Digital sampling and cultural inequality

Hesmondhalgh, David (2006). Digital sampling and cultural inequality. Social and Legal Studies, 15 pp. 53–75.



This article brings together insights from legal studies with methods of analysis and areas of concern characteristic of media, cultural and music studies. My particular interest here is in how the uses of digital sampling by musicians, and legal practices surrounding these uses, affect how we might think about the issue of cultural ‘borrowing’, especially when white musicians borrow from black ones. This in turn throws light on the relationship between, on the one hand, music and copyright law and practice, and on the other, systemic forms of social and cultural inequality. While I agree that copyright law, in constructing digital sampling as unlawful without the permission of the originator of the sample, has tended not to encourage forms of creativity associated with African-Americans and other disempowered social groups (notably sample-based rap and hip hop music), I suggest that arguments for a generous fair use provision for sampling may not always favour the interests of musicians from less powerful social groups either. I do so by reviewing public debates and academic work about borrowing and appropriation in music, and by presenting a case study of one particularly notable recent example of digital sampling and cultural borrowing: the use by the international dance-pop superstar, Moby, of samples of African-American musicians on his album Play. Because these samples were drawn from recordings made by the archivist and collector Alan Lomax, this also raises issues germane to recent debates about the role of ethnomusicology and other scholarly activities in providing materials for cultural production.

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