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How To Use Samples Legally

16th May 2022

Sampling has been a contentious issue in the music industry for a long, long time. From Kanye’s famous sampling of Ray Charles to TikTok viral sensations, it all has to be done by the book or you risk getting into some hot water. It’s a common misconception that if a sample is short enough you don’t have to get the proper clearance. This certainly is not the case - in its most simplistic terms, when you sample something, you are using someone else’s intellectual property. So here is how to legally use sampling in your work.


Copyrights - The Basics

When a song is written and recorded, there are two copyrights created. More often than not, the label owns the master recording (whoever pays for the song’s creation owns the recording by default), and the composers - or ‘authors’ in copyright legalese - own the rights to the composition. If you fancy brushing up on your music publishing knowledge, check out our blog ‘Music Publishing 101’! If you want to sample someone’s work, then you need permission from both copyright holders. If only one grants you permission, it’s still not enough. 


Finding the Publisher/Label

The first step is finding out who publishes the composition you want to use. Search for it using one of the following databases ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, SOCAN and Harry Fox. However, finding the label that owns the sound recording can be more of a challenge. A good tip is look at the accreditation on their releases on streaming platforms. Then, use the usual contact channels to simply request the use of their recordings in your music. Unfortunately, the big labels often won’t bother to even look at clearance requests from independent artists. When you contact them, best to include some audio of how you’d like to use the sample. If you do not receive a reply, the safest option is not to use the sample and find some other musical element that works. It’s possible that you could get away with it, but if your song becomes the next TikTok hit or starts getting airplay, people will start to take notice and you could find yourself facing all sorts of unpleasant repercussions. 


Payment

The good news is that if you’ve got to this point, the publisher and label like what you’ve presented to them and have agreed to let you use the sample. The bad news is that sampling can be a very expensive business. It’s likely that the publisher will want an advance which can be anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars… on top of that they’ll probably want a percentage of all the revenue that your song generates. The percentage they take can vary massively depending on how prominent the sample is in your track. Then you’ll have to deal with the label who will want similar compensation. They’ll take an upfront fee too plus a ‘rollover’. A rollover is a royalty which you’ll owe the label once a threshold has been reached i.e. Once you’ve reached X number of streams, you’ll owe us $X.


Alternatively…

If all of this is a little overwhelming, or you no one replies to your request, or the price to pay for a sample is just too much at this point in your career, there are other options available to you. There are libraries of pre-cleared samples which you can download and use paying only a subscription fee with a limited number of monthly downloads. Tracklib for example has pricing plans starting at $5.99 per month - this allows you access to thousands of tracks, you could surely find a suitable alternative to the expensive sample you originally wanted. But that’s not quite working for you and you’re dead set on the original sample, you could try and recreate it yourself. You’ll still have to clear it with and pay the publisher but at least you won’t have to deal with the owner of the sound recording. 


The most important thing to remember is to always stay on the right side of copyright law. As I mentioned earlier, if you don’t get a response to your request, don’t use the sample - you could end up being sued, you would be violating the agreement you made with your DSP and when people noticed your illegal sampling, you’d have to stop distributing your track and no one wants that. So if you want to sample something, do it right!


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