Sample Clearance Demystified: How to Clear a SampleSample Clearance Demystified: How to Clear a Sample


Sample Clearance Demystified: How to Clear a Sample

Looking to demystify sample clearance and discover the easy and affordable way to clear music like a pro? Look no further.




January 21, 2024

What is traditional sample clearance?

Sample clearance is the process of obtaining permission to use portions of existing audio in new music. You need permission for the use of both the master (the actual recorded audio) and for the composition (the underlying musical work) of a song, sound, or performance.

That means that if you want to use an existing piece of audio (a sample), you need permissions from all sides: from the copyright owners of the composition, the copyright owners of the master sound recording(s), the performers, and the writers.

What is clearing and licensing?

Clearing samples is the process of obtaining permission to use a sample of the original sound recording from:

A) the copyright owners of the master recording like a record label, the producer, or the artist.

B) the copyright owners of the composition on the sound recording like a publishing company or the writers/composers themselves.

Conditions are negotiated from there. Sample clearance involves getting licenses and likely paying fees, a percentage of royalties, and a share of the new composition. Unless you have a Tracklib subscription including unlimited sample clearance without fees. But more on that further down this guide.

The two sides of sample clearance: master & composition

Requesting permission from the composer(s) & songwriter(s)

One of the two sides of sample clearance is to get permission from the rightsholders of the composition. This is usually the songwriter, producer, or composer of the work. They are often (but not always) represented by a publisher.

In order to get permission, you first need to establish who to contact and then submit a written request to all interested parties. This must clearly set out the musical works that you wish to sample in your new production, along with important information about each work—such as the title, artist, description, duration of the sample, and how you wish to use these in the new production. In traditional sampling requests, it’s also likely you have to send a demo of your new production.

The copyright holder(s) of the composition will review your request and determine whether or not they are willing to grant you permission to use their composition—and if so, on what commercial terms. It's important to note that in most cases, the copyright holders of the composition will not be the owner of the master recording and the performers’ rights. That could be a record label or other entity that owns the rights to the original recording you want to sample. In these cases, you also need to get permission from the copyright owners in order to use the music.

That brings us to another step:

Requesting permission from the owner(s) of the master sound recording

The other side of sample clearance is to try to get permission from the copyright owners of the sound recording—the master. This could be the record label. Or in the case of an independent release: the artist who recorded and released the song.

In order to do this, you again need to establish who they are and then need to find a way to get in touch to try to clear the music. You then have to send the same information as you did for the composition in terms of the use of the audio. Remember: even where there is a record company to deal with, the artists/performers may also need to approve the sample use. Just like publishers might still need approval from their writers.

Negotiating the deal

That’s when the negotiation starts. The deal is usually based on your sample usage in the new song. That's because many copyright owners want to know how their music will be used in order to consider whether to allow the use and what deal to propose, if any.

Commercial proposals for sample clearance differ in different parts of the world. Clearance for the master usually requires a fee plus a royalty. The size of which will vary depending on matters such as the particular song, the artist, and the sample use you are proposing. How they feel about sampling or how they treat a clearance inquiry, really depends on each individual artist, writer, and/or label.

With that said, sample clearance can be very expensive. You may be much better off using a clearing agent as they normally know who owns the rights and what sort of deals are likely to be done—bear in mind they need paying as well!

As we have said, in most cases, the copyright holders will want to hear at least a demo or even— in many cases when dealing with majors—the final song before granting permission or a license. So be sure to have at least a demo ready to send, or even a final version of your new song. Don’t worry, as long as that remains private and is shared only with the copyright owner, this is completely fine.

However, you absolutely cannot release your demo without permission. That also means you can't play the demo live in a DJ set, live stream, in a radio show, share in any way on social media, etc. Remember that if you send it to anyone else, and they do any of the above, it will still be regarded as your responsibility—so be very careful who you share it with.

MIDI sampling keyboards clearance interpolation

What about replayed music?

If you replay or recreate a sample note for note, and use it in a new production but do not use the original audio, then it’s called interpolation. If you interpolate music, you still have to get permission from the rights holder(s) of the composition. But not the master, because you are not using the preexisting sound recording.

Why do you need to get your samples cleared?

The process of getting sample clearance can be time-consuming. So it's important to make sure that you have all information in place. First, identify all of the copyrighted material that you want to use—think of a folder of music sampled, or a full list if you keep track of samples that way.

By taking the time and expense of having samples cleared, you can avoid legal problems. But if you don't clear the sample and don’t expect any legal issues, think again. First, this would be copyright infringement and is illegal so you should not do it anyway—particularly if you are an artist. Damages for copyright infringement can be astronomical and in some countries, copyright infringement is also a criminal offense. Even music released for free can be sued for uncleared samples. The same goes for (independent) artists outside of the mainstream realm.

Also, keep in mind that you never know when potential license requests or syncing opportunities arise—ones you might really want but have to deny if you did not clear your samples. That’s why it’s important to always clear your samples and keep full ownership of your productions. Ask any professional music producer out there: not fully owning your productions can severely hinder your career and your potential streams of income.

