If you're a sample-based artist and you're feeling paranoid, you're not paranoid at all. The larger music industry really does view you as a menace, the threat of a lawsuit is a constantly hovering guillotine, RIAA lawyers routinely deny that fair use even exists at all, and nearly every day we hear from a famous artist who thinks there's no difference between sampling and outright theft (cough Don Henley cough).
For decades now the music industry's primary relationship with the beatmaking and sampling community has been enforcement-focused, all stick and no carrot, and that's why I was so intrigued by EMI's sample "amnesty" proposal. Finally, here was someone in power in the music industry seemingly recognizing that they had far more to gain from working directly with sample-based artists than shoving them into a corner. Someone who both appreciated sampling as a legitimate art form and saw that art form as a potential boom to the music industry's bottom line.
But was this amnesty proposal really the bridge so many hoped would be built, or a trap disquised as an open hand? There was only one way to find out for sure, so I talked to Alex Black, the Global Director for EMI Production Music, and quickly discovered that I was talking to someone who not ony held a deep-seeded appreciation for sampling as an art, but genuinely believed that reaching out to the sampling community was good business.
"It's really about doing something proactive," Black said when we spoke. "And what's the alternative? That we do nothing? And then no one gets paid, really."
As Black explained, there are two crucial things to understand about EMI's amnesty proposal. First, EMI's only able to offer an amnesty like this because they control both the master and publishing to all of the music in their catalog. Clearing a sample can involve tracking down multiple, separate rights holders, an often difficult process even for artists with major label or significant resources. "More established artists come forward and clear their samples," Black said. "Recently we've had Joey Badass, we've cleared samples for Jay Z, Gnarls Barkley, the list goes on."
But for a more mid-level artist, and certainly for the independent and up-and-coming artist, the labyrinthian process of clearing a sample can be so daunting it can feel essentially impossible, and so producers either don't even attempt to clear or avoid sampling all together. EMI, however, really is a "one stop shop," as Black said. Clear a sample with EMI and you're done, end of process.
Second, the catalog that Black is inviting the sampling community into is comprised largely of music originally used for television, which he considers a largely untapped goldmine for beatmakers.
"Music made for picture can be quite sparse, hooks and grooves can be exposed because it's not a three minute pop song that can be jam packed," explained Black. "There was no commercial pressure, so you'll find some pretty out there stuff, some weird and wonderful sounds. So it makes complete sense to reach out to the sample community. Those in the know, crate diggers, have always been aware of production music, library music, and its usefulness in terms of samples."
So that's the Why (invigorating use of their overlooked, sonically rich catalog) and the How (one stop clearance) of EMI's new drive to work directly with sampling artists, but that work could happen independent of any amnesty. The amnesty itself is a means of first bringing previously uncleared samples into their fold, and second establishing ongoing relationships with beatmakers who were previously wary of appoaching EMI.
"The idea of the amnesty is two fold," explained Black. "My friends who are artists who might have uncleared samples, it's giving that person the ability to come forward and clear that sample, and therefore legitimize their masters. Sampling's been around for 30 odd years now, and I know labels are holding old releases in their catalog. Here's a chance to come forward, wipe the slate clean. We get the rights credit for our composers, you get a clean master that you can exploit to synch. It's a win-win."
On the surface the amnesty seems like such an obvious, common sense strategy that it's hard to believe it's so exceedingly rare. The music industry is in the business of creating and monetizing music. Sampling creates new music, and provides a potential new revenue stream for a previously recorded song that might otherwise only be sitting and collecting dust. Gnarls Barkley goes into EMI's catalog, flips a sample from their catalog into the instrumental for "Crazy (for the record, this is the original sample) and suddenly you've got a platinum song also used in TV shows and movies generating a new wave of money nearly forty years after the original song was created.
Given the potential revenue a thriving sample-based community could create you would think that most, if not all, publishers, labels, artists and copyright holders would be actively encouraging sampling and would create a sample clearance process that's streamlined, direct and easy. But instead the opposite has happened. On the whole the music industry routinely disparages sampling as an art form, does most of its outreach to the sampling community through litigation and has constructed a sample clearance process that's so taxing it essentially serves as a deterent to sampling at all. (For a clearly defined proposal of how a streamlined sample clearance system could be created, see Amir Said's book, The Art of Sampling.)
But it does feel like the tides are beginning to turn and a new generation of execs are finally ready to acknowledge that as much of the traditional music industry's revenue streams collapse, sampling could be a lifeline for their businesses, not a burden, and EMI might just end up being the leader of that new wave. If so, it will be because sampling has a man like Alex Black on reaching out to it, a man who has been a student of sampling for decades.
"One of the first records I really connected to was De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising," Black said when I asked him to name some of sample-based music that influenced him. "It blew my mind. Those records opened the door on what's possible, you can take someone's music and add to it in a way where it takes on a new life, a new audience, it can be as good if not better than the original. That's the key thing."
Someone in the music industry talking about how sampling has the potential to transform and even improve on an original record? Maybe we really are entering a brave new world, and as Black insisted time and time again he was determined to look forward, not back, I began to believe him. Maybe you should believe him too.