Op-Ed by Erin Barra: Sample This Blog! Why It’s Time for a Sampling Revolution
September 4, 2012 by Erin Barra
Absorb another fierce op-ed from Erin Barra, and don’t miss her contest with Ableton and ProAudioStar at the end of the article.
Since the dawn of humanity, we have been creating art and innovating ideas inspired by what surrounds us.
It is THE VERY BASIS of who we are as human beings to build upon our collective past: The Beatles credit The Isley Brothers as a vocal harmony sound they were literally trying to imitate at the beginning of their career; Shakespeare borrowed plot lines down to the finest of details from authors such as Chaucer and Plutarch; Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie, debatably one of the most innovative moments in moving pictures, was a direct parody of a Vaudeville act entitled “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”
All three of these creative forces have two things in common. First, these artists are some of the most influential and pioneering creators in history. Secondly, they all borrowed heavily from something they didn’t create… and so continues the cyclic tradition of how culture is divined.
You could firmly declare that nothing is original, and it’s reasonably likely that few people would disagree with you. Painting with the color blue isn’t a new concept, nor is singing about love. Still the originality lies is in the interpretation and expression of such redundancies. No one can claim ownership over the color blue, love songs or gravity. But the works that were created based upon them, now that’s a different story… or is it?
Technology is developing at such a rapid clip that it’s completely altering the way we create, distribute and access art and information. This lightening-fast evolution (i.e. the Internet – thanks Al Gore!!) is simultaneously creating a pulsating and bloodthirsty arena for creators/innovators to play in.
But it is also threatening their very existence.
After having researched and articulated these concepts myself, I am not only fascinated, but scared out of my mind about the potential consequences of what actions we as a civilization choose to take in response to such massive change.
I think it is important to keep in mind that this technological advancement in and of itself isn’t really new either. Anyone remember the Industrial Revolution or the Radio? Even evolution can’t come up with something original!!
I should also note that this piece of writing isn’t “new” either. It’s an interpolation of two brilliant pieces of writing (Creative License, by Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola, and Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig), an in-depth interview with Keith Shocklee, (see video blog below) and countless conversations with my friends, family and peers.
Based upon these, I argue neither side of the issue, but rather surrender to how evolution chooses to unfold…however beautiful or bittersweet.
I Put My Thing Down, Flip It and Reverse It
Sampling and effecting audio as an art form had it’s conception in the 1920’s (think phonograph manipulation), but uttered its first newborn screams of life in the late 1970’s early 1980’s with Hip Hop.
Mainstream America thought Hip Hop was a passing fad and the industry largely ignored it. In many ways I think this blatant disregard was one of the most important factors in Hip Hop artists, producers and DJ’s being able to freely sample and for all intents and purposes, copyright infringe.
Pioneers of the movement, such as Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys, used multiple samples in a single song, creating layers of sonic material over which they did something highly original for the time… rap.
These Hip Hop producers were stretching the limits of the technology and creating a new genre that not only completely changed the music industry, but whose impact was hugely socio-economic and political. If you want to talk about being innovative and impactful, Hip Hop is arguably the most influential thing to happen to the music industry in the past century.
And yet, it’s very heartbeat (pun intended) is based upon appropriated audio. Juxtapose that with the idea Shakespeare hardly ever came up with an original plot line in his entire career and then ask yourself if you think this type of creation is truly new at all, or even infringement at a certain point.
The idea that Hip Hop is built upon the music that came before it (albeit in a severely literal way) again demonstrates the cyclic, overlapping nature or how we as a culture and civilization continually develop. To me, the notion of truncating that process seems utterly ridiculous and in a perfect world that wouldn’t be the case.
Sadly, the dawn of sampling and the technologies that gave birth to it have thrown the entire copyright protection system for such a loop that it’s almost completely failed to serve it’s purpose.
Sample Me This
Let’s not forget that there are two sides to every story. At a certain juncture you have to ask yourself; is it right for producers, Hip Hop or otherwise, to use other people’s master recordings, without their permission, and do whatever they want to them? I mean, intellectual property is property nonetheless, right? And just because it’s intangible, does that make it okay to steal it? ‘Cause that’s basically what’s going on here.
This particular dilemma wears several disguises, so as an exercise in gaining perspective, riddle me this… If producer X impermissibly takes and uses a sample in a song which makes up the entire hook, and then becomes a big deal because of the success of that song, does the original author/artist of the sample deserves some sort of compensation or other credit? Does this potential compensation only become applicable if/when there is commercial success involved? What if said song is released gratis, does that make it less like stealing?
If the sampled artist is lost to obscurity and somehow the producer managed to resuscitate that artists career, resulting in sales of the original recording, does that make it okay? If you only use two seconds of a highly recognizable recording, should you have to clear that sample? I could go on and on and on.
The answer to all of these questions is… maybe.