A long and expensive process?

Does that music clearance process sound like a drag? Or if you want to strictly focus on making and releasing music, then check out Tracklib. The one-stop shop for sampling real, original music was invented to overcome the hassle of sample clearance. Tracklib is the way to legally and affordably sample original songs and multitracks, without any sample clearance issues. You don't even have to trace down any rightsholders. Scratch that, you don't even need to pay licensing fees at all if you have a Premium or Max subscription! Start a trial here to give it a try.

How much does traditional sample clearance cost?

The costs of sample clearance varies depending on several factors. In terms of the music: think of the type and length of the sample, its use in the new production, the popularity of the original song, and the recognizability of the original composition or vocals. In terms of sample clearance: think if you need to license the composition or the master sound recording (or both), whether you need worldwide rights or specific territories, or if your song was already released with an uncleared sample. In general, you can expect to pay anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for sample clearance.

Of course, the best way to avoid costly surprises is to plan and budget for sample clearance from the get-go. That way, you have the permissions you need and you're sure that your project will stay on track—and on budget.

How Tracklib transforms sample clearance

Tracklib offers a solution to know upfront what you have to pay, without chasing down any rights holders. With a Lite subscription, over 90% of the music on Tracklib can be licensed for a clearance fee of only $50, with 2% to 20% of a share in the new composition, depending on the length of the sample. This would be what we call Category C.

With a Premium or Max plan, you can even freely sample without the need to pay a licensing fee for each sample! Unlimited sample clearance for as many releases as you want to officially release.

This is a game-changer for producers who want to sample real music in their productions, but don't have the time, money, or resources to clear samples themselves. With Tracklib, producers can finally create, release, and monetize the music they've always wanted to make. Sign up now and see for yourself how easy it is to sample, clear, and register music through Tracklib.

How do I find out who owns a piece of music?

If you want to use a copyright-protected song, you need to get permission from the rightsholders. From record labels to writers, and from publishers to composers. Where to start to track them down?

The best way to start is to contact the record label or artist (for master rights) or publisher (for compositional rights) of the song. This info can usually be found on the release. Or in databases of, for example, Sound Exchange. A more direct way to find out more about the ownership is to look into databases by performance rights organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, SESAC, BMI, or your country’s respective organization.

If you're not sure where to start or what kind of permissions you need or how to negotiate, a sample clearance specialist can help you figure that all out.

The process of clearing a song can be time-consuming and expensive. So it's important to start early. The sooner you start, the better chance you have of getting the permissions you need without running into any dead ends. Luckily, Tracklib is here to help to avoid any bumps in the road when it comes to sample clearance.

sampling vinyl records clearance process

Sample Clearance FAQs

How about foreign rights to licensed music? Do I need to get those, too?
If you plan on using or distributing the song worldwide, you need to ensure you get worldwide exploitation rights. Tracklib offers an easy and convenient way to do this, including all-cleared worldwide rights for all territories. Dig for the music you want to sample, and you’re good to go.

Do I need to license a song if I only sample a small amount of it?
The amount of the song you use does not affect whether or not you have to clear it. Any sample—no matter how short or long—needs to be cleared. In our comprehensive Beginner’s Guide to Sampling, we debunk more myths and take away uncertainties around sampling and music clearance.

How long does a music license last?
Typically, a music license will last for the duration of the copyright in your new production. That’s called a perpetual term.

What if I can't find the copyright holder?
If you can't find the copyright holder of a song, you won't be able to get the clearance or license to use it. If you don’t want to go through the trouble of tracking down rights holders with the risk of hitting a dead end, then Tracklib makes it easy to find and clear original music. That way, you don't have to find or contact any copyright holders yourself.

Do I need a license to use a song in my podcast or in a film?
Yes, you typically need to get a synchronization license to use music in your podcast or any visual work. Make sure to clear all your samples to be able to chase such sync opportunities for your own music.

What is a music clearance specialist?
Music clearance professionals require special skills and years-long experience in the music industry. After all, they are the ones who have to handle meticulous research, need extensive knowledge of music rights and copyright laws, and need to have razor-sharp negotiation skills. Tracklib offers a way to skip that highly-specialized, mind-boggling negotiation process.

What is a performing rights organization (PRO)?
A performing rights organization (PRO) is a company that tracks and collects royalties for the public performance of copyrighted musical works. In the United States, there are three main PROs: ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. Each PRO has its own catalog of songs and composers that it represents. There are different performance rights organizations around the world—such as PPL in the United Kingdom, GEMA in Germany, and SOCAN in Canada. They will also collect royalties for the public performance of the song and distribute them to the rights holders.

What is a collective management organization (CMO)?
PROs only track and collect performance royalties, whereas collective management organizations (CMO) also track and collect mechanical royalties next to the performance royalties. Mechanical royalties are generated each time a musical work is reproduced—physically and digitally. The terms of international CMOs differ by territory.

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