Ringo 033: Small Potatoes

or, the man can't bust our music

Hello, friend! I’m Michael Donaldson, and this is the return of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care, an email newsletter about music-listening, music-making, and the befuddling culture around those things. Because there comes a time when you just have to dance like no one’s watching even though it turns out everyone is watching.

These newsletters are getting spotty in frequency, that’s for sure, but I soldier on. I’m encouraged to report that lately, I’ve got a spring in my step after limping through the newsletter wilderness. And, you know, I was thinking about a new layout and format for this ‘first of the year’ relaunch, but I chickened out. That will come at another time. 

Today I’ll get to the heart of the matter, and that means a new theme song. “International Scope” is snakey and plodding, fuzzy like an afternoon hangover. No guitars were harmed in the recording of this song (as much as my frazzled playing might sound like it). So, sit back, pop open “International Scope,” and then proceed into some extended blog thoughts on the state of digital sampling.

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One quiet morning in the early 2000s, I arrived at my label’s office and listened to the voice mail no sampling record producer wants to hear. The call was from a lawyer representing the estate of the leader of an obscure ’70s funk band. He knew that I used a 2-bar drum loop from this band on a song from my first album. It didn’t matter that this loop was fairly common, used prolifically in both mainstream hits and underground white labels. It also didn’t matter that I probably grabbed the loop off one of those erroneously named ‘royalty-free’ sample CDs that were common in the ’90s. The lawyer (and, presumably, his client) wanted his cut. 

Long story short, the fact the loop appeared in several mainstream hits probably worked in my favor — once the lawyer saw the requested final sales figures for my album, he realized I was small potatoes. I guess I wasn’t worth the effort, and I never heard from him again. But the most disturbing thing was how he found me. He was going through listings of songs that sampled his client on a sample-identifying website. 

I’m not sure which site the lawyer used at the time. Today’s most popular one, WhoSampled.com, launched several years after that frightening phone call. But the fear persists among producers. A new article in Pitchfork by Mosi Reeves details how representatives of legacy catalog use WhoSampled to source potential litigation, despite its intended purpose of pointing fans to old records:

It is a useful resource for rap listeners, despite its complicated role in sampling culture. Chris Read, the London-based company’s head of content, said that using the website as a fact-finding tool for potential lawsuits is a violation of its terms of service, and that the practice “stands in opposition to the reason WhoSampled was created, which is to provide a place for music fans to discover the origins of the music they love and celebrate sampling as an artform.” He acknowledged that the site does not distinguish between cleared and uncleared samples in its listings, because information about sample licensing is not always made publicly available. Producers can request takedowns of listings related to their work if there is information that “they would prefer was not published” on the site, he added.

The law is clear, so producers using uncleared samples — myself included — are unambiguously in the wrong. Many in the music industry’s creative roles have called for an overhaul of these laws to recognize sampling as an art form and create avenues for producers working outside the profitable mainstream. Some lawyers, like the one who contacted me and ended up letting the sample slide, would seem to agree. But then there’s the challenge of differentiating those who use samples artfully vs. those who use them to profit off the notoriety of earlier works. Yes, music rights are complicated.

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But that wasn’t the first time I received a phone call about an illicit sample. A previous scare happened a few years earlier. Backstory: One of our label’s first records included a song with a slowed-down loop from Herbie Hancock’s “Bring Down The Birds.” This was the same sample that formed the backbone of Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart.” On our record, the loop played so slow that it became the song’s loping bass line. 

I arrive at the studio office, and there’s a waiting voicemail message. “Hi, I represent Herbie Hancock, and I’d like to talk to you about this song.” My label partner and I stared at each other open-mouthed, for probably five minutes. It took us a few days to build the nerves to return the phone call. The guy on the other end of the line says, “We just wanted to let you know that Herbie knows about the song and likes how you used the sample. If we want to license the song or use it anywhere, we get to do so for free.” Uh, yes sir, no problem, sir!

So I guess you could say I got pretty lucky with samples. There have been a few close calls (I won’t elaborate!) and other times when I had to turn down a movie or TV license because a song had an uncleared sample. I did once try to clear a sample legally. The sample in question was a short vocal drop repeated in the song maybe six times. The artist’s publisher wanted a five-figure advance and half the publishing ownership of the piece. So that didn’t happen.

That was twenty years ago. There was huge resistance to sampling then and, if you weren’t dealing with Herbie Hancock, you could expect to give up a lot for legal clearance. Want a crazy example of this? Search for A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It” on BMI’s Songview repertoire. You’ll see that the only songwriter credited, who also owns 100% of the publishing, is Lou Reed.

I stopped sampling not long after my failed attempt to follow the rules and get something cleared. I wanted more chances to license my music to a broader audience, and I had a bad feeling that a third phone call wouldn’t go as well as the first two. But now sampling is more acceptable and viewed artistically (and as a means of easy cash flow), even by the old-timers. Check out Bob James. The supposed “most sampled artist of all time” has given a bunch of his songs to Tracklib, a site that pre-clears songs for sampling at a low cost. But I have to wonder if sampling is as attractive when we remove the thrill, secrecy, and danger. There’s nothing like discovering that weird beat or sound on an obscure thrift store record and transforming it into something new. And then getting away with it.

