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 Ever since music first became a product of value, people have been arguing about how it should be made and sometimes tried to undermine any new ways of making it, potentially for fear of their old way being destroyed, and the old musicians being without a job. Possibly the biggest of these arguments, at least in the last decade, has been over sampling. Is it ethical? Does it require skill?  Ultimately, should we really care? 

First, there is the matter of Skream’s recent mishaps with disco, which have brought the issues surrounding sampling in to discussion again.  Skream went disco earlier this year, riding the wave of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories success straight into a catastrophic Boiler Room set, which culminated in him throwing a CDJ into the crowd and the rest of it being committed to repressed memories.  Many people have enjoyed his more sober ventures into the disco genre, but others (myself included) have been more dubious about it. These doubts were confirmed on Friday (29th November), when harderbloggerfaster published an article noting how similar his recent remixes for Duke Dumont are to a sample pack that Ghosts of Venice found. This is by no means an isolated case, however there is definitely an element of deceit as Skream was quoted at the start of the disco phase saying: ‘the main thing about it is that there are no samples‘.

Skream has yet to respond to the debacle, so I’ll take it upon myself to address the issues…

Is it ethical?

Unfortunately there is no clear answer to this one; it really depends on the sample being used and the permission granted for it.  If it’s a self-recorded sample, i.e. a field recording, then it is definitely ethical, as no one owns the rights to sounds heard in nature, a city or even banging on a light bulb (thanks to Delia Derbyshire). If it’s a sample of another song, then as long as the original artist grants permission, and the sampled track is referenced then it’s also fine.  However, sample packs and loop libraries are a little different. Pretty much all of them are royalty free, meaning you never need to seek permission for them and that they don’t need to be referenced in any way.  In terms of ‘stealing’ others’ work, they’re in the clear.

In Skream’s case, if he is using sample packs, the ethical issue is really with his deception – he lied to his listeners and his peers, which is another debate entirely.

 

Does it require skill?

Back in the old days, before the internet, there were no sample packs and sampled music usually came in two forms; experimental music and hip-hop. The skill of experimental sampling was the use of recording equipment, going out into the ‘field’, or possibly just a store cupboard, and finding a sound you liked and recording it, then manipulating it using tape loops and eventually forming a composition from it. This definitely took skill.

Hip-hop’s style of sampling has always attracted slight controversy. This is because it’s essentially finding a beat or hook that you like and using it as the backing for your track. The early pioneers of the genre made sure there was skill involved by applying the following unwritten rules:

1.     You can’t sample records that aren’t at least ten years old.

2.     You can’t sample from reissues.

3.     You can’t sample another hip-hop record.

4.     You can only sample from vinyl.

This essentially meant that producers couldn’t sample a song that was in the charts or had some form of popularity to try and boost the popularity of their own productions.  The same goes for reissues as they generally occur due a sudden surge in demand for a record.  You had to actually do the sampling yourself; by sampling another hip-hop record, someone else had already done the legwork for you in finding and recording the sample (which sounds a lot like the ease of sample packs to me). The final rule – using only vinyl – meant there was further skill required, such as beat matching, and getting the needle to drop in just the right place to capture the only 4-bars of exposed drums in the whole song, or that one vocal cadence that’s already taken about 200 attempts to record perfectly.

Now, comparatively, it may seem like I’m saying using sample packs involves no skill.  However, it does involve one: the very important skill of remembering your bank account details. After that, you’ve got pretty much limitless access to as many loops and sounds as you could want, to put in an order that you like the most, which could be done by pretty much anyone who’s compiled a playlist that they like at some point in their life, except this time the songs in the playlist are loops and the playlist only needs to be about 3-5 minutes long. In the end though:

 

Does it matter?

I feel that the answer is a definite yes; it occurs too often in music these days.  I’d go so far as to say it needs to be stopped by eliminating the suppliers of the sample packs.  On harderbloggerfaster’s Skream article there are many comments saying things like ‘As long as it sounds good, why do people care?’ and ‘Who cares? There are bigger things happening in the world’.  It’s much like saying ‘Why should steroids be banned in athletics?  If they run fast then that’s surely all that matters’.  Our outcry at cheating sportspeople does not extend to their equivalent in music.

We’ve lost a sense of critical analysis in music.  When rock was the staple of the music industry, the majority of people listened to better technical guitar players, or the more skilled drummers… the list goes on.  Although there were 3-chord-bands such as Status Quo (which, for me, is what sample packs are for electronic music), one at least knew their method of producing their music – you can watch their fingers form the three chords when they play.  Status Quo built a lovable notoriety from Rossi’s ‘keep it simple’ approach; they were the astonishing exception from, and reaction to, progressive rock, and they remain honest and humble about it.  In today’s electronic music, things are more deceptive and malicious.

So yes, it does matter: the means should justify the end and not the other way round.  Ideally, next time you hear a song you like, think to yourself: “could I do better?”.  If the answer is yes, then do so, and spare a superstar an ego boost that no one wants them to get.  If a career change is unrealistic, we can at least be more aware, for example – if an artist suddenly has a massive change of style, it could well suggest that they’ve started using sample packs, or that they were before… or maybe even both times!

Sampling can be legitimate and creative, when there’s evidence of effort, respect and honesty in the process.  Sample packs, on the other hand, remove this effort and creativity, without a disclaimer that they’re doing do.  I’d argue their usage could lead to a stagnation in music, with no new input to the scene because the big corporations dole out their sample packs for their chosen genres of the day.  The control on what we listen to tightens… It may not be a disastrous problem at the moment, but unless we are aware that it occurs, and that it’s not, it’s going to get a lot bigger.

Or maybe I’m just being cynical.  After all, as Syndrome said in The Incredibles: ‘If everyone’s super. No one’s super‘.  In this case, meaning that if everyone’s a super producer using sample packs, people are going to get bored and an unintended surge in creativity could occur some time in the future…  Whatever happens, it’s going to get worse before it gets better, unless swift action is taken.

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