Thursday, March 05, 2009

mucking about in music - sampling, fluidity, copyright

Simon has a nice piece in the guardian about sampling. I think he's partly talking about the way sampling plays people's memories and associations (which is sometimes how I think of DJing), of how it reveals and accentuates shared history, fantasy, and emotion. The importance of it for me right now is that he lays out many of the issues that get overlooked, glossed over, or ignored in discussions of "originality" and music making.

"Original" is a word I have become hyper-sensitive to in my research. It is so commonly used about music or musicians, and when people use it they activate a lot of legal, moral and aesthetic judgments --in some contexts literally activating law because being able to argue originality affects your ability to claim ownership of a copyright. However, "original" doesn't have a very meaningful definition, unless you define it in terms of your own assumptions and ignore everyone else's.

What I mean by that: any definition of "original" that could be considered objective, or at least really useful, applicable across culture, across subculture, across time, is mostly meaningless. So I could call a song "original" and you could point out all the ways that it is inspired by, refers to, draws on and engages with other songs, genres, styles, traditions. We would have to agree on some point at which all those dynamics don't matter any more. How little influence is little enough to call it original? How isolated is it from all other creative works? how isolated was the artist involved from all other artists or other people?

but at that point, what's the point of basing a definition in something which seems profoundly anti-social, in the sense that it denies the human connections which make up culture of which music is a part? If something is totally original, under that definition, it is basically irrelevant to human life.

So with Simon's sampling article, and in the comments, people differentiate sampling from other kinds of reference because sampling makes use of the actual sounds created - or as one person helpfully puts it, sampling re-uses the actual performance. Some argue this makes sampling less original. One way to read the article is that he is saying sampling is more original. Depending on what you look at, either or both are true. But how does this matter? If we agree that sampling is definitely different than re-using a score, or quoting the words, or replaying a melody, what does that difference matter? What does that difference mean?

US law and some international law places one kind of re-use in a different category than another. So in the US covering a song without permission is legal but sampling without permission is not. But many musicians (and I think even more non-musicians) who in other cases are perfectly willing to assume that laws are imperfect, and reflect power imbalances in society, here argue that that legal definition is meaningful morally, or even aesthetically. That one kind of re-use is more creative than another. That permission matters more in one case than another.

One focus of my work now, brought into sharp relief by the poverty and struggle faced by many Jamaicans, musicians or not, and the power relations between musicians, producers, engineers, labels, locals and foreigners... is trying to figure out when permission matters and for what purpose. (I'm not focusing so much issues of aesthetic value - althoug plenty of Jamaicans go there). The thing is, if people don't examine the premises and the purposes for which they are arguing for originality than the debate will go nowhere. Hence the circling around whether sampling is unique or not. In one way, as everything is unique to its historical moment, it is. In another way, of course it is not. but again, what does it matter?

I get a shout-out in the article (thanks!) - although I would like any academic quibble over his evaluation of the term "fluid" which he calls a euphemism. I would say I'm trying to avoid passing a judgment on how people deal with copyright law - because otherwise you get into some pretty tired tropes either about lawless artists and the serious-minded lawyers and business people who must wrangle them into ruliness, or even worse, in the Jamaican context, you get stuck with people tutting over those backward Jamaicans who don't understand the proper administration of creative product. Of course, all human negotiation with law (and any other social institution) is fluid, in the sense that it is dynamic, changing, flexible, and sometimes unpredictable. What I'm studying is how it is fluid in this context, and ..again..why it matters.


  1. Hi Ripley, hope the research is going well. I thought I'd point you to an interesting post that addresses some similar issues from a different perspective: "originality" as the modernist imperative to "make it new" and the relation of the avant-garde to the ruling class.

    Many posts in this blog critique modernism from a Marxist perspective. It's a bit abstract compared to your work but maybe helpful.


  2. Further muddying the waters, mainstream US hip hop often uses sampling to draft a track and then, if it is selected for commercial release, will hire replay artists to recreate the samples.

    Check Replay Heaven:

  3. fortunately they are various different judges : copyright judges come after you when you make enough money from your art, culture judges that deem you artistically credible or not ( and then there's the judge of time, which Simon was party gettin@ in his Graceland post. and as an artist, you get to choose which judge is most important to you. stay under the radar and avoid 1 judge, pay your sample clearances and get blogsmacked by another

    relevent post today @

    great discussion here, thanks for the post... my 2cents @

  4. While it's a good point that there are different sets of judges, I don't think they map out as neatly as you describe..

    For example, I don't know that artists always get to choose. That leaves out artists who are signed to record labels whose contracts don't give them that ability or are members of collective rights organizations.

    Artists don't necessarily get to choose to stay under the radar, or if they choose not to, it may be for very different reasons than because they want to face a different judge. They may want to pay the rent, or be famous, or spread their message.

    and copyright judges are increasingly being embedded in technology and in ISPs, further reducing the space under the radar.. check the music bloggers' takedown concerns, any of the DMCA-based restrictions..