Blog post: Sampling ethics

Do you think that sampling without permission is morally acceptable? If so, why? If not, why not?

I still remember that day in college when my professor talked about how Leonard Bernstein ripped off Beethoven in “Somewhere.”  “There’s a place for us” was really just a quotation of “The Emperor Concerto,” second movement  with the last note raised a whole step.  How many times have you reused a popular idiom from your day, such as “it takes two to tango” or “you win some, you lose some,” et cetera?  This phenomenon of humans quoting other humans has been present since the dawn of humanity.  In terms of music, what’s neat about this is that this small license then gives the composer the opportunity to take that quote and make a completely new invention out of it.  The difference in sampling is that if you could capture the original premier performance of Beethoven and have those performers play just that bar of the song before yielding to Bernstein’s orchestra, you’d have a good replica of what sampling is.  It gives you the opportunity to have the original performance of the original quote in your song.  In that regard, sampling might be more authentic than merely copying someone else’s music.  You can hear the original author of the quotation in their own context.

It seems arguable that all new music is derivative of older music, even if we just consider newly-composed melodies.  What is interesting is that we tend to take just small fragments of things we’ve heard already and develop them like nothing that has come before.  In that respect most new compositions are not copies of older compositions but are inventions or at least innovations.  When one writes music within an idiom listeners are almost expecting to hear certain melodic motives, rhythmic motives, and instrumental motifs that they are familiar with.  If repetition defines music, and it is highly arguable that it does, then why doesn’t re-quotation (repetition, just within a new song) define new music?

So now that that has been established about sampling, can sampling be morally unacceptable?  In most cases, I’d think no, especially because you are bringing to light the original artist of the musical quotation you are using.  In some cases this may cause the listener to think to themselves to go back to the original track and both purchase and play that.  There is nothing about sampling that doesn’t yield further credibility to the original artist, in my mind.  There is nothing immoral about Barack Obama quoting JFK or any of the other countless presidents and important political figures he’s quoted in his speeches.  Now just imagine if Obama played the original recording of JFK speaking, and you’d have a good analog for sampling.  This scenario probably caused many to go back and listen to the original JFK speech.  If the listener is a fan of Obama it probably lends even more credibility to JFK to hear their favorite president quote him.

Are there scenarios where sampling can be immoral?  I’m not sure if it’s the sampling itself that is immoral or the copyright law that needs to be re-written to make it more moral.  The example that comes to mind is the “Amen break” by Gregory Cylvester Coleman.  The reason why I think copyright law here is not set up morally (and not the sampling itself) is that it took Coleman until the end of his life to reap any form of profit, which was by and large not enough, for the widespread use of his work.    In my mind, the law is inadequately set up to handle sampling and how to properly distribute profits if such cases are allowed to persist.  But imagine now a scenario in which the law was properly set up and Coleman profited handsomely, as he should have.  Would anyone go around thinking sampling is immoral?  I’d think not.

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