Sampling Music Debate

1/22/10 Robleh Wais

I watched a documentary a few days ago about the relatively new development in this century of sampling music. Sampling is the widespread process of taking digital snippets of recorded music and inserting them into another recorded work. This process has become so prevalent in the world of hip-hop and rap music that artists whom have had their works sampled have begun to sue these musicians. The program presented the issue from the viewpoints of both sides. As I watched a philosophic question emerged. Is this process somehow wrong? I am of two minds on this issue. I want to agree that a creative work that an artist has produced should be associated with that artist. But, I also think that this new mixing process is itself a creative pursue which has immense fecundity.

I am leaning toward the view that sampling is not infringement of the copyright possession of artists. My reasons are quite different than what might be expected. The artists are suing for their lost of income from the sales of works using their content and not giving them royalties. It's a pity that, this is what it's really all about: MONEY--That beastly scourge again. Most will agree that a creative work an artist makes should be known to be made by that artist not another, otherwise sampling amounts to plagiarism.On the other hand, these artists shouldn't be concerned with who will make money off their works. I'm moralizing now, and we can't have any of that, so let's examine what sampling begets.

Variations on a theme is a commonly recognized form of human creativity. Sampling is in large part is doing just that. This variance on themes opens a tremendous potential for growth in musical expression. In almost all our endeavors (artistic or otherwise) some form of admixture of two or more elements is a common way to effect creation. So why are these greedy musicians bellyaching when young, fresh, hip new artists borrow from them? They have a legitimate complaint when they are not given credit for being the source of a work, but they should be honored their creative input is being used not riled.

This new method to music making I welcome, embrace and downright rave about. A good example I am listening to now. A sample version of the Gilligan's Island TV theme with Led Zepplin's Stairway to Heaven called Stairway to Gilligan's Island is a perfect example of what we mathematicians would call composite mapping. That is taking one function and embedding it in another, thereby creating a NEW function. I can't decide if this admixture in Stairway to Gilligan's Island is parody or a serious new creation. At any rate, I like the result. both songs separately were appealling to me, and when they are mixed, I find a new, strange, silly but pleasing sound to them.I wonder how anybody could want to stop this kind of thing. The Led Zeppelin song was inscrutable in the 70's, the result of reefer, LSD, heroin usages by drug-addicted young white boys. As to the song itself, I dug the theme and trite lyrics of the TV theme as a 13 year old, but even as child I knew it was again the corny intro to a TV sit-com. But, when somebody puts both together, something so new and different results. It's just what artistic creation is all about. Listening to this piece, I don't know whether to laugh or expound on its incredible style.So, look at this way: if we can mix A and B, to get C then why not B, C and A to get D and then take that D back with A and get who knows what? See what I mean, sampling is a fertile source for creative expression. Of course there is bad sampling that doesn't create anything new and interesting to our hungry human minds, but that isn't the point. Sampling as a new technological device augments musical creativity.Think of all the kids that have never heard the original to the mix Stairway to Gilligan's Island this will be their starting point and from here they might conceive a newer version that mixes in other still to be known musical elements. The question of who should be given the credit for being the artificer of a work that is mixed is not always clear.An artist that samples the works of others and uses it with their permission does create a new work that should be considered his or her own creation. If not that, at least this artist should be attributed a shared status with the original artist.

