Hailed as the “Queen of Sample Clearance” by Forbes, Deborah Mannis-Gardner is the go-to expert for global music rights clearances. From Eminem to Drake (and pretty much every artist in-between), she’s responsible for clearing the samples in hip hop’s and rap’s biggest releases – a task that is no mean feat.
We recently sat down with Deborah to discuss the art and evolution of sampling, the business practices involved, and an exciting new platform in the music sampling landscape…
Hi Deborah. Can you tell us a little bit about what you and your team do at DMG Clearances?
DMG Clearances is a music clearance company. We secure the rights of music that’s used in film, television, commercials, and innovative applications such as the history of hip-hop Google Doodle. We handle all of the clearance for Rockstar video games and have done so since Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas(2004), and then our speciality is sample clearances, which I’ve been doing since 1990.
We work with all kinds of people, on all kinds of projects. Our clients range from your major recording artists like Eminem, Drake, Logic, and Jay-Z to smaller indie artists, managers, producers, labels and publishers, law firms, production companies, and film and television studios. We work with anyone who needs our assistance. We do re-printable lyrics for Random House – we just worked on Solange’s coffee table book.
Film-wise, I was the music supervisor for The Defiant Ones documentary, for which I won the 2018 Best Music Supervision in a Docuseries or Reality Television award from the Guild of Music Supervisors, as well as the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Music Film, and I’m currently working on another film about a ’60s icon. I’ve worked as an advisor on television shows including Diddy’s The Four and the Fox shows Empire and Star. My team usually has about 50 albums and 5-7 movies or documentaries going at one time. Rockstar is continuous, we work on their stuff all year round. We’re pretty busy but we have a lot of fun!
And sampling is your passion
I love sampling. I started out clearing samples in 1990. I worked with Redman on his first album, I worked with EMPD and Das EFX. In the early 90s we were told that hip-hop and rap wasn’t going to last, and that sampling was theft. Since then, sampling has crossed over into all genres of music and it’s awesome. I worked with U2 on their album samples in 1996, Michael Jackson sampled – everyone has done it. It’s an art and a skill to be able to sample well. Sampling also revitalises catalogue.
How have you seen the art of sampling evolve since the 1990s?
Sampling in rap music is just like any other genre of music in that you have revivals of certain styles. Right now, there’s a revival of the sampling techniques of the ’90s, which involves adding a lot of vocal scratches – it’s what Drake did on his last album. Albums like What’s the 411? by Mary J. Blige were chock filled with samples and scratches. It’s like putting a dash of cayenne pepper in a stew – giving it a little bit of heat but not encompassing the whole thing. It’s exciting that everyone’s going back to that style and technique.
What about the business side – how has that evolved?
It’s different now. In the early ’90s you were able to do buyouts where you paid a one-time fee, but that doesn’t really happen anymore. Some publishers used to do this thing called income participation, where they only received revenue if the song containing their sample drove income, but now everyone asks for a percentage of copyright ownership. On the master side, they ask for a percentage of revenue earned from the recording of the new song.
Having said that, I have done a couple of buyouts in recent years. I did one on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly with a big-name artist It does happen – it’s an extraordinarily huge amount of money sometimes, but if I can get people not to be greedy, we are able to get some reasonable quotes.
There was this greedy stage at one point where people were quoting astronomically high percentages and albums were costing a couple of hundred thousand dollars – that happened to Puffy on a lot of his albums. Nowadays I just tell people that if they’re going to keep charging high fees, I’m going to have to tell my clients to pull the sample or re-play or re-sing it to keep costs under control. Artists now would rather be a part of Eminem’s or Drake’s album and come in with a fair, reasonable quote. There’s now a young crowd of people working at labels and publishers who are open to doing better deals.
What determines the size of the fee or %?
At DMG, we don’t try and get the lowest deal, we try to get the fairest. If it’s a small vocal snippet, we try to keep that at 5% on the publishing, and 1% PPD. Some of the labels have a minimum of 1.5% PPD, which is kind of high, but a lot of those guys have ceilings and floors as to what they will quote. If it’s a bassline that’s used throughout, you have to look at that bassline and think, is the whole song the bassline with someone rapping on top of it? And in that case, maybe it has a greater value of say 50%. Or is it a bassline with all these other instrumental portions and lyrics, and maybe we can get that in at 25%. You have to look at all the different elements that create that song to make sure it’s of fair and reasonable value. There are some copyright holders that are not fair or reasonable. I beg my clients to pull that stuff, but sometimes it’s too late. Sometimes they feel strongly enough about it that they’re willing to pay astronomical amounts of money. But I try to keep things fair.
If someone has a very limited budget I send them to Tracklib, a company I’m affiliated with out of Sweden. It’s a music service with pre-existing songs that are all available and ready to sample at a very low cost. They’ve got a great range of stuff, from “Impeach the President” by the Honeydrippers to Philly International and VP Records copyrights. A lot of the young kids are looking for stuff that hasn’t been sampled before, so it’s a great place to find obscure tracks and produce something new and fresh.
What are the biggest misconceptions that you come across in sampling?
There’s no needle drop or 6-second rule. If you take someone else’s pre-existing recording and incorporate it into yours, you need to clear it. It’s like I always say, whether you steal a piece of gum or a fur coat – they are both theft. Now if it’s a lyrical use and it’s two or three words, how many words can you actually copyright? In cases like that, we’ll bring in Dr. Lawrence Ferrara, who’s an amazing musicologist – a lot of my clients use him prior to release to make sure that they’ve covered their bases.
How do you first get involved in working on an album?
It varies. A label might recommend me to their artist if their release contains samples. 98% of the law firms know me, so when their clients are involved in sampling, they’ll reach out to me. It’s the same with artist managers. I try to do what I call preventive sampling – if they come to me with a full album and a list of samples, I can anticipate the costs and whip together a budget and an estimated turnaround time. From there we organise all of the information into spreadsheets and research all of the copyright holders. We’ll send out formal letters of request to them with a copy of the new song and a description of the use. And then we let the negotiations begin!
Why aren’t samples cleared before being used in a track?
When we used to sample something first, we’d submit it to the rightsholder and they’d be like, “you’re stealing our song.” Then if you say we’re thinking of sampling your work, they’ll say we need to hear the final result to determine what the cost will be. So you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t!
When I try to get a sample clearance from someone, it’s like I’m handing it to them on a silver platter. I’m trying to give them as much information as possible. Through reaching out to a lot of copyright holders, I’ve determined that about 50% of stuff has to go out for artist or writer consent. With the other 50%, the publishers and labels don’t need to get consent and are able to just quote and collect and do whatever the hell they want.
Can you talk us through some of your recent projects?
I just did Eminem’s album and Drake’s album. I’m currently working on The Black Eyed Peas album which drops on October 12. I’m working with Lil Wayne, Boy Wonder, Everlast, J. Cole, Snoop Dogg, Tyler, The Creator, Black Thought, Brockhampton, Quest Love, The Roots.
Sync-wise, we’re in the beginning stages of a film called China Kid Blues. We work with Blue Man Group, we’re working with CNN on a TV series, we’re working on a film called Spin Gold, a TV series called Tales, a documentary called It Was the Music – that’s the stuff I’m allowed to mention!
Which has been your favourite project recently?
I think The Black Eyed Peas album is gonna blow your mind – I haven’t heard something that good in a long time.
So today is Tuesday, the album drops on Friday and you’re still working on it?
Yeah, we’re in a digital age – with Drake’s stuff we’ll be working up until the night before the release. Whatever we need to do to make it happen!
The biggest artists these days seem to have amazing teams surrounding them
Drake’s got the most incredible, together team of people that I just adore – Mr. Morgan, Future, Noah “40” Shebib, the law offices over at Sedlmayr and Lisa Donini. They’re very protective of him. Logic has the same mentality as Drake, and he also has an amazing team of lawyers and management. He’s an artist that knows what he wants to sample but knows he has to get it cleared. He’s really professional and awesome to work with. Even when I did Jay-Z’s album, Jay got on the phone with us – another amazing person!
The hip hop world seems to have really embraced that business mentality
They have. They didn’t before, and the record labels used to make all the decisions on the quotes, and they would lose a lot of their publishing. They would always look at the dollar amount and not the percentage. Nowadays everyone knows publishing is where you make your money. The law is changing in the U.S. – it’s a different mentality and it’s good that they’re paying attention. These artists are becoming business people, and they’ve got good business people around them. If it passes, the Music Modernization Act is really going to make a huge difference for writers and publishers. We’re finally going to get compensated appropriately in the digital age. We’ve been so behind the times with digital and streaming income. We need to make sure that these laws are in place so that we can collect revenue.
What are your tips for making the sample clearance process as stress free as possible?
Don’t ever try to do a sample clearance yourself. It’s all about relationships, and it’s all about handing it over to the copyright holder in a way that they can facilitate it as quickly as possible. Whether they need to get internal consent, or writer or artist consent, you need to make it as easy as possible for them. You’ve got to remember that the person on the receiving end has probably 50 requests on their desk, and maybe 3-5 approval parties for each song. A lot of times, people will come to me having tried to clear it themselves, and they’ll hire me to clean it up. I’ll do that once in a while but I’m like, you know what, if you knew better, you should have hired a clearance professional to handle it appropriately.
What are your thoughts on the ‘Blurred Lines’ trial outcome, and how can we prevent situations like that happening again?
I definitely differ in the end result of the “Blurred Lines” case. When people come to me and say I’ve got a “Blurred Lines” situation, I say you either have an interpolation or you don’t. There’s only so many notes and chords, and you can’t make a claim on something that sounds similar in my opinion. These are discussions I usually have with Dr. Ferrara. If you’ve created a song and someone says, it sounds just like x, do an A/B comparison. Does it sound like x?
Outside of the hip-hop and rap world, except occasionally with Ed Sheeran, you really don’t see these cases very often. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to alternative rock, for example, and thought, “that’s got the same feel as Violent Femmes.” Is someone going to take legal action? No, they’re not. They’re going to say that they were influenced by another artist. But with hip-hop and rap – do I dare use the word racist? They come after it and call it theft.
Hopefully cases like these won’t see artists living in fear of creativity
I don’t think anyone should live in fear of creativity. Go and be creative and do your thing, and then if there’s an interpolation or sample, clear it. If you’re not sure, bring in a musicologist and have a really good conversation to determine that.
How does it work when you have to go back and fix uncleared samples?
If something was used without consent, we have been hired to clean up back uses. In that case it’s a negotiation, although we try not to make the fee too high. We might just ask them to go back and pay from day one and try to make it as painless as possible.
Could labels and publishers be doing more to make their music knowingly available for sampling?
We know 90% of who is agreeable to be sampled and who isn’t. Again, hiring a clearance person makes all the difference. Most of my clients have my cell phone number so they can text me in the middle of the night from the studio to let me know what they’re thinking about and ask me if I have any concerns. I’m able to say, “yeah, I can clear that in 18 hours” – I just did that with a Wu-Tang Clan interpolation for Logic. Or maybe I’ll say, “this is gonna take 2-4 weeks” because it’s an international copyright or something I’ve never cleared before.
It would be difficult for a large corporation like Universal or Sony/ATV to tell their writers to make their music available for sampling. What’s fascinating is that The Black Eyed Peas have a lot of BMG samples. Greg Barrron, BMG’s Director of Licensing, is smart enough to make sure that his sampled writers are taken care of, but the quotes aren’t too high so that Will.i.am and The Black Eyed Peas are going to see publishing on the other side as well. So sometimes that takes place. Other times the publisher will come back to me and say, “you know what Deborah, I have to make sure I really take care of the writer who’s being sampled, vs. the new writer who might be signed to us but has done the sampling.” Every situation is different.
As you mentioned before, sampling is great for revitalising catalogue
Absolutely – Syl Johnsonis a perfect example. Even if you look at James Brown, samples really brought his career back. Yes, he was always an icon, but there were people who didn’t know his music. Or Isaac Hayes or The O’Jays. We were able to bring those copyrights back to life and get them earning revenue again.
That’s what we’re trying to do with Tracklib. We’re reaching out to copyright holders saying if you’ve got stuff that isn’t earning revenue, if you’ve got stuff that people don’t know about, put it into Tracklib. Let people discover it so it can earn revenue that way. And we’re actually being pretty successful with that.
Has technology made sampling easier?
