April 11th, 2011

Junto: Music Sampling

Dana Vachon


A PANEL DISCUSSION on balancing creativity, copyright and compensation in a digital age.

Tuesday APRIL 19 6PM-8:30PM Doors open 6pm, panel discussion to commence at 7pm P’unk Avenue, 1168 E. Passyunk Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19147

How did the Depression-era folk-song collector Alan Lomax end up with a songwriting credit on Jay-Z’s song “Takeover”? Why doesn’t Clyde Stubblefield, the primary drummer on James Brown recordings from the late 1960s like “Funky Drummer” and “Cold Sweat,” get paid for other musicians’ frequent use of the beats he performed on those songs? How does Girl Talk make those sample-heavy records, while George Clinton from Parliament Funkadelic has been sued…for sampling himself?

This is the deliciously complex world of music sampling, where a snippet of an existing sound recording is used in a new musical work. Unlike when an artist simply “covers” an existing song and pays a pre-determined rate, sampling a portion of a song leads to a complicated legal negotiation, wherethe sampler needs to get permission from — and usually pay a licensing fee to — both the songwriter, and the owner of the sound recording (which is usually a record label).

For the person who wants to clear a sample, the cost of licensing is extremely unpredictable and time consuming. The price can be based on such intangibles as an artist’s street credibility (on both sides of the transaction), existing negotiating history between publishers and managers and whether a sample will reinvigorate the back catalog of the sampled artist. In some cases the cost is simply untenable, with the copyright owner of the sample asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars per sample, or for percentages of sales royalties.

The challenges of sample licensing have only grown over time. Thanks to cheap, powerful computers, sites like YouTube, and software like SoundCloud or Garageband, any one of us could become a sampler. Meanwhile, sound recording copyright owners want to protect their works, and original creators deserve to be compensated, too.

How do we — as creators, as music lovers, as entrepreneurs — navigate this copyright landscape? How can we recycle culture and reference older works without hitting the fanblades of copyright infringement?

Members of the Panel: