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Sampling and Streaming: De La Soul’s Catalogue Disputes and Streaming Economics

Photo of Zach Fuller
by Zach Fuller

De La Soul’s seminal early albums, including 3 Feet High and Rising and De La Soul is Dead, have been among the more notable holdouts from streaming services. Major artists such as Prince and Led Zeppelin also held off for years but eventually ceded, acknowledging the impact that not appearing on digital platforms could harm their legacy among younger audiences.

In a recent development, De La Soul are in a dispute with their former record label Tommy Boy for taking their music to streaming services. It raises old questions about the relationships between label structure, licensing samples and the emerging economics of music streaming. For context, De La Soul, took to Instagram on February 26 to express their dismay over the terms of their agreement with Tommy Boy:

“We are not happy about releasing our catalogue under such unbalanced, unfair terms. The music WILL be released digitally. After 30 long years of good music and paying their debt to Hip-Hop, De La Soul unfortunately, will not taste the fruits of their labour. Your purchases will roughly go 90% Tommy Boy, 10% De La. Thank you.”

This is not an uncommon contention. Indeed, many acts from Taylor Swift to Radiohead have criticised streaming services for what they perceived to be a devaluing of their art. As the format has grown, many of these issues subsided as the scale of the audiences served increased. Additionally, many artists had begun to recognise that streaming is less a replacement for the retail/sales model of the industry, and is instead a combination of lower paid sales but better paid radio.

Founding member Maseo explained that after Tommy Boy’s rights were acquired by Warner Bros. Records back in 2002, potential sample disputes within the De La Soul catalogue (artists such as Otis Redding and Parliament Funkadelic) had prevented the label from making them available on services such as Spotify. The De La Soul catalogue however has since been reacquired by Tommy Boy allowing the label to finally negotiate with streaming services. However, that De La Soul have revealed that Tidal had reportedly agreed not to stream their back catalogue in solidarity again raises the politics involved in which catalogue ends up where.

Such disputes also underline why other areas are becoming more lucrative for streaming services, such as podcasts which in an attention economy are both cheaper to produce than music and allow the streaming services to garner more ad-revenue. The sample issue has also been impacted by streaming economics, with Hip-Hop acts have become notably less sample-centric in recent years, with drum-machines via production software becoming the main canvas of the genre as opposed to the sampled drum-loops that the genre originally based itself upon. Additionally, emerging sample clearance services such as Tracklibs are being employed in a bid to simplify the onerous legal framework that has plagued Hip-Hop since its emergence commercially in the 80s. Such tension between De La Soul and Tommy Boy further highlights is how difficult it is to transplant that framework into a streaming context that satisfies both parties. As streaming becomes the de-facto mode of listening, incidents such as this are likely to be unfortunately common.

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