The moral dilemma surrounding the concept of sampling is so multi-faceted and subjective that it’s nearly impossible to take a side or stance. One of my favorite finds while researching this piece was a quote from Creative License given by Hip Hop producer Mr. Dibbs.
“Most people that sample take a loop, and they loop it, and they put some drums and a bass line… that shit’s stealing. I don’t really care that it’s wrong. At all. It’s stealing. I don’t care. That’s the nature of hip hop…. I ain’t paying nobody. I ain’t paying shit. I’m not paying you nothing. Like, you could call me on the phone personally, and I’m not giving you shit because I’m not making enough money to pay eight grand for an ‘uh’ from James Brown. But, If I – no, fuck it. I’m not paying. Ever…. It doesn’t mean it’s not wrong. It means I don’t give a fuck.”
In a sick and twisted way I think this sums up the problem, and hints at the solution. (to be speculated on at the end of the piece)
The copyright clause of the American Constitution says that “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.”
This was written for a reason – to protect the authors and the inventors, because we as creators of intellectual property need to be protected, otherwise our ideas have no value.
The issue is that in order to do things the “legal” way, you need to travel down the highly convoluted road of the sample clearance system. In Lessigs’ words, “The cost of complying with the laws is impossibly high… You either pay a lawyer to defend your fair use rights or pay a lawyer to track down permission so you don’t have to rely upon fair use rights. Either way this creative process is a process of paying lawyers – again, a privilege, or perhaps a curse, reserved for the few.”
Often times artists who attempt to legally clear samples for works they’ve created are met with huge clearance fees depending on whos administering the rights to the sampled material. Often, the person who owns or administers those rights is not even the artist to begin with, but rather a publisher or entity that purchased the rights.
We are being forced to comply with laws, which have little to no consideration of the changing technological landscape that is already a ubiquitous reality. Creators are being prevented from creating freely and building upon a shared past, infringement aside, and that my friends, is a travesty and detrimental to the progression of our culture.
I Need You Right Now!!!
Is there a solution? I definitely think so. Is it straightforward and forthcoming? Sadly, I don’t think so.
The only thing that is currently allowing me to sleep at night is that this isn’t the first time in history that a society has been faced with such a conundrum. I have faith that this will eventually work itself out. Take Prohibition for example – that obviously didn’t last, no matter how much the government tried to enforce it. As my manager so eloquently put it, “A law that people do not respect cannot be retained. The will of society will eventually be recognized.”
It should come as no surprise that people will continue to sample and infringe no matter what. After all, everyone’s already doing it. It’s a part of who we are. Try and stop us!!! Lessig sagely explains that what the powers that be are attempting to do is “using the law to change something fundamental about who we have always been, rather than understanding the changes.”
Creative License speculates that, “Only by studying the history of sampling and working towards a compromise among all competing interests can we find a path toward a sensible copyright policy that can govern remix culture.” Most potential solutions I’ve heard about put the responsibility back onto the government, which in our current state of affairs, seems like a sick joke.
But one solution that I do see as reasonable is an eventual paradigm shift, which I believe is already in motion in and outside of the music industry.
It’s time to put the responsibility of protecting the creators back onto the hands of the community by asking them to create and consume with a moral and ethical sentiment. We can already see how much of an impact the idea of “green” living has had on the choices we make everyday – perhaps there is a way to become a “green” listener and stand behind the choices we make as creators and fans.
For once, WE have the power to create and curate our existence, rather than be hand-fed all the content that it owned by a very few huge corporate entities. (Cough Viacom, Clear Channel… cough cough Time Warner, Disney… cough CBS, GE, News Corp… cough cough).
So I say take, their shit in order to create freely and artistically, but don’t take their bullshit!!! If you come across something that moves you, go online and share it. If you hear something that sounds like everything else out there, create a commentary about it. Stand behind the music you believe in donate to a Kickstarter Campaign, even if it’s $5.
Become a part of the process and create the solution. In the words of Public Enemy, “Got to give us what we want, Gotta give us what we need. Our freedom of speech is freedom or death. We got to fight the powers that be. Lemme here you say, Fight The Power.”
Hopefully the law with eventually catch up with us as consumers, producers and distributors of culture, but it’s not likely on the horizon. Until then, I implore you to create and consume with a conscious. Music really is that important.
In the spirit of continuing the cycle: Ableton, ProAudioStar and I have teamed up for a remix contest running the entire month of September. You’ll be given the stems to ‘Good Man’, the single off my last album, Illusions.
Then it’s up to YOU to “put your thing down, flip it and reverse it”.
Three finalists will be chosen and voted on by the community and one winner will have their remix released along side several other remixes from the same album. Also included in the prize pack will be a $500 gift certificate to ProAudioStar, and an amazing pair of studio in ear monitors from Bowers & Wilkins.
For further details visit http://contest.proaudiostar.com