This will be remembered a golden age, though whether we’re entering or exiting, whether it’s beginning or ending, depends entirely upon your point of view.
For some, we are entering a golden age of sampling — or rather, a golden age of sample clearance. For others, who are in many ways their direct adversaries, we are exiting a golden age of sampling, when some sounds could still be sampled without the automatic expense or ordeal of clearance.
What we might say instead is that the era of getting away with it — even as furtive and small-time as that might be — appears to be ending.
In the last decade, humans have trained algorithms and AI to store and identify passages of music that no musician could recognize. These vast databases are changing everything for everyone — both rights holders (who may or may not be the same person as the one who created the original music) and producers from hip hop, electronic music and genres that have roots in sample culture.
House music’s roots are in sample culture. Ours are too. We are however approaching a point where how we cover music may have legal repercussions for the producers of that music. It’s left us uneasy on how to proceed, from what had in the past been a set of informal guidelines on how to mention or address matters of sampling that now seem wholly inadequate.
The very notion of “sample culture” is going through rapid transformation, and it has almost nothing to do with old records or how they’re used or the people who originally made them.
GRAND THEFT AUDIO.
First we do have to mention one thing that is an unequivocal good for all parties involved. The internet linking up everyone and their grandmother is a huge advantage for the producer or label manager of today. Gone are the days when you needed insider cred to access special databases to find out who owns the rights to content. Labels back in the day would even go so far as to hire private investigators to find information about the vast majority of music that was never of interest to major labels or the artists on them. Quite a few clearance journeys for producers today begin by looking up names on Facebook, and a surprising number end that way, and successfully.
John Morales, who has done this as much as anyone in the last decade, described the process to me in a 2018 interview.
“Some of the tracks you can’t get cleared,” he said. “You send the label the list of the tracks you want to do, they tell you what you can do, what you can’t do, what they have and what they don’t have. Then you’re tracking down the last member of a band or a manager and you wind up finding people on Facebook of all places. For one track it took me two years to get a reply. It was the last track on the project and I was just about to drop it off because I couldn’t wait anymore. And [then] I got a reply: ‘Hey, sorry it took so long to get back to you. What’s up?’
“Five years of chasing people and doing the mixes and changing them and it’s all worth it.”
Barely a year after acquiring the rights to 10cc’s ‘The Worst Band in the World,’ the new owners made a fresh claim of copyright infringement via sampling against J Dilla — who had died 14 years earlier.
Of course, the same networked environment that enables you to find out who owns something also makes it easier for them to find out who is biting their shit. One of the more bizarre scandals I’ve covered for 5 Mag was the case of Flavio Lodetti, an Italian producer who had built a music career over a decade by appropriating other people’s tracks and submitting them — unaltered — to labels as his own work. His crime spree fell apart when he accidentally sent 7 tracks to Gábor Szeles, proprietor of Witty Tunes. What Lodetti didn’t know was Szeles was the producer who actually made the tracks Lodetti was submitting as his own work.
It might have been brushed aside as a Mihalis Safras-like “accident” if technology had not exposed the scope of Lodetti’s crime. A producer named DJ Magillian ran Lodetti’s entire catalog on Beatport through “several apps like Shazam and YouTube Content Manager,” he told 5 Mag. “The result was this sadness.”
MUSIC IS NOW A HEDGE FUND.
Grand theft audio aside, the internet has made it so that if a producer gets caught using an uncleared sample, their best bet is to take the L and try to recapture the magic again, doing it legally.
But what about when the rights-holder is someone no longer connected to a song’s creator, and is shaking down a beloved figure to obtain a share of a record made decades ago?
No artists — neither the sampler or the sampled — gain any benefit from it. These are purely spreadsheet transactions. It might not even be worth contesting if you’re an electronic music producer facing challenges to catalog tracks that no longer generate much revenue.
This increasingly common scenario was described by Mosi Reeves in “Sample Snitching,” published in January by Pitchfork. Focusing mainly on the hip hop community, Reeves described a 2020 lawsuit by the rightsholder of 10cc’s “The Worst Band In The World.” Their target was “Workinonit,” a track by J Dilla, who had died 14 years earlier. Moreover, the plaintiff is not a member of 10cc or one of their children or grandchildren, but something called “Music Sales Corporation,” which Reeves alleges only “acquired the right to administer the copyright for ‘The Worst Band in the World'” a year earlier, in 2019. The rights appeared to have been purchased, in part, to obtain settlements from artists (or in this case an artist’s estate) who sampled it decades ago.
