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Remix Culture, Music Sampling: Creative or Criminal?

Music Sampling

Kurt Cobain on the left, Jay-Z on the right.

“Sampling,” or taking a portion of someone else’s work and incorporating it into your own, is something that everyone is exposed to often, especially in the digital age in regards to music. Although sampling is relevant in all genres resulting in all people experiencing it, they may not be aware of this practice. The majority of people today have heard Holy Grail by Jay Z featuring Justin Timberlake, which features the lyrics “and we all just entertainers, and we’re stupid, and contagious, now we all just entertainers,” sampled from Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. While there are legal and illegal ways of going about sampling music from other artists, the idea is the same; a portion of one artist’s work is used in another artist’s work.
Sampling is so prevalent in music today that there are websites that document it in music. One website, called Who Sampled, “discovers direct connections among over 236,000 songs and 83,000 artists, in multiple different genres.



Different Ways to Sample

According to the Wikipedia page for sampling, there are different types of samples. The first is looping. The percussion sections of many current songs are actually a mix of samples of beats put together. There are libraries of short samples available for this purpose. Percussion is the type of sample that is typically looped, but looping is not limited to only these types of samples. Music can have loops of other types of sounds. There is software that focuses in looping for songs.
Another type of sample is a musical instrument sample, which is usually just a single note, compared to loops, which are usually phrases. These types of samples can be played back at any pitch, and are used as bases for sounds. Sometimes, samples used in musical instruments have looped aspects. An instrument that sustains a note indefinitely, such as a pipe organ, does not need to be continuously played. The note can be played once, and then looped, since the sound never changes.

A third kind of sample is resampled layers of sounds generated by a music workstation. A workstation can let the user sample layers of sounds so they can be played together. For example, a piano, guitar, and voice can be played together instead of as three separate things. This allows for room for added sounds.

A fourth way to sample is recordings and popular examples, which is when an artist uses a well-known phrase or part of another song. For example, Jay-Z using the popular Nirvana lyric.

Sampling Laws?

Although Jay-Z was given permission to use Nirvana’s lyrics eventually, it was discovered in a Huffington Post interview with Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain’s wife who owns the Nirvana catalogue following Cobain’s death in 1994, that “they used it [the lyrics] without asking.” Love describes this as “kind of nervy but the business side has been taken care of so it’s fine.” With “remix culture” changing the way music is created, laws need to be changed to fit these alterations. While Love granted them permission eventually, other artists might not be so forgiving. In the interview, Love also says, “I’m letting Jay-Z use lyrics – Frances [Cobain and Love’s daughter] would freak if she knew this,” revealing that if the decision to let Jay-Z use lyrics were up to someone else, the song would have not sounded the same. Jay-Z clearly planned to use the lyrics with or without permission, showing the need for revised laws.

djSampling is controversial both legally and morally. Taking another artist’s work and taking credit is seen (to some) as plagiarism. Some artist sample from their own songs, using a beat to construct a beat for another song, which can be seen as taking the easy way out of producing a song. More important are the legal aspects of sampling.

Laws need to change to fit the rise in popularity of sampling, because the lack of laws surrounding the issue currently is not effective. Sampling became especially popular in the 1970’s when hip-hop and DJs became increasingly popular. DJs experimented with vinyl records, different turntables, and an audio mixer. Then when electronic music became popular in the 1980s, sampling became even more prevalent. It was even easier to lift parts from songs digitally. While a sampler used to be a piece of hardware, it’s now a computer program, making it even easier to sample. Now, sampling is especially popular in hip-hop music, where artists use parts of other songs.

Are Copyright Laws Stuck in the Past?

Many, including sciencefriday.com, question how crediting samples should work, considering how mainstream it has become. They question how much of an artist’s work should someone else be able to use, and how they should go about paying for it. Are copyright laws not adapting to the change in music production, or “stuck in the age of analog”?

Mash-ups of songs, or “a blend of two or more pre-recorded songs,” are also increasingly popular, although this has done nothing to change the legality of using another artist’s content. Artists who choose to create content that samples from another artist’s work face the possibility of legal issues. Because of the lack of legal clarity, musicians are unsure of how much they can sample, what the conditions of using a sample in their own song is in terms of selling that song, and if it is alright to rerecord another artist’s song and then take a sample of that.

Even songs that do not blatantly sample other songs can be scrutinized. Making “soundalike” songs is also becoming increasingly popular, and songs written in the style of another artist or song are examined. For example, when Katy Perry released the song Roar, many people criticized it for sounding too much like Sara Bareilles’ Brave. Although the piano similarities and style of the two songs is extremely similar, there are no laws preventing them both from being on the “Hot 100 page” in Billboard at the same time. The similarities between these two songs were so clear, that the artists themselves admitted to the similarities, and audiences of both artists began to make strong comparison videos.

YouTube user Nathan Parrett posted a video of him and a friend covering both Brave and Roar, highlighting the similarities. Laws are not specific enough to cover if these strong similarities are okay, or even if Parrett’s video is legal, which is confusing to artists who use remix culture, specifically sampling, in their content.

In spite of this legal confusion, there only seems to be an increase in artists sampling to make mash-ups and similar music. The major concern is that Congress seems to have not taken any steps to clarifying laws surrounding this issue, leaving artists and content creators unsure of what is okay and legal.

This leaves many questioning the legality of covers and remixes of existing songs posted by non-professional singers and artists on websites such as YouTube and Soundcloud.

This resonates with me personally, being a member of a university a cappella singing group that does covers of songs. Is it okay for us to do these covers, and more importantly, post them on the Internet? Although we do not receive money and are not considered professional, is it against the unclear copyright law?


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