Anyone who read the opening article in our new series, Sampling Confidential last month, could be forgiven for feeling a certain unease at the prospect of using even the briefest snippets of other peoples' recordings in their own music. Though we are, thank goodness, troubled much less by arguments over the rights and wrongs of sampling, the difficulties faced by those who choose to use existing recordings as a sampling source are no less acute.
We seem to have entered a period where established artists have begun to wise up and realise that there's money to be made from those who would avail themselves of their 'intellectual property'. Now, the problem isn't so much whether one should gain clearance for samples taken from existing recordings, but how much it's going to cost and how long it's likely to take. The debate, has shifted away from musicians and toward the birds of prey of the legal profession.
I suppose it was all fairly predictable: capitalism has a way of rendering aesthetic argument quite redundant. Certainly, the prospect of a little extra cash from an unexpected source seems to make people much more tolerant, of other musicians 'borrowing' their ideas.
But while one might have a certain sympathy with the likes of James Brown, whose back catalogue has been plundered ruthlessly in recent years, one has to question the over-zealous actions of certain other artists, who are clearly intent on extracting every last penny from the business of sample clearance, or sueing into virtual bankruptcy those who don't comply with their 'terms and conditions'.
Of course, many would argue that they have every right to do so - this is, after all, their creative property we're talking about. Well perhaps so, but why the sudden interest? This is no recent phenomenon; borrowing from more established artists has been going on for decades. The difference is that previously, the assimilation of other peoples' ideas usually involved having to play them yourself. The time and effort involved in ripping off, say, a Chuck Berry lick - as the Stones regularly did - is broadly comparable with the sampling of a couple of bars of a drum pattern and tailoring them for use as a rhythm track. But no one accused the Stones of theft - they simply pointed out who the band's influences were.
Furthermore, how much did Chuck Berry's career benefit from the interest shown in him by bands like the Stones? - none of whom, as far as I know, have compensated him directly for the ideas they plundered back in the early '60s, and indeed still do to this day.
I'm prepared to accept the principle of artists charging other musicians for the right to use their intellectual property, provided they first assess and then pay the artists whose influence and ideas they themselves have absorbed. With its unparalleled record for plagiarism, mimicry and downright theft, this is no business for anyone to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. As far as I'm concerned, the only criterion for determining whether a sample should be paid for is this; in its new context, does it become part of a valid new piece of work? That's the mechanism which has triggered change in contemporary music for the better part of a century. The technology has changed nothing.
Editorial by Nigel Lord
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