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How to legally clear a sample for use in your own music

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Written by: Amy Shaw

As an artist, samples will often be central to your tracks. The important thing to remember is that using samples without clearing them first could get you into some serious legal trouble. You cannot simply sample a piece of music already in existence, add it to your own song and start making money from it. If you have an entertainment lawyer and are unsure about your use of samples, make sure to consult them for their legal advice.

As an electronic music artist, the samples you use will often be integral to your track. One of the most common examples of sampling is the use of clips from older tracks in order to bring iconic classics into the modern day. This is an incredibly common practise for artists, and often provides great results.

The important thing to remember is to be careful. No matter how subtle the sample is in the full track, the rules are the same and it is important to stick to them, for your own benefit. Sampling scandals can be hugely damaging to an artists career, it is simply not worth the risk. But how exactly can you clear a sample before using it?

Firstly, you should make sure to do your research. In sample clearance there are two different types, these are the master composition and the sound recording. More often than not, you’ll need to clear the sample with both the label and the publisher. Your research process should begin with looking up the artist on Performance Rights Organisations (PRO) including ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. As soon as you find out which one the track is registered through, you can find details about the performer, the songwriters and the publishers. Then, head over to the publisher’s website and get in touch.

When you locate the publisher’s website, look for the relevant person to contact in order to clear your sample. If you’re unsure, contact the general mail or fill in a contact form on the website. When contacting the publisher make sure to include any details you found on the PRO website, information regarding the track you sampled and the exact clip. Most importantly, include a private link to your song. This aspect is vital as your song must not yet be published and visible to the world, it must be private. You should also let the publisher know when you plan to release the track.

When the publisher responds they may ask you to pay an upfront fee, but remember that you can ask to negotiate a percentage of royalties instead. Don’t be afraid to negotiate, and don’t feel pressured to simply accept the publisher’s requested fee. An important thing to remember is that the publisher may not own all rights to the song, make sure to ask whether or not this is the case. If there are multiple parties that own the song, you will need to contact them all and get their permission.

Something which artists are often unsure about is the cost of clearing a sample. The publisher may ask for an upfront fee, or they may ask for a percentage of your royalties. This completely depends on your stature as an artist and how much money a publisher feels they can make from you. If they feel that you wont make much money from the track yourself, they’ll be more inclined to ask for an upfront fee. However, if they feel that you could be about to bring in a lot of money, they’ll be wise to ask for a percentage of royalties instead, which will benefit them much more in the long run. It is important to remember that you can negotiate the fee.

Sometimes, publishers will completely refuse the use of the sample. When clearing a sample, having a lawyer to consult for advice could save you a great deal of time. Many factors will impact the size of the fee that the publisher requests, including the length of the sample. A general estimate is that publishers are likely to ask for $2,00-$5,000 advance, and then a further $2,000-$5,000 to publish the track. If the publisher agrees to take a percentage of royalties, you shouldn’t be required to pay an upfront fee. Don’t be afraid to ask a publisher for your options, make sure that you have thought through each choice fully.

Often, clearing a sample can take a fair amount of time if the artist is busy. Most of the time the artist themselves will need to agree to the use of the sample, which makes it difficult to predict exactly how long the process can take. Sometimes a sample can be cleared simply within weeks, on other occasions it can take a lot longer. This is why it is so important to plan far in advance of your track’s release date. Never leave legal matters until the last minute.

One of the most important things to remember is the importance of having a backup. If it doesn’t pan out, you may need to find a new vocal sample for your track. Don’t solely rely on one exact sample, otherwise your track could fall flat if the sample is unable to be cleared. You may think that no sample will work as effectively as the one you’ve chosen, but try to experiment some more and see if some other samples could fit.

Dealing with the legal side of producing can be a daunting prospect, and it’s often not a side of the industry that many enjoy. As a creative, it’s perfectly natural for you to have little interest in sorting out the legalities. Unfortunately, it is an integral aspect of releasing music. If you don’t currently have legal representation, taking on a lawyer can be extremely helpful in dealing with matters such as this. It can also provide you with peace of mind.

Whether you have legal representation or not, the most important thing is to always stop and think before you publish a track. Do you definitely have rights to the samples used? Step back and make sure that your samples are cleared before you publish in order to avoid problems in the long run.



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