Sampling… Why has it got to be so damn tough?

23 May

Look out! It's THE MAN............. and woman....... action figures.

Hey folks,

Just cruising the world of WordPress and I came onto this cool interview with Kembrew McLeod who has written a bit about sampling: the culture and the way “the man” always tries to hold us down.  Not that I ever sample.  No sirree, Mr. Record Label Man – I never, ever ever sample. Nope. Uh uh…

I think of sampling as a bit of a post-modern art form.  I mean, it’s all about reworking the old and challenging accepted norms of culture.  Is there any more dominant form of cultural ephemera than music?  It typifies entire eras of human existence across the entire globe.  No culture has ever been without music.  Copyright law doesn’t only stifle creativity and musical innovation, it actually stifles cultural development.

And then there’s the folks who adopt the “That isn’t making music, that’s just stealing music from someone else” attitude.  Well… sorry, guys, if your perspective on music is that narrow then the chances are you don’t know what music is anyway.  Granted, I’m not the sort of person who staunchly declares that producing music is harder than playing your own instruments – it’s not.  But, composing through sampling is not easier, either.  They are both hard.  And they are both really, really hard to do well.  So-called “proper musicians” that lord their instrumentation over sampling producers are mostly amateurish. Just because you can hold an instrument, maybe hammer out a few chords – that doesn’t make you a good composer or player.  The same goes for a lot of producers, too.  Just because you can record something, loop it and put drums on it – that doesn’t make you something to write home about.

But copyright isn’t really about any of these arguments.  It’s about ownership of music and a person’s entitlement to be paid when someone else capitalises upon their hard work.  In this respect, I am somewhat divided.  It all comes down to the nature of the sample that is used.  Should Queen have been paid when Vanilla Ice based all of Ice Ice Baby around their bassline?  Yes.  Take the bassline out and there’s really nothing left of the song.  In that instance, he’s really using their work like they’re session musicians.  Would you ask a professional bass player to play on a recording in a studio and then not pay them? No.

But a great many songs based on samples are not relying on a musical progression that makes up 90% of the song (sure, lazy/wealthy/unethical producers do that in an attempt to ride the popularity of the original sample… but that’s greed, not art).  Many of the most artful sample-based tracks will incorporate numerous (sometimes hundreds) of samples into a single track – layering, chopping between, effecting and generally messing up.  Some samples are so obscure that no one knows who owns the material let alone is able to acquire clearance.

And that brings me to my final point – do you know how expensive it is to clear samples?

For a start, you are going to struggle to do it on your own unless you are already well established and connected within the major recording industry.  Normal lowlifes like the rest of us are going to need a sample clearance company.  The going rate for a company to even ATTEMPT to clear a sample is about US$250 per sample (whether it’s 1 minute long or half a second long).

Consider how many samples an average hip hop record uses – let’s say the classic Enter the Wutang.  I haven’t counted but I reckon a conservative estimate would be 4 to 6 samples per track (very conservative).  So they’re looking at 50 to 70 or so samples for the album.  70 x $250 = $17,500… and remember, this is just to get the company to ATTEMPT to clear the sample.  Savvy music execs know very well that the nobody producer of today could flip an underground hit and sell over 100,000 records tomorrow without ever reaching the charts (that takes into account radio play where, despite it’s illegality, payola still rules).  Most major labels would kill for a B-list stable of artists that could sell 100,000 units.  Of course, if you can shift that amount then you’ll see next to no dosh if you’re with a major – even though it’s stands to make you very good money as an independent.  My point is, if they can’t sign the act themselves then they’ll make them pay through the nose for any samples from their copyrighted material (it actually belongs to publishing houses, but many of these are subsidiaries of major labels).

Again, an obscure sample from some short run pressing by a funk group that never toured outside of their home state in 1968 is probably going to set you back at least $3000 + ongoing royalties.  Let’s imagine that the Wu stuck to obscure recordings for their album (which they really didnt).  Full clearance of all samples would set them back 70 x 3000 = $210,000 upfront.  On top of that, the 50% of royalties that goes towards the musical part of an album would entirely go to the sampled artists – even if there are live instruments and original parts being played.  If you want to use the sample, unfortunately, you have to play by the copyright holders rules – and they often stipulate that they want the full share of royalties for the musical portion of a recording.

All of this is quite dire.  You can really feel the salt in your wounds when you realise that much of this pie-sharing occurs without the knowledge of the original musicians at all.  The sad truth is, many musicians don’t own the publishing rights to the work that they concieved, wrote and performed.  So – you sample a bit of Isaac Hayes and feel good because you showed him the respect of paying for your sample clearance but UH OH! He doesn’t see a cent of the money because he sold his rights years ago when he went bankrupt.  Some nameless face with no musical ability has managed to leech off both your talent and Mr. Hayes’!

The sum total of all this money moving is this: new artists simply can’t afford to make sample-based music.  “Fine,” I hear you say. “Then let them play their own instruments.”  And well you may hold that opinion, too, but reflect for a moment on my claim from the start of this post.  What if sample-based music is, in fact, a post-modern art that challenges our assumptions about cultural norms?  Or, more explicitly perhaps, ask yourself this –  who would you rather have change society into the future: music makers or copyright owners?



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