Music Sampling's Slippery Slope

Elly Zulaikha
July 10, 2020
3 minutes

Music is always evolving rapidly and mostly at a frightening rate. It has gone from the kaleidoscopic revolution in the 60s and now testing new waters with EDM and other experimental kinds of music. Arguably, music has been heavily influenced by, if not relied a lot on the past, for paying homage and finding inspiration. Thus, this brings us to the question: has music sampling always been a slippery slope? Read on to find out more.

How does music sampling work?

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For starters, sampling is the recycled and reused portion (or sample) of a sound recording found in another recording. Samples may contain elements like rhythm, melody, speech, sounds, or the entire bar of music, which is then layered, equalized, sped up, or slowed down or entirely manipulated. 

Depending on the direction of recording a sound engineer envisions, sampling is usually done by using a combination of hardware (samplers) or software as a digital audio workstation.

The evolution of sampling music

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One of the earliest samplings happened back in the 1940s. Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, for instance, began their “musique concrète” (recorded sounds as raw material) collaboration. This was before tape recorders existed, so they used disc cutters to produce unique sound collages. Their collaboration was considered a breakthrough back then, as they used sounds of trains and mechanical noises.  

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Soon, many artists followed suit. Although in the jazz community, musicians have always borrowed each others’ riffs, it wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 80s that sampling reached new heights with hip hop. DJs started manipulating vinyl records they played and at first, it was a popular trend to play and replay the breaks in funk music, due to how much crowds loved to dance to these parts. 

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Kool DJ Herc is credited with starting this practice, whereas DJ Grandmaster Flash further perfected the techniques, such as turning the records manually and changing turntable speeds.

Despite hip hop’s heavy reliance on sampling, we can see other music genres also use sampling, albeit liberally.

Inspiration versus plagiarism

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Where an imitation is an act of flattery, sampling dangerously runs in the name of inspiration and plagiarism. Although there are cases when sampling is used to cover the lack of creativity in producers and songwriters, sampling actually came as a genuine form of paying homage to original works. 

Of course, this case isn't always viewed nicely by record labels, who prefer the former, to bring forth as legal action hence making sampling lawsuits expensive. 

Before this, musicians were expected to craft their own music alongside a team of trusted collaborators. Nowadays, music creation is a ceaseless process of crafty annexation. Simply said, artists are expected to be a “jack of all trades”, not just “a master of one or two”. As emerging trends quickly come and go, the pressure to find and produce “fresh” and “innovative” sounds is something many artists are learning to walk on this line. 

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Of course, the gold rush in this can be costly for artists who get caught in complex lawsuits, which are often pursued by music labels who’d probably accuse an artist of plagiarising at least four different songs that mostly hailed under their label. But you need to see this as a case-by-case basis.

It’s almost as if everyone agreed that borrowing in music is stricter than ever.

Legal actions versus the creative pursuit

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Initially, the purchase of rights to sample a song was relatively modest. But as sampling practices became widespread, so too this grew, and additional fees called rollover rates were now added to the costs depending on how many units were sold. 

This pretty much complicates matters for artists as they had to pay two different copyright holders for the same song: the copyright owner of the music (the composition) and the copyright owner of the actual recording. One group, among many that are particularly affected by this, is Public Enemy, where they had to change the group’s sound as a result of restrictive copyright rules. 

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Of course with this problem in mind, this brings everyone in what seems like a never-ending open question: should an artist or musician be formally penalized for any semblance between their art and previous original works, whether it is an unconscious coincidence or not? 

So does this mean virtually any song they make risks having obscure (or well-known) artists coming at them for plagiarizing?

We’ll just have to watch from the sidelines. 

Check out our article on why we think songs sound so similar here

Read this article to find out more about the detailed and complex history of music plagiarism here