I just watched a movie called Copyright Criminals that I think is essential viewing for anyone who enjoys this blog. (Anyone curious can check it out on Netflix streaming.) It should come as no surprise to anyone who reads my posts on a regular basis that I think sampling is not only OK, but a normal part of the creative process. Some of my favorite things that I post on this blog are mash-ups, remixes, covers and fan videos, where someone takes a song and mashes up video from some another source that’s not their own to make something new, unique and different. You get the comfort and familiarity that comes from hearing something familiar, and yet you also get the rush that comes from hearing something brand new and different. What’s not to love about that?
Copyright Criminals is a documentary about sampling and how copyright law has essentially put a huge restriction on an entirely new form of music, one that–it should be noted–was originated primarily by people of African-American decent. Despite the fact that people have been stealing ideas from each other for as long as there have been ideas to steal, for some reason it’s especially wrong when it comes in the form of sampling, and more specifically in the form of hip-hop/rap. Is it just a coincidence that one in six people in prison right now are there for marijuana, and that the vast majority of those people happen to also be black? The war on drugs and on sampling seems to come off as flat out racism from our older, white bureaucracy.
The central point of Copyright Criminals is that there is some seriously backwards thinking going on when it comes to copyright law. As the documentary points out, it’s now cheaper to cover a song than it is to sample a 3 second clip from the same song. In what universe does that make sense? Copyright Criminals also does a great job of showing how when someone does pay the rights to use a sample, rarely, if ever, is it the musician that is being sampled who gets the big payday. Most of the time these are session musicians who are being sampled, who were only ever paid for the session work and nothing more, and in fact the people who are making the big bucks on these samples are the labels and publishers who own the rights to most of these songs and nothing to do with the actual creation of them.
Another point the documentary makes is that The Grey Album, Danger Mouse’s mash-up of Jay-Z’s The Black Album and The Beatles’ The White Album, may have been the biggest album of 2004, but no one made a dime from it. How and why does this make sense? The album is arguably a work of genius and the Beatles were known to have sampled music on their albums (The White Album’s “Revolution No. 9” is made entirely of samples) so the fact that no one sat down to make a deal to release this album and make some money off of it shows their complete and utter lack of forward thinking.
If you’re interested in this issue, you should also watch this amazing web documentary called Everything Is A Remix. You can see Part One below, and watch the other three parts here. This extremely well-made and researched documentary goes on to show how all human creativity is essentially taking something else’s idea that’s already been done and figuring out a new way to make it better. As Part One shows, Led Zeppelin flat-out ripped off quite a few different artists, and yet they’re known today as one of the most original rock bands that ever lived. Why is that? Because they took something good and made it better, made it amazing, really. That’s what sampling is. No one would say that an early hip-hop song is the same thing as a James Brown song, and yet many of those early hip-hop artists were sued for essentially ripping off James Brown. Because they didn’t physically play the drums the were sampling, does that make their art any less original? An artist I frequently feature on this blog is Pogo, who frequently takes samples from Disney films and makes songs from them. Would you say he’s ripping off Disney, or is he creating something original and new? I would, of course, go with the latter. And it should be noted that pretty much every successful Disney film ever made was basically a rip-off of someone else’s idea. Does that diminish Disney’s legacy? Should it?