A View from Christopher Mims
Legitmix Ends the Music Sampling Deadlock
By replacing onerous legal contracts with a simple API, Legitmix makes it possible for everyone from GirlTalk to your next door neighbor to ‘license’ samples at no cost.
If you want to know why the Beastie Boys album Paul’s Boutique includes a sample from the White Album, while no subsequent piece of music has ever legally included a sample from the Beatles, the answer is copyright law. When sampling was new, the recording industry didn’t realize it could make money off samples, and they weren’t covered by copyright. Then the age of hip-hop mega-sellers arrived, and the holders of rights to pop classics discovered they could make more money on the remix than the original track ever pulled down.
The results of this licensing orgy are that it’s now almost impossible for a DJ or producer to license a sample for a reasonable amount of money – and if you’re the kind of producer who incorporates dozens or even hundreds of samples into his or her work, forget it. The odds of getting every artist sampled to OK the use of their work, and the resulting fees, preclude music like this from ever being sold; that’s why artists like Girl Talk simply give it away.
Legitmix, a track licensing platform, is here to cut the Gordian Knot of making tracks available to other musicians while getting artists paid for the use of their music. Its core innovation is the replacement of the old process – lawyers, contracts, permissions – with a straightforward API.
Here’s the first single to officially be released on Legitmix, a remix of El-P’s “drones over BKLYN” that incorporates a sample from “Tom Sawyer” by Rush.
And here’s a mix by Diplo, released this summer to help publicize the site.
The larger theme here is that it’s hard to over-emphasize the power that an industry gains when it switches from contracts to APIs. Jim Lucchese, CEO of music licensing platform Echo Nest put it this way when he spoke to Technology Review in 2010:
“From a lawyer standpoint, an API is a very efficient contract,” says Lucchese. “It’s as if you said, ‘Here’s my stuff, and here are the rules, and as long as you play by the rules, we’re good to go.’ “
Legitmix accomplishes this automated licensing process in a particularly clever way. Rather than asking the artist to pay for the rights to the sample, Legitmix asks the end consumer of a mix or track to buy the songs that are part of the remixed work. Legitmix also gives a cut to bloggers who feature the track or mix.
In other words, Legitmix isn’t just a track licensing platform, it’s also a gigantic self-reinforcing affiliate network for selling new music. And if you’re wondering why artists finally signed on to something like this, forgoing their usual up-front licensing fees, it’s probably because copyright law has been so broken that mega-hit albums like Danger Mouse’s Grey album, which mashed up Jay-Z’s The Black Album and the Beatles’ The White Album, made no one any money at all, unless you count the positive effects it had on Danger Mouse’s reputation and concert sales.
Indeed, it’s the overall shift in the music industry to making money from concerts and merchandise that makes a service like Legitmix a no-brainer. The alternative is the kind of music sharing that already goes on on music blogs, where everything is free and artists get zip.