(Someday, I’ll write more about why we sample and how sampling installs outside contexts, and how all that relates to Gysin’s cut-ups, etc., etc.)

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Robin Rendle says, “The web doesn’t have to be this ugly and embarrassing thing … the web can be made beautiful.” He’s made a beautiful webpage to prove this case. Rendle has illustrated his scrollable essay with vintage woodcuts and metal engravings that are surprisingly effective in amplifying his points. And those points are about how the recent ubiquity of email newsletters is a missed opportunity for a blog renaissance.

Rendle is really asking, “how do we make the web for everyone?” He sees the rise of newsletters as an encouraging sign that people are moving away from social media’s grasp. But why not embrace blogs, which are capable of much more creativity than allowed in email? Because, ultimately, the open web is not as convenient. Website-building is not intuitive, nor is website-following (“RSS is for nerds.”). The creators of Substack know this and made a publishing tool that’s easy to use and receive. 

“If we could subscribe to websites easily,” says Rendle, “then the web itself might not feel quite so forgettable.” He suggests that browsers should include built-in RSS reading. In a way, I guess this would be like a global version of Facebook’s newsfeed. That feed is essentially an RSS reader, but one can only subscribe to feeds within Facebook’s toxic prison camp. 

I do like newsletters. On second thought, I actually like that more people are writing and sending out personal essays. The email newsletter is merely the delivery method. Thanks to Feedbin, I read my newsletters in an RSS reader, living side-by-side with the blogs I enjoy. 

Ringo is amazing and I have no plans to stop but, if I had to choose, my blog is my preference (luckily, I don’t have to choose). Blogging feels more open, free, and permanent (as permanent as something on the web can be). I do fear that newsletters may prove a fad — both Facebook and Twitter are jumping on the newsletter bandwagon, which hints that ‘peak newsletter’ isn’t too far off. Blogs remain that scruffy outlier, unpeggable and persistent, slippery between fingers of profit-hungry CEOs. Email’s okay, but blogs keep the web weird. 

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Burdy – Satellite → Back in the ’90s, all of us downtempo-headz listened to lots of Fila Brazillia and the other artists inhabiting the Hull, UK, imprint Pork Recordings. One act that stood out was Baby Mammoth, a duo who shared Fila’s knack for melody and sly rhythmic constructions. An amicable gent named Burdy was one-half of Baby Mammoth. We ended up becoming friends thanks to his semi-frequent sojourns to the US, where we often DJ’ed the same club nights. After a couple of solo releases and a stint as an Australian, Burdy took a long break from music-making. Now he reaches out from his new base in chilly Canada, surprising us with a delightful album of fresh music. 

Satellite was recently released on Filtered Deluxe Recordings and features ten tracks that won’t disappoint fans of the Mammoth or their Pork label-mates. The songs feature Burdy’s sense of melody, sense of humor (“Murder Hornets,” anyone?), and his sense of style. Meaning, this is stylish stuff — pleasantly sloping beats, a rush of organic and electronic instrumentation, and vibes for days (or daze) make me wistful for when we used to pack dance floors with 100 BPMs and below. Start with the second track, “Kananaskis,” with its road-movie guitar, watery bounce, and cryptic chants, immediately pulling you in for the long haul. [LINK]

Emily A. Sprague – Hill, Flower, Fog→ “Mirror” is the unassuming third song on Emily A Sprague’s latest, Hill, Flower, Fog. As gentle as a shower of cotton puffs, the song lightly bubbles and pings in sensuous repetition for over nine minutes. The changes are subtle — a lonesome synth swell lingers in the background, pining for recognition, and stereo echoes increase patiently. “Mirror” is the best kind of unobtrusive, and it’s almost shocking when it ends. It feels like a sound that should last forever. 

It’s tempting to say the same about all of Sprague’s latest album for RVNG Intl. — its warm reassurance is a welcome companion. It feels real, and, over six sonic tapestries, Sprague turns a Eurorack’s cold toughness inside out and brushes its circuitry with earth, dew, and sap. Like mysteries of the natural world, Sprague’s electronics feel emergent.

Hill, Flower, Fog is a pandemic album, recorded last March as the world started to realize the trials to come. But these songs magically (and sonically) trade impending sense of loss and uncertainty for sonic intimacy and optimism. One could note that Sprague’s cyclic melodies and looping treatments reflect the imposed routines of lockdown. However, the music is encouraging, inferring these daily patterns as something cherishable, an opportunity for reflection and moving inward. It seems to say, “one day at a time.” [LINK]

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Woosh! Thanks so much for reading. Here’s to a new year (yes, I’m a little late) and new beginnings. I have a lot in store for both Ringo and 8sided.blog so keep your ears to the ground. I’ll also have a music announcement soon WUT. In the meantime, reach out any time if you have feedback, comments, or wanna say hello hello. I’d love to hear from you. Stay safe, keep dry, and, if you’re using a reusable mask, remember to wash that sucker. I’ll see you around again soon! 🚀

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btw — I'm Michael Donaldson and you can read more about who I am and what I do here.

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