IASPM 2014: Morals, Meaning and Money: Popular Musical Copying in the Age of Digital

Eminem’s favourite session players.

Adam Behr, University of East Anglia


At the root of copyright’s legislative reach, and practical effects, is the matter of ‘copying’ itself – often referring to what may legitimately (morally or legally) be done with an apparently completed piece. Yet making music, and acquiring the skills to do so, is shot through with acts of copying, from straightforwardly learning a basic riff to the network of socially inflected influences in composition and multifarious technological means of manipulation, particularly in popular music, where criteria for entry to the field are relatively lightly codified. Likewise, as well disrupting longstanding distribution methods, digital technology has blurred the relationship between production, consumption and the ‘finished product’.

Musicians are central to an industry rhetoric in support of copyright protection that often relies upon conceptions of discrete works established in a pre-digital era. This paper explores popular musical practices themselves in the face of a rapidly evolving palette of creative possibilities. How do musicians regard digital techniques—like sampling—and their outputs against other long established forms of copying? At what point do they consider the implications of copyright for their practice?

We will outline research that centralises musicians in discussions regarding copyright. Extensive interviews will examine where artists, whose industry counterparts are amongst the loudest voices in copyright debates, place different types of copying in the interconnected creative, business and social aspects of their practice. What do they see as ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’, ‘influence’, ‘imitation’ or ‘appropriation’? These concepts cut across both the cultural and economic values attached to popular music and this paper will shed light on how they interact in the shifting field of popular music practice, and the implications of these changes for the legislative and policy framework.

Adam’s paper opens with a great case study – Eminem’s ‘My Name Is’, which is based on a 2-bar Labi Siffre bass & drums sample (played, he notes incidentally, by mid-1970s sessions musicians who were later known as Chas ‘n’ Dave!!). He notes that Siffre made Eminem change some of the more offensive lyrics before releasing the sample.

He now identifies many different types of copyright –

  • Pedagogical
  • Transformative
  • Homage
  • Part of a tradition
  • Commercial imperative
  • Plagiarism
  • Deliberate
  • Unconscious
  • Legitimate/transgressive (‘morally’ and ‘legally’)

He notes [as I will be doing later today!] that copyright privileges certain sounds that are easier to protect, describing those who ‘rip off, rip off, rip off… but not so a musicologist would be able to tell’. He discusses examples of those who ‘stand close to the bonfire’. Cryptomnesia is implicitly cited through a reference to the My Sweet Lord case.

We now move into digital differences and continuity, to preface the forthcoming discussion on sampling. Digital copying, of course, post-dates copyright as a practice and as a concept, and therefore its adoption in music (e.g. hip-hop) challenges some copyright implementations.

Musicians’ ‘habitus’ (loosely, training and environmental experience) are discussed with reference to Toynbee and, previously, Bourdieu. This frames the identification of legitimacy in copying. An electronic artist interviewed for the research describes an example of an 8-note sample, which might be chopped into 16 pieces then re-ordered and reprocessed digitally. How much of the original remains? Good question.

An example is given of bands who insist on keeping a sample in a track even though doing so may be commercially detrimental to them – ironically the ‘purity’ of the song is perceived to be maintained by adhering to the copying!

Like Kenny previously, Adam ends by asking ‘what about the money’? He notes that legal ramifications are more likely the more money there is. He concludes that not all practices are equally protected. There is a brief allusion at the end to the Robin Thicke/Marvin Gaye case [see my Robin Thicke blog post from earlier this year].

In the questioning, the Spirit vs Led Zeppelin similarity was cited [see Led Zep radio panel post].

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