Back in 1990, we had to call ASCAP and BMI and ask them questions. The internet makes it so much easier to find people and make deals happen, whether I’m dealing with rightsholders in Australia or Japan or South Africa. On occasion, I’ve used Shazam to identify something, but usually I’ve got a team of people I can refer to who are experts in identifying samples.
Focusing specifically on hip hop and rap in sync, where are you seeing the most opportunities?
Hip-hop and rap is used everywhere, it always adds a great flavour. There are some great music supervisors out there who know how to balance all genres of music in one movie. Whether it’s your Deadpoolor your Suicide Squad– those were chock-filled with hip hop and rap. Look what Deadpool did with the DMX and Salt-N-Pepauses, they were awesome! As a music supervisor you’re gonna use whatever is the best use of music in your project.
With Rockstar there are tonnes of radio stations. On the last Grand Theft Auto, we had a punk rock station, and we just did an awesome release with EDM music. Rockstar is all over the place musically, but when they do hip-hop and rap, they want to use the most cutting-edge stuff. They have broken artists on their games. Ivan Pavlovichand Tony Mesones do an amazing job of choosing music for those games.
That’s probably why I started getting into sync, because the studios and the production companies were so scared of hip-hop and rap and sample clearances. I explained that we just needed to all work together to get it to add up to 100% on both sides. That’s their biggest concern – when a clearance person sees 11 writers and you’re missing 0.75% of the copyright, it freaks them out. We all get freaked out at times, but you can’t just give up. You can’t just drop a song because you can’t find that 0.75%. You’ve got to keep looking for it.
What’s the furthest you’ve gone to clear a sample?
We have tracked down estates. We have gone after the obscure of the obscurest of stuff and found it. I’ve been doing this since 1990, and I’ve gone so far as to find out who was taking care of a tombstone to find an estate. But that was the ’90s, and when someone died back then, copyright wasn’t always taken care of. Now when people pass away, people are very eager to acquire catalogues. I’ve got some people I’m trying to track down at the moment because there’s no contact information with ASCAP and BMI. I’m going to their foreign affiliates to see who they’re paying in the U.S. because no one here has answers.
I think the weirdest thing was when I was looking for Randy Jackson of the Jackson 5, and everyone kept giving me the other Randy Jackson’s phone number from American Idol. I kept calling him and he was like, “Deborah we keep speaking, I’m the wrong Randy Jackson. If you get his number please let me know in the future.” Weird stuff like that happens all the time!
Can you tell us more about your involvement with Tracklib?
They approached me in 2017. I went up to New York and met with Tommy Silverman and Pär Almqvist, their CEO and Co-Founder, and we just really hit it off. I thought, “I need to be part of this team.” At first they said, “isn’t this going to cut into your business – a company that automates sample clearances?” and my thought is that not everything is going to fit into Tracklib. People are always going to need my services. And for those that can’t afford my services, here’s a whole other place where people can go for sample clearances, and I love it.
These are people that love music and want to bring copyrights back to life. There’s still huge amounts of copyrights that are not earning revenue that would be great for sampling, and Tracklib is going after that stuff. Artists can do a deal right then and there – they know what the contract is, it’s all automated and transparent. I’m not saying put the Barry White or James Brown catalogues into Tracklib, I’m saying put in that obscure stuff that’s not earning any revenue. Artists will be able to make the mixtapes that are going to break them using samples that are cleared on a budget they can work with. How exciting is that?
What are your thoughts and hopes for the future of sampling?
I’m close to almost 29 years doing this, and I don’t know how many times I’ve been told that sampling is a dying art. That’s clearly not the case – it’s a continuous art. What’s important is making sure people clear their samples. The only thing I would request as a clearance agent is more than two weeks to get an album out with 23 samples. Artists are very protective of their music getting leaked, so that window keeps getting smaller.
Overall I would tell artists to keep making music, and keep sampling if that’s what you love to do. Be creative in how you do it, and make sure you clear your samples! If you’ve got a good budget and you want those big names, come to DMG. If not, go to Tracklib so that you can showcase your skills and get signed to a bigger label so you get that budget. But don’t ever let samples be something that gets in the way of creativity and commercialisation. Do what you want to do and make it fun.