If a daring artist were to open the musician’s Pandora’s box, they would probably free one of the most feared vices in the music community: plagiarism. But isn’t the history of music a succession of encounters between the sounds of one genre and the rhythm of another? There is no musical creation without the hybridization of styles, and sampling is indeed a fruitful method among many approaches. There is no shame in having to use a sound pattern, known or unknown, in your own production. There are three conditions to this however: to take full responsibility of using the sample, to master the legal framework, and to achieve it in the right way.
Understanding the phenomenon
This fear of being accused of plagiarism while sampling comes from a simple empirical observation. We mainly hear about samples when they legally oppose one artist against another. Famous examples include Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for Blurred Lines following a trial between them and Marvin Gaye’s beneficiaries. Or Damso for Amnesia, removed from Spotify for an undeclared sample of Cortex’s I Heard A Sigh.
But what about the mine of inspiration represented by James Brown, sampled 3,543 times, a figure that is constantly increasing? Or the creation of platforms exclusively dedicated to sample listing links consisting of more than 594,000 songs and 198,000 artists such as whosampled.com? Two elements make it possible to understand the origin of this blur around the place of the sample in the opinion of amateurs:
- The usurpation of fame. In addition to elevating the song, the sample is a potential springboard to increase its number of streams from a track that has already gained public recognition. The listener remembers hearing the rhythm or sound somewhere without sourcing it perfectly. He’s sort of dubbing the new song.
- The creative contribution to the song’s posterity: the sample dosage / new musical motifs. Is it the sample that makes the piece or the piece that valorizes the sample?
These two considerations are fundamental and no song that includes a sample can escape this double questioning.
Mastering the legal framework related to the sample
Beyond public opinion, which is capable of criticizing and denouncing something without any trial, the law must prevail here. The question is simple: which line should not be crossed or risk legal action? Two institutions can rule here: the law and Sacem.
The law is put into these terms:
Any representation or reproduction in whole or in part made without the consent of the author or his successors is unlawful. The same applies to translation, adaptation or transformation, arrangement or reproduction by any art or process.
(Art. L. 122-4 of the Intellectual Property Code)
It should be noted from this article that if there is no prior authorization from the author, it is strictly forbidden to reproduce a musical excerpt that does not belong to you. What about the request for authorization? Well, the process is rather complex when you look at what Sacem says. The Society of Authors, Composers and Music Publishers gives you access to a directory of rights holders.
The first step is therefore to request these contacts in order to communicate to the rights holders of the sample your desire to integrate it into your production. This is followed by a process of contractualization under the condition of an agreement in principle, of course.
There are five different types of natural or legal persons who may hold rights in a work: the producer, the publisher, the songwriter(s), the artist and the performers. Creating contracts with these five stakeholders can be an impossible task. Sacem therefore warns: “You must ask the publisher of the work for authorization.” In general, it is the publisher, through the contract he holds with other entities, who is instructed to protect copyright because of his commercial mission.
Using samples easily or even for free- it’s possible!
I see you abandoning reading to the end of this article, discouraged by the pecuniary approach, which you might imagine is heavy and costly. Rest assured: it is possible to sample for free. It simply depends on your ambition.
Would you like to create a “remix” of a referenced classic, contractualized with visibility on the number of streams and the royalties to be paid according to the situation? Or would you prefer to produce a piece that highlights your artistic style, your creativity, and your technical ability in order to make it a product that will correspond to your other work?
If you don’t want to take any risks, there are thousands of beats and other samples that are free of charge, or licensed through subscriptions to platforms like LANDR (“Samples” tab) or Splice. Splice gathers free beats and samples, and also provides access to packs containing millions of samples and loops via a subscription at $7.99 per month. On LANDR, the subscription also gives you access tons of samples on top of an intelligent mastering service, plugins, distribution etc. It all depends on your productivity, but the investment can be worth it.
If you wish to adventure into sampling more famous songs for which the request for authorization is required, you expose yourself to certain risks. The important thing is to know them well in order to control them.
The risks of sampling
A lot of samples are used for “free” without license in productions. Sometimes dozens of them can be found in the same piece, from very different decades, genres and artists. The risk that you take as an artist in terms of intellectual property depends on two factors:
- Your degree of luck. A piece can fall through the cracks of a potentially greedy publisher who is unable to scan all the productions related to the music he owns.
- Your ability to work the sample into the song. The sample can be very skillfully integrated into the music, with multiple vocal, rhythmic and instrumental modifications so that the publisher will have neither the will nor the idea to initiate legal proceedings, often time-consuming and not very profitable for the latter.
Thus, it is difficult not to recognize the plagiarism of Joe Satriani’s If I could fly in the chorus of Viva la Vida by Coldplay. Chris Martin’s group has been found not guilty. Masking the original sample is therefore an essential element if you do not intend to use a prior contractual approach.
Successfully integrating the sample into the song
There are a plethora of sampling techniques, recognized and proven in the history of music. Sampling is not simply about integrating a rhythm or bass into a pre-existing song. This often involves taking a pattern of the rhythm (not the entire rhythm) and forming a loop from this “sample.” Hence the origin of the term “sample.” Then come the two tricks most often used by artists: changing the speed and length of the original extract. A new technique that has appeared with a renewal of house music is that of vocal cutting, well illustrated by my current favorite.
My current favorite: Respect by Bellaire
The song only includes 9 words sung by the soul diva Aretha Franklin in 1967, herself taking up the title of the Otis Redding hit, released in 1965. This young prodigy of French House, originally from Lille, dared to link together very short extracts sung by Aretha, cutting the sentences to the rhythm of the synthesizer with blues-like sounds, accompanied by a very house beat. Here we have a masterpiece of the sample.
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