Music & Money: Risk Minimization and Sampling

We, as a society, have a shared conception that the true artist is one who makes thoughtful and provocative work unprovoked and organically, as if the true artist is untethered and concerned only with their inspiration and their creation. We also largely share a notion of authenticity as it relates to money that is nearly unattainable — we often think authenticity in art is corrupted by money, and artists who attempt to appeal to the market are “sell outs” (Barnard and Lindner 2019:3). Could this be true?

Well, having received a valuation of $19.1 billion for the year 2018, the music industry is encapsulated by money from end to end, and as such, it’s the money that largely dictates the trends and directions of all music being made, no matter if it’s popular or not. As music consumers, we wonder, does a piece of music lose authenticity if the artist or creator is being paid to create? Through a macro lens, we may never know for sure because there is simply no metric with which to measure such a phenomena. But through a micro lens, we see the traces of money’s influence on the music industry throughout, and specifically in the area of risk minimization and sampling.

Risk Minimization

Today, a full-time artist must create work that earns enough money to allow the artist to continue to create — and eat, I suppose — and to do so is usually the greatest challenge for an artist; to make something people will buy. And as technology has allowed countless people like myself to join the competition for success, producers and artists have become better and better at both identifying trends in the music that consumers are listening to, and adapting their own music to try to fit the trend and hopefully find commercial success. This technique is considered to be a kind of risk minimization, and it has created new debates regarding the music’s authenticity.

The risk minimization of this kind can be seen being utilized in virtually any field within the entertainment industry. A film director may include an A-list celebrity in their upcoming film because the A-lister has an established fanbase that will generate a guaranteed number of ticket sales. Or, a folk musician may invite a fiddle player to join his/her band because fans of folk music usually expect the fiddle to be included. Risk minimization permeates all commercial art.

In the specific example of the band Semisonic’s biggest hit, “Closing Time,” to much of the public’s surprise, multiple versions were made that each sound unique to one another (though perhaps only slightly to the common listener) and that are made to specifically target and appeal to specific music listener markets and radio stations. There’s a “Top 40 Mix” that was intended for play on pop radio stations, an “Alternative-Rock Mix” that was made for alt-rock radio, and an “Adult Contemporary Mix” which was made for adult contemporary radio stations.

With different versions, we are led to ask; what was the original version of the song? And does it matter? To further this point, I’ve created alternate mixes of the song “Time Machine” by Alicia Keys by utilizing different pre-made settings (Presets) within an audio mastering software I own.

To question if a stylistic difference in the mix of a song undermines its artistic integrity, I think it’s important to look under the hood of music production as a whole. Bluntly, there have always been, and there always will be multiple versions no matter where you look. In the case of live performances, in short, the car stereos and headphones through which the majority of music listeners primarily listen to music are different from live venue PA systems and therefore cause the music to sound different. Therefore, for every master version/mix of a song, there is a “live mix” that is unpublished and intended for use when the song is played at a live venue. In the case of music streaming; the virtual platforms through which the majority consume music are also different from one another in the same fashion that a pair of headphones are different from a concert arena. When a piece of music is mixed and ready mastering (the final stage in the post-production process, which balances sonic elements to optimize playback across listening formats), different masters of the final mix (though virtually indistinguishable to the casual listener) are sent for distribution at different websites, like Spotify, Youtube, and Tidal, because each has a unique algorithm for its loudness normalization — the process that makes all music on a platform sound somewhat the same volume and loudness (which are different!) So if multiple mixes of a song is so upsetting because artistic decisions are being made for the sake of the listener, why does anyone go to live performances, for example?

In the case of this image of the Mona Lisa; is the painting’s artistic integrity undermined by the simple fact that it has been placed online (without its frame) for people who couldn’t see it in person? Or, does it matter that the painting itself is now and forever residing in the Lourve; a setting where the artist did not intend for it to be displayed, and where you must pay for access?

Here’s a hint: If you dislike “Closing Time” for its differing mixes, you should be bothered about the Mona Lisa––and every painting, for that matter.

