The Pros and Cons of Using Samples in Your Music
You’ve probably heard dozens of hit songs that sampled another song—it’s getting increasingly more common in hip hop and pop. So you may think nothing of it to distribute your own songs that contain a sample. But there are some serious caveats to the use of samples you need to know before building your backing tracks with them; caveats that, if unheeded, could lead you into a lawsuit.
Let’s review the benefits and risks of using samples in music so you can decide if they’re right for your songs.
The Benefits of Samples
First, let’s look at the reasons you may want to add samples to your songs. They include:
- Time-Saver. Using a sample can save you time on composing. If your schedule is strapped for music-making moments, buying a sample could save you an hour or so. Drag and drop a pre-made riff and spend more of your time on the most important aspects of your song: the lyrics and melody.
- Faster than Learning an Instrument. Building competency on a musical instrument like guitar or piano can take years. Of course it’s a great long-term skill to have, but not every songwriters wants to wait years to finish and release songs they’ve penned now. Using a sample can get your track finished today, no five years from now when you’ve forgotten where you left that lyrics notebook.
- Creativity Booster. The novelty of hearing other people’s music often sparks new ideas. Mixing samples together or experimenting with this sample over that drum beat may give you a jolt of inspiration—especially if you’ve been feeling uninspired lately.
- Implied Rapport. If the sample you use comes from a producer whose already gained some notoriety, name-dropping him as the sample provider may cause listeners to subconsciously associate your music with his reputation.
The Risks of Samples
Now let’s look at the pitfalls you must also consider before working with samples in your own songs:
- Royalty Disputes & Lawsuits. If you sample a song without permission, you could very well get sued for damages. Such legal disputes have happened to chart-topping, big-name artists like Juice WRLD and Kendrick Lamar. Warping or mangling the sample into a new key or tempo will not save you from a lawsuit, either.
- Scam Sellers. If you think buying samples will save you the dangers of a lawsuit, be aware: some independent beat makers are little more than scam artists, stealing clips from other musicians and selling them for a quick buck. If that happens and you get caught using an unauthorized sample, you’ll be the one getting sued—not the scammer you paid for the sample.
- Distribution Rejections. If you skip over the independent beat makers selling samples and buy your samples from a reputable sample library company, you’re still not out of the woods yet. Samples are sold non-exclusively, which means dozens of other artists could have used the same sample as you on their songs. When it comes to digital distribution, the AI technology used to check for copyright infringement in tracks doesn’t know you have a license for that audio clip. The first person to upload a track with that sample will, in the “eyes” of the AI, have the authorization to use it. So if you try to upload your own song with that sample to Distrokid, CDBaby, etc. they may reject it for “unauthorized sample use”. Now some distributors will manually approve the track if you dispute the rejection and provide a copy of your sample license. But you need to have that license ready and know that issue can stall your release date. Remember: samples can be used in distributed songs, but songs featuring samples cannot be added to ContentID systems.
- Copycat Accusations. If you buy a sample from a large company like Splice, that audio bite may have been used by dozens of other artists already. If multiple songs get popular using the same sample, people are bound to accuse you of stealing it from the other artist. While neither you or the other artist have really done wrong, the public backlash can be quite real. Think of that scene from Bring It On when the two cheerleader groups use the same routine.
Best Practices for Using Samples
Samples are obviously quite common, and I doubt their usage will diminish in the years to come. There are a few good sense measures you can implement to ensure a smooth sampling experience and negate the risks we’ve discussed above. Those best practices include:
- Verify the authenticity of sellers before buying a sample. Major companies like Splice and Loopcloud have good reputations and, for the most part, you shouldn’t have to worry about stolen audio clips. Even if you find a sample from an independent creator, there are still ways to check the veracity of their sample originality. A legitimate composer or beatmaker will have public social media accounts and contact information; the more visible their credentials, the less likely they are to hoodwink you if they care about their business’ success.
- Get the contract in writing. Whether you buy from a big site like Splice or from a beat maker on Beatstars, always get a copy of the license agreement. If your distributor does reject your track, you’ll need a PDF of the agreement proving you have the right to use it.
- Never sample without permission. Maybe you heard an indie song on YouTube and want to loop the intro portion for your next song. It doesn’t matter how big or small the original artist is, you still need to ask them for permission—and get that permission before you begin beatmaking. Actually, in a way, it does matter whether the original artist is big or small: smaller artists are more likely to approve your request. It’s not very likely that Sony BMG Music Group will even notice your request…much less approve it.
If you’ve weighs the pros and cons and decided to try working with some samples for your next song, dive into my guide on how to make a backing track with samples.
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