Laidback Luke discusses copyright infringement and creating new music in Billboard op-ed
As often as its been used through the years across a wide and varied range of genres from disco to hip hop, the practice of sampling has always incited controversy among musicians, producers and music fans. In an opinion piece for Billboard, producer and DJ Laidback Luke references the case of the hit “Blurred Lines” and the $7.4 million copyright suit filed against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams by Janis Gaye (Marvin Gaye’s former wife). “This is not a debate about the validity of “Blurred Lines” as a creative work,” says Luke, “but the validity of creating new music in itself.”
In the case of “Blurred Lines,” the jury found Thicke and Williams guilty of copyright infringement, it is only one of countless instances in which sampling has served as the route of messy, grey and muddled copyright battles. Luke himself says he’s no stranger to the courts when it comes to the issue of sampling. He’s received several suits throughout his artist career, the first when he was “just a starting artist, trying to pay my rent with a part-time job as a graphic designer.” Luke found a 12″ with acapellas and used some of the vocals in one of his tracks, “Music Always On My Mind.” The owner of the original acapellas, Victor Simonelli, sued Luke for $30,000. “Welcome to the music industry,” says Luke.
The tables turned years later when The Black Eyed Peas’ hit “Boom Boom Pow” came out, boasting vocals almost identical to Luke’s voice on “Be”, a collaboration with Steve Angello. Luke says he was initially flattered to hear his own voice on a Black Eyed Peas record, but his label and collaborator’s outrage at the obvious sampling inspired him to sue.
“We learned there is a very fine line between knowing your music has been used and being able to prove it,” he says. The problem, according to Luke, is that there is no concrete set of rules to define sample use. At the end of the day, the verdict rests on the shoulders of judges who “may or may not understand the technicalities of music productions.” Luke, who ended up retracting his case against The Black Eyed Peas, says the victor of such legal battles usually ends up being whoever has enough money to stay in the fight.
A legal battle with will.i.am several years later ended on more amicable terms. His track “Bang Bang” used Sandro Silva’s “Epic” (signed to Luke’s publishing company) without distributing proper credit or compensation. Luke and the Black Eyed Peas frontman ended up settling and embarking on what would be “the start of a creative conversation based on respect.”
“It’s all music anyway, right?” says Luke. “In dance music alone, there are at least 3,000 new tracks released every week. Surely almost anything you can think of has already been done?”
When put into terms like those, it can be a daunting thought for producers both striving to create something original as well as protect existing original content. Luke uses the example of his track “Bae”, which some have accused sounds a lot like Tujamo’s “Boneless.” Luke says he didn’t have it in mind at all while he was producing it.
“Unless we somehow invent new notes, the progressions that we can make are not infinite. The notes themselves have never been copyrighted, so how many notes does it take to claim it as a copyrighted sample?” he asks. “The early inventors of disco music can lay claim to pretty much everything that came after. What if Giorgio Moroder had stopped Daft Punk dead in its tracks? The Bee Gees, Bootsy Collins, KC and the Sunshine Band could have drastically changed the musical lay of the land had they stopped anybody who integrated portions of their work in new music.”
In a nutshell the world would have a lot less music if every case of sampling had been halted for copyright infringement. According to Luke, sampling has been a big part of music across the ages and genres. “The biggest hip-hop tracks we know ‘borrowed’ a piece of music we knew before,” he says, one of the most famous being “Rapper’s Delight” which sampled a lick from Chic’s “Good Time.” He says that hip-hop producers weren’t musicians most of the time, but rather adept at spotting samples.
“Being creative draws upon the collection of music in your head. It sits there and anything around you can influence you,” he says. “Anything you heard in your past that made an impression on you will affect your style.” Luke says he often finds himself being “a collection of anything Daft Punk meets Timbaland meets The Neptunes meets J Dilla, and that molded into a format that I can play as a DJ.” He says that being influenced seems inevitable, and that there will always be something out in the world that sounds similar to what any given producer is making.
Luke believes the “Blurred Lines” verdict serves to encourage producers to stop for a moment and be more cautious. He hopes that, at its best, it can trigger musicians to be more creative and original in their production.
“I remember trying to rip my vinyl collection to be able to play them digitally. I was held at customs for all these CDs I was carrying around. Although it was my own vinyl collection with no illegal downloads, they sent me off with an official warning. There are stories of DJs being arrested in Italy for playing music from CDs because the music had been copied illegally. Even if it was ripped from vinyl, this can be seen as an altered and illegal version of the original. In these cases, the governments and major labels were very slow to enter the digital era. I’m wondering if it’s the same in this case,” he muses.
He compares dance music to a sort of “Wild West” of sampling. Due to a vast world of “fun and inspiring” bootlegs and edits, Luke says he often gets bootlegs from young teenagers who just take an original and put their names on it.
Luke says he’s not trying to be hypocritical. He does, after all, run a label and publishing company that (for the time being) still make money from record sales. He has, however, found a growing need to adapt and increasing benefits that come from new distribution and sales models such as streaming and free downloads. “It’s making a real impact on our business and allows us to launch different artists and different music. We’re experimenting with giving music away for free to allow the community to share and consume freely, then come back with a different user experience like streaming where we can get a return on our investment,” he says. “The future in the music industry will change and I’d like to be part of the future, rather than stand in its way and delay the inevitable.”
In a way, he’s okay with knowing that right now, somebody somewhere is chopping up, sampling or remixing his music and attaching his name to it. “They are the future. If that stops, the music stops,” says Luke. However, he maintains “a new standard has been set” with the “blurred lines” brought up with the Thicke/Gaye lawsuit (pun intended).