Opinion: Sampling too similar to piracy


The music industry has made a big deal of digital piracy being a crime since the dawn of the Internet. The Recording Industry Association of America shared a study by the Institute for Policy Innovation, which put the losses from piracy at over $12 billion annually, with more than 70,000 behind-the-scenes workers losing their jobs.

The RIAA also pointed out that music sales shrank to half its size since 1999 when Napster was launched, from $14.6 billion to about $7 billion last year.

Much like piracy is hurting the music industry, another kind of theft is going on.

As piracy continues to plague the music industry, another culprit has emerged disguised under the blasé name of “sampling.” This is where a new song is composed of bits of other songs – often popular songs.

A famous example of sampling is when rapper Vanilla Ice sampled Queen’s “Under Pressure” back in the ’90s to create “Ice Ice Baby.”

Sampling is the musical version of plagiarism, where the parts that sound good get taken by those who don’t want to do the work to be original or respectful. And since the music industry on the whole seems to be very okay with the practice, it sounds like a very hypocritical stance to have while blaring the horn on piracy.

Sir Mix-A-Lot said to Billboard that he really likes what Nicki Minaj did with his song “Baby Got Back” when she remixed it to create “Anaconda.” Marvin Gaye’s family has been less than thrilled with Robin Thicke’s use of a “Got to Give It Up” riff in “Blurred Lines,” so much so that Marvin Gaye’s estate has been embroiled in a lawsuit with Thicke for over the past year.

We, as consumers, can see this go on, just as it happened before with Vanilla Ice sampled Queen, and with MC Hammer and others before them. There is even a website, called WhoSampled, which uses crowdsourcing via user submissions to track the practice as much as possible.

It’s understandably confusing, since we’re told that one form of stealing is wrong by the same industry that engages in another. The argument of “sampling harms no one” works as well as when pirates use it as their catch phrase, nor does saying it’s free publicity.

Why does it not work? The generation gap. Thicke’s fans weren’t alive when Gaye’s work was popular. Unless Thicke specifically said his new song was inspired by Gaye’s song, no one would know unless a very attentive DJ or listener pointed it out. While we can use Google to prevent plagiarism, it takes a familiar ear to hear sampling.

When it happens, nobody knows because of the musical divide between generations. This isn’t exposing the past to the young folk in a constructive way though – it’s more akin to robbing musicians blind by reselling their songs to people who haven’t heard them before. And it doesn’t need to be years past; it could be a popular musician taking songs from lesser known musicians. If you are a fan of the oldies, you might have noticed how similar Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” sounds to the Beach Boys song “Fun Fun Fun.”

If you don’t, you might recognize Chuck Berry as the artist Marty McFly stole his hit from when he went back in time and invented rock music. The joke from “Back to the Future” was that here is another guy that was made famous from Berry’s work.

Sampling is a straight ripoff, unlike parodies. Weird Al’s parodies are protected under the doctrine of fair use. But that really isn’t a problem since he asks for permission, like he told Forbes, from the original artist before he goes onto make something like “Handy,” his parody of Iggy Azaela’s “Fancy.”

Also, sampling isn’t a cover. A cover is a wholesale reproduction of the original. In both of those cases, everyone knows that this is a homage paid to the original artist. Nobody thinks that Korn was the original composer of “Another Brick in the Wall” – it was Pink Floyd.

Those who don’t ask for permission before repurposing part or all of a song under the guise of sampling are flat out stealing. By not calling it what it is, the music industry is making it hard for people to care one way or the other.

Patrick White is a senior in mass communications.