Why clearing samples is crucial

It’s safe to say that pop, hip hop and samples are inextricably linked. Some of the best songs of all time materialised because of samples. Think the Notorious B.I.G’s Mo Money Mo Problems and the Diana Ross sample and Madonna’s Hung Up, which samples Abba’s Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)

Samples can transform songs into standalone icons. They can also ruin an artist’s finances. 

Love them or hate them, samples are part and parcel of the music industry and they need to be cleared, every. single. time. 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, copyright is β€œthe exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material.”

Music copyright is comprised of publishing rights and master rights.

When we’re talking about publishing rights, we’re referring to the composition itself. The master rights refer to the rights associated with a particular, recorded version of a song. L

Labels own the master rights (typically they fund the recording) while songwriters, represented by publishers or Performing Rights Organisations, own the publishing rights.

However – defining who owns what is not super clear-cut. Several individuals and companies can own or control the rights to a song and its composition. Most pop tunes involve multiple writers and producers, and all these different stakeholders have various entities administering their splits in different songs.

Why clearing samples is important

If you’re including a sample in your song, you need authorisation from the respective parties to release that song and not get sued. 

Certain songs are pretty straightforward – in that, they’re written by a sole songwriter or two who also happen to administer the song’s rights. When a few parties are involved, things are fairly low key as you would only need to negotiate a price for the clearance fee. 

Things tend to get a bit more complicated when you’re dealing with major labels and hit songs. You typically need a license for both the master and the composition – which are owned by different entities. 

The first step is to find the publisher of the composition you’re sampling using the online databases of PROs such as ASCAP, BMI and PRS. 

Then, you need to find which label owns that specific recording. You can usually look this up on Google. 

Typically, publishers ask for an advance, which can be anything between a couple of hundred to thousands of dollars, plus 15%-5% of all revenue generated by the song. Labels would want an up-front fee and a rollover, i.e. the royalties that are calculated based on a sales threshold. 

What’s more – many a time, major labels and publishers don’t want to deal with independent artists…until tracks go viral. This is when they’re out for blood. 

Real-life case studies

P.Diddy / Sting

P.Diddy’s Bad Boy Records didn’t clear the sample for their 1997 release I’ll Be Missing You. The track samples The Police hit Every Breath You Take. Since the label didn’t clear the sample, the royalties had to be handed over to Sting, who owns the rights to the original record. 

According to Celebrity Net Worth, Sting makes $2000 a day from Every Breath You Take. Some of this money comes from P.Diddy’s track, which sold over 7 million copies worldwide. 

To complicate things even further, the P.Diddy track samples the guitar part – which was written by Police guitarist Andy Summers. Summers hadn’t pushed for a credit, leaving Sting as the sole songwriter on the track. This means that Summers didn’t receive a dime for his unknowing contribution to I’ll Be Missing You. 

The Verve / The Rolling Stones

The opening section of The Verve’s Britpop-defining hit Bitter Sweet Symphony samples the 1965 Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording of The Rolling Stones’ The Last Time. 

While The Verve did negotiate a six-note sample from the recording from Decca Records, they did not ask Allen Klein (ex-Rolling Stones manager) for permission to use the sample. 

Klein happens to own the copyright to the band’s pre-1970 repertoire, which includes The Last Time.  This led to a lawsuit, during which The Verve had to hand over all royalties to Klein and the copywriting credits to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. 

In May 2019, Richard Ashcroft (The Verve’s frontman) announced that the dispute had finally been settled – “As of last month, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards signed over all their publishing for “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, which was a truly kind and magnanimous thing for them to do. I never had a personal beef with the Stones. They’ve always been the greatest rock and roll band in the world. It’s been a fantastic development. It’s life-affirming in a way.” [Source: BBC]

Final Notes

These two cases clearly show how not clearing samples can lead to lengthy lawsuits, hefty monetary compensations, and occasionally, an artist’s demise. 

Therefore, if you’re dead set on a particular sample, you can rerecord the part yourself so that you can bypass the label and deal with the publisher only. 

Moreover, nowadays, there are online sample libraries such as Tracklib where you can clear samples without having to email a tonne of different people (who probably won’t even give you the time of day). 

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


Janelle knows a thing or two about the music industry. Having been involved in the industry since the age of 13, she's now involved in a variety of music-related projects and is always keen to share industry tips 'n' tricks with fellow musicians.