While sampling is certainly a valid creative and compositional tool, it also carries some risk. Especially with the advent of digital sampling, there are some artistic traps that have become ever more easy to fall into – after all, there's a reason that these days it's often easier to define a “genre” by what sort of material its musicians draw samples from than by its compositional characteristics.
It has become far too easy to emulate form over function, which is why, despite their genre foundations in some genuinely inspired and extremely creative music, in 2013 chillwave or synthpop now translates to “80s nostalgia,” seapunk to “90s nostalgia,” and vaporwave to “00s nostalgia.” The Laptop Renaissance years were full of promises (as with every successive decade in music technology) that freely (read: illegally) available technology would finally bring professional-grade music production to the masses, that the individual alone in their bedroom could craft a hit song. This is unquestionably true, and most successful music careers now begin with a self release on Soundcloud or Bandcamp.
However, it is also unquestionably true that all this technology has at the same time allowed the musical market to be flooded by endless derivation and imitation.
Making new out of old is one of the greatest and most time honored traditions in musical history – respecting that tradition is kind of the point of this series. Sampling is intrinsically valuable, and the ability to reinterpret the old has never been easier in the post-laptop world. But, at the same time, because of the proliferation of the same technologies, the same databases, the same sources, the same websites, the unfortunate truth is that musicians keep arriving at the same sounds.
On one level, this is actually awesome – seeing AAA, mega-budget producers using the same sounds that are being used in the indies is inspiring. It shows that they're using the same workflows, searching the same databases; it makes that AAA dream seem even more attainable. It's rad hearing a sample on the radio and being able to say “I used that first!” However, on another level, it's basically just evidence that both the AAAs and the indies fall victim to the same technologically-induced creative quagmires.
The problem is as follows: the internet allows artists virtually infinite access to every kind of source material. However, a creative bottleneck appears because we still have to get to this wonderful content through the exact same delivery channels. I'll illustrate with my own tale, concerning a specific repeating visual “sample” which I've taken to dramatically calling “the Face.”
I think I'm one of the few people who've noticed its recursion since I've actually used it myself, but the image is on its way to becoming a sort of modern “Amen break” that turns up in all sorts of unexpected places. Back in 2010, I was working on a musical project of my own. I won't bore you with the details, but it was a dark, 80s-synth inspired thing with pitched-down vocals (which probably describes half the musical output on Bandcamp between the years 2007 and 2010, but I digress), and so I required a similarly spooky album cover. Naturally, I turned to Google. I wanted to evoke uncanny technological eeriness, so I ran a search for “early CGI”. Some rad pictures showed up, along with their source on Youtube, so I grabbed one, took it for a quick spin through Photoshop, and came out with a passable album cover.
My little project came and went – no big deal. However, after making that album cover, I started noticing that same face used in other compositions. Enter Miley Cyrus. Looking to re-brand herself after spending her formative years under the mouse-head banner, she records "We Can't Stop", a dark, 80s-synth inspired thing with pitched-down vocals (stop me if you've heard this one before...), and so required a similarly-spooky video. Naturally, she and her team turn to Google. Wanting to evoke uncanny technological eeriness, Miley runs a search for “early CGI.” And, what do you know!
There's our Face (around 1:14)! I remember reversing the video to stop at the face in disbelief, so I could be sure that it was sourced from the same one that I had found. It was pretty mind-blowing to think that someone else, let alone Miley Cyrus, had found the exact same video that I had sampled for my own project. It was even more mind-blowing when I found that Yung Lean had released a video (for a dark, 80s-synth inspired track with pitched-down vocals, no less) literally the day before "We Can't Stop" came out, which also happened to feature The Face (around 2:37)!
These are the instances of the Face that I've found so far, but if Miley Cyrus is using it, I'm absolutely certain that countless others have found it as well. At first, it really was genuinely surprising to find the Face being re-used by other musicians, but it retrospect, it makes a lot of sense. It comes from the top Google and YouTube search results for a phrase which very succinctly describes a specific influence of the contemporary internet musical aesthetic.
I don't actually know the workflow that lead to its inclusion in Miley or Lean's videos, but it would make a lot of sense if they came upon this particular sample in the exact same way that I found it. The recursion of the Face, while pretty funny on its own, is direct evidence of the kind of problematic trend in computer art and music production about which I'd like to expressly warn. If the same Google search of all things can lead to the adoption of the same imagery, then might other systemic artifacts of the “greatest musical instrument of all time,” the computer, lead to derivation simply by virtue of the ways we have learned to navigate its electronic pathways?
The proliferation of the same torrented software, the same free sample packs, the same Google and Freesound searches for “80s CGI,” “Windows 95 MIDI,” “trap drum pack,” has certainly opened up music making for the masses, but only at the cost of everyone using the exact same reference materials, only at the terrible risk of everyone making the exact same music.
None of this is meant to give the impression that “re-using” something that has already been “used” is intrinsically an artistic faux pas. A ton of really great songs were written using exactly one tool – the guitar. Re-use, as we have previously discussed, always creates some degree of change. Rap was born out of re-use. House music, by my favorite account, was born when Leonard Rroy, in a hurry, dug some old records out of his mother's basement.
Ultimately, the issue with computer-mediated creativity is that method has become conflated with product – sample-based production risks becoming little more than a collage of aesthetic influences dropped as-is into a composition. Computer-specific workflows like Google searches or free sound packs exacerbate this problem by providing the same concrete returnables for every individual who explores based on the same influences or aesthetic considerations.
When your basement contains virtually the entire summation of every recorded sound in human history – when, without a doubt, you can find exactly what you need with some effort – why keep returning, song after song, to that same old record crate? In the post-laptop world, in the post-mp3 world, basements have grown exponentially – they're nearly infinite. When any sound is accessible, we can no longer afford the luxury of the limit.
For every sound chosen, there should be a reason. “Because it was the thing that I found” simply doesn't count anymore. As we examined last week, sound choice matters deeply on both a textual, compositional level as well as an interpretive, subtextual one. However, as we saw this week, sound choice is also affected by external, systemic factors which guide composers toward the selection of certain samples and sounds. Next week, we will examine the controversy within the expanding trap music scene, illustrating how these factors converge when the same sounds are nonetheless interpreted in vastly-differing ways.