Laidback Luke Op-Ed: 'Blurred Lines' Are Dangerously Thicke After Jury Verdict
The DJ/producer weighs in on the "Blurred Lines" verdict, sampling and the complexities of creating new music in the digital era.
So I guess the verdict is in. Most of the focus in the "Blurred Lines" case has been on the money. Little has been said of Marvin Gaye's family's attempt to stop any further distribution of the track itself. This is not a debate about the validity of "Blurred Lines" as a creative work, but the validity of creating new music in itself.
I'm no stranger to the courts when it comes to sampling. I have been on the receiving end of suits multiple times. The first time I was just a starting artist, trying to pay my rent with a part-time job as a graphic designer. I found this 12" with only acapellas, ripe for the taking! Or at least that's what I thought.
One of them ended up on my track, "Music Always on My Mind." Although it was very underground and we didn't sell that many of it, Victor Simonelli, who owned the original, came after me hard. I suddenly owed him $30,000 as I'd ruined the possibility for him to make a hit that he'd supposedly planned for the vocal. Welcome to the music industry!
Many noticed the similarity in The Black Eyed Peas' "Boom Boom Pow" and "Be," my track with Steve Angello. Initially, I was pretty flattered as the bit in question was actually my voice! I had made it sound like a synth, but this was my voice on a Black Eyed Peas record – my first claim to fame and one that my parents could actually grasp.
My initial enthusiasm died when I realized that there would be no fame or even recognition forthcoming, and soon my collaborator and label's outrage inspired me to sue. We learned there is a very fine line between knowing your music has been used and being able to prove it. There's no concrete set of rules to define sample use, so it comes down to much academic pondering by judges who may or may not understand the technicalities of music productions. Whoever has deeper pockets to keep litigation going to its final outcome often prevails. We ended up retracting our case.
Funny enough, we did settle with Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am some years latter for his use of "Epic," a record by Sandro Silva that I had signed to my publishing company, on his track "Bang Bang." He too initially stated he was inspired and felt no need to credit or compensate beyond that. It ended up being the start of a creative conversation based on respect, and we're working on a record that he will vocalize now. (Note: will.i.am's representatives did not return Billboard's request for comment).
Sandro Silva's "Epic" is often credited with the start of the whole big room genre and, in that sense, he could have sued many who were inspired by it.
It's all music anyway, right? In dance music alone, there are at least 3,000 new tracks released every week. Surely almost anything you can think of has already been done? For instance, people think I jacked Tujamo's "Boneless" with my track "Bae," whereas I didn't have it in mind at all while producing.
Unless we somehow invent new notes, the progressions that we can make are not infinite. The notes themselves have never been copyrighted, so how many notes does it take to claim it as a copyrighted sample? Everyone will recognize the first 3 to 4 notes in "Get Ready For This" before any vocal even drops in.
The early inventors of disco music can lay claim to pretty much everything that came after. What if Giorgio Moroder had stopped Daft Punk dead in its tracks? The Bee Gees, Bootsy Collins, KC and the Sunshine Band could have drastically changed the musical lay of the land had they stopped anybody who integrated portions of their work in new music.
In the "Blurred Lines" case, I can hear is a same type of groove and a similar sounding Rhodes organ that doesn't even play the same notes. I'd even go so far to say that "Blurred Lines" is just a similar style of track as "Got To Give It Up." Style as in genre.
I often tell my producer talents to go ahead and sample one hit drums from professional tracks. Just to be able to sound professional straight away. In EDM we use the sample packs called 'Vengeance Essential' very often. These consist of snapshots taken from professional tracks. Everyone knows it and uses it. But technically, sampling single drums can lead to trouble, too.
This means it's very easy to record just a short section of an existing track and use it in yours. Hip-hop was notorious for this. The biggest hip-hop tracks we know "borrowed" a piece of music we knew before. One of the most famous ones that started hip-hop is obviously "Rapper's Delight," which used Chic's "Good Time" lick. Hip-hop producers weren't musicians most of the time, but just good at spotting samples.
Being creative draws upon the collection of music in your head. It sits there and anything around you can influence you. Anything you heard in your past that made an impression on you will affect your style. I often find myself just being a collection of anything Daft Punk meets Timbaland meets the The Neptunes meets J Dilla, and that molded into a format that I can play out as a DJ. Being influenced seems inevitable, and there's almost always something out there that sounds similar to what you're making.
The "Blurred Lines" verdict does stop us in our tracks (literally) for a moment to think and be more cautious. Maybe it can trigger musicians to be more unique, and really get creative?
I remember trying to rip my vinyl collection to be able to play them digitally. I was held at customs for all these CDs I was carrying around. Although it was my own vinyl collection with no illegal downloads, they sent me off with an official warning. There are stories of DJs being arrested in Italy for playing music from CDs because the music had been copied illegally. Even if it was ripped from vinyl, this can be seen as an altered and illegal version of the original. In these cases, the governments and major labels were very slow to enter the digital era. I'm wondering if it's the same in this case.
In dance music, we have a whole realm of bootlegs and edits that are very fun and inspiring. But it feels like the Wild West of sampling too. I often get bootlegs from 15 year old kids who just swap out their name for the original artist: Johnwell Smith - Zombie Nation (demo). And speaking of which, my fellow artists W&W did just upload a free and awesome rework on Zombie Nation. This got pulled offline very fast, and now it seems they are waiting to be sued.
I'm not trying to be hypocritical – I run a label, I run a publishing company and, for now, we make money selling records. I'm saying "for now," because we're already making more money from streaming than from selling records. It's making a real impact on our business and allows us to launch different artists and different music. We're experimenting with giving music away for free to allow the community to share and consume freely, then come back with a different user experience like streaming where we can get a return on our investment. The future in the music industry will change and I'd like to be part of the future, rather than stand in its way and delay the inevitable.
The fact is, this very second some kid somewhere is taking my music, chopping it up, looking at it sideways, replaying it and then calling it his own. They are the future. If that stops, the music stops. However, a new standard has been set. Those "Blurred Lines" suddenly became dangerously Thicke.
Laidback Luke is a Filipino-Dutch DJ/producer with more than two decades of experience in the dance music industry. Luke owns Mixmash Records and supports rising talent through sub-label Ones to Watch and his production forum, whose users have included the likes of Avicii and Afrojack.