How “stealing” can make you more creative, not less

Borrowing, repurposing, stealing. Whatever you call it, overall it’s the same thing. Taking something you heard elsewhere and incorporating it into your own work. Many people consider this cheating & see it as less creative. 

These are some of the reasons given for this point of view:

1. If the inspiration for your music isn’t coming directly from within you, you have no right to call it yours.

2. If music continues to just be sampled & recycled, it will continue on a downward spiral of nothing sounding fresh.  

3. It isn’t even legal to use pieces of other people’s music without permission, so why bother? Who can afford to license it anyway?

4. Before samplers were around, everyone had to do their own thing instead of ripping off others’ work. Everything was much more original before. 


I think this assumption is totally fair. I even fell into the group myself for a bit. However, this point of view seems a little ignorant now & is largely an obsolete point of view.

Let’s take a look at these a bit deeper:

1. The thinking that your ideas come strictly from within is pretty silly. Without sensory input how can their be creative output? Creativity has always been about having a perspective of the world around you & expressing that. If you think you are being 100% original because you came up with an amazing piano riff that you’ve never heard anyone play before, you are forgetting you first need to have heard a piano & a riff sometime in the past.  

2. The idea that taking all the music that has been made in history and recycling & repurposing bits and pieces of it makes the next generations of music less & less creative also doesn’t ring true. You would first have to assume that people weren’t stealing from each other before technology made it easier.

I’ll give you that different people were playing the same melodies, which created some variance in timbre, however with sampling, there are even more ways to make the original sound unrecognizable. So whether playing borrowed riffs on guitar or sampling & manipulating, it really depends on the musician how far the inspired part will deviate from the original. So the point is that technology is not the deciding factor on the level of originality in a derivative piece of work.

3. When you bring legality into art, you are shutting down the creative part of the brain. Although setting creative guidelines can sometimes lead to more creative outcomes, inspiration is inspiration & it shouldn’t be questioned at the time of creation.  If you want to be an artist, then just create & ask those legal questions from a different state of mind. Don’t combine the two.

4. Once again, we have covered this argument. Musicians were no more original before than they are now with sampling technology. It just so happens that there is a bigger pool of amateurs able to share their music with the world much more easily & in this way, it’s easy to perceive music as in decline. Then again, if you were exposed to everybody who owned an acoustic guitar coming to your house and trying to be Bob Dylan or John Lennon, you would sense a decline in music as well. 


Ask a better question

When it comes to our beliefs on what is a respectable way to approach music making I think there might be some better questions to be asking yourself. 

1. Am I even aware of how my favorite artists make music? How do I know they don’t use these techniques themselves?

2. How many ideas do I say no to, because it would be breaking one of my self imposed rules?

3. How much music have I finished that is truly like nothing else out there? 

4. Would I have more great music to share with the world if I let go of some of my beliefs on music making?

These are so important to ask yourself before you let any more time slip away. You may find that your favorite artists use sampling technology more than you would have thought (for me I was surprised to see how much Radiohead sampled other artists, Not to mention Daft Punk. Both great artists in their own right). Or you may discover some of your favorite bands ripped off other artists pretty blattantly (Look into Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan or Steve Miller band).

Everybody borrows or outright steals & it has always been that way. 

Stealing isn’t necessarily copying

Here is a quote from Apple’s VP that I like quite a bit, as it explains a deeper meaning of theft. It would be very hard to argue the fact that Apple has stolen from the past in order to make something quite innovative & new. 

“I think people focus on the Picasso statement (“Good artists borrow, Great artists steal”) and focus on the word ‘steal,'” said Bud Tribble, Apple’s vice president of software technology and leader of the Macintosh software team during its infancy. “If you take that word, which is kind of pejorative, and replace it with ‘make it your own,’ I think the underlying idea is that you can’t do great design by copying something because you aren’t going to care about it. If you take something and make it your own, what really happens is now you care about that design. It’s your design and that is the dividing line between copying and stealing. That is part of Apple’s DNA. The things we are building and creating, we really care about. We feel like they are ours, and we are making them as great as we can because we care.”


Creating without limits

So if modern sampling technology & stealing ideas doesn’t make you less creative, how do we take the leap that says it actually makes us more creative?


If you were to wake up tomorrow and decide that there were no rules to creativity, what do you think that would do for you? What if absolutely everything you experienced in life could be a seed or inspiration to creating something new? How often do you think you would have writer’s block?

Would all of your ideas be great? Of course not, but I would propose that being a great artist is not about everything you do being great, but that you are willing to enjoy the risk of failure in order to push yourself a bit further. And that is what I think makes great art happen. 

And remember, even though you might not always know the source of your ideas, they do come from somewhere. In the same way the brain can turn an alphabet into words & words into sentences, paragraphs & books, we are constantly deconstructing and reconstructing what is already there. We are not going to discover a 13th note in our octave, but we can always do something fresh with the 12 we already have. 

I encourage you all to listen, steal & inspire the next generation. 


happy music making!



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