Sample clearances

Sample clearances

Every day over 60.000 tracks are added to Spotify. Most of them go unnoticed, a small portion ends up on the radio and even a smaller portion ends up as hits. With such a huge amount of tracks being produced on a daily basis, it is almost impossible to maintain the highest level of creativity. This is one of the reasons why so many tracks nowadays include samples of older tracks. 

But what exactly is a sample and how can we use it? Are they free to be used, or is there a risk to get sued when using a sample? Let’s investigate…

What is a sample?

A sample is a piece of an already existing recording included in another composition. It can be anything you’ve ‘taken’ from another track; a vocal, a melody, a beat, rhythm. 

Some of the biggest hits contain samples. Often it is a great way to ‘reuse’ a very popular sound into a more modern-day track. If it is done on such a wide scale, surely it must be free to do so?

The answer is no. Using a sample of another track can’t be done for free, a license needs to be in place.

Sample clearances, how does it work?

By using a sample of someone else’s work, copyright is violated. As described in this blog, there are several kinds of copyrights on music. Using a sample means there need to be licenses in place for the use of the master recording and the usage of the composition.

Even if it is only a small portion of the track, a sample is a sample and needs to be cleared.

Where and how to clear the rights for the master recording?

The master recording is often owned by a record label. The performing artist (who wants to use the sample) should figure out which record label owns the master recording rights. The label should be contacted and a licensing deal has to be signed. 

The record label does not have to grant you permission, negotiations on terms and conditions can be tough.

How to clear the rights for the composition?

Rights for the composition are often managed by publishers. A good starting point to finding the right publisher is diving into the databases of large publishers like Harry Fox, ASCAP or BMI. 

If you know where the original artist is from, a starting point can be to search for a list of publishers from that particular country.

How much does it cost?

There is no average in terms of costs, especially because each project is different and there has to be dealt with by several parties. In most cases, only 1 record label has the master rights but this does not have to apply to the publisher as well. If, for example, a record has several vocalists, chances are that they each have a different publisher.

Clearing the publishing part:

In most cases, the publisher wants to be paid an advance. The rule of thumb is the bigger the hit, the bigger the budget, meaning that if you try to clear the rights of a huge worldwide hit you’d have to pay more as opposed to a record that is unknown. 

Besides an advance, the publisher is likely to ask for a percentage of all revenue generated by the song. The amount of that percentage also varies, for example depending on how much of the original track has been sampled and what portion of the new track it covers. If it is only a small percentage or a very subtle use, hardly unnoticed, the amount will be low. In the case of the old hit representing a large portion of the new track, the percentage will be higher. This can vary anywhere from 10% to 60% of all income generated. 

Clearing the master recordings part:

The record label that owns the master recordings is most likely to ask for the same amount of advance as the publisher. Besides the advance, record labels often also want an extra fee, like an override fee. For example: for every 10.000 downloads or 1 million streams of the track, they want Eur. xxx.

As described above, clearing samples can be very expensive but is also crucial to do it. Getting sued will cost much more eventually.

If you release a song which has unlicensed samples, your label or distributor will most likely reject the content or in some cases even terminate the contract. Even when it is a small sample and relatively unknown; if your record turns out to be a big hit, the original rights holders will eventually find out and they will claim their part of the royalties. And in that case, they will not be open for negotiations, most likely you have to pay 100% of all income received.

Why use a sample if it is so expensive?

As mentioned before, creativity has to be sparked and this can be done using a sample. If a track eventually ends up being a huge hit, income will come from various sources.

On the recordings side of this, you will have to pay large amounts of money to publishers and record labels, leaving just a small amount for the artist. But a huge hit can also result in getting booked on shows and festivals. Artists can then make money on booking fees. 

How can I start if I have a tight budget?

There are alternatives to going all out in terms of budgets. One of them is pre-cleared sample libraries like Tracklib. On Tracklib, for only USD 6 per month, you can download 25 samples. The library includes samples from hit records and original samples which have all been cleared for usage. 

Looking for free sample packs? There are many sites where you can download them, but to name just a few:

  • Legowelt: offers samples for DJs that are into the more obscure electro music;
  • Samplephonics: offers high-quality sample packs, varying from trap, to D&B, and to tropical bass;
  • SampleRadar: has a large collection of samples (over 80.000), all alphabetically listed, which makes it easy to navigate!

Think big, start small!

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