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The Ethical Dilemma of Sampling Music

What is Sampling?

Ever heard a song that for some reason sounded extremely familiar? No, it’s not deja vu. No, the artist isn’t a master at manufacturing nostalgia. That’s sampling for you! I’m sure most of you have heard the song ‘Lonely’ by Akon. You know, from all the memes? Fun fact, the intro section and the recurring instrumental motifs are actually sampled from the 1962 song ‘Mr. Lonely’ by Bobby Vinton.

The critically acclaimed 'Hotline Bling' samples the 1972 R&B song 'Why Can't We Live Together;' which isn’t a song I can say our generation is entirely familiar with.

Another One- the 2017 DJ Khaled and Rihanna track 'Wild Thoughts’ heavily samples 'Maria Maria' by Santana.

'Sampling' is the reuse of a certain portion of a musical sound in another recording. Put simply, it's sort of like borrowing from other artists. Normally, artists tend to use less than 10 seconds of a song in order to keep the sample free and legal under fair use, but it’s not uncommon for artists to pay the original label royalties to sample way more than the 10 seconds.

The question is- is sampling another musician's art for your own commercial gain ethical? This discussion becomes more and more paramount when we see huge elements of a song being 'sampled' with the new recording being given more artistic credit than the original recording. Should artists be able to redeem critical acclaim for an idea that is not necessarily 100% original? Should the original creator be completely artistically overlooked and discredited simply because they were given royalty?

Does it depend on which aspects of the song are being sampled? Is digital sampling more acceptable if it is done so that the final product is fundamentally and creatively different than the original?

The larger question here- is sampling simply auditory plagiarism?

The phonautograph, the earliest known device for recording sound, was invented in 1860. That's a period of 161 years of musical recordings. 58,765 days of musical development- how many permutations of the same 6 guitar strings and 88 piano keys can there possibly be?

There are only that many ways to shuffle the same few words about love

Love will always be good. Breakups will always be sad. A guitar will always sound like a guitar. A piano will always sound like a piano.

Is anything really original anymore? Is it even possible to create art that is comprehensively uninspired by other artists? Is all modern art more or less inspired or, for a lack of a better word, 'remixed' versions of already pre-existing media?

Is sampling lazy or at some point inevitable?

The Nostalgia Effect and Memory Triggers

It could be said that if as a child we hear a certain song or musical effect, the sound is stored in our memory somewhere. I mean… where does it go?

The Nostalgia Effect is a cognitive bias wherein people tend to place more value on items from the past when compared to new or original ideas of the present. For example, you would probably have a subconscious bias towards a shirt with a design you wore in your childhood as compared to a shirt with a completely new design.

Many artists and music producers are absolutely aware of this and therefore use samples from extremely popular music from decades past in order to trigger an unconscious memory in listeners, which makes the song much more likely to be successful.

Studies have shown that listening to music has the ability to impact your brain’s visual cortex. That means that as soon as a song starts playing, your brain will immediately begin to associate the auditory stimuli with previous memories.

I guess it takes a hit song to make a hit song?

Is Credit Necessary?

Obviously, digital music sampling is legal. However, just because it's legal, doesn't always mean it's artistically integrous. You wouldn't quote Shakespeare or Sylvia Plath without using their name right? It's not necessarily 'inspiration' if you fail to give credit where it's due is it?

"Sampling is kind of prehistoric, given the technology and the textures you can create." That’s a quote by an extremely famous musician. However, I'm not going to tell you who because I'm SaMpLiNg it.

Just kidding, it's Macklemore (don't sue me).

It's often more appropriate to say that some musicians don't sample because the song was particularly inspiring, but simply because they can get away with it.

My point is that even though sampling is completely legal if you follow fair use and copyright laws and regulations; is it necessarily ethical that a sampled track can utilise the musical structure of a different song and garner more acclaim?

Or is it simply a case of another artist simply doing it better?

Creativity or Stealing?

Personally, I'm not completely against sampling when it's done correctly. However, a large chunk of popular music that does sample other music is akin to taking a piece of KFC chicken, adding ketchup to it and starting your own fast-food chain. Smart, but not necessarily the epitome of artistic genius.

"I think if I wanted to get to a point where I could actually grow in my music, I had to almost step away from sampling so much and start making the kind of music that people wanted to sample."


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