Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Amen Break: Copyright, Royalties and True Art

There's no way that back in 1969, The Winstons could know their track "Amen, Brother" would contain one of, if not the most, sampled pieces of music ever. Whosampled.com claims the six-second "Amen Break" appears in more than 2000 recordings. So much has been said and written about the sample that it's got it's own Wikipedia article. It also spawned an hour long documentary on BBC Radio One hosted by Kutski. But it's this odd, 18 minute video-recording of a dubplate by Nate Harrison from 2004, that most succinctly addresses the vast influence and copyright ramifications of the "Amen Break." 

Harrison showcases many of the samples and manipulations of the "Amen Break," it's variations and, in return, the creation of various sub-genres. Arguably the inciting force behind the jungle sub-genre, the four bar loop has found itself in everything from NWA's "Straight Outta Compton," The Prodigy's "Poison," to, more recently, Keys N Krates' "Save Me." While it spread like wildfire, it pushed past the boundaries of copyright and royalty law forcing the lawyers to play catch up. As Harrison states in his recording, sampling wasn't mere appropriation but an attempt to re-create and breathe new life into older artwork.
The reflexive nature of art may have become a postmodern problem, as the "Amen Break" literally broke into popular culture, where money was now able to be made. Of course this is the big problem with electronic music and its sample heavy, remix driven nature. As always money is the problem. Big money-hungry labels do their best to shutdown bootleg remixes, but why? This is a problem centuries older than the "Amen Break." Shakespeare said art is a mirror held up to nature, to which Bertold Brecht refuted "Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it." What is true art and at what point does it become a commodity?
Once again Harrison hits the nail on the head when he questions whether Richard Spencer (the "Amen Break" copyright holder), thought of sample-based music as not "having any potential, beyond a limited underground appeal." But since we now know that the "Amen Break" has been such a money maker, Spencer sees the recordings that use the sample as both "plagiarism" and "flattering." It's perhaps this reconciliation that best illustrates the inherent problem behind art as cultural production, and the eventual rendering of its aesthetic value into commercial value.

True art cannot be created as a commodity, it's merely an aesthetic release. If there is an audience open to and accepting of such a piece, it can be shared in such a group, lending credence and credibility to the work. However, it no longer remains art, as its use and value change (for better or worse), when it reaches an indiscernible point at which it achieves commercial value (a commodity). It essentially becomes alien and gains a life of its own, perverted by public consumption, no longer owned by the artist.

Art, and much of music (popular music, that is), has become a person's ability to sell their creation as a commodity, that is, artistic goods and services. And while I do not get paid for this blog, and do not get sold by artists to write about their work, I do often engage in and enjoy commodified, pop music. The thin line between art and business is tremendously blurry and seemingly inescapable. Music and its consumption, becomes an entirely subjective and personal endeavor, that can invoke a multitude of emotions and elicit endless meanings for its consumers. Perhaps that is the magic and allure of art. It is both, something so close to our hearts that it seems incarnate, while at the same time being something so mystifying and incomprehensible.