Tuesday 3 March 2009

Student Diary - Sampling and Music Law

I made it into class on Saturday morning despite feeling a little worse for wear (self induced admittedly!), and we continued our foray into the art of sampling. This week we went over the complex legal issues associated with sampling and royalties in the music industry, looking at some famous legal cases from down the years.

The topic of music and law is so huge that it could be a whole course in itself (and probably is somewhere), so we really only scratched the surface in a few hours but it was still very useful to get a concise overview and some good advice from my tutor Ian. He has felt the cost of carelessness with regards to copyrighting in his own career, losing out on large sums due to not protecting the rights of some of his past productions. And on the flip-side, royalties from some relatively small (but sensibly protected) projects from which he did not necessarily expect to make much money are continuing to tick over and exceed those expectations.

If you are going to use samples, it is important to have some understanding of the consequences of your actions and the processes through which you can protect yourself. Of course if you are creating music using all your own sounds and original ideas then you have nothing to worry about... but if you do become successful enough to influence other artists, then weeding out all those who have used your work without your permission can be a lucrative pursuit, which is why at one stage Michael Jackson went as far as to employ a whole team of 'musicologists' to do so for him!

Having heard some snippets from Ian's impressive collection of the most sampled tracks, I began to appreciate just how influential funk in particular was to countless other genres. It is staggering how many well known contemporary tracks are almost completely based on old ones, often not just the bassline being copied but the melody and percussion as well. We questioned should discovering that the core elements of a song you love were in fact created by someone else, diminish your estimations of the producer doing the sampling? The answer in Ian's opinion was no. What sets exceptional producers apart is an ability to pick out something in a lesser known track that they think has the potential to appeal to the masses and then being able to re-interpret it for a new audience. After all they are called ‘producers’ rather than 'musicians'.

Some might argue that the main ingredient of a good producer's armoury is this deep understanding of music, old and new, and the ability to link ideas from the past to the present. That is why sampling is in such prominent use and has lead to so many of contemporary music's biggest hits.

The sampling classes have inspired me to open my ears to a wider variety of music again. I have always liked most genres, but since I started DJing, I have perhaps started to neglect listening to the things that wouldn't fit in with my 4/4 sets. Such rigidity could be a bad habit to get into if I want my productions to reflect how I have been influenced by a broad musical spectrum. So I reckon it's time to dig out those old jazz, funk and alternative CDs that have been gathering dust on my shelves and give them another listen. I am not sure whether I will use actual samples in my own tracks or not, especially to the extent that some established producers do... I don't think I can afford to risk becoming embroiled in extensive legal battles anytime soon! However I will make more of an effort to draw inspiration from further afield than simply the other DJs I hear in the clubs and on the radio.

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