It was John F. Kennedy who famously (and quite erroneously) observed that the word “crisis” in Chinese consists of characters meaning “danger” and “opportunity”. (And this was not the only non-English language faux pas he would commit). Yet, crises do provide the latter as much as they do the former. The vapour scene is facing such a crisis.
This year has seen some takedowns due to the sword of Damocles that has characterized the scene from the onset: sampling and claims of copyright infringement. This is nothing new to the scene but this year saw some high profile changes. The first one was the take-down from YouTube of Macintosh Plus’s “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー”, which had accumulated some 40.5 million views. More recently, haircuts for men had to take down his entire discography due to a cease and desist letter received (unclear if it came from a publisher, a writer, a record label, etc.) and announced he will return to music-making, though sample-free. Some artists and labels followed suit either anticipating receiving similar responses or actually receiving them. The most recent and high profile of all is 猫 シ Corp. who announced via Facebook that in addition to launching his own proper record label, he would make sample-free music.
As someone who has worked to make his own music for more than a decade now, my own views and attitudes have been added, refined, modified, reaffirmed and gone through all matter of revisions. I have friends, colleagues, and peers who have a broad range of views concerning intellectual property from “It’s important to keep it at all costs” to “It’s a fucking sham and should be disregarded outright”. I know for sure that it will continue to change over the years after publishing this. All the same, it’s time to place some markers as to continue the discussion as it were.
First off, I think it is important for artists to create their own respective work and have a stake in how their works are to be presented and shared with the larger public. At the same time, I think there is a difference between protecting your own work from infringement and using a copyright to claim authority over someone else’s artistic expression. Art works best when there is both freedom to express as well as a mutual respect for others’ expressions.
In regards to the vapour scene, I do think that most of the works that take the plunderphonics approach, which is famous for confronting the assumptions concerning intellectual property, creativity, originality, identity, etc., is ultimately transformative. After all, while it’s an “open secret” that the aforementioned “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー” uses Diana Ross’s performance of “It’s Your Move”, I don’t mistake the former for the latter. And even when I do recognize the source of something, I think of it as a quotation that can bring another dimension to understanding the original or take it to another place that was beyond its original construction.
(That said, I also think the process of clearing samples should be more efficient and more – ahem – clear. I understand that it all depends on the copyright holder. But more transparency and clarity for expectations can be helpful as to avoid traversing a legal minefield.)
However, like the bad yet popular linguistic observation, I do see this move away from the plunderphonics to something more original as not only welcome addition but also an inevitable one. While there are certainly artists who still employ the plunderphonics approach and continue to do some creative things with it, there’s only so much you can do with the pre-existing material, especially the ones that vapour insists on using. The reason why vapour has continued to “last” beyond its initial burst is its ability to change and adapt and grow. Even a scene that exists in part to maintain a particular time period (or a time range usually), remaining stagnant and static is a guaranteed way of ending it.
Also, in the larger story of art (certainly Western art), following prior examples and precedents are just the first step taken in developing one’s artistic voice. Sure you start off copying Beethoven’s symphonies or painting like Michelangelo or sounding like your post-punk contemporaries like Siouxsie and the Banshees, but sooner or later you take the reins and start making works that reflect much more your own sensibilities, interests, experiences, ideas, etc. Everyone starts off sounding like their influences. But even then, you are not your influences and that becomes more apparent the more you create. For a lot of these artists who are making the move away from utilizing samples, it is an opportunity for personal and artistic growth.
In conclusion, I still see the vapour scene as an art movement more than anything. Yes, there is a particular origin to it that is and should be remembered. However, I do think it was always meant to be more of a starting point and not the end goal. If there’s an end goal to achieve, it’s to make art that’s honest, sincere, genuine and meaningful, certainly in strong contrast to what has passed for it. Fellow artists, excelsior.