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Sampling, or why nothing anyone makes is actually original

Successful producer and DJ Mark Ronson recently gave an excellent TED Talk regarding the history and culture of sampling in music (see below). In about 15 minutes, he explains how it started, why it started, and opines about why it’s really not that big of a deal. In a sense, he explains that the notion of sampling has been going on for much longer, it’s just that the introduction of digital technology made it so that rather than having to recreate a sound or riff that you heard in one of your favorite songs, you could snag it digitally and repurpose it. As could be expected, this changed the landscape of music production in many ways.

When you get right down to it, just about anyone creating anything samples. As a person responsible for creating concepts for campaigns and the like, I’d love to say that every idea that I’ve had and will ever have is original and doesn’t reference or borrow or sample from anything that has come before it. But then I’d be a liar, and I fancy myself as an honest person. I sample. It’s part of learning how to do what I do. By identifying what I like and what has worked in the past for others, I begin to develop my own voice (or the voice of a client’s brand). In that sense, I’m sampling. But that’s really only one kind of sampling – the one that provides a way for me to approach different issues and assignments and offer my unique perspective.

The other kind of sampling is usually labeled as referencing. And much like the sampling done in the late 80s and early 90s in music production, the more obscure the reference, the better. Obscure references accomplish two things: 1) Anyone that gets the reference, or sample, immediately feels “in” on it, a very good thing for marketers and advertisers; 2) The harder the reference is to recognize, the fewer people that will know it’s not an entirely original piece of work. Which leads me to the existential question that may or may not have caused me a moderate amount of anxiety: Is it actually a bad thing to borrow from past work, put a spin on it or interpolate it, and then put out in to the world as your own?

I agree with Mark on this one. It’s fine. It’s how art gets made. It’s how products get made. We build upon what already exists to improve it, make it better, or make something new. We draw on what inspires us and what we enjoy, on what has worked in the past and even what has failed, and we mix it all up in the magically complex machines called our brains, and it comes out on the other side as something new, fresh, and original. It’s nothing to feel ashamed about, and it’s nothing anyone who spots a “sample” should raise a red flag over, unless of course it’s actually just plagiarism. Plagiarism is just bad.

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