Living in a Sampled World

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We live in a sampled world. Our dominant music genre, hip hop, is built on samples of earlier songs, often quick bursts of percussion or catchy hooks from former pop hits. Our blockbuster movies take captured video elements – visual samples, essentially – and manipulate them through both space and time. And what are our newscasts and sports highlight shows other than “samples” from the day’s events?

Fact is, if you look at what the term really means, “sampling” is not new. It is something people have done for as long as we’ve had “culture,” whatever that may mean. Our visual artists, storytellers, musicians, poets, even our religious and political leaders – all have built on the works that have come before them. A Shakespeare scholar can tell you where the Bard has used a catch phrase of the day, or where Dante has “borrowed” from earlier works. A professor of comparative religion can point out where one religion has adopted and adapted a story or an idea from an earlier religion that it has supplanted. (I suppose this would make Christmas an example of cultural sampling.) The collages of Max Ernst, the ballet “Pulcinella” by Stravinsky, the new films by Bill Morrison made of decaying silent movie stock – all of these are, in a sense, works that use “samples.”

But we use the term to specifically denote something that has happened as audio and video technologies have developed. Instead of just borrowing ideas from earlier works, we can now take recordings of songs, speeches, sound effects, or clips from old movies, broadcasts, and the like, and make new songs or new visual art with them. And this has some of the original artists – and most of their managers, publishers, and lawyers – crying foul. Look, I believe in copyright laws, and owning your intellectual property, even though those ideas would’ve seemed ludicrous to most humans through most of our history. (Of course, the idea of making piles of money by playing ball or singing songs would’ve seemed equally ludicrous…) But once you have an idea, whether it’s a melody, or a turn of phrase, or a striking visual image, and you put it out into the world, you’ve let the genie out of the bottle. Part of being an artist is hoping that your art will inspire others. Copyright’s intention was to make sure people get paid for their ideas – not for making sure that no one else gets to benefit from them too.

I like sampling. I know it’s controversial, but I can’t believe we can’t tweak copyright laws to accommodate both the sampling artists and the artists they’ve sampled.

I believe that both Steinski in the 1980s, at the beginning of the sampling movement, and Girl Talk today, have created fun and interesting works; I am glad to have heard both, and in fact some of Steinski’s old pieces have stayed with me for years. They are “art” as much as the works they sample, but just because Steinski samples James Brown doesn’t mean his art is in any way threatening to James Brown’s ability (well, his estate’s ability) to make money. It might, in fact, prove to be the opposite.

What’s your take on sampling?

© John Schaefer – absolutely no excerpting or any other use of any words or phrases or indeed individual letters in the foregoing is allowed except with the express, written, and expensively-purchased permission of the author.