Wednesday, February 09, 2011

a sufi & a killer & a guitarist & drummer & native artists & metadata

 Lowdjo informs me that the Gonjasufi & Gaslamp Killer album gives no credit to the artists whose recordings are re-used. This is really a pity.

It seems like bad faith (I'm pretty sure Turkish psyche-rock great Erkin Koray is still alive and also famous outside the US, and his music is pretty easily findable online). I'm not too sympathetic to G&G in this case, but I do think the way copyright laws links identifiability with the ability to sue ends up strangling some of the great potential that can come from musical hybridity and mixing.  The law makes it worse for everyone involved.

Copyright law makes it risky to share information about who made the music and where, because  by attaching names, in the current copyright system, someone can use the law to shut you down.  Since copyright is overenforced and too broadly defined, and most people can't even afford to go to court, while  the people who tend to have lawyers are already rich enough, I'm not a fan of requiring people to license samples no matter what. But in this case, I think it would be better to  separate the license question from the information question. It would be great if attribution - or concerns over inequality of participation and representation could be dealt with without getting into a battle over exclusive rights.

Attribution is pretty important, just on its own. Alongside whatever financial advantages come from increasing your reputation, attribution matters for historical, political, and ethical reasons. Recently, a curator at an art museum in Denver made the museum switch to identifying the specific creators of Native American artifacts (rather than just listing them by tribe and region and year). The curator recognized, especially in the face of the literal erasing of past and present people from the public imagination and public discourse, that names matter, and that attaching names and histories can serve living communities.

So too, says Clyde Stubblefield, the funky drummer, who isn't an owner of the tune his drumming made famous. He just wants people to know that it's him playing the drums. And the law works against him too - since he doesn't own the copyright to the track, the bandleader James Brown does (as is quite common). You can see the confusion in the comments to this video of the track - which is titled "James Brown - The Funky Drummer." Although he played the beat which is arguably the basis of hip-hop, people can't quite figure out what that means, and even question whether he played it, since he isn't named on the copyright. Authorship, and especially copyirght ownership is just the end result of a negotiation, but people confuse that with the law being all-knowing about the nature of creativity. So his name is erased, because he wasn't in a position to argue with James Brown. But Stubblefield  doesn't say that he is owed money for that erasure,  he says he wants is people to know it's him. Although it turns out he could also use money for dialysis, too,* what matters is that we know his name.

Copyright law as it stands now limits one of the great advantages of digital communication and sampling practices: it limits the chance for actual creative communication and learning about actual other cultures and places and histories.  Since one of the great delights of sampling is the way it both reinforces and criss-crosses geographies and communities,  it's a pity to obscure the names, communities and personalities of the people whose music is sampled. It denies them participation in the musical conversation, only including people, traditions, cultures into the broader musical community as resources, or raw material, for other people who DO get to have names. 

 Of course you can't always include names, for reasons of time or expense, or because you don't actually know the information. The context matters too - leaving out the names matters differently if you are learning, broke, starting out, or in some ways needing access but can't afford to give much back, and aren't famous enough for your use to bring much attention back to the sources. But all that oughta change once you are signed to a label with money for distro and lawyers (especially a label like Warp, which spends a lot of its lawyers' money on demanding money for any samples of Warp artists).

Its a shame not to pay back at least recognition to the people who lend you their sound.  Nameless reuse can erase the reality of difference, turning everything into a consumerist fantasy, where you don't have to deal with the lived realities of different worlds and different lives, and you turn people in to raw material for your profit.

*as I said in DC - let's not pretend that Stubblefield's dialysis costs are an issue that copyright law can solve. They are why we need free national health care and pensions.


  1. I think for reasons of artistic integrity, giving acknowledgment where acknowledgment is due should be standard policy, though I also understand the eagerness to cover one's tracks for legal reasons. Of course, every work of art steals from something. Originality is knowing how to skillfully throw the hounds off the scent. See the recent page on our blog:

  2. yeah... i'm still hoping for hossam ramzy to get that fat check from jay z and timbaland for the big pimpin' sample source.

  3. I don't think you're being fully cognitive of the habits & mentalities of the demographs, cultures, & subcultures you're talking about. I think it is safe to assume that anyone that knows who any of the artists on WARP Records are l part of a sub-culture. The aesthetics and value system of this sub/counterculture has its own informal code of ethics and operation that will never be encompassed by copyright law and metadata. Originators are given respect. Heads dig in the crates - plastic or digital - and the people that actually care to read the credits will find the trail of bread crumbs, whether its by good ole word of mouth or b/w of Shazam!.

  4. I would say I'm pretty cognizant of a lot of the cultures involved, but "fully" would be asking a lot of anyone I'm sure.

    If you read the previous post you saw I had my own run-in with Warp, and their only code of ethics in that interaction was acting like any other business --actually worse than many businesses that are also cultural institutions (pay what we demand or don't use it).

    I'm not sure what informal code of ethics makes Warp demand substantial payment from an underground indie dj who uses 35 unmixed seconds of a song in a 500-release mix but also makes Warp NOT pay an established non-Western artist when it re-cycles multiple songs of his on a major release... (unless you know different - did they pay Koray?) And even if that code of "take what you can from those you can exploit" is acceptable for underground artist, once you are a corporation with in-house legal counsel, it becomes less defensible.

    However you are absolutely right that different subcultures have their own informal ethics, and that law and metadata cannot encompass them. Moreover I think law and metadata should not encompass them. My post on Odetta ( describes how she is SCHOOLING a white interviewer on how norms of folk music cut across ideas of ownership or "ripping off" other artists.

    The only difference I see between us on this issue is that in this case I see Erkin Koray is an originator, and I don't see denying his name (or leaving breadcrumbs for the crate-diggers) as enough respect. This isn't because of law or metadata, it's simply an ethical judgment on my part.

    So why do I criticise Gonjasufi and Gaslamp? Well I do think once you get on a bigger platform, like a bigger label, you ought to think about the implications of that for others, including the people you sample. It's mad bourgie to just be like "sweet! I win! Warp cut me a check! nothing else has changed!"

    It's true that the norms in particular cultures/subcultures (like crate-digging or scratching the names off the label of your prized records) work against other cultures/subcultures, or other interests (reputation of the album artist) - but I recognize that as a dilemma.

    I'm not a relativist - to me, which subculture or culture wins out -- or which person wins out, is a question worth asking in itself. And in this case I'm simply more sympathetic to Koray, partly for creative reasons and perhaps for more reasons that have more to do with US artists' (no matter how underground they might be) treatment of artists from beyond its borders, especially nonwestern ones.

    Certain people will never win under informal norms (just like certain people will never win under current formal ones). Sometimes I don't care, but it depends on the person and the community. Challenging and interrogating the norms is a way to try to make better ones.

    Also, if Shazam uses the same files as Audible Magic, it will commit the same mistake. my point is that it is likely to make this mistake for reasons of power and privilege and politics.