The Future of Free Music Culture

This post is by Alison McCarthy (@aliiimac). She's an intern at Hypebot.

FreeCulture (1) This weekend I attended The Students for Free Culture Conference (#sfcnyc), a gathering of student activists, intellectuals, artists, hackers, and generally interested people to discuss the latest issues in the free cultural world. This year the conference hosted a panel on Remix Culture, Music, and the Arts, which explored issues surrounding the politics, ethics, and purpose of sampling and remix.

Panel participants included mixed-media artist and Bennett Williamson, electronic musician and artist Laurel Halo, producer Ryan Sciaino, aka DJ Ghostdad, and Daniel Lopatin and Joel Ford of electronic production duo Games (recently changed to Ford & Lopatin).

Some highlights from the discussion:

Music is the motivating factor for free culture. Because common practices of free culture (such as sampling, remixing, and artist collaboration) originated in music production, when talking about the larger free culture movement, it is almost always certain that the discussion will connect to the politics of music.

What is the purpose of sampling? Bennett Williamson answered: When you choose a certain sample, you're defining your identity. You act as a curator, inserting yourself into a timeline of musical history.

Joel Ford further explained: By using previously recorded music and video in a work, you're enriching the discourse of sampling. Choosing a sample of something you've never heard before serves a different purpose than choosing a sample from, Michael Jackson for example. Samples add to our library of culture.

Laurel Halo believes that sampling is "plain and simple evidence of cultural bleed." By sampling, you're passing down traditions and dialogue to new audiences.

The question of attribution: Should artists always be expected to acknowledge the original work? Ryan Sciaino points out that when artists use an obscure sample to create their own original art (in the case of J Dilla), attribution might not be necessary. The artist is taking a sample, and making it his own. However, in the case of Girl Talk, attributes definitely must be referenced. "Not only are his samples so well-known, but they're so blatant they're definitely assisting him in profit making."

What about when an artist samples you? Laurel Halo responded that being sampled from an independent artist is definitely flattering, but if an already successful artist is making a profit off of one of her samples without providing recognition, it would be taking advantage.

When discussing the use of sampling in their song "Shadows in Bloom," Ford & Lopatin brought up that if the sample was discovered by the original artist (in this case, Sweden's 1980s New Wave band Secret Service), it would probably mean that the song would most likely already be an international hit. The obscurity of the sampler affects the freedom to sample the bigger an artist is, the more likely the sample will be noticed.

Should DJs and artists fear legal retribution? There was a definite consensus among panelists: Even though labels like to provide the constant shadow of potential lawsuits, the reality is that it would take a considerate amount of time and effort to not only hunt the samples down, but to then go through with the act of processing an actual case. The threat is way too vague to be taken seriously.

When it comes to anti-music industry activism, have we already won? Or were the terms simply changed? As seen in the last few years through the fall of platforms such as MySpace, Lala, and imeem, popular music platforms are not totally dependable. Is this the price for freedom, or are we compromising our stability?

The future of free music culture: Laurel Halo concluded that the recording industry is in the tank a physical record is no longer treated with as much sanctity as it once was, even ten years ago. Music is returning to its original scape: one based on collectivity and community. With new modes of education and sharing tools, people are increasingly making music they truly believe in, though the sustainability still has yet to be discovered.

Daniel Lopatin brought up the issue of Radiohead. With In Rainbows' pay-what-you-want model, some complained that they were endangering other artists with less dedicated fanbases. With last week's release of their latest album, King of Limbs, the band returned to a more traditional route, selling the album for a fixed price. This example clearly illustrates that we're at a disjunctive period of music consumption where boundaries aren't yet clear.

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  1. Whoa whoa whoa hipster DJs speaking at this conference… What is this nonsense about independent vs. popular musicians? Saying it’s okay to sample indie people but not
    Statements like “Laurel Halo responded that being sampled from an independent artist is definitely flattering, but if an already successful artist is making a profit off of one of her samples without providing recognition, it would be taking advantage.” just don’t make any sense!
    I understand their point that using popular music to propel your own career is wrong, but just give credit to those people.No matter what… If you are sampling someone else’s work, you are using THEIR work, for YOUR music. It shouldn’t matter how popular anyone is, or how obscure a sample is… Sampling is sampling. Give credit where credit is due no matter who you are sampling, whether your Lady Gaga or DJ Fedora.
    (another ramble..)

  2. It’s strange to me that nowhere in this article does it talk about the legal necessity of compensating copyright holders for commercial gains; both sound recording copyright holder and the publisher/writer.
    What’s up?

  3. I would guess that musicians that sample other people’s work don’t want to be bothered giving credit where credit is due because they possibly use SO many samples that it’s just extra work and time on their part to so. They also probably think that if they can possibly get away with swiping something that they don’t have to pay royalties for or pass off as their own, then they’ll try. It’s not a good way to conduct yourself or your business.
    Free album download at http://www.facebook.com/chancius

  4. It’s really a shame that sampling other people’s work without any credit or compensation has become the accepted way for many “artists” today. I would rather stop making music than be pirated or ‘ripped off’ by someone else.
    What would these people have done had there been nothing to sample – oh, wait, they would have had to actually create it themselves. What a concept.

  5. With the recent exponential growth of easy-to-use software applications this question of sampling is going to get even further muddied. I think that as this trend of easy music creation grows we are going to see a sharp delineation between those who author original music and those who create music using samples…There will grow a sort of musical snobbery.
    I recently read an article where a top record executive said, “You don’t have to be able to play an instrument really. […] Anyone can do it. It’s a two-edged sword. On one edge it gives power to the people and on the other edge it gives power to the people who have no abilities.”
    The blatant disregard for the law by the discussion panel is indicative of the mindset of this growing movement. But aren’t all revolutions by definition the result of the disregard of someone’s “law”?

  6. I think it is a bit presumptuous to say that the threat of retribution from illegal sampling is unlikely and is easily disregarded. Think of how much it costs to defend against any lawsuit whether you are guilty or innocent. You will still need to respond with your own legal aid and it will still cost money.
    I would much rather use a service that will pay royalties as I earn money than be hit with litigation and essentially lose the song entirely. I would use limelight or a similar tool for legal reuse of copyrighted works. Just my 2 cents.
    I talk about this on my blog IsItIndie.

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