The art of beat making using samples from old classic records has long been one of the defining traits of electronic music. From Rap to Rave and from House to Hip Hop, many artists have creatively used samples to great effect in their productions.
In this article we'll be looking at why sampling other people's songs can sometimes be a big issue if you are planning on releasing commercially, what to do about it, as well as looking at some great resources for finding royalty free samples.
Let's dig in.
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Table of Contents
What is Sampling?
In music production, sampling involves capturing and re-using a portion of another song or audio recording. The sampled material may be anything from a drum loop, a vocal or speech, or even an entire section of a previously recorded song.
Hardware samplers or software within your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) allow you to stretch and warp samples to manipulate the audio into something new. These tools transform sampling into a creative art form rather than just copying someone else's work.
Sampling was first made popular by Hip Hop artists in the 1980s, many of whom paid homage to their musical heritage by sampling classic soul and disco records within their songs.
The most sampled song of all time is the soul track 'Amen Brother' by The Winstons which has been sampled by other artists more than 5000 times! The drum fill within this song is so popular that it even has its own name, 'the Amen Break'.
To use a sample from another artist you need to get their permission in a process known as sample clearance. The artist or their record label clears the samples by giving you a licence to use them.
It's important to note that even if you sample a small fraction of an artist's song without permission then it still counts as copyright infringement.
What Happens if you Don't Clear a Sample?
This is probably best answered with a famous example.
Back in 1989, American hip hop artists De La Soul released their 3 Feet High and Rising album, which even today is considered to be one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. The album featured an eclectic mix of over 60 samples from artists ranging from The Monkees to The Isley Brothers.
In the 1980s sampling was still relatively new, so as a result not all the samples used were cleared as they should have been. One of these was a 12 second sample of 'You Showed Me' by The Turtles used on the track 'Transmitting Live from Mars'.
A few months after the release of '3 Feet High and Rising', former members of The Turtles, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against De La Soul for a whopping $2.5 million. The case was eventually settled out of court; however the settlement was reportedly around $1.7 million.
How Do I Get Permission to Use a Sample?
Clearing a sample can be complicated. You need to find out who holds the licence for the master recording, as well as the licence for the composition, and then approach them for permission.
The master recording licence is often owned by the record label. The composition licence is usually owned by the songwriter or publisher.
Note that getting a sample cleared to be used for a commercial release is likely to cost you money or a share of your royalties, as the licence owners are under no obligation to give you permission.
Where Do I Get Licence Free Samples?
If you're short of money however then there are also some great free sample options. Check out Looperman for thousands of free loops, drum hits, and vocals, or take a look at The Ultimate List of Free Sample Packs, where I've compiled the best available free sample packs for every genre.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do I Know if a Song is Copyrighted?
Almost all music is copyrighted. The exception to this is music that exists within the public domain. You can see whether a song is in the public domain by checking the Public Domain Information website.
In addition, some song writers release their music under a Creative Commons licence. In this case you may be able to sample legally but have to credit the creator or only use non commercially depending upon the licence specifics.
Can I Sample from YouTube?
You cannot sample any audio content from YouTube unless you have permission from the owner of the composition and/or the owner of the content.
Is It Legal to Sample Speeches?
In general, the same copyright rules apply to the spoken word as it does to music. However, many speeches given by historical figures are in the public domain so are not copyrighted.
How Much of a Sample Can I Legally Use?
It's an urban myth that you are legally allowed to sample short sections of audio without having to worry about copyright. All music samples need to be cleared, regardless of their length.
I hope you've found this article useful. Check out the rest of my website for music production news, reviews, and freebies.
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Have a great day.