Hip Hop Tip: How to Legally Clear Samples Used in Your Music

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Thanks to our friends at IndieHipHop.net for letting us repost this article.

If you’re a hip hop artist or producer, odds are you either have or will be faced with the issue of using a sample in your music. The biggest problem with this is that most people wait until their music project is completed before they start dealing with the legal aspects associated with clearing those samples.

Typically, most independent releases selling 10,000 records or less remain under the radar and never draw broad enough attention to face the legal ramifications of NOT clearing samples. Having low sales expectations of your project and not clearing samples is still a dangerous place to be. You could have an unexpected hit from that release and find yourself in a very defenseless position. The owner of one uncleared sample could have that record pulled from your project or ask for an unreasonable amount of payment because they are aware that you’re in a vulnerable spot.

So I’ll begin to walk you through the proper steps for getting samples cleared.

You must get permission from two sources: The copyright owner/publisher and the owner of the master recording.

How do you find the copyright owner?
The easiest way to do this, if you have the title of the song, is to search the performing rights organizations’ websites. The two major ones are ASCAP and BMI.

The Harry Fox Agency website may also be helpful. Once you get the information, contact them about your interests in using their music.
How do you find the owners of the master recording?

This is usually the record label. If you can’t find this information, the copyright owner and publisher should have this.

Costs: This could vary. It really comes down to negotiations and/or how popular the artist is. It could become very expensive. Some artists won’t let you use their music regardless of the situation.
You could seek the counsel of an entertainment attorney or a clearance consultant. Some may charge by the hour to handle this for you. Some have a flat rate. Neither can guarantee success, but it CAN save you time.

Now that you have the info, the choice is yours. Using a hot sample could make your career, so it has its potential benefits. It could also cost you a lot of up front money to clear. Money that will possibly never come back to you.

(editor’s note: if you ARE lucky enough to have a hit song with an uncleared sample, you’re going to forfeit all the money you earned or could earn from it. So CD Baby always recommends clearing samples legally. If the copyright holders don’t want to license it to you, they’re not going to be any nicer when you have a hit on your hands. If they do comply, great! And if not, maybe that is a good time to start looking for a different sample, or record your own thing that works even better!)

Once you’ve cleared your samples, sell your songs on iTunes!

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  • DJ XB

    This provides some good basics and is clearly an area with a LOT of confusion. There was a really great article about this (more detail) on the Limelight blog – http://www.songclearance.com/blog/how-to-avoid-sa

  • Yes, having a sample in your song that everyone knows can be a real hit-booster….but….make sure you license it or get permission to use it first.

    The Harry Fox Agency is the easiest, but I have actually contacted bands before asking for permission, and to my surprise, they were more than willing to allow it. The best thing to do is find one of the 1-hit-wonder bands, who are no longer in the spotlight. They will be more willing to work with you than someone like Lady Gaga, or someone who's really hot right now.

    One thing you can do is finish the song with the sample used in the song, then send them a snippet of the song as an example of what you did with it. Sometimes they will like it so much they will help spread the word about your song…..but, the main thing is to gt permissions in writing, or go through the Harry Fox Agency to license it. That way, as mentioned, when you get that hit song, you won't have to deal with legal issues afterwards, and possibly lose all rights to your hit song.

  • Donato Lamont

    Or you could make your own music and stop piggy backing off of the success And endlessly repeated 4bars of of others music.

    • Moikka

      then it’s not hip hop anymore. hip hop is sampling others music and making new out of old breaks. creating a musical collage out of records. public enemy is a great example of the art form of sampling..

  • People love hearing the ground breaking effects of Hip Hop.

  • Mr. HipHop

    Hip hop might be known for samples but it is by no means solely composed of samples.

    • wcb123

      It usually is.

    • wcb123

      It usually is.

      • upstandingblackguy

        Its not look at trap records.

        • MigrantMerkel

          Trap is NOT Hip Hop

  • IRM

    Hip hop was a culture that attempted to be cool and new, the purpose of sampling in hip hop music was to take the old sounds of (usually) "popular" music and renew them with the sounds of turntablism, rapping and/or electro-funk rhythms. Hip hop music was like house, prominently aimed at dancing, and funking up old records was consider phenomenal. However, over time hip hop music developed it's own set of unique rhythms and sounds, i.e. turntablism, rapping, electro-funk rhythms. Because of this and since hip hop is near enough a long dead post-disco culture, hip hop music can be used to describe any style of music that evolved out of hip hop, this includes fusions with other genres. There are also non-rap styles of hip hop, I point out, one of this is the turntablism subgenre and its influences to abstract hip hop, trip hop, glitch, jungle/dnb and dubstep. There's of course, rap metal, rapcore, etc. And hip hop music can be used to refer to any of these styles of music and their blends. And indeed, sampling is a prominent feature of a lot of hip hop, but is not necessary.

  • Kevin2407

    Hi! If I were to release a few songs with uncleared samples, could the copyright owner ask me for more money than what I would/had earn(ed) from the songs?

  • Yes indeed. That’s why it’s best to clear those samples BEFORE distributing the music.


  • Idam Junaedi

    but when you’re from the netherlands, nobody will ever discover, right?

    • Suckmyconsentrated

      nico & vinz (ENVY)

  • Michigans Mogul

    I am apart of an independent label and we have an artist that needs his new single cleared. I have all the information for the original song (The Dramatics – UMG – ASCAP – written by Tony Hester) but what is the next step for clearing?

    • Michigans Mogul

      Thanks! How do you feel about new sites such as Loudr.fm (www.loudr.fm) &
      Harry Fox Agency’s Songfile (www.songfile.com) for sampling clearing purposes ?

  • We’ve actually partnered with Loudr, BUT… as far as I understand, both of those services are for licensing cover songs, NOT for clearing samples. Have you heard about a sample clearance service?


    • Michigans Mogul

      No. Any kinds to help get started?

    • Nubian

      Say, for instance, an artist vocalizes over a hit beat (instrumental + hooks) is that considered sampling. And does he need to get clearance for it to be included in his album?

      • If you took something from the original recording, yes, that’s sampling. If you re-recorded those parts on your own, well, you’re not sampling the original recording, but you still need the permission of the publisher because your new song is a “derivative work,” which requires clearance of publisher/songwriter.


        • Nubian

          Hey, Chris, thanks.

  • I think when it comes to samples you’re really at the mercy of the label (or owner of the sound recording), so my best advice would be what I linked to here: http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/musician-tips/clear-samples-to-copyrighted-music/

    Contact them. State your case. Let them hear how you’re using their track. Cross your fingers. Hope for a yes. Hope they don’t want too much $$.