The Beat Strangler
*** illest o.g. ***
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Once again, the grey area of music sampling has come to the forefront in a lawsuit concerning Led Zeppelin's most famous song, "Stairway To Heaven".
Recently, there was a lawsuit filed by a representative of the late guitarist from the band Spirit, and they claim that "Stairway To Heaven" is a blatant ripoff of Spirit's song "Tauras", released only a few years prior to Stairway.
Here's the tricky part: it's the most famous part of Zeppelin's song that is in question here; a chord progression that is all too common in the music world. Normally, if you sample something, you must pay. However, in this case it's actually pretty interesting to see the outcome because of the chords that Spirit is questioning.
The problem I have with this lawsuit, and just the legality of sampling overall, is that it's such a grey area, and I'll tell you why.
The Law States That You Can't Sample Without Paying
The golden age of Hip Hop was so special and sounded so amazing because of the simple fact that sampling was everywhere. To produce a track back in the day, you did not need to know much about production itself, because a lot of the songs were more or less cut and paste loops of famous records. Now, that's not to say that the producers back then had zero skill - not at all. But they weren't faced with the current state of Hip Hop production where you have programs that feature chord arrangement and note scales.
Once Rap music started to become popular, and beatmaking equipment simpler, that's when the legality of sampling came into play. Now we're at the point where technically even if you're just making beats in your bedroom studio, you're expected to pay for samples that you use.
But what constitutes sampling? What does it actually mean?
The Grey Area of Sampling
Pay attention, because this section is the most important!
By law, if I were to take the snare from BDP's "The Bridge Is Over" (a very recognizable snare), then I should have to pay to use it. But sampling like that is never brought up or taken to court. Why not? I sampled it!
What happens most of the time in the case of a simple drum snare, is it can easily be layered with some other snare, and then *poof* - the sampling law gets thrown out the window. This is because that snare was altered and used to create a brand new snare.
Now let's apply the same scenario to a piece of piano music.
If I were to sample a 4-bar piano loop and then use it as is, I could be setting myself up for a lawsuit. However, what if I rearranged each piano part and created my own melody? Technically it's still sampling, but the fact that I'm altering (like with the snare) the sample, I could still have a lawsuit on my hands.
What I'm referring to is a piano loop that is just piano. No other instruments with it. If there were strings behind the piano, it would be hard to argue in court that those piano parts are mine. But when there's piano that is left wide open by itself, and I sample it and rearrange it, is that technically sampling?
In this scenario, if I were to rearrange each bar so that instead of it being Bar 1 - Bar 2 - Bar 3 - Bar 4, I instead made it Bar 4 - Bar 1 - Bar 1 - Bar 2 - I could argue that I played that piano with my own keyboard.
It could be hard to use an argument like that in court, but I could see it working (especially since the piano is solo with no other instruments behind it). Even if I were in court and the person suing me said they used a Yamaha keyboard on their recording, I could argue that I have a Yamaha as well, and that's why they sound so similar.
Now let's apply the Zeppelin lawsuit to our scenario. Watch as it's explained in this video:
In their lawsuit, it's all about the same chords being used in both songs. When you break it down, it's a basic chord being played on a guitar. So in my case, if someone sued me for sampling their piano (even if I rearranged the bars), I could easily argue that it's basic piano notes being played.
For example, if someone plays three piano notes together and records it, then I go and sample it, can they argue that it's theirs and not mine? On one hand, it's their RECORDING that I sampled, but this is the whole grey area issue. How can someone claim that those three piano notes played together is theirs?
I understand the "recording" legality, but that still doesn't make sense at all.
Money, Money, Money
After many years of seeing lawsuits in the music sampling realm, I would constantly wonder why artists and labels bother. I'm not saying that sampling should be free and wide open, because I wouldn't want someone to sample my music and profit off of it, but there must be some proper laws set in place.
The biggest issue when it comes to sampling is money. Straight up, it's money. This is all it comes down to. In the late 80's and early 90's, record label lawyers were starting to sue artists everywhere because they knew that money could be made. The sad part about all of this is that the artist that is sampled actually only sees very little of any money collected from a lawsuit. In a 2004 interview, Chuck D stated, "All the rap artists were on the big six record companies, so you might have some lawyers from Sony looking at some lawyers from BMG and some lawyers from BMG saying, "Your artist is doing this," so it was a tit for tat that usually made money for the lawyers, garnering money for the company. Very little went to the original artist or the publishing company."
When Diddy went and used the entire instrumental of "Every Breath You Take", I think that's when the music industry's sampling laws when into overdrive. Here you had someone take the whole song and just use it. He didn't flip it around or try to hide anything, he just used it.
Situations like that, I completely agree that the artist should pay for using it. However, someone that takes a common chord or note and uses it should not face any sort of legality whatsoever.
Unfortunately, I cannot see this ever happening because the almighty dollar is too powerful of an incentive for everyone under the sun the file a sampling lawsuit.
But if certain clearly stated laws were in place, and if these lawsuits weren't decided on the opinion of whichever judge is presiding, then maybe, just maybe, Hip Hop could have a new golden age.
What is your opinion on sampling laws?
Further Reading Related to Sampling