By: Morgan Podkul
Photos by: Ashlynn McKee
In 2021, there is a plethora of music genres to choose from for our pleasure. With such a variety of music, one might expect every song to be completely original. It is difficult, however, to determine whether every song is original in its own right. Concepts such as sampling and copying of music have proven to muddy the waters when it comes to determining originality from artists with their songs.
Sampling is a popular way for artists to take a sound or track, and use it in a new way. By definition, sampling is, “the technique of digitally encoding music or sound and reusing it as part of a composition or recording” according to Google.
A great deal of songs played on the radio are sampled songs. Well-known songs that are less well-known as samples include: Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious,” which is sampled from Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen,” Rihanna’s “Work” which is sampled from Alexander O’Neal’s “If You Were Here Tonight,” and Madonna’s “Hung Up” which is sampled from ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).” Ariana Grande is known for sampling some songs, including “The Way” with Mac Miller and “Problem.” To sample is a unique way for artists to take an old or recognizable sound or track and reinvent it in a way that represents them and their style.
As innovative as it is to use samples for songs, it is not a simple process. To use a track as a sample, the artist is required to receive full permission from the original creator. The process is known as “sample clearance.” Failing to receive said clearance could result in a lawsuit or the prohibition of public music distribution.
A majority of music listeners fail to realize just how popular sampling is and continues to be in music. As of 2018, one in every five Top 100 songs were sampled. That list includes Drake’s “Nice For What” which has four separate licensed samples. The practice is quite common among artists today and continues to grow in popularity as the years go on.
A common pop-up question on the topic is often, “Is sampling not just copying other songs?” While artists may technically be copying the piece they are using, they are not copying the original song itself. For example the love songs: “So Sick” by Ne-Yo, “Pull Up” by Luh Kel, and “NEED YOU MOST (So Sick)” by The Kid LAROI are sampled from the same track; however, each presents different messages. Ne-Yo’s original sound has been sampled in 13 songs, covered in 12, and remixed in one. An artist could not use the music from Ne-Yo’s song without his permission. To not receive permission would result in consequences for the covering or sampling artist.
When it comes to album cover art, the concept of copying remains. If an artist wishes to copy art from an album cover, they are again required to obtain permission from the original artist. Without that permission, copyright lawsuits are introduced. Examples of “copied” album covers include: Gorillaz’ Demon Days album cover which strongly resembles that of The Beatles’ Let It Be album cover and The Clash’s London Calling cover which is almost a direct copy of Elvis Presley’s The Elvis Presley Album cover. Copying album covers is proven to not be a new concept, but does not receive as much recognition as copying songs does. Still, it proves to be an issue that exists in the music industry to this day.
While the industry itself accepts sampling and copying under strict legal rulings, some listeners become outraged when credit is not given where it is due. Olivia Rodrigo’s hit song, “Good 4 U” received major backlash from social media users for its striking similarity to Paramore’s “Misery Business.” In the initial crediting of Rodrigo’s song, Paramore lead singer Hayley Williams was not given credit for the inspiration of “Good 4 U.” After complaints from listeners were shared online, Rodrigo updated the crediting of her song to include Williams and the band’s drummer, Zac Farro. In addition to the uproar with “Good 4 U,” another song off Rodrigo’s SOUR album received backlash online for having a similar sound. “Déjà Vu” had to change its credits to include Taylor Swift, Jack Antonoff, and St. Vincent as co-writers on the song. Had those credits been given from the beginning, listeners could have appreciated the similarities rather than feeling upset by them.
Where is the line when it comes to sampling or copying songs and album covers? That is a gray area that cannot be fully identified. While there are lawsuits that prevent plagiarism, is it right that artists should get away with presenting striking similarities to other songs or album covers? Should sampling in songs even be allowed? Does the music industry need to implement strict rulings that declare all album covers and songs should be distinctly unique from others? Is uniqueness too much to ask from artists in the year 2021? These questions are prevalent in the minds of all who learn about the subject, but may never be completely answered. That is the beauty of sampling and copying. Those tactics draw listeners in and bring attention to songs or album covers with little to no effort.