VIEWPOINT: AMPLE SAMPLES

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What makes musicians salivate, lawyers quarrel and executives wince? Digital sampling, that's what -- the practice of borrowing sounds from other people's records and putting them into new, 'original' music. Of course, the explosion of mass-produced music samples on commercial soundtracks has provoked plenty of heat all around. From the composers and music houses who swear by them, and those who don't, to the agencies and clients who pay for them, and those who won't, the verdict is by turns ecstatic, apocalyptic, and ambivalent. Which is pretty close to my own feelings about sampling in spots: the composer in me says miracle, but the businessman in me says minefield.

"Sampling" means very different things to different people. To a synthesizer manufacturer, a sample is the discrete sound of a piano or drum recorded on a chip. To a composer, it's a riff played by an ace guitarist -- or a symphony orchestra, for that matter -- on a sample CD. To a rapper like Puffy Combs, it's the Police's "Every Breath You Take," which Combs reincarnated in his Grammy-winning hit, "I'm Missing You." And to a musicologist, sampling is an entirely new method of composing, in which sounds, not notes, are the vocabulary of choice, and virtually any sound can belong to anyone.

Music sampling enhances our efficiency by bringing superior talent, ideas and recording quality to any project at any budget; but at what point do efficiency and uniformity inhibit individuality? Yes, sampling values ears and imagination over schooling and technique; but is it also possible that creating music to picture is somehow more precise and organic than recreating it? And sure, sampling has democratized and energized a commercial music culture all too often on autopilot; but are we on our way to making sampling the ultimate autopilot?

It's not just the riffs, grooves, loops and beds we use as samples, but also the choices we make when using them -- how we process them, where we place them, what we do with their pitch and tempo -- that transform sampled sounds into original music. Not that the line between influence and originality hasn't been blurred since Michelangelo. "Everything is influence," this year's Grammy-winning classical composer Ned Rorem told the New York Times recently. "The secret of originality is to know wherein you have stolen, and to disguise it. The act of disguise is the act of creation."

But the act of disguising a sample isn't always quite so simple, and sampling's legal ramifications are far more serious to me than its creative ones -- especially in a business where exclusivity is everything. At what point, after all, is a sampled track truly original? How do we grant exclusive licenses that may not be ours to grant? What if my tag for Brand A is perceptibly similar to someone else's for Brand B? How will judges and juries resolve these complex and subjective disputes? In short, how do we balance the exciting new creative horizons afforded by sampling against the "buyer beware" (and, yes, "seller-beware") concerns it's provoking?

I admit it: sampling engenders more questions than answers. It places all of us -- musicians, agencies, brands and courts -- in uncharted territory; and it expands the ideas of fair use and plagiarism to previously unheard-of dimensions. But far from an abstract intellectual property matter, what we're talking about is the sanctity of the brand image.

So, I'm torn. I'm excited about the creative possibilities sampling has opened up in advertising, but I'm also uneasy about the business and legal chaos to which it will inevitably lead. Then again, I'm enthusiastic about the new ways in which it makes us see a piece of music -- and hear a spot -- but I can't make up my mind as to whether it's rejuvenation or homogenization that ensues. In the wrong hands, of which there are many -- and with undue reliance on the best sample CDs, of which there are still few -- sampling in the extreme can only reinforce the notion that commercial music is a mass-produced commodity.

But, just this once, got any Steve Gadd hi-hat loops I can borrow?

Rick Lyon, president/CD of Lyon Music, played a sampled piano in a new Volvo

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