How to Clear a Music Sample
By Gentle Jones
A Hip-Hop powerhouse hides quietly, nestled in the picturesque hills of Hockessin, Delaware; DMG Clearance is run by owner Deborah Mannis-Gardner, Madeleine Smith, Jennefer K. Showalter, and Allison Wachowski. It is the largest company handling sample clearance for the Hip-Hop industry with over 2 decades of experience working with illustrious labels such as Island Def Jam, Bad Boy, and Interscope Records. In addition to samples, DMG provides music clearance for major movie soundtracks (O Brother Where Art Thou?, Fast & Furious), compilation albums, and video games (Rockstar). They’ve done clearance for hit makers like Cee-lo, Beyonce, Ghost Face Killah, Christina Aguilara, Prince Paul, Nas, and Public Enemy, just to name a few from their star studded A-list of clients. Chances are that if you have Hip-Hop music in your record collection you may have seen the names of someone from DMG in the liner notes.
DMG founder Deborah Mannis-Gardner says her job comes with perks, “I did some free work for Snoop Dogg and he sent a personal video for my son Curtis's Bar Mitzvah saying "Hey Curtis, I work for your Mom." She laughs as she recalls the film and Snoop’s cryptic message, "He said, 'Curtis, Let me give you some advice. When you walk under waterfalls don't get wet, you know what I'm saying?' and we were all like 'No?'” (Laughs)
Deborah grew up with alternative and punk rock music but has been involved with Hip-Hop sample clearance for years, “I have been doing sample clearances since 1992. I have had my own business since 1996 (in NY) and then moved back home to Delaware with company and family in tow. Jennefer Showalter has been with DMG since 2002. She and I recently acquired Madeleine's publishing administration company which is now called Diamond Song Services. As President of the company, Jen oversees the day-to-day operations with Madeleine still very actively involved in the publishing side of the business. We secure the rights of musical copyrights and master recordings for use in video games, TV, film, commercials and especially for clearance as samples.”
After graduating from Emerson college, Deborah started working on music videos in New York City and in 1989 she joined with a UK partner to open a company Diamond Time which intended to do strictly television clearances. But in 1990 Debra suggested that the business move into the evolving minefield of sample clearance. "There weren't really even any rules. We would barter for rights. If you sent a letter of request for permission with the music some would say 'This is copyright infringement, you've already infringed' and if you sent they letter without the music they would say 'So where is it? How can I agree to this without hearing it?'"
Even today, Deborah says that the standard is to sample first and then clear, “However, if artists work closely with their clearance agent from the beginning of the recording process, they can run certain samples by them before using them to see if they are generally clearable or not.” Deborah says that clearance can take anywhere from an hour to a year. “A portion is finding and confirming publishers. Another portion is finding and confirming labels and other types of master owners. Then there is the deal making, negotiation when the quotes are too high or otherwise not acceptable to our clients, and most importantly concluding the deals and making sure sampled copyright holders and master owners are paid any advances that they are due and that contracts are signed.”
The sample clearance industry at one time had over half a dozen major players, most of who have fallen to the wayside. "I don't really have competition anymore," Deborah laughs, "because Madeleine joined us. She was my competition."
Madeleine Smith started in the business on the West Coast in the 1980's with classic records such as the first Eazy E single "The Boyz-N-The Hood", N.W.A.'s "Straight Out of Compton", and D.O.C.'s "No One Can Do It Better". At the time her husband was Donovan "The Dirt Biker" Smith, a legendary engineer and pioneer of the West Coast sound. Madeleine remembers, "Donovan worked in the studio with N.W.A and Eazy, and I was working for the National Academy of Songwriters.” She began working with the fledgling Ruthless Records label by handling their fan club. “Later they asked me if I wanted to take over their publishing, so they could keep it in the family, Ruthless was like a big family back then. So I said sure and eventually I fell into clearing samples since they were everywhere." The necessity for clearance was due to industry changes around 1987, "It used to be that you didn't have to clear samples and then all of the sudden you did. So I was the first outside person who wasn't an attorney doing it."
Madeleine worked closely with the entire N.W.A. group even after Dr. Dre left for Death Row and Ice Cube went solo, "Each of them made albums with songs about each other and I was working all of those records. They knew that I was doing everyone's clearances and I had no problems with them. Then one day, all of the sudden, I received a dozen roses and a bottle of Cristal from Suge Knight with a note 'Thanks for all you've done for me.' and I was like 'What the heck is this for?' and then I watched the news and they were putting him in jail. So when he got out 5 years later I sent him a thank you note."
Deborah recalls the early days of clearing a sample, "The money people, the record companies and the publishers started to change things. At first they didn't think rap music was going to last. You used to be able to get a sample for a $5000 media buyout. And when I say buyout I mean a one time payment and nothing else. So when I worked for Me Phi Me they used a James Brown sample and later they also used it for a TV show called 'Tribeca' and didn't have to clear it again because they got it in a $5000 media buyout. That’s when the record companies started kicking themselves and changing the buyouts." Madeleine recalls one of the last buyouts of those days, a Van Halen sample, "It was after Tone Loc put out 'Wild Thing' and Warner cleared the sample for 'Jamie’s Crying' as a $2500 media buyout, and that song's still playing."
Eventually sample clearance grew into an established business where still wary publishers would take "income participation" meaning they would receive income, but they didn't want to own any part of the new song. Deborah explains, “They thought that they would be open to lawsuits.”
As the sample clearance business became more defined and DMG grew with the changing rap industry they also adapted to new industries, most recently working to clear music for video games. "We recently finished Grand Theft Auto 4 for Rockstar Games (which comes out April 29th)." DMG also did clearances for the forthcoming Biggie Smalls movie "Notorious".
Deborah says her decision years back to base the company in the First State was met with skepticism. "It was either sink or swim running this business in Delaware. People were like 'What are you doing?’ But I'm here because this is the best place to raise my son." Madeline adds, "For me it was getting so crazy in Los Angeles. It’s much cheaper to live here and the schools are so great."
There is no secret to DMG's continued presence in the industry. Deborah says, "Not only do we have the contacts to make the deals, we also have the people to wrap up the deals and that's what makes DMG as successful as we are. We love what we do."