I have a personal example of this experience. Back in 1996, I worked as a computer software specialist to a research psychologist at a large university. He was studying drug addiction and writing a book on the subject. His knowledge of the Microsoft suite applications was limited. He relied on me to create and maintain a variety of software applications: spreadsheets for analyses, a database to collect information from the spreadsheets and lastly creating PowerPoint presentations to show his results to members of the research center during their monthly meetings. One day he drew by hand a conceptual model he wanted to have published in the research center's annual report. He asked me if I could create this in some MS application. I looked at and quickly said: Yeah Ron, I can do this, in fact this'll be easy.Well, it turned out not to be as easy as I thought. I used PowerPoint at first, but he didn't like the result. I tried several techniques in PowerPoint, but none helped me to get the image he wanted. Next, I searched the web and finally found an ideal graphical imaging program for the job. Back then it was easy because the Net was in its infancy and so very many programs were free. Though, this was one was not free. He had the research center purchase the software and I set to work making it look like his hand drawing. After about 2 weeks of creating draft after draft and discussing it with him and then modifying, recreating, modifying, and enhancing it in many different ways it was perfect in his estimation.I put the final touches on it, including my name as the image designer and emailed the output to him. Here is where he saw red.Not five minutes after he got the email, he in was in my office asking me why my name was on the image as the designer. I was appalled to think he would even ask such a thing. I told him that I had help create the image he specified, and should be given credit as being part of the creative process. Well, well, well Ron couldn't agree with that. He explained that it was his idea, he had created the image from his own mind and I was merely the means to the fruition of this end. I was now not just shocked, but angered. I responded that he was considering me no more than the inanimate device like the software in the process, which was of course not true. I responded half-questioningly, he may well have had the idea but could not have produced it without my technical expertise to make it. He shook his head and softened his stance. He said that my help was not negligible, but not the principal contribution in making the image. He went on to explain that I was just a minor part of the process. I followed his instructions in making the image, but he had directed the creation and thus I couldn't be given any credit as being part of the creative process. I pointed out in turn, that many times I directed the process due his lack of knowledge in graphical software and told him what should be where and how large this or that element should be or I had chosen the contrast color. I reminded him of the half a day I spent getting the aspect ratio right for the lower part of the diagram and queried him on what he was trying to show. Furthermore, I suggested how it could be and should be shown. All of this amounts to more than minor contributions to the creative process, right? Rolling his eyes, he still maintained that even with this involvement, the image created he had conceived not me! A heated argument was developing , and I asked him point blank: Ron, could you have made this image WITHOUT my help? No, I couldn't but, I could have had another person with your software skills do the same thing. At this point, I was mad enough to throw him a left hook, but suppressed my rage and offered an argument based on European renaissance artists. I pointed out that great portraiture during this period was commissioned by noblemen, kings and princes.They would describe in detail how they would like their likenesses painted and the painter would then create these images. I concluded by saying: I'm sure you'll agree Ron nobody today would say a work by say..uh Rembrandt's paintings of royal families were actually the work of those families? At first, this argument didn't seem to get through to him. He actually responded by saying: Well in that case Robleh, your name should be on the image and not mine.I mean are you comparing yourself to Rembrandt? This isn't the same as a 15th century renaissance artwork. I agreed the analogy was not exact, but the idea was the same. He replied that he'd have to think about it and would let me know by the next day. I was still in anger mode and told him, if he wanted to replace me, he could call my agency and I would be happy to end my assignment with the research center. I bluffed too. I said that I actually had another job coming up. This wasn't a lie, I had applied for a better position with another agency, but wasn't sure if I'd get it. Nevertheless, Ron backed off, and using his psychology training, told me I shouldn't get so combative especially when I was winning the disagreement. I thought, I was and calmed down. The next day, he agreed I should be listed as the designer below the image in the annual report.

What the exchange above shows is the indeterminate status of whom should be given credit for a creative work. In this case, it was collaborative process and that status should have been shared. With this in mind, then should the creations of sampling artists that use the previous works of others in their own be given the same status? If this is the case, we should have a long trail of artists that build their art on the works of others. And yes, I do think this should happen. So, an artist creates work A, then the next artist incorporates and creates B, and the next C, and the credit should be a continuing list of A,B, C...etc. This process would lead to an explosion of creative development. In my personal example, Ron and I were directly communicating, while those that sample music don't have that kind of collaboration, the idea is the same.

It's even greater than what I've discussed above. I listen to Brazilian music every day. One of my favorite Brazilian artists is Ed Motta. He's a famous Brazilian soul music singer-composer that sings in Portuguese, yet his style is unmistakably like the genre of African-American called: R&B. If you heard him, you'd swear you were listening to the Motown sound in Portuguese. The question becomes: Is Ed Motta somehow stealing African-American R&B music when he uses the high falsetto and growling groans of his idols like: James Brown, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson? Every song he sings in is in his native Portuguese, he wrote and produced them.They are new recordings but they use the stylistic elements of Black American music. Isn't he sampling our American cultural music and mixing in Brazilian musical style to create something new. Should somebody sue him for doing this? Why that's absurd isn't it? I marvel at most of his works, songs like Fora da Lei (outside the Law) and Coisas Naturais (Natural Things) are masterpieces in themselves, yet they borrow from African-American musical style deeply. Motta is doing what so many modern artists are: they are mixing genres to create new themes. Taking it further, when artists worldwide use the style of Raggae to create songs in their own cultural idioms, do we demand they pay the Jamaican nation a royalty? The absurdity of this would make any Rastafarian laugh. Of course not! I've heard Japanese, French, several West African and Southern African versions of Raggae music and never once did I think: they're stealing that style. Granted these examples don't involve sampling the actual content of other artists creations. Nevertheless, when we draw upon the artistic cultural expressions of others, we are doing the same thing as the sampling artists. This is what we do in almost every area of human endeavor. Scientists that review the conclusions of earlier scientists and incorporate their findings into new theories are in a sense 'sampling'. For instance, mathematicians that use the theoretic structure of other mathematicians' proof schema are 'sampling' their structure. If they use it to further build new theoretic structure, they have appropriated the knowledge of others in their own designs. Not one mathematician would say: those guys stole that! They wouldn't because they know this is how mathematics grows. Provided the new scholars cite the previous theoretic structure, their new theory is reviewed scrutinized and accepted if it's valid. But, isn't this a kind of sampling?

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What is wrong with sampling? There is the misperception that the music of others embedded in a new work is somehow stealing that music, but as I've explained this isn't the case. Furthermore, this process is something we do all the time in all our creative activities. What is bad about sampling is simply a matter of money-making. Who gets what money for the music that is sold to the listening public is what the debate is about in the end.