meant that doing anything less than that was just weak. After all, what's so special about playing someone else's music?

Then, I began to find out just how much of the music I love includes heavy sampling of pre-existing music. Massive Attack's music, which re-aligned how I looked at Hip-hop through the dark lens of Trip Hop, was positively laden with samples. Same with Portishead, Frontline Assembly, Atari Teenage Riot, and SPL of the label Barcode, to name a few, all of which had a hand in shaping my tastes as a musician. As my interest in Drum-n-bass began to grow, I decided that I should probably try to wrap my head around a couple of things, namely the idea that creative reconstruction of music can be an art form in its own right. After all, it's everywhere, from pop and hip hop's seemingly oblivious sample theft to the snippet of Massive Attack turntablism buried in Angelo Badalamenti's jazz score for the film 'Lost Highway'.

Copyright law protects privately produced material by default, and everything we produce is considered privately produced, whether or not it is owned by the originator or it is a "work for hire". Thus, thanks to private lobbying for changes in copyright law (spearheaded largely by Disney, in order to keep their trademark, Mickey Mouse, from falling into the Public Domain due to the passage of time-- but Disney's sins belong elsewhere), nothing ever realistically becomes free anymore. This problem is compounded by the fact that any "work for hire" is owned not by a person, but by a corporate entity, and when exactly does a corporation die? Excluding bankruptcy and the outright cessation of existence as a business, when copyrights for the material the company legally owns would expire over time, the answer is basically never. Given that consolidation is more common in the business world than outright failure, this means that a company can own the copyright assets of something it swallowed decades before, and had nothing to do with. So in a nutshell, nobody can realistically get a handle on this stuff well enough to make sampling a viable pastime in the eyes of the law. It is true that sampling rights can be bought or sold with the owner's permission, the costs of such legal maneuvers limit this option only to the established figures in the music industry.

This means that the independent artist is barred from one very important modern idea-- that, like a cubist piece made of cut-up newspaper, a musician can use sounds he finds in his environment as raw material for an entirely modern kind of music. For instance, it's perfectly fine to stand on a street corner with a microphone, recording traffic noise, and then releasing it on a CD later. (I don't recommend doing this, though.) However, were that recording to incidentally contain half a Pepsi sales jingle booming from a passing car, three and a half minutes of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast drifting from an antique shop door, and a passerby shouting "God, this new Sprint phone is such a piece of shit!" then you're going to have legal problems, even though their inclusion on your CD was entirely incidental to what you were doing.

Or who knows, maybe nothing would happen. Maybe you would dodge the bullet and nobody would ever notice your sample theft... that is, until you start making money off of it. Unlicenced sampling is basically financial Russian Roulette.

The things we find laying around in our world have a deep and important place in our art. By signing a box of Tide detergent, Andy Warhol got the gallery snobs to stand and marvel at an everyday object, and history gave him the nod of approval for it. A whole lot of artists are using this kind of cultural self-referencing, and have been for a long time, in order to create new meanings out of our "old" things, or to highlight a meaning unintended by the work's original creator. Sometimes it's the sound of a Doctor Who robot shouting "exterminate" that makes your ode to killer robots complete. Sometimes it's a sample of an old song the world forgot after it was stamped it into vinyl in 1969.

Naturally, this kind of free-ranging artistic mentality runs directly counter to our copyright laws, which have not taken into account that creative reproduction of what are called "found materials" in the art world can be and already is an accepted art form. Hip Hop, Cubism, Drum-n-Bass and Pop art would not exist fully were it not for the will of individual artists to break the law and manipulate what they found laying around them in creative ways. For example, the ability of techno musicians to directly and creatively reference the musical past of their home city spawned the musical sub-genre of Chicago House, a genre which has gained near-mythical status and credibility due to its place in the evolution of popular electronic music. If not for Chicago House, there would be no Acid House, and without Acid House glossy, fast-paced car commercials would need a new soundtrack.

The idea that underground culture can be appropriated by industry for the purpose of marketing is a well-noted irony. But how many people consider that doing so in reverse, for underground culture to assimilate the left-overs of Industry, is completely disallowed? That what has been thrown away by culture is suddenly picked up and treated like fucking gold as soon as someone else benefits from it too? Coupled with the idea that sampling and other forms of creative re-construction are hacking our cultural detritus to pieces and making things out of it more creatively and effeciently every single day, one might think that the days of Copyright Law are numbered. Yet increasingly frequent media reports of drawn-out court disputes involving large sums of money tell us otherwise.

It has been made very clear that sampling is viewed by the recording industry, and by judiciary institutions as well, as a monetary issue regarding ownership, but this seems like a great injustice. You might say to yourself, wait. The notion of art's direction being dictated by industry and beauraucracy is, to put it plainly, to put control of art into the hands of those who understand it least. But we live in a society where private property is held in an iron vise of paranoia, and that's just the way it is. Current copyright laws ensure that it will be that way for the forseeable future, even if the laws don't fit the reality of the situation. (Wouldn't be the first time.)

AND on a side note: Yes, I'm back and writing again. The AlcoHolidays blew my circuits a couple of times, but I think I'm good now. More will come soon.


M.A.S. said...

Very intresting post. I think it lends a lot of credence to the emergence and popularity of "Mash Ups" in the past few years.

It seems amazing however the level of hypocrisy in some genres over others is quite surprising. Hip Hop artists seem to be praised in their usage of samples, yet when others use them they are deemed "uncreative" or something along those lines.

J. Wells said...

It's a mixed bag, really. You can analyze it a million ways, but what it really comes down to is the question of whether or not what you're hearing agrees with your musical values and prejiduces while still remaining cool enough to listen to. If it's uncreative blag like an unending funk loop with some huffy hip-hop tard stumbling over it, then that's what it is and it sucks. If it's some dude spinning Elvis over drum-n-bass and it's wicked, it might be a dnB-head retelling history through his own eyes, and one can't deny the artistic merit of that.

So it's a case by case thing, I guess.

Jonathan said...

Sadly, the issue of sampling is even more torrid and complicated.

In a recent decision by a US court, A judge found that sampling even 3 notes of a song would be considered infringement. This decision was made in the case of Bridgeport Music Inc. v. Dimension Films, all over a piece of music by the funk-master himself, George Clinton. Ironically enough, George doesn't seem to have a problem with his music being sampled. Its his record company that does.

Just look at the "Amen", "Funky Brother" or "Think" breaks. These breaks have been stretched, distorted, and chopped so many times as to become absolute staples of 2 Supergenre's of music (Breaks and Drum n Bass to be specific).

If you're concerned about how crazy the copyright system is getting, you should really check out CreativeCommons.org

Also, this might be of interest to all you sampler fiends out there: http://freesound.iua.upf.edu/ Freesound, which is a fairly large (25 thousand samples large) repository of royalty free samples.

Freesound is full of musicians and artists who are saying "here, take this, and use it!"