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