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Music, Technology

To Sample or not Sample? That’s the Question!


Sampling has several definitions, but the one used most commonly in music today is the practice of taking a section of previously recorded music, such as a piano run, guitar riff or a horn flourish, and inserting it into a new recording, often with some modification and in a loop. The use of samples in music can vary. Some samples are identical reproductions of a familiar section of a popular song set to a new style of music. Examples of this approach are MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” and Kid Rock’s “American Badass,” which sample excerpts from Rick James’ “Superfreak,” Queen’s “Under Pressure,” and Metallica’s “Sad But True” respectively.

At the opposite end of the sampling spectrum are artists who approach the practice as a sort of musical collage, an established practice in the visual arts, where artists modify a sample, such as a change pitch or tempo, and combine it with a number of other samples to create a wholly unique sound or atmosphere. Sometimes people refer to this as “chopping samples”. DJ Premier, The Beastie Boys, Nine Inch Nails, and Beck often use samples in this way.

Permission to Sample

Because samples are pieces of recorded, existing music subject to copyright, understanding the rules regarding sampling requires a quick discussion of how copyright law applies to sound recordings.

“Copyright” is a blanket term that covers a number of specific rights that apply to creative works. Among those rights is the right to make and sell additional copies of the work, the right to make other works derived from the original work, and the right to show or perform the work publicly.

The courts have had varying approaches to sampling as cases have arisen, but the current legal standard is that all samples must be properly licensed from the copyright owner. In the past there were allowances for minimalist uses, which did not require a license. However, that is no longer the rule. All samples must be cleared by the copyright owners. Samples of any length, modified or not, recognizable or not, must be licensed.

Damian Marley and Nas collaborating on sampling African Music

Where Do You Go To Get a License?

In order to figure out who to talk to about getting a license, we have to talk more about copyright and how it applies to music.

Copyrights relating to music can be a bit tricky. There are two sides to the copyright coin with respect to music. On one side you have the song itself, which is comprised of the music, the arrangement, and the lyrics. For copyright purposes, this is called the “composition.” On the other side of the coin is the specific captured performance of the song as it is recorded onto some form of media. For copyright purposes, this is called the “sound recording.” Whenever a song is played on the radio we think of it as a single thing (the coin), but in reality it is really a fusion of the composition (the song as written by the songwriter) and the sound recording (the performance of that composition as captured by the musicians, producers, mixers, etc. in the recording studio).

The effect of this is that there are two copyrights that protect a sample. One copyright covers the composition, the musical notes or lyrics that comprise the sample. The other copyright covers the recording of someone playing the music in the recording studio.

Oftentimes the owners of the composition and of the sound recording are different entities. Tracking down the music publisher who owns the copyright to the composition and the owner of the sound recording from the studio isn’t always easy. There are companies that assist artists in obtaining clearances for their samples. Contacting the label to request a license provides an opportunity for the requesting artist to be put in touch with the owner of the composition. The performance rights associations, ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, also have searchable lists of songs. Since many publishers work with these groups they are likely to have the contact information of the copyright owner.

In other words, there is no single clearinghouse to go to for a license for a sample. It requires a little searching, but it is a relatively straightforward process and is far from impossible. Remember, the copyright owners want artists to get a license before they sample, so they want to be found.

How Much Does the License Cost?

Licensing costs are variable and depend on several factors such as the popularity of the original recording or how recognizable the sample is, how much of a song is being sampled, who and how popular the requesting artist is, and so on. Some samples are licensed for a flat fee, others for a percentage of sales, and sometimes a combination of both. Unfortunately, the answer to the question of cost is, “it depends.”

However, despite the very real costs of licensing samples, they are almost always less than the cost of litigation, damages, and having your record pulled from distribution.

At The DS3 Entertainment Group we are big fans of Limelight’s www.songclearance.com for mechanical licensing and royalties. Unfortunately Limelight does not offer licenses for the following uses so reach out to an experienced Entertainment Attorney (like Douglas Sands & Associates or Roxell Richards & Associates) for assistance.

