The Economics of Sampling…

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This is certainly an interesting issue, politically speaking, because there’s no big bad villain on either side for people to rally against and take sides. It’s fan vs. his favorite musician; techie-information-ager vs. the anti-establishment artist that supplies the soundtrack to his web-surfing and blogging.

So, to follow up on Pete’s post, here’s my take:

In my reading of Madlib’s comments, he was basically saying, “If you like our music, stop posting those samples, because we’re going to get hit with lawsuits and have to stop making this type of music.”

Every Google-able blog post incrementally increases the chances that an enterprising lawyer or corporate research department latches on to an uncleared sample, and files suit. Sure, the information is all discoverable on the net, but that’s why this is the information age and people pay money for other people to organize all that information into an easily-digestible format. The organization of this information is vital (and ironically, copyright-able, as well). These blog posts are doing that work for free.

Whether you pay up front by clearing the sample, or at the back-end by settling a lawsuit, sampling can be expensive for artists like Madlib, and indeed cost-prohibitive.

That is the simple economics of this game, from what I understand. If these artists complied with the strict letter of the law, they couldn’t afford to make those beats.

Ivan actually concedes this point, and ultimately agrees to cease the behavior that Madlib complained about:

Point #5: Should Underground Artists Get Leniency on Copyright Laws?

I mentioned this argument before, and I think it’s one of the the most grounded and fair-minded of them all. Here’s a board member who expressed it quite wisely:

Well if you don’t want to hear anymore classic underground albums come out in the future then keep doing what you’re doing. Realistically there is no way they could have cleared all the samples on Madvillainy, and Lib is obviously trying to prevent any lawsuits now that would both effect him financially, and potential listeners aurally as the album would be withdrawn from stores. You state that you believe all samples should be cleared, but if that was the case 90% of the great underground albums wouldn’t exist.

This leads me to the conclusion that I will now no longer complete sample sets of albums by underground artists such as Madlib. Fair enough people? See? I can be reasonable!…

Now, he goes on to address the various other (sometimes immature) comments made on his blog, and engages many of the faces of this issue as moral and legal matter, but I wanted to highlight the above passage, just so that it does not get lost in cacophony of unrest. It’s understandable to want to defend one’s self under these circumstances, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the issue: assuming he meant what I said above, Madlib was probably right.

In point #5 Ivan expresses an entirely rational position that I actually share. I think it acknowledges that, whatever one thinks about the morality of Madlib’s behavior vis a vis the original artist, and the appropriateness of a fan’s ability to discuss that sampling, as fans, we wouldn’t want to do anything that would make it no longer economically feasible for Madlib to make his music. That risk is real, and the decision on the part of the fan is cold, and rational. So, if you value Madlib’s contribution to the art form over the satisfaction that you get as a fan from public discussion of sample credits, you realize that these blog posts might not be a good idea.

After so many words have been written on the topic, Ivan may be disappointed to see such an binary explanation, but I really think that the issue forces these writers to choose what is most important to them: their sample heavy blog posts or Madlib’s music.

I don’t think that Ivan’s work is wrong in any moral sense. Far from it–it’s excellent. After thinking about the issue for a while, I just think it’s unwise, in light of the above.

The real culprit is the law (“Redirect the anger against politicians and judges, very clever, Kyle!” –Ed.). But until the law changes, the hip-hop community has to get by, and we need good music like Madlib’s to keep the art alive.

For what it’s worth, I think that an enterprising lawyer from our generation will one day convince a judge that sampling is form of “fair use”, making permission from the copyright holder unnecessary. I’m sure this has been argued unsuccessfully in the past (I haven’t done the research), but I’m hoping that as the hip-hop generation populates the legal culture, our attitudes might change, and make this argument more palatable. This might actually become a research project for me.

But if it happens, it is going to be intelligent, articulate folks like Ivan that make a difference… and this discussion is only priming the pump for that future endeavor. Let’s make it happen.

PS: Many of my references to Ivan and Madlib were merely shorthand, as this debate involves many other similarly-situated parties; pardon my laziness, Ivan.

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2 Responses to “The Economics of Sampling…”

  1. Clyde S. Says:

    Aside from the fact that Madlib does use email/internet and doesn’t own a computer … (this is a fact) … I think Ivan misses the point that this is not about secrecy or disdain for “sharing”, it’s a simple reality of making hip-hop. You recognize this, but righteous Ivan doesnt.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I think its great what you are doing and the conclusion you came to by not posting were uderground artist got their samples from. If a artist post the sample source inside the liner notes then cool, we can look it up ourselves and post without the artist recieving any legal backlash since they cleared the sample. Not every underground or conscious artist has a budget like Common or Kanye. Gangstarr, Tribe, De La, and Slum are a prime example of that. And its going to be even more difficult to expect them to keep making great music with limited resources by exposing their sources. Alot of them are just doing what they love and are just trying to survive of it. Isnt that what Hip Hop is, making something out of nothing and making it work?

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