Sampling: Is it legal? Is it art? Tim Goodyer raises some of the issues that will shape tomorrow's music.
WE'VE COME A long way from the days when a sampler was simply the latest (and easiest) way of getting a decent snare drum or orchestral strike into your recordings. Looking back it all seemed rather daring, stealing someone else's sound to use in your own music. Was it legal? There was talk of samples up to two seconds in length being permissible, but nobody really seemed to know what the law said. Many musicians were happy to reveal the source of their samples in interviews - and nobody ended up in court.
Only a handful of people really recognised the true potential of the sampler early on. Someone, somewhere, sampled a drum break, looped it and discovered an alternative approach to constructing drum tracks. Again there was talk of samples of up to four bars being permissible by law. Or was it two bars? Again nobody really knew. Instead, they had an ever-so-slightly nervous smile that said "it's sure to be alright". But it wasn't.
On top of the sampled drum tracks, people were "spinning in" samples of other records - a technique that had been used in studios for spreading one good take of a chorus (for example) across a whole record. It was possible to construct a whole record without playing a note or a beat - you could "lift" everything you needed from other people's music. One of the Coldcut duo went as far as to refer to the sampler as "the non-musician's revenge on musicians". Fighting talk.
Of course the practice wasn't limited to those using samplers - the same results could be obtained using the records themselves, as was demonstrated by M/A/R/R/S last year with over 40 "lifts" that made up 'Pump Up The Volume'. Unfortunately for M/A/R/R/S, a record that had been intended to fill the dancefloor also became a No. 1 hit. Unfortunately, because it attracted the attention of the lawyers of the people who had unknowingly contributed to it.
The problem with the law concerning the performing and copying of music is that it was written in 1956. Needless to say, it makes little provision for the use of samplers, or of scratching or any of the other techniques applicable to the discussion. The legal aspects of the subject are covered in greater length in "Copycat Crimes" elsewhere in this issue, but the key to the legislation is the phrase "a substantial part" of a piece of music. The law is currently under review and it's not going to be an easy ride, but the outcome is crucial to the future of music.
BUT THE LAW isn't the only issue to consider. Is making music out of other peoples' music a morally acceptable way of going about it. Is it music at all? Our "Cookin' the Mix" interview with Norman Cook - an ex-Housemartin responsible for a string of remixes involving music from artists other than the performer of the title song - was the cause of a serious discussion in the MT offices earlier this month (a less discreet editor would have called it a row). If a track is made up of other peoples' music, how creative is the "composer" actually being? If he were to make the same record but play all the same parts himself would it be any more musical and any less illegal? And then, what is the difference between plagiarism and simple theft?
Out of all of this confusion, one thing in particular intrigues me: at the time of the punk "revolution", the established musos could be heard muttering things about the new breed of musician having no talent, and their music being a passing, and worthless, trend. Eleven years on the musos are talking about punk having given the music scene an overdue shake-up, and how transient and worthless the current trend of sampled and cut-up music is.