When done right, a song with a great sample can make an album. But have you ever thought about how a sample is actually cleared for an album? We hear all the time about a song not making an album because of sample clearance issues, but what does that really mean? What happened?
While art and commerce are often seen as different currencies, when it comes to sampling they're two sides of the same coin. Without sample clearances, some of our favorite songs wouldn't be on our favorite albums at all, so while we honor the likes of Juicy J, Preemo, and 9th Wonder, we also need to give some shine to people like Deborah Mannis-Gardner, the president of DMG Clearances, Inc.
Like I would for any producer or singer, I began researching Mannis-Gardner after I saw her name in the Views liner notes. It turns out she has over 25 years of credits on albums like Fat Joe’s Jealous Ones Still Envy (J.O.S.E.), Lupe’s The Cool, Eminem’s Encore, Nas’ Life Is Good, The Roots’ How I Got Over and that just scratches the surface of a resume that also includes work for films (8 Mile) and video games (Rockstar Games).
Putting a name and a face to the mysterious, confusing world of sample clearance and publishing has helped me to see the art of sampling in a different light, and when I got her on the phone and picked her brain about sampling's past and present, it found our conversation to be illuminating.
Here are just a few gems from the woman who helped to make your favorite albums, beats, and samples a possibility.
What clearing a sample was like 20 years ago:
"I've been doing it for 25 years, so I've been around for a long time. Back then we used to be able to do it for a lot less. When Common did an album, like his first album, he would have four or five samples in a song and it would be a challenge, but we would be able to make it happen.
"You just can't do it anymore because everyone's so greedy and they [the publishers] want a minimum of 10 or 15 percent. So it makes it very difficult to be able to take a song and sprinkle it in, which is what producers like DJ Premier used to do. That was a specialty, to do a whole bunch of scratches and stuff. That was the style, a sound and a feel that's very difficult to do now because most publishing companies have been bought by the majors. You have Sony ATV, you've got Warner/Chappell, you have Universal (BMG) which has acquired a lot of stuff.
"Back 20 years ago you had all the different little companies that gave us more flexibility to negotiate, but now, everything's been bought."
What clearing a sample looks like now:
"When you're putting together a budget for an album, you're going to put together $100,000 to $150,000 in upfront fees to clear your samples, if it's an album filled with a lot of samples. You have to utilize a sample first before you can clear it. You can't just come up with the idea because the copyright holder needs to hear it. And in most instances, people come to me and then we handle it two different ways.
"Depending on who the artist is, if it's Marshall or if it's Drake, Khaled, they're very protective of their stuff and it gets played over the phone. If it's another artist, we can put stamps on it to protect them. But then you send it to the copyright holder so they can listen to it. They need to determine how extensive the use is for them to determine what kind [of cost] they're going to come up with.
"And then it goes to the publishers, then the labels, and in some instances based on what the contract states, it has to go to the writers for consent and it might have to go to the artist or the artist managers. So there's a lot of approvals that it needs to go through, and then once the approvals come about, a quote or value is then determined and negotiated."
How often do samples get denied?
"Whenever a sample gets denied, you always want to find out why and what we can do to perhaps change that into an approval. Was it a lyrical use? Could we change the lyrics to change that denied into an approval? Was it their content? What is it exactly? So we can try to keep denials to a minimum. My clients rarely get denied and if they get denied chances are I told my client in advance that I anticipated a denial, so they were prepared prior to me even sending the request out. My denials are probably less than 1 percent because I forewarn my clients of denial."
Who are the artists who typically don’t clear?
"I’ll give free advice to my clients so they have an idea of if what they want to sample is feasible. I'll say “that copyright holder isn't clearable,” like Anita Baker or Rod Temperton, it's going to be costly or time consuming. After 25 years, I know who clears and who doesn't, who's quick, who's difficult, all that kind of stuff.
"Prince never cleared. He's never cleared for samples. When it came to synchronization stuff, he rarely cleared. I cleared his stuff for In Her Shoes [the film], but those were songs there's cover versions of; his stuff was always difficult. He was very protective of his material. When I did Kendrick's album, To Pimp A Butterfly, they reached out to him personally and still he very politely declined. He was always polite about it, but he just declined.
"Stevie Wonder used to clear. I cleared his stuff for DMX, but then he stopped. He doesn't allow his stuff to be used anymore. It was just a decision he made that he just didn't want to be sampled anymore. And he too declined Kendrick. He was really polite about it like, 'You know this is a great song, but it's really not what I want to do.'
"That list is so big and it is always changing because copyrights get bought and sold all the time."
Any standout clearance stories?
"The funniest clearance I've ever done, which is all over the internet but was never legally released, was Old Dirty Bastard with Macy Gray wasted in the studio singing "Don't Go Breaking My Heart." I wondered if I was going to really get this cleared, because it was really horrible sounding and funky and they were wasted, but I got it cleared because it wasn't a cover, it was an interpolation; it wasn't verbatim, word for word."
How do you track down copyright holders?
"When I started out a long time ago, you could call up BMI and you were only allowed to ask five questions at a time. So I would hang up and then put on an accent, change my name, and ask five more questions; I’d put on a Southern accent, then I’d have an English accent, then a Massachusetts accent, a New York accent.
"We have tracked down people who have died and you’d find out who takes care of the cemetery plot. You just go to the ends of the Earth - if you know someone is alive and you haven't heard from them, you find out where they live and you find a neighbor to knock on their door which I've recently done.
"Now, the internet makes things a lot easier. I love the challenge. And it's becoming more and more challenging because producers are finding really obscure stuff on YouTube, so it's getting more difficult, but I love it."
Can an artist sample on a free project without clearing?
"You cannot sample on a free mixtape, and I know of cases that I think are in process right now where copyright holders are going after this stuff because the concept of a free mixtape is to promote an artist. Therefore it's deemed to have a value. If the artist goes to the next level, so that when he goes to sell something it has a greater value, then the mixtape does have value."
What does sampling mean to you?
"Sampling is, in my opinion, like a collage, a piece of art where you're taking pieces of other music and creating new pieces. I think there are copyright holders and artists and writers that never saw income or never thought they'd see income again but do because of samples. I have gotten thank yous before from people just for bringing their stuff back to life. I think there are generations that hear music that they would have never heard had there not been samples."
In some ways, it's sad that technology and the current music business model have made it more difficult to sample like Premo used to do regularly back in the day, but it's those very same advancements that make sampling a pillar of the industry. At the same time, though creatives and fans alike find it frustrating that a song needs to clear the clearance hurdle, it's exciting to think about all the songwriters and artists who continue to live off music, and whose work continues to be passed down to different generations, all because of sampling.
For better or for worse, the business behind sampling has allowed hip-hop to rise to where it is today, and I'm happy to see someone like Mannis-Gardner, a true fan of the art form, helping to find that balance.
A special thanks to Forbes for laying some of the groundwork for this conversation in their interview with Mannis-Gardner.