  • Synchronization (use with a visual, including Film, TV, User Generated Content, and other)
  • YouTube (this requires a synchronization license secured directly from the publisher)
  • Background music (i.e. music played in a restaurant or retail store)
  • Karaoke
  • Sheet music
  • Lyric reproduction
  • Public performance (such as radio airplay – these licenses you can get verify easily with ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC).

To Sample or Not to Sample?

Some artists attempt to leak songs which contain samples on the internet to amass popularity because they either were just to lazy to attempt to clear the sample or could not obtain permission to use the sample. Other artists release songs over instrumentals owned by others or original music loaded with uncleared samples via mixtape for free as an attempt evade the responsibility of sample clearance. What happens though when that single becomes popular, starts getting spins on mainstream radio or a label approaches an independent artist about distributing the popular song on a commercial EP or LP? Then Houston you have a problem.

Artists think – what if I put my EP or LP on iTunes but give the individual songs containing samples away for free? As a music company executive I am no fan of giving away anything for free. My advice: clear the sample for as little as $15 for mechanical royalties and sell, sell, sell. Why put all of your time, money, effort, studio time, original music, graphics, duplication efforts and marketing dollars into promoting a free mixtape or single? That’s just a bad investment. To buy popularity by tweeting about it, or Facebook’ing about it? You might as well pay a service to give you 2,000 followers.

Do not get me wrong. Mixtapes serve their purposes. Once in every 100 years you get a Drake phenomenon where a mixtape breeds popularity and leads to a multimillion dollar 360 deal. That is the dream of every label – to own every single work ever contributed by a producer or artist, every movie, endorsement, video game, lyric written for someone else, song produced for someone else for relatively a small amount of money. Who does not want to be the next “Drake” right? Wrong. Sell your material. Respect the time and money that you, your producers, engineers, songwriters, graphic designers and supporters put into your mixtape – duplicate it, sell it, throw it into the audience at shows, set up a booth in the back of shows with merchandise like t-shirts, CDs, stickers, posters, photo glossy’s, and the works. Create a press kit which leads to snippets of your hard earned, prized material and start getting fans. If you respect your talent and your craft, you owe it to yourself to create commercially viable work. Clear those samples and keep it moving.

Companies like DIRadioCast and GAMface Media assist with marketing and attaining radio airplay. Entertainment attorneys like Douglas Sands & Associates can take care of your paperwork and review your contracts. Collaborative agencies like DS3 Entertainment can get you bookings, licensing and distribution opportunities, sign you up with agencies like SESAC, ASCAP and BMI plus shop your music to get you connected while taking your music to another level.

If you choose to sample – do it right!

PJ Douglas Sands is the author, a regular iSupport Digital Mag contributor, a celebrity event planner at A Design For Destiny Luxury Events and co-founder of The DS3 Group LLC based in the US, with offices in Florida, California, Texas, Georgia, Jamaica and The Bahamas. Portions of this article also appear courtesy Tony Berman’s Multimedia and Entertainment Law Online News Blog.

About PJ Douglas Sands, The DS3 Group

PJ Douglas Sands is a business coach, journalist, author and international speaker on the areas of brand strategies for small and medium-sized businesses, financial planning, destination events, digital lifestyle and the industries of Events, Hospitality, Caribbean Tourism, Travel, New Media and Entertainment. She is the co-founder of The DS3 Group (of Companies). DS3 is a boutique branding agency focused on planning destination events and designing branding strategies for creatives, small businesses and public figures with emphasis on the implementation of technology and social media. With offices and studios in Los Angeles, Atlanta, the Bahamas and Houston, The DS3 Group offers Corporate Branding, Event and Conference Planning Services, Public Relations, Label Assistance, Contract Review, Copyright Processing, Consulting, Artist Development, Distribution, Legal Services, Management, Production, and Publishing Assistance. The DS3 Group's subsidiaries include DS3 Entertainment, Douglas Sands and Associates Law Firm, LUXE Worldwide Events and State of Emergency Alliance and are run jointly by Events/Branding Strategist PJ Douglas Sands, Attorney at Law E. Verona Douglas Sands and Grammy nominated Music Producer/Sound Engineer Donnie "Scantz" Scantlebury. You can visit the website at www.theDS3group.com.


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