Sampling

Samples are sound files containing recordings of anything from drums, instruments, riffs, vocal performances, sound effects, and even full songs, which are used by music creators and producers to create music — and sometimes also used as a risk minimization technique. Much like how a guitar is “used” by a rock band, producers use samples to create compositions. In the case of myself, I make hip-hop beats, and I use samples throughout every stage of my creation process. To one argument, you could say that none of the music I create is 100% original. But to another, you could say the fabrics I choose to stitch my sonic quilt has no bearing on the quality, authenticity, or value of the work I create. Does the photographer build his own camera? Does the builder mill his own lumber? No. (See two samples I use frequently in my work below.)

This debate over the impacts and ethics of sample use is nothing new.

Since its early years, sampling has grown and evolved to complete different, more complex and meaningful tasks, thanks to producers of different times and styles who have each carried the torch and innovated their practice in different ways; some more influential than others. If we look at today’s hip-hop for its being the result of all that came before it, we are able to identify the patterns, techniques, and trends of sampling. There are two main methods of sampling.

The first method of sampling is perhaps the more basic of the two, as it takes sounds from other songs and/or recordings and reinterprets them into the context of their contemporary home, entirely for their sonic value — dissociating the sample from the context of the song from which it came. This technique bares noticeable resemblance to its DJing origins, as the same techniques were used by the first DJs by simultaneously broadcasting sounds from multiple turntables holding different records. With expert care for timing, speed, and sound, DJ’s could assemble an entirely new and unique piece of music by recycling pieces of others.

A master of production, Kanye West is one who frequently uses this method of sampling and is famous for finding some of the most obscure snippets to use in his music — sometimes even sampling himself. In his hit “Famous” off his album The Life of Pablo, Kanye samples his song “Wake Up Mr. West” from his 2005 album Late Registration by merely inserting the “Wake up Mr. West!” vocal sample. By doing this, he completes the first method of sampling because the information provided by the sample bears no historical context nor implicit vibe — it serves solely to be heard, not to be felt. Another example of this can be heard in the song “Juicy” by The Notorious B.I.G., who sampled “Mtume” by Juicy Fruit.

Ex: Famous (sample at 1:49)

Ex: “Wake Up Mr. West” (sample at 0:39)

The second method of sampling calls for a much different skill set than the first, because while the first intends to borrow merely words or sounds, the latter method intends to borrow as a way to harness the implicit emotion, vibe, and tone from the sample and implant it meaningfully into one’s own music so as to endow the contemporary creation with an element of the past. This method hinges upon the nature of music as a sonic reflection of a culture and time, because it seeks to extract the intangible elements of its time that have been branded permanently into the music. It requires the ability to identify and appropriately re-appropriate sometimes emotional, potentially controversial, and/or symbolic records and artists because only from music containing those qualities can truly meaningful pieces of work be constructed. For example, Nina Simone has become a highly sampled artist in hip-hop for the ability of producers to use her unmistakable voice to make powerful juxtapositions. It’s merely Nina’s voice, let alone verbal message, that packs a powerful punch. In one of the most famous examples of hip-hop sampling Nina Simone, Kanye West’s song “Blood On The Leaves” juxtaposes Nina Simone’s cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in order to produce a message about race, identity, and materialism. (See link below, as I, too, have produced a composition using Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” to exemplify the capacity to redefine samples — except unlike Kanye, I make no statements about race, identity, or materialism.) In my beat, I use just the first sampling method because my use of the sample does not borrow anything but sound.

Here, where famous pieces are being used for contemporary creations, is where controversy and copyright law is introduced. Regardless of whether or not Kanye gained proper clearance to use the sample from Nina Simone’s estate, is it stealing or cheating for Kanye to utilize the recognition and cultural capital of Nina Simone to benefit his own music? It’s hard to say.

So yes, the money changes the art, but does it matter?

In writing this essay I hope to liberate all who appreciate any art at all from their own looming and residing conception that a piece of art’s authenticity is undermined by its capitalist origins by making the argument that nearly everything we consume is created for the purpose of capitalist success. So if you still disagree, you’re only creating a problem for yourself. And, I suppose the only “music” you listen to is baby noises.

References:

Lindner, Andrew M., and Stephen R. Barnard. All Media are Social.

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