The music industry is constantly evolving on a daily basis. So, it’s imperative that I stay up-to-date on current events and changes. After visiting several online resources, I stumbled upon an article published by The Rolling Stone about Lil Nas X’s hit song “Old Town Road.”
According to detailed reports, Lil Nas X purchased the rights to the instrumental for $30 on BeatStars, a music production marketplace. Not a bad deal at all. What’s unclear is if Lil Nas X knew the instrumental contained a sample of Nine Inch Nails’ 2008 track “34 Ghosts IV”.
Music production marketplaces like BeatStars, Airbit and License Lounge provide great opportunities for producers to showcase and sell their work. The business model on these platforms allows producers to license their music directly to users for as low as $25. The low licensing fees give aspiring artists access to a large database of high-quality tracks to choose from.
With distribution from Tunecore or DistroKid and creative marketing on social media platforms, a producer can possibly get his or her big break.
Or be broken altogether.
While it is still unclear whether or not Lil Nas X knew the track contained a sample before he purchased it on BeatStars, I want to focus in on the larger problem: Producers who sell tracks without the necessary sample clearances not only put themselves in legal jeopardy, they can also make the artist and production marketplace liable for damages from a copyright infringement lawsuit.
Dutch beatmaker YoungKio, the producer of “Old Town Road”, probably never thought he would have one of the biggest songs of 2019. But, by lifting a riff from Trent Reznor’s guitar, adding some trap drums and then innocently uploading it for sale on BeatStars, he may have forfeited his rights and any potential revenue generated by the hit song.
Because of the potential unauthorized use of the sample, Lil Nas X may not make any money off of the song either when it comes to licensing and publishing!
Contrary to popular belief, a producer is supposed to obtain permission before the act of “sampling” actually occurs. In theory, you’re not supposed to manipulate, alter, copy or reproduce a sample inside your digital work station or electronic musical equipment without permission. I know this sounds crazy (especially with the sampling feature being readily available on most electronic music equipment) but it’s a form of copyright protection. The music industry doesn’t enforce this step but producers should be mindful of this concept because sampling should be handled with care.
As I suggest in my book The Beat Game, once you sample pre-recorded material, you’re taking food off of your own plate and giving it away.
Once YoungKio sampled that guitar riff, he lost his leverage. According to reports, Lil Nas X’s label Columbia Records stepped in to resolve the sampling issue with Trent Reznor. But, what does that really mean? Did Lil Nas X and Young Kio need to give up a sizable share to obtain clearance? If you were Trent Reznor, would you demand a sizable share of the hit song? If your samples aren’t cleared beforehand, everyone will be at the mercy of the sample or copyright holder.
This includes the producer, artist, label, distributor and production marketplace.
So remember, be extremely careful when using samples. The accessibility to music distribution services and production marketplaces are great resources for independent artists and producers. At the same time, these resources create a sense of legal comfort for users. Many of the basic music business principles are left up to the users to learn on their own. I don’t believe users realize how proactive they need to protect themselves legally. Most platforms attempt to protect themselves by making the producers acknowledge he or she is liable for tracks being uploaded for sale.
Although it’s extremely unlikely that YoungKio cleared the sample beforehand, producers should get used to doing so on their own. If you don’t, you may become famous for being the producer who made only $30 from a mega-hit record.
Darrell “Digga” Branch is a Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling producer who has laced beats for the likes of JAY-Z, 50 Cent, Jennifer Lopez and Cam’ron, who he helped launch the Dipset movement with. Follow him on Instagram @sixfigga_digga for more music industry insight.