There are probably bigger challenges in life than trying to clear a Beatles sample. We just can't think of any right now.
Just ask the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, or maybe Ja Rule, both of whom recently attempted the musical equivalent of scaling Mount Everest with one hand tied behind your back: clearing original master Beatles samples for use in their songs.
Of course, both did a whole lot of shouting from base camp, which seemed rather ill-advised, considering the treacherous climb ahead. And when neither was successful in their attempts — the Wu's "The Heart Gently Weeps" and Ja's "Father Forgive Me" feature not original Beatles samples, but rather reworked (or "interpolated") versions of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Eleanor Rigby" (see "Wu-Tang Clan's 'First-Ever Cleared Beatles Sample' Claim Is Incorrect") — it was hardly news. After all, these are the songs of the Beatles (and the myriad of corporations, limited partnerships and publishing companies associated with them) we're talking about here. They can't be had without a fight.
"If a recording artist wanted to build a song around a Beatles sample, they have to go through three different license holders," said Janice Brock, a spokeswoman for Sony/ATV, the music-publishing company that owns the famed Lennon/McCartney Northern Songs catalog (and as such, also owns roughly 90 percent of the entire Beatles song output). "They have to go to the original master-license holder, which is EMI Records. They have to go to the Beatles themselves, who are represented by Apple Corps Ltd., and they have to go to Sony/ATV, which represents the song itself.
"It's a fairly difficult, lengthy process, which is why most people probably don't bother," Brock continued. "And as you know, the Beatles have never granted a master-license sample."
And it's that challenge, that finality, which makes an original Beatles sample the Holy Grail of song-building. Which is probably why both the RZA and Ja made big noise about clearing Beatles samples — even if, you know, they actually hadn't. There's a certain amount of swagger that comes with even securing permission to rework a Beatles song into one of your own. After all, even that doesn't come for free.
"With a sample, it's not an issue of difficulty of clearing it. If somebody doesn't want to let you have it, you can't use it," said Todd Brabec, a vice president at ASCAP, the international society of composers, songwriters and music publishers. "A lot of songwriter/publisher deals give the writer the ability to approve usage. And in the case of a sample — using someone else's song to make a new one — it's a negotiation of what your share of all this new song's earnings is going to be. In the case of most high-profile compositions, the new songwriter forfeits all their songwriting royalties."
"If you're going to put someone else's song in your song and build a song around it, you'd have to give away 100 percent of the copyright," Brock added. "So you don't actually earn songwriter royalties for doing that. It generally goes to the original writers. In the case of Ja Rule's ['Father Forgive Me,'] the song sample is an interpolation, it's not an original master use, so in turn for doing that, his songwriter royalties go to the Beatles."
So just for reworking a pair of Beatles compositions in their new songs, both the Wu-Tang Clan and Ja Rule agreed to turn over all songwriting royalties to the original songwriters — in this case, the estate of George Harrison and Lennon/McCartney, respectfully. Also, for each copy of the Wu's The 8 Diagrams or Ja's The Mirror that is sold or downloaded, the rappers will pay both the original writers and their publishing companies (Harrisongs and Sony/ATV) 9.1 cents, an amount mandated by federal law.
Is it all worth it? Well, we guess that's up to the artists themselves. But just getting to this point has been a battle. Then again, nothing in the realm of music publishing — and all its marvelous facets, including sample clearances and statutory fees — is simple.
Publishing is probably the least understood, most complicated (and most unsexy) aspect of the music industry, yet it's also one of the most lucrative: a near billion-dollar-a-year business that's as much about corporations and copyright law as it is creativity and compositions. It's the bizarre point where artists looking to make a statement crash directly into songwriters looking to make a living. And as record sales continue to bottom out, artists trying to have their music heard (and get paid) are exploring every facet of publishing ... which means it's only gonna get more, uh, complicated from here.
"Most people think of the music business only as records, but the big money — the continuing money — is in writing and publishing songs. Because now a song can be used in several TV series, a lot of films, video games, ringtones — all these different uses, not just in the U.S. but throughout the entire world," Brabec said. "And you're getting royalties every time you get one of these new uses. And it's only going to get more interesting. Record sales are going down the tubes, but I'm optimistic about all the other areas in which songwriters can exploit — in the best possible way — their songs.
"Radio and TV performances are the biggest areas, but you can make a lot of money on just having a song in a singing fish doll," he continued. "You'd rather have a singing fish doll than a million-seller, believe me."
And with more and more money up for grabs, does that mean we can expect to see less of these high-profile sample battles? It's doubtful.
"I think there's a certain quality to some of these songs, that no matter how daunting it might seem, there's always going to be an artist who wants to use a sample of them," Brabec said. "There's always going to be a desire for that timeless quality."