moments before the wind.

May 18, 2006

i suppose i would

Filed under: authenticity, business, folk, music, writing — alimarcus @ 10:12 pm

I had a very interesting conversation today. It began when my co-worker asked if there is a difference between "referencing" music and "sampling" music. Referencing meant, in this context, the process that folk musicians are generally known for – Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan singing traditional songs with tweaked lyrics, an added verse, or some other kind of change. Sampling refers to rap musicians using beats or clips or similar devices.

My answer was that, in my opinion, no, there is no difference, that sampling is a contemporary version of what folk (the genre) music was/is known for, and that folk (the ethos) music doesn't have to sound like Guthrie in order to be part of that tradition. It's kind of a semantic argument about perceptions of the term "folk," and whether it's a capital "F" or not, and I also think that people would try to devalue my point by saying that all music is folk music then, and that wouldn't be true.

I bet this is something Alex Ross would agree with. Just a side thought.

Anyways, the discussion got more interesting when my co-worker asked a question that I was unable to answer…I like those questions. I am still thinking about it five hours later. She said something along the lines of, "why is the music industry the only [entertainment/arts] industry with copyright issues?" We started talking about how movies in particular reference other movies all the time, even very explicitly, and there aren't issues of "sampling" that require things like licensing, or create problems about copyright infringement. Why is that?

And how is it possible that the formal trappings of music production – the elements of various harmonic, melodic, lyrical, rhythmic coincidence – come together to create a work that is protected from infringement while film elements – cinematography, dialogue, staging – dont' call for the same kind of protection? What is it that we are protecting, exactly?

Maybe film adds a third (fifth? sixth?) dimension that crosses some kind of perceptive line, as if there is all of a sudden an exponential amount of information to process that is so alinear as to avoid assigning enough of a standard quality to pin down. Maybe the inherent understanding that Hollywood separates actors from directors from screenwriters makes it structurally sound and culturally acceptable in a way that the music industry never did. In Hollywood, there aren't questions about THE A-WORD, are there? Musicians, you see, get exploited. Actors are doing their job.

And what about other kinds of art? Can you copyright a Newman-ian zip? Which is more ludicrous: the desire to copyright a chorus or the desire to protect a Chihuly vase? These thoughts fill me with doubt. Doubt about the necessity of copyright at all. Doubt about the absolute impossibility of a world in which music is viewed the same way as other kinds of art – a culturally cumulative endeavor that encourages the kinds of folk processes from which humanity itself arises.

And yes, artists need to be able to make money; art is a career for those who are lucky enough. I am left wondering, though, what exactly happened to put us musicians in this legal and professional no-man's land? Where is the public domain when we need it?



  1. what do you mean by saying that the music industry is the only industry with copyright issues? when a movie references/samples another movie [like the MTV video in the beginning of Goonies, or the gangster film in Home Alone], there are always permissions noted at the end of the credits. Same with books: if song lyrics or poems or other authors are cited, permissions are noted on the LOC reference page. Not to mention footnotes. And if another writer/artist doesn’t want to give permission for his work to be used, tough luck.

    Comment by meathead — May 19, 2006 @ 11:47 am

  2. I didn’t mean necessarily literal quotations of an MTV video. I am more interested in the formal components of the work. For instance, a song on the radio is composed of several, usually many, independent tracks. A lead guitar here, a backup vocal there, a kick drum here, etc. They all combine together to produce what we call songs. But smaller groups of these tracks (a beat, or a chorus sung) get split up and sampled all the time. Copyright laws even get into the really miniscule stuff, like if the number of consecutive notes copied is higher than 6(or 8, or 14, I’m not sure what it is) than it counts as infringement. The building blocks of what goes into a song are sliced and diced and still protected. Why aren’t the elements of film? Does this make sense?

    That you bring up books is very relevant for the latest scandal, involving young author Kaavya Viswanathan’s book “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.”(An awful name, by the way). Her words were not verbatim but to many people constitute plaigarism. This says it best.

    Comment by alimarcus — May 19, 2006 @ 3:04 pm

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