Unsigned Advice

How to Clear a Sample for a Song or Beat in 2024

How to Clear a Sample for a Song or Beat
May 6, 2023
Nevermind the effort and time that goes into making your own music - clearing a sample is an art all of its own! And one that you really don’t want to get wrong in terms of the legalities.

When it comes to getting the rights to use a sample, there’s a lengthy, legal and often expensive process involved. But that’s not to say you can’t go after that catchy bass line or a mesmerising lyric that'll transform your song into the track you know it could be! Here’s what you need to know.

What is a sample in music?

Similar to a remix, a sample is any element of a pre-existing song or recording by another artist or group that features in a different track.

So in short - this is when a musician incorporates elements or copies and pastes a snippet of another artist's song into an entirely new song of their own.

Be warned! A sample shouldn't be confused with an interpolation.

An interpolation is where a musician re-records lyrics or music from another artist's song note for note, based on the original composition.

Why does this matter?

Well, to legally use a sample, you'll need permission to use both the master recording and the underlying composition. But for an interpolation, you'll only need to get permission for the underlying composition.

Since clearing samples can be time-consuming and expensive, a lot of artists have taken to interpolating records to reduce the number of permissions they need to obtain (and save themselves the stress and dollar in the process!).

Remember - the licensing required to clear a sample and/or interpolation should not be confused with the licensing required to release a cover song.

Cover versions differ from both samples and interpolations in that the cover artist is only required to obtain the mechanical license from the original songwriter and/or publisher.

Hip Hop musicians and budding rappers rely very heavily on samples in their work. A good example is Jack Harlow’s 2022 TikTok anthem ‘First Class’, which features a reworked sample of Fergie’s classic 2006 hit, ‘Glamorous’.

But unless you’re Jack Harlow (or the likes), legally securing samples as an independent musician can be a difficult and expensive task.

So you’ll need to make sure you’re in the know about all the laws, rules and regulations around sampling music in 2024.  

How to clear a sample for a song

So to be clear - using samples in your music without legal permission is a violation of music industry law.

Yep. You heard it right.

So if you’ve heard any rumours or loopholes about using samples without getting the legal go-ahead first, you’ve been wrongly informed my friend.

A common myth is that you can legally sample a copyrighted song without getting permission, as long as the sample is shorter than 6 seconds, or 11 seconds, or 15 seconds

Warning - this is false information!

You cannot sample music without permission, no matter how short or long the sample might be.

A very famous example is the case of Vanilla Ice borrowing the bass line from “Under Pressure”. Even though the sample is only about 3 seconds long, it didn’t stop Queen and David Bowie suing Ice for copyright infringement, swooping in and collecting the cash.

This is because sampling music is actually rooted in an understanding of music copyright law.

You’ll need to acquire 2 different licences to legally use a sample from an existing recording of your own music;

1. A copyright licence for permission to use the master recording (often owned by the artist or label)

2. A copyright  licence for permission to use the underlying composition (often controlled by the songwriter and/or music publisher)

For a sample, you'll need to acquire both the master recording and underlying music license. But for an However, unlike the licence you’ll need to distribute and release a cover song, the copyright owner doesn't have to grant you permission.

Which means they’ve pretty much got free reign when it comes to dictating the terms of usage, terms that you can either accept, or reject and head back empty handed.

Step 1. Apply for clearance well in advance

How to Clear a Sample for a Song or Beat

Finding the original source of a sample and clearing it is usually a lengthy process.

Even if you’ve tracked down all the right people, you might not get granted access to the sample right away, especially when it comes to prolonged financial negotiations and all the associated paperwork

So don’t risk waiting to the point at which you’re ready to drop your new song, before going after the rights to use the sample.

Because at the end of the day, if you don’t get the permission from the rights holders, you’ll be back to the drawing board anyway.

So clear the sample first and then get jiggy with it.

Step 2. Collect info about the song you’re sampling

How to Clear a Sample for a Song or Beat

Before you can start asking for the permission to feature a sample in your song, you’ll first want to lock down all the necessary and need-to-know info about the song you want to sample and how you’re planning on using it.

Make sure you’re clear on the following:

- How long the sample is

- How many times the sample features in your song

- Which part of the rights holder’s song you’re sampling

- What your plans are with the song

Once you’re clear about all of that, you can start reaching out to the rights holders of the sample.

Step 3. Identify the master recording rights holder

How to Clear a Sample for a Song or Beat

Remember - this will be either the artist, label, or another third party.

For finding the master recording owner, a quick Google search should usually throw up the answers you need, either via the artist’s or band’s Wikipedia page or if the song is available on Spotify, check out the linear notes at the bottom of the song’s page.

Once you find out who it is, make a note of their contact information - including their phone no. and email address - which you’ll usually be able to find listed on their website.

Step 4. Identify the publishing rightsholder

How to Clear a Sample for a Song or Beat

Your best chance for locating the publishing owner is heading straight to the biggest music publishing databases (PROs) and searching those for the song directly

In the US this will be ASCAP, Harry Fox & BMI. In Canada it’s SOCAN. And in the UK it’ll be the PRS.

However - to get full access to the info on these databases, you'll need to be signed up with the right PRO for your region or area. If you're working with a music publishing service like Ditto Music Publishing, we'll sign you up on your behalf, so you can access information that's exclusive to society members only.

If you aren't a member of any PRO, you could opt to use Google instead. Plug in the composition owner's name and run an online search. It'll likely be tricky to find a direct contact no. or email, but if you can - all kudos to you!

Step 5. Contact the rights owners & negotiate a price

How to Clear a Sample for a Song or Beat

Once you’ve tracked down the contact details of both the label/artist and songwriter/publisher, reach out to them with all the important info we discussed above + a copy of your track that features their sample.

If they like what they hear, the next thing they’ll want to discuss is the costs.

Most publishers will likely request an upfront advance, similar to a clearance fee.This can range from anywhere between a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.

On top of this, they’re likely to request a percentage of all revenue generated from the song. How high this percentage is will usually depend on things like;

- How prominently the sample features on the song

- How recognisable the sample is

- Whether the sample includes vocals, instrumentation or both

Similarly, the label will also want some kind of upfront fee or advance, plus something called a ‘rollover’.

A rollover is essentially a royalty rate that’s calculated based on a sales threshold i.e. once you’ve sold X amount of downloads of your song, you’ll owe the label X amount of money.

TIP: For songs where the master owner and publishing owner is the same person, such as an independent artist or a band who self administers their own publishing, you’ll usually be able to negotiate a smaller “all-in” price for the clearance fee.

What if one (or both) rights holders denies me permission?

If either the artist (and their label) or the songwriter (and or publisher) deny you access to the sample, then it’s time to pack up and hit the road.

Under no circumstances should you still try and release a song featuring samples that you’ve been denied permission to.

You could get into serious legal trouble, pay massive fines and your music will most likely be taken down from all streaming platforms permanently.

An alternative option is to use some pre-cleared samples instead.

There are websites online that offer a library of pre-cleared samples that are all legal for use without going through the sample licensing process. All you have to do is buy and download the audio you want to sample in your song.

Some pre-cleared sample websites you can check out include; Citizen DJ, Tracklib & DMG clearances.

Remember - you must clear a sample legally to use it in your work and avoid getting into any legal copyright infringement trouble.  

If you’re unsuccessful, head back to the drawing board and try to come up with a catchy riff, cool sequence or interesting element of your own!

It’s never worth risking your music and your rep by using a sample that you haven’t got the legal permission to use.

How to Clear a Sample for a Song or Beat in 2024

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