What is the process of music making if you are a sample artist?
May 28, 2008 8:58 PM   Subscribe

Do all sample based musicians/bands basically have a full time legal staff?

I've read on here and many other places how you basically need permission and pay royalties to any music you sample. I am wondering how this actually works in the real world.

Lets say you are someone like DJ Shadow or Orb, or any other musician/band where essentially ALL you do is mix previously made sounds to create new music.

What is the process of making of music for these guys? Do they only ever start dabbling with music they know they already have permission for, or do they first do a mix, then seek all the legal permissions?

That said, is the legal side of this a full time job? How much time and resources are required for this? These days could you even start as a sample artist if you don't have a legal team/lots of money to begin with?

Perhaps someone could break down what they think/know a balance sheet would look like for such a music production. If you use lets say 30 samples in an album, what is the average "cost" of this, and how much could it range? On average, how much time would it take to get these rights (both in process and in human hours)? Is there a central agency that one could deal with rather than going to all the separate labels?

Basically any sort of info along the lines of "how would you actually do this from start to finish" type of answers would be greatly appreciated!

(I dont know how much geography would come into the mix with this, but I am most interested with how this would apply to Canada and also for U.S. or England)
posted by figTree to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you're already signed (to a major, at least--not sure how many indies do this), there is a team of people at the label that gets all of your samples cleared. For unsigned artists and many on smaller labels, the whole enterprise is often totally uncleared and illegal (the extreme case being Illegal Art, home of Girl Talk). I have to wonder whether DJ Shadow's move to a less sample-dense, more standard hip-hop style stems from his. I believe Endtroducing was 100% uncleared samples, for instance. (Literally, I might add: there's not one sound on the recording that's not illegal.)
posted by abcde at 10:10 PM on May 28, 2008

My good friend is a musician called "Gotye" here in Australia. As far as I know, he doesn't have a legal team, but he has had difficulty in getting his work released over in Europe etc... although, that said, he's currently in Europe touring as we speak. If you message me, I'll give you his email address, because that's exactly the kind of thing he'd know all about, and no doubt be all too happy to talk to you about... although as I said, he's touring / holidaying at the moment, so might not respond for a little while.
posted by jonathanstrange at 10:11 PM on May 28, 2008 [30 favorites]

Oops, I left one sentence incomplete. I meant to write: "I have to wonder whether DJ Shadow's move to a less sample-dense, more standard hip-hop style stems in part from his move to Universal, where he presumably can't incorporate samples which won't be cleared by the original artists."
posted by abcde at 10:14 PM on May 28, 2008

Best answer: The Avalanches made an album called Since I Left You, which consisted of over 3,500 vinyl samples. Apparently they spent 2 years piecing everything together, then another 18 months just clearing the samples. They were unable to clear some samples, and had to edit the product heavily (they claim the unedited album was twice as long.) They were signed at the time, and the label almost surely paid for the samples (the particulars of this would depend on the contract signed.)

ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are the three US organizations involved in licensing music. In Canada, it's SOCAN. You can check out the respective websites and get an idea of the kinds of fees involved. The fees are all pretty standardized, so from what I understand you don't need much (or any) legal assistance. You just need to cough up the money.
posted by naju at 12:00 AM on May 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Forget it. Not doable. Totally out of the question.

Copyright law does not in any way compel the publisher or the songwriter of any given song to license said song to a third party for sampling. In other words, they are free to ask for whatever they think their music is worth. There need be no further explanation or rationalization. As a sampler, you have very little leverage.

Forget individual artists. The entire hip-hop industry has shifted away from sampling over the past twenty years. Yes, music publishing is a full-time job, and all the major labels have their own division. They handle all kinds of requests, including placement of music in feature films, tv shows and commercials. With record sales taking a nose dive, music publishing taken as a whole is an important revenue stream for the music industry.

Long story short: you'd have to be crazy to sample somebody's music without clearing it. You would happily get sued for every last penny if you do. There's just no grey area. Which brings us to your real question: how much does it cost to sample a song.

Assuming the publisher and songwriter are even interested in licensing out their song to you for sampling - which is a huge assumption to make, by the way, for many reasons which for the sake of brevity I will not go into - you're looking at a flat fee well into the thousands of dollars range, as well as the possibility of a rolling payment based on the number of records you sell - per sample.

Any number I could throw out at this point would be completely arbitrary. There are too many variables. To list a few: How popular is the sampled song? How popular is the sampling artist? What are the anticipated sales? Will there be a music video? How long is the sample? Where in the song is the sample placed? How many other samples does the song have? What kind of genre music is the sampling song? What other campaigns has or is the sampled song being used in?

