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Money Whores

The copyright arguments surrounding sampling continue, but artistic issues are steadily being eclipsed by financial ones. Tim Goodyer goes toe-to-toe with The Wall Street Journal.

HOW IMPORTANT IS sampling? Stupid question really - it depends on who you are. To the average production-line assembly worker, it's probably a tiny element of the music the radio plays every day; to the modern musician, however, it is almost certainly of paramount importance. And since you and I are both musicians, it's pretty important, right? How about accountants - superficially, it seems unlikely they'd give a flying buck about sampling. Yet no less a financial newspaper than The Wall Street Journal recently devoted an article to this very subject.

Under the snappy headline "Record Industry Artists and Executives Are Spinning Over Digital Sampling Use", Robert Tomsho described the activities of Polygram Records' vice president as he "painstakingly listens to dozens of new recordings on other labels for traces of singer James Brown's trademark scream". Polygram, you see, own the rights to much of JB's catalogue, and its unauthorised use represents lost revenue to them. While it's been technically possible to use one musical recording within another since recorded music first appeared, both Polygram and The Wall Street Journal appear to hold the hapless sampler singularly responsible. Of course, the sampler has been instrumental in popularising musical lifts, but that's not really what interests the record company or the newspaper. What interests them, of course, is ca$h.

So, with a new-found interest in musical technology, The Journal despatch a staff reporter to research an article on sampling and its applications. In fairness, some of the research is pretty thorough: quotes from the likes of Bob Moog, Frank Zappa and music attorney Evan Cohen litter the piece. The technology, however, gets a pretty raw deal. For a start there's an assumption that a sampler takes the form of a computer (complete with alpha-numeric keyboard and VDU) and that it takes a "skilled technician" to "alter numerical codes" to "change a sampled sound's pitch or rhythm, rearrange the notes or, by layering sampled material, summon up the sound of an entire orchestra using a single instrument". It's a far cry from the reality of a Casio FZ1 or Akai S950 and the streetwise kids who can lift-n-loop a breakbeat before you can say anti-aliasing. And having introduced the idea of substituting a sampler for orchestral players, The Journal claims that the Dean of New York's Juilliard School (which runs courses in sampling) "scoffs at the idea of samplers replacing whole orchestras in live performance". Hardly an accurate indication of what's actually happening.

When it quotes a figure of $27.5 million for sales of music software in 1989, however, The Journal is undoubtedly accurate. Mention of this being a 10% increase on the previous year's takings, and of some 114,750 keyboards having been shipped to US retailers in '89 (twice the volume of five years earlier) are certainly equally correct. The newspaper is in its element.

It also warms nicely to American law suits involving De La Soul and '60s band The Turtles - obviously with cash settlements in mind. Evan Cohen goes as far as to say "If you have a big hit, you're going to get sued, that's all there is to it".

Where, then, is our music in all of this? From being an artistic pursuit enjoyed by you and I as musicians, as well as you and I (and the record-buying public) as consumers, it has become another source of revenue for the money men - not even solely in the form of music, but in the lawyers' bills that it can be used to generate. Next time somebody throws you the old line "money talks", you can tell them that money has now also learnt to sing.

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Mar 1991

Editorial by Tim Goodyer

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