The music industry is going through one of its period behind-the-scenes reorganizations right now. A big part of that is the emergence of “song management companies” with gigantic bank accounts gobbling up the publishing of both well-known and — increasingly — frequently-sampled songs. The most prominent SMC, Hipgnosis Song Fund, was founded in 2018 and in less than 3 years has acquired full or partial rights to an estimated 57,000 songs.
Think of this like a stock broker: if you can’t afford to buy J Dilla’s catalog, you can still buy 10cc and leverage it to own a stake in J Dilla’s catalog anyway.
This represents an exploitation of sample culture that no one anticipated. Songwriters have already been paid by the “song management companies” by the time the lawsuits are filed. This doesn’t add a penny to anyone’s royalty check except the song management company, their lawyers’ billable hours and their corporate balance sheets as they squeeze more revenue out of old and largely forgotten samples. It might not even be worth contesting if you’re an electronic music producer facing legal challenges to catalog tracks that no longer generate very much in sales.
This new development in the industry marks, I think, the passing of a golden age rather than the start of one. No artists — neither the sampler or the sampled — gain any benefit from it. These are purely spreadsheet transactions.
I don’t know if people are aware of how quickly things are changing, but they will soon, because the growth of these companies is rapid and their power has thus far been unchallenged.
When the algorithms and AI can’t suss out where a sample comes from, users and reviewers like us are training them.
One of the crucial points brought up by Reeves in Pitchfork was that fans, eager to figure out how their favorite tracks were built, were the ones blowing the whistle on which samples were used. What the algorithms have trouble sussing out, HotBaetz4U in New Jersey can guide them. Posts on WhoSampled and, in underground electronic music, sites like Discogs will follow.
But in this new reality of song management companies, fans are no longer helping just fans but providing the keepers of the spreadsheets with new revenue opportunities. And targets.
“If I’m the lawyer who represents James Brown’s publishing,” an unnamed label owner is quoted as telling Reeves, “I can go to WhoSampled.com, put in James Brown, and I’ve got millions of dollars’ worth of lawsuits that I can now strike. Once a song is on WhoSampled, it doesn’t matter how popular it is. Now there’s this website that just tells [rightsholders], ‘Oh, here they are.'”
NICE BASSLINE. SHAME IF SOMETHING HAPPENED TO IT…
Over the years 5 Mag has abided by a number of informal guidelines that collectively make up the culture of this place. When it comes to events, for instance, we generally do not publish information about loft parties or similar underground events unless the promoter specifically asks us to list it. Some people might miss out, the promoter might not think it’s that big of a deal but the idea of putting someone in law enforcement’s sights to list a party is abhorrent. I don’t know how it holds up in the long run, but “First, do no harm” is usually a good starting point.
When it comes to identifying samples in reviews and other materials, we use the same principle but in practice it’s been far more tricky. To be honest, it makes a mess of trying to write sensibly about disco edits, for instance, and whole realms of house built around samples. We usually err on the side of avoidance (though on rare occasions we’ve also called out extremely lazy or opportunistic producers for lifting whole passages out of disco tracks). Other factors play a role too. But that approach — making allowances for age and “common knowledge” — no longer seems as safe as it once did.
We don’t want to get anyone bankrupted. That probably won’t happen but the thought that the process of sharing music will ruin someone is pretty sickening.
5 Mag debuted a few months before J Dilla died and few months before “Workinonit” appeared. Who is willing to say what will happen 16 years later? Has some reference in a review to a disco bassline already been used to claim 100% of all revenue on YouTube? A rights-holder isn’t inclined to say how they caught you — just that they did and that your bill is long overdue.
How do you reconcile a mission to educate with a desire to avoid helping fatten up the bank accounts of some of the worst people in the world at the expense of other artists you’re supposed to be helping?
More important than what we think, what does the community think? The old customs really don’t seem to make much sense anymore. How do you think the media should handle this?
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Photo by Bradley Dunn.