A company I worked for two years ago owned the master to a song that was sampled by a very big artist in a very big song, and that deal came in at over $50,000 for an under ten second sample. Keep in mind that price doesn't even cover the songwriter, who will usually ask for MFN treatment (meaning, another $50,000 goes into his pocket as well).

I think you're right in assuming that all this factors into any change in DJ Shadow's production style. I haven't heard his "recent" music - but I remember him as the definitive crate-digger. Which basically meant sampler. Universal can't sell shit like that. I'm not saying new mixtapes and mashups aren't coming out all the time through "grey" distribution channels. But Universal's not selling them. Practically speaking, these days, given the market (and with the exception of a handful of really really famous artists), it is financially unsustainable for anyone to sample anybody else's music and take home any fucking money.

Look at DJ Z-Trip. He signed with (I believe) Hollywood Records and spent an entire year with a legal team trying to get one of his sample-heavy albums clear. He still has nothing to show for it. (And truth be told, "Uneasy Listening" is one of my favorite albums.)
posted by phaedon at 12:10 AM on May 29, 2008

There is plenty of uncleared sampling and other appropriation going on in the music world. If the release is sufficiently small in scale, no-one will notice it, and often if they do, they realise there's no money to chase after.
posted by galaksit at 6:41 AM on May 29, 2008

Yeah, good question. I suspect that's why Amon Tobin , who I consider to be the undisputed all-time master of cool musics-made-up-of-samples, decided to do an assload of field recordings of his own for that last record.... I didn't like it nearly as much as his previous releases (my faves are Supermodified, Permutation, Out From Out Where) wah. Anyway.

I have used at least a few samples in the record I'm almost done with. It's not always hard to get permission as long as you don't want permission from bigger media resources or other music recording artists. Although I suspect that sort of defeats the gist of some of the people who make that kind of music, who specifically want things that are already recognizable.

Also, I would recommend either places that sell royalty-free samples of things online (of which there are bunches, or people that sell sample cd's) or, my fave sample foundry (& free!) -

posted by bitterkitten at 7:39 AM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's too bad, because there used to be an excellent rundown on the clearance process for the 187 samples on the (also excellent) 2 Many DJ's As Heard On Radio Soulwax Pt. 2 album; unfortunately, it seems to have vanished from their website. I recall that there were a couple interesting situations where they were unable to license an original track, but found it sampled on ANOTHER track that was grandfathered in before sampling was illegal, and were able to license that. You might find more details by starting at the Wikipedia page for the album.
posted by fishfucker at 9:44 AM on May 29, 2008

Response by poster: wow, some truely insightful information here, thanks all! I even learned that some musicians that I really like such as Amon Tobin and Avalanches are actually sample artists (i just assumed they made their own stuff, especially Amon who has some of the most original sounds ive heard in a while).

Perhaps part of the problem/situation in the electonic music, sampling or DJing world, whether you buy an album or even listen to them live, you don't actually know what they are "doing" to make that sound (how much skill does it take to hit one button that was previously sampled vs. taking a sample, reworking the effects then hitting a button, versions doing that live, vs completely making new samples). Its just not part of the musician's role or place to tell you how they came up with the music you hear.

It seems even if i know that for example DJ Shadow's album was all samples, it still doesn't answer a lot of questions unless perhaps he would list all the samples he used on his album booklet (perhaps he does, ive never actually seen the actual album, but somehow i doubt it). I mean, to know how much he really reworked/added effects to the samples in question is very useful knowledge in forming an opinion as to how "right" or "legal" it may be. Right now it is something i could only answer if i REALLY knew not only his music, but every single clip that he uses. There just seems to be a general lack of referencing in the sampling world.

Also, from the answers, it seems like true music samplers are going underground, which is kind of perhaps cool in its own right.
posted by figTree at 3:27 PM on May 29, 2008

As far as I know, if it's even possible to detect that a sample was used, then a highly tweaked and distorted one is illegal as if it was used quite blatantly, though the amount of damages it's possible to demand in a lawsuit might be different. Ethically speaking, however, I think you're pretty in the clear if you mess with it beyond recognition, i.e. just taking the notes from a piano line and retuning them to play different melodies.

And yeah, Shadow (and artists who don't/didn't clear their samples in general) never disclosed the original tracks, for obvious reasons. Fans tend to make lists, though: here's one for Endtroducing.
posted by abcde at 3:50 PM on May 29, 2008

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