Sunday, February 3, 2013

Classic Collaboration And Copyright Fights: MARRS "Pump Up The Volume"

US "Pump Up The Volume" Cover
If you read Sound On Sound you are familiar with their ongoing Classic Tracks feature where they interview one or more people involved in the production of a "classic" recording.  The August 2012 track is "Pump Up The Volume" by MARRS[1][2], which helped popularize house music in the US and UK, before a lot of us knew what house music was.  At the time, I thought of this kind of record[3] as instrumental rap/hip-hop.

UK "Pump Up The Volume" Cover
I knew there had been law suits surrounding some of the samples used in "Pump Up The Volume" but until I read this Sound On Sound piece I didn't really know the story.  I also didn't know that by the time I heard the track the songs producers had already been forced to make changes to to it.  As tabled out in the song's Wikipedia article, the US versions of the song I am familiar with had at least four samples (from Lovebug Starski, James BrownWhistle and Stock Aitken & Waterman) removed and replaced.  This honestly surprised me.

BBC News Photo Of Pete Waterman Looking Gritty
By far the most interesting of the removals, to me, is the one forced by Stock Aitken and Waterman[4].  I became aware of this production team through their involvement with Dead Or Alive, who's clubby dance remixes I was particularly fond of in the 80's.  The SOS article points to significant hypocrisy, especially on Waterman's part.  It seems that while he was publicly decrying the theft of his work--and demanding it be excised from all international releases of "Pump Up The Volume"--he was also putting out records biting other people's work.

It isn't the hypocrisy that gets to me the most.  I know people have their own points of view and he's probably got his own version of this whole story.  What makes no sense to me is demanding the removal of the sample.  Why not just demand a little compensation?  I mean, you can actually DO something with the money.  Who benefits from suppressing the use of the sample?  To me the value of holding the copyright to something is that you get credited and compensated for its exploitation.  It is just weird to me that a business person would rather shut something down that get a slice of the action.

Another thing I found interesting in the SOS article was the number of people involved in "Pump Up The Volume's" production.  Not counting the innumerable people heard in the samples, no less than eight musicians and producers contributed directly to the making of the record.  These included five members of AR Kane and Colourbox (the official members of MARRS), two outside DJs[5] and producer/engineer John Fryer.  This completely goes against the modern image of electronic music producers working alone, hunched over a single computer, sending files back and forth over the Internet to their collaborators, assuming they have collaborators.

Also, the whole record (again, if you don't count the production of the sampled material) was done in a single, commercial studio; Blackwing, in London.  Today we would expect it to be done at least in part in someone's home studio, not entirely in between sessions by conventional bands in a commercial facility.

Paul McCartney, Megalomaniac
The difference is partly economic.  In the mid 1980's drum machines, samplers and recording equipment were all much more expensive than they are now, so there were more things that needed to be done in "real studios."  MARRS was also a product of its time in that ideas about collaboration have changed.  The conceit of doing a whole project by one's self and doing it well was left to megalomaniacs like Paul McCartney[6] and Prince[7].  Now a lot of us think we can do it, even if we can't.  We can finish the project.  It's the "doing it well" part where we tend to fuck up.

Today it would be reckless to put out a record like this without preparing some sort of legal protection, be that in obscuring the samples, getting clearance for key samples or...something.  Lots of electronic records are released with uncleared samples, but they are released into niche markets where they don't need to sell a lot of units to make money and will probably not be noticed by the copyright holders.  I think it is a great irony that these artist's financial security relies on their records not becoming too popular.  "Pump Up The Volume" was designed from the start to be the huge hit that it was.
3. There were actually a lot of them, some mentioned in the SOS article. Various records by S'Express, Bomb The Bass, Coldcut, KLF (and related), Pop Will Eat Itself and Age Of Chance come to mind. I really should write about Age Of Chance. They are terribly interesting and under-recognized. I probably put some of the housier of these records in the "rap" box because I had a Salt-n-Pepa single with an instrumental on the B-side that had a similar sound. It was probably the early 90's before I "got" house music as a distinct style, even though I owned and enjoyed a number of house records.
4. Many, references to Stock Aitken and Waterman mention the artists they worked with in passing, if at all. This makes them a kind of late-century throw-back to the 60's and Phil Spector, at the height of his career.
5. Chris "C.J." Macintosh and Dave Dorrell.
6. I list Paul McCartney not because he is particularly known for doing whole albums by himself but because fellow Beatles and others report him being a know-it-all who told other, very talented, people how to play and replaced his band-mate's performances with his own without discussion or permission.
7. Prince, of course has done things both ways over the years, but part of the buzz around his early records was that he not only could write everything and play all of the instruments but, for the most part, did.

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