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The Liberation of Music Sampling

1While many music creators are eager to draw on elements of music from the past, actually legally sampling tracks is typically a slow and expensive project. In this op-ed, Pär Almqvist discusses an emerging platform aimed at streamlining the sampling process.

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Guest post by Pär Almqvist, Co-Founder and CEO of Tracklib

Today’s music makers are inspired by the music of the past. They want to use small parts of older recordings in the music they are making today. Unfortunately, the slow, expensive, and difficult sample clearance process has forced today’s music makers to re-record similar sounding song sections, use samples without permission or rights, or skip sampling altogether. This robs the original artists and songwriters of both their share of recognition and revenue for the contribution they made to the future of music.

Convenience always beats piracy. Offer simple access to lots of songs at a fair price point, and people will do the right thing because it’s instant and affordable. Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have driven three straight years of global revenue growth after 15 years of music business decline, according to the IFPI’s Global Music Report 2018. That’s because it’s a lot easier and quicker to pay $10 a month for instant access to nearly every song ever made than to spend hours finding songs on illegal sites, downloading or ripping them, tagging them, and uploading them to various devices.

Of course, we are far from out of the woods; visits to internet piracy sites increased 1.6% in 2017, with TV and film included, according to a report from antipiracy consulting firm Muso. But the fact remains that streaming has restored a sense of stability to an industry that had previously been crippled by theft. Despite this, sample piracy has increased. As music making becomes easier, more and more music listeners are becoming music makers too. These new music makers are freely sampling parts of old music in their new creations, without legal rights or permission. Typically, this goes unnoticed because sampling happens behind the scenes, the province of music makers looking to inject some soul into their tracks by tapping into the work of those who came before. In addition, tracks featuring uncleared samples usually don’t find their way onto official albums, instead being relegated to free mixtapes that never make it to the mainstream.

And that’s a problem. Hip-hop, currently the most sample-heavy of any music genre, is now the most dominant genre in the world. That means young artists trying to break into the industry’s biggest genre will have their efforts stymied by huge sample licensing fees (typically several thousands of dollars), even bigger fines for uncleared samples (as much as $150,000 per sample, per copy of the song distributed), and an inability to spread their work beyond their immediate circle of friends, family, collaborators, and supporters. And since hip-hop is a genre that moves fast and releases songs quickly, even major stars like Kanye West have been caught with uncleared samples, notably on the song “Lift Yourself” and the Teyana Taylor album K.T.S.E. (Read about how the situation could have been avoided by using Tracklib on our blog.)

It’s important that the original artists and songwriters must be paid and credited for any usage of their music, especially sampling. In fact, having a song sampled in a new track is a great way to revitalize previously stagnant catalog and bring in new revenue. But the time has come to streamline the process so creators can focus on creating, rather than studying the intricacies of copyright law and taking the risk of being sued. So how do we do that while still making sure everyone gets paid fairly?

2The answer is to make sampling as easy to understand as music streaming; to liberate the process so that anyone can do it and do it legally. That’s what we do at Tracklib. When a music maker finds a track on tracklib.com, they know exactly how much it will cost them to clear it before they even start chopping it up, and they can rest assured that the original rights-holders have already been identified, have pre-cleared the song for sampling, and will be getting paid.

And for labels and music publishers, Tracklib eliminates the routine administration of song-by-song clearances, creating more revenue while removing expenses. Further, it allows songs to be monetized in new ways. By making individual tracks and stems of songs available, Tracklib uncovers a completely new revenue stream. For example, when we worked with the Philly Groove Records catalog, some of the stems came from previously unheard alternate takes and had never been mixed down to a record – these stems were sitting unused for decades, and now Tracklib is bringing them to life.

Most importantly, we need to get beyond outdated modes of thinking about sampling — that it’s lazy, that it’s theft, that it ruins the original recording. There are many rights-holders who refuse to approve any sampling of their music whatsoever due to these beliefs, and while they certainly have the right to do as they wish, we would encourage them to have an open mind. Sampling is an art form unto itself — you can argue its roots go back to the Dadaists, and while you don’t have to play an instrument to sample, what it takes to do it well can be incredibly complicated. Check out some of our Sample Stories videos to see just how much goes into creating a great beat if you still think sampling is lazy and doesn’t require serious skill. The original artists who embrace it often find that it gives their career a second life, especially as sites like WhoSampled and Genius break down popular tracks and point fans toward the original versions. To quote “Talkin’ All That Jazz” by Stetsasonic, “Tell the truth, James Brown was old, ‘til Eric and Ra came out with ‘I Got Soul.’ In fact, an August 2018 study published in the American Business Law Journal confirmed exactly that, finding that song sales increased after they were sampled in a new work with a 99.99% degree of statistical significance.

Music sampling has been around since the 1970s, and it’s not going away. As people gravitate more and more toward genres that rely on it, it will be up to rights-holders, artists, and songwriters to determine whether they get onboard and make it easy for music makers to sample their work, thus reducing the amount of pirate samples and creating a new source of revenue. We encourage them to choose the path of liberation.

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