Back in the day, sampling was usually about looking through a limited stack of records, often from your parents’ collection or the dollar-bin at your local thrift store. That’s pretty much what you had to finding that break, loop or sound to build your track around. The choices you made were based on whatever was there, and you put it all together the way birds build their nests, from available materials you scrounged. The process was (and for old-school producers, is still) very slow and limited.
The licensing picture was murky as anything, but the ways of addressing it were somewhat straight-forward. As the recordings were all filtered through the label system, you could figure out how to track rights holders down, though they might never come to an agreement with you. If you didn’t and you put the music out there anyway, you ran the risk of getting sued.
Today, with the internet at your fingertips, producers and DJs can easily find just about anything, in seconds. They might find a sound in a Russian Instagram video or sample a 70s Turkish funk song straight off Youtube. Sampling has become a significant source of inspiration, and for many the very foundation of their music. Especially if you’re an electronic musician or hip hop producer.
This is great for artists, but it sucks for legal music release. And that it still sucks so extensively, after all these years, is heartbreaking.
Though you may think otherwise, samples from obscure internet finds are hard as hell to license, jeopardizing the legal, monetized distribution of tracks that use them. As the copyright screws are tightened on user-generated content platforms and music services, it’s going to be even more important to have everything cleared, or risk takedowns or blocked uploads. And yet, even as sampling has seeped into music everywhere, many younger producers and artists seem unaware of the potential pitfalls of leaping to get music out there. And they have no idea where to even begin trying to license them.
The only way to fix this for everyone is to fix sampling clearance. For too long, for an entire generation in fact, sampling has been someone else’s problem, from the rights holders’ perspectives. But it’s become so embedded in the way musicians of all styles make music, it’s not going away. One in five tracks on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2018 had a sample, and a portion of these were rock and other genres you don’t normally associate with sampling.
Sampling went from niche to mainstream and ubiquitous, but the licensing procedures didn’t change. That means it takes days or weeks or months to figure out who owns something you sampled and get clearance. As a result, so much music is sitting in vaults because younger artists were taking their own spin to older content but didn’t know how to get things cleared or simply couldn’t afford to.
Sampling needs to be embraced by the music business for what it is: a tool, an instrument that producers and artists are using in diverse, unique ways. This means figuring out ways to simplify clearance and democratize price points, so that emerging artists can use samples and develop their careers. We’re working with the producer community to get licensing caught up to the way people make music - and a lot of big and small labels are catching on.
This is taking a community to change. If we team up, there won’t be another lost generation of sampling musicians. The bottom line is that you shouldn’t have to be Kanye or have a Kayne-sized budget to get your tracks distributed legally. And your music shouldn’t be condemned to oblivion, just because you couldn’t navigate the ridiculously complex rules.