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A conference, two misconceptions, and a wrecking ball

THE FUTURE OF MUSIC COALITION is having a conference in DC in a couple of weeks, and Downhill Battle’s Holmes Wilson will be participating in one of their panels. As an organization, they’ve done a bunch of great work stimulating discussion within the music business about problems that need to be dealt with, and we’re really looking forward to attending. Plus we might get to meet Cary Sherman

Reading the schedule for the event, one thing jumped out: a description of their panel on the Grey Album and the controversy we kicked up:

“In February 2004, DJ Danger Mouse took Jay-Z’s Black Album and mixed it with The Beatles’ White Album to create?The Grey Album. The album, which the DJ created and released without seeking consent from the copyright owners, was barely made available before DJ Danger Mouse received cease and desist letters from the Beatles’ label, EMI. Clearly these laws are not limiting creativity, nor are they impeding circulation, but they are making it impossible to circulate this type of creativity legally.”(Our emphasis)

It seems like the focus of the panel will be on creating a legal structure that’s sampling friendly, and that’s exactly where to put the focus right now. But it’s always telling when even within friendly circles, there’s such a deep misunderstanding of the sample-based music issue.

First of all, the laws are impeding circulation. To conclude otherwise is to look at the success of one album (one that happened to have an incredible gimmick, and that had hundreds of activists behind it willing to run a severe legal risk) and take that as par for the course. It’s not; sample based music gets suppressed all the time, at a variety of levels.

Second, the claim “clearly these laws are not limiting creativity” takes a very narrow and simplistic view of the state of affairs in sample based music. Certainly, people are still able to mess around with samples in their bedroom, but if they create with an eye towards making something they could eventually make public through the usual channels (radio play, selling records) without detriment to their career, then they will consistently shy away from samples they aren’t sure they’ll be able to clear.

When a producer in the studio is constantly thinking, “Can I clear this? Will somebody recognize it?” often that leads to “Aw fuck it, I’ll just use a drum machine.” Every time that happens, the major labels’ copyright regime has limited creativity. Something that would have been made, was not.

When this happens over and over again to successive generations of artists, it will radically change the path of an artform. That’s what the sampling crackdown in the early nineties did to hip hop.

Of course, like what happens when a slab of sidewalk tries to keep down a tree, hip hop production grew around the legal barrier and producers like Timbaland, Dre, and the Neptunes started making incredibly soulful beats with drum machines and generated tones. We’re not worried about hip hop. It’s a genre that chews up adversity and spits it out as myth and defines itself in terms of the obstacles. Even the impending crash of the music establishment is starting to get spun into mythology (check out Chicago rapper Common’s verse on car-wreck-survivor Kanye West’s “Get ’em high”: So when the industry crash, I survive like Kanye).

But whether or not some cool things happen when the record companies and copyright law place a barrier in the path of creative flow, it’s wrong to deny that the barrier exists. Just as even though some rappers might turn music industry corruption into lyrical gold (listen to “Industrial Revolution” by The Immortal Technique right now), it’s still worth trying to remove that corruption.

Great music is never made in isolation. It’s about listening to people who are raising the bar, getting ideas and inspiration, and raising the bar a little higher yourself. A legal environment where DJs are worried about getting sued impedes that cycle, and we get less great music. We obviously think projects like Illegal-art are good things, but the fact that a bunch of people can download your illegal music doesn’t just solve the problem.

Ultimately, p2p networks may prove more helpful to sample based musicians as a wrecking ball than as a distribution network. That is, filesharing networks give music fans the power to weaken the major label monopoly to the point where it has more pressing concerns than a mash-up or a remix album.

Let’s do it.

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