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Kanye West Scavenged for Samples on ‘Vultures.’ Should He Have Been Allowed To?

Mr. Nimbus | 02/21/2024

During its first week of release, Vultures 1, the first full-length release from the artist formerly known as Kanye West and singer Ty Dolla $ign, changed distributors, was pulled from Apple Music temporarily and got cut by a song to ward off a possible copyright infringement issue brought up by Donna Summer’s estate. So far, the story of the album may be as interesting as the music itself — and Billboard has reported that some samples remain uncleared, which suggests that this could only be the beginning.

Like many hip-hop artists, Ye makes music that involves both snippets of other recordings (samples) and passages of other songs that are re-recorded (interpolations, which confusingly are often referred to as samples as well). Samples generally require a license from the owner of the recording and the underlying composition, while interpolations only require the latter. West seems to have cleared some of the samples and interpolations he’s used, but not all of them. 

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There was a time when that would have been dangerous. When the music business was dominated by physical media, rights holders whose work was used without a license had the legal leverage they needed to take most, or even all, of the rights to a song, as ABKCO famously did with the Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” which sampled a version of the ABKCO-controlled Rolling Stones song “The Last Time.” The Verve’s only other choice would have been to destroy all existing copies of the album it was on and stop promoting what became its breakthrough hit. 

West won’t face those issues, partly because no single song on Vultures 1 depends as much on one sample or interpolation, and partly because the nature of streaming means that most music — most art, really — isn’t ever really final anymore. When the estate of Donna Summer said that West had used elements of “I Feel Love” without a license for “Good (Don’t Die),” the song was simply pulled offline. Uncleared samples could be re-recorded, if West can get permission from a publisher but not a label, or simply replaced by other musical elements. Albums can evolve for legal reasons as well as artistic ones.

This is an extreme example of what seems like a general trend, as is the Travis Scott album Utopia which Billboard recently reported has its own issues with songwriting credits and royalty splits. In this case, Scott worked with producers and co-writers but didn’t finalize all of the relevant agreements. Scott is far from the only artist to deal with this issue. Here, too, Scott’s collaborators could sue — although this would be a foolish move since many of them depend on his star power to market their work and the nature of streaming blunts potential legal threats.  

In both cases, the balance of power in a licensing system that initially gave more leverage to songwriters and other rights holders is now tilting toward recording artists, especially powerful ones. That could be bad for other creators, because the less money they make, the more tempted they are to take any deal they can get to keep money coming in. In most cases, delays in negotiation and payment are just that — arranging all the co-writing deals gets very complicated because there’s only so much credit, and thus royalties, to go around. But the way the leverage shifts toward artists doesn’t exactly inspire their teams to deal with this as fast as possible.

The same kind of pressure doesn’t apply to publishers that control interpolation rights for older songs, but it’s important to remember that this money, too, goes to creators — often on better terms than streaming revenue does. Financial issues aside, creators also have the right to decide if they want to be associated with other creators, just as they have the right to turn down advertisement opportunities. In West’s case, Ozzy Osbourne turned down West’s request to sample a live version of “Iron Man,” which he wrote with his bandmates in Black Sabbath, because of West’s antisemitic comments. So West simply went ahead and sampled his own song, “Hell of a Life,” which uses the same riff. Osbourne should be able to prevent that — his team didn’t comment on West’s use of this other song — and he may decide to try.

The music business needs a code of conduct to deal with this situation before it gets any worse. If it’s overly strict to require artists to sort out all rights before the release of an album, a voluntary code could mandate having rough agreements in place or requiring final ones to be completed within a certain amount of time. The idea would be to give artists the time they need to sort out rights issues, within reasonable deadlines that will keep negotiations relatively equitable. If artists can’t figure out the credits issues that get their collaborators paid, maybe they shouldn’t submit their music for the Grammy Awards — which are voted on by other creators — or even be allowed to. The idea isn’t to penalize anyone, just to create a hard deadline. 

None of this would address Osbourne’s issue with West, which I can’t help but take more seriously than the others. Think about it: The No. 1 album in the country this week is by an antisemite who has praised Adolph Hitler and the Nazis and will soon headline a major festival. (In December, West apologized for his comments with a statement in Hebrew but it’s hard to know how seriously to take that, considering that this album has a line about how “I just f—ed a Jewish b—-.”) I think it’s possible to enjoy good art made by bad people, and I assume that most people listening to Vultures 1 don’t agree with the crazy things West has said. At the same time, it feels wrong to write about the copyright issues West faces without acknowledging how hateful he has been. Presumably, West will find ways to license the snippets of music he uses on this album or else replace them. But as he faces pushback from creators and rights holders who are reluctant to be associated with him, as Osbourne is, perhaps he’ll begin a more serious effort to make up for some of the awful things he’s said.  

This post was originally published on this site

Written by Mr. Nimbus

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