Clearances. By, Wendy Day

Posted on December 22, 2012 by

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You are an unknown struggling artist. Rick Ross is in town performing and you have the ability to offer him a few thousand dollars to come by the studio and drop a quick 16 bars. Your cousin knows Akon and said for $80k he’ll sing the hook on your song, you just have to send him the money and the ProTools session. Lil Boosie went to jail and his manager has some verses for sale to keep money flowing to him while he’s locked down. You’d like very much to have Rick Ross, Akon, or Boosie on a song with you. But it’s not as simple as just having the money to pay for that feature…

Anyone who is signed to a record label is technically OWNED by that label. This means that even if a rapper is my friend, and I want to feature him or her on a song, I MUST get the permission of the rapper AND his or her record label to use the song IN ANY WAY. Whether that song that the artist is featured upon is my single, album filler, on a mixed CD, or just featured on my MySpace page for free. Legally, JUST TO RECORD the song, I must have the permission of the artist and the label to which the artist is signed. If I plan to use it commercially (even for free promotion or on my demo to get a deal), I need the permission of the artist and their label. That permission is called a “clearance.”

I am giving you the legal, raw explanation here! But what’s legal and factual rarely happens in the underground music business where everyone is struggling to be heard or stand out. All of those songs that you hear floating around the internet by rappers you’ve never heard of, but that feature known artists like Gucci Mane or Lil Wayne, were probably never cleared. So this is where every signed artist is about to get really pissed off at me, because doing features is one of the ways rappers make money… but without a clearance from the rapper and the rapper’s label (business affairs dept or lawyer) you legally can NOT use the feature… even if you paid for it. That little piece of paper (the clearance) means everything!!

It gets worse. In order to CLEAR the feature, you must submit the completed song. It doesn’t have to be mixed and mastered, but it does need to be relatively tight. So, you ask, how do I get a Lil Wayne verse on the record without paying him money to be on the song—a song I might not be able to use? You pay him half upfront to record, and half when it clears. Now, I can’t speak for Wayne, but I can speak for most artists. If you don’t pay them in full for the song upfront, they aren’t stepping into the studio to record with you because they know there is a good chance the song will never clear. This is a gray area that has plagued the music business forever. Most rappers will tell you that’s why they charge indie artists so little, because you might not be able to use it “commercially.” If a signed rapper charges another signed rapper $25,000 for 16 bars, but you—as an indie, are getting him for $7,500, it’s not hard to figure out that there’s a catch.

How do I, personally, get around this with MY clients? I don’t feature artists on songs who might not clear through their labels. Because I’ve been doing this for a long time, I know who I can easily clear and who I can’t clear. I also have some label favors and artist favors stored up so I can flex a little power when asking for a clearance. For example, if I negotiated an artist’s deal at Universal and come back to them after they’ve made tens of millions of dollars on that artist, they might be more apt to clear a feature for me if I’m not putting their artist on some garbage. They also know that if I am behind a project, it has a better chance of succeeding. If I step to a label where I just broke the contract of their biggest artist, they are likely to tell me to fuck off when I want to clear a feature. Politics.

But what does a local label do that has NO connections to the industry or the major labels? The real answer: You don’t feature their artist. Now here’s where the line gets real murky, because often the more savvy street labels (like CTE, Grand Hustle, Slip N Slide, Big Gates, etc) want their artists performing along with the hottest local artists, but the major label does not. Let’s use Jeezy as an example because he does so few features anyway (now you know why). A new artist would want Jeezy on a song because he’s well known, has street credibility, and it’s instant name recognition for an unknown artist to say he has Jeezy on a song. It makes the newer artist look well-connected, and it might even make it easier to get radio spins. Jeezy may want to be on a song with whoever is the hottest up and coming artist from an area because it reaffirms his connection to the streets. But for Jeezy to appear on a song, you need a clearance from CTE (which is Jeezy’s label that he owns with his partner, Kinky B) and Def Jam.

Most new indie labels don’t have access to a label like Def Jam to clear a song, so they pay the artist to get on the record and then they throw it out on the streets hoping that is blows up. Their mindset is that they will cross that clearance bridge when they come to it. They are hoping that the noise the uncleared song will make for their artist will outweigh the bullshit they are going to suffer. And let’s be real—if it’s a hit record, the major label won’t complain about Jeezy being on it. Protecting their investment in Jeezy only really matters to them when the songs don’t blow up, or are garbage, because it makes their national artist look bad. Imagine if Jeezy had been on that hit Drake record. Def Jam would have happily cleared that! That’s what I mean by murky…

Most smaller labels don’t have the budgets, or the proper connections, or even the experience to make a hit record blow up. The major labels know this, so they are reluctant to allow their artists to perform on a feature. On the flip side, some major labels look at clearances as a come up. Their attitude is ‘if you want to use our national artist that we’ve invested millions of dollars into building, pay us too. You can use our artist and we’ll clear the usage, but it’ll cost you $30,000.’ So, if you are paying $30,000 to the artist and $30,000 to the major label, you can see where this gets a little costly, right? Plus you need radio money, promotion money, DJ money, promo tour money, marketing money, etc… and you’re on your own to market and promote it.

My personal preference is to feature a hit producer rather than an artist because I don’t need a clearance to use a hot Drumma Boy track or a killer Zaytoven beat. But if I want to feature Boosie, Jeezy, Gucci Mane, Plies, Drake, Nicki Minaj, or any other signed artist on a song, I have to jump through paperwork hoops that could possibly kill months and tens of thousands of dollars. There are better ways for me to break my artist on the streets. Having said that, if you absolutely need to feature Lil Boosie on your record, you will buy the feature, record the song, and then submit the song to both Trill Entertainment and Warner for clearance.

Or, you will do what so many others in this industry have done before you, you will record the song and put it out and say “fuck it!” I don’t believe in doing business that way, but many can’t afford the money, or time, or possible “no you can’t use the song.” If you are buying a Boosie feature in hopes of using it as a radio single for your unknown artist, and you have no connection to Boosie, Trill, the industry, or powerful lawyers, you are an idiot trying to use someone else’s artist to benefit your own pocket. Why would any label in their right mind want to help you do that? Look at it from their point of view. This is a business. Now maybe, with someone with power in the industry on your side you could get it cleared, but it’s still a risk and you’re asking a lot.

Lack of knowledge is this industry is the #1 killer of artists’ dreams.

I asked a label head within the Universal system about clearing features and was told that “if the artist fights for the clearance and if the artist is in good standing with me, I’ll usually clear it to keep the artist happy.” Another label head looked at it from a financial point of view during a recession and said “so, you want to build up your artist by using a verse from my artist that I’ve spent millions of dollars to build? $30 grand off the rip, and more if it’s an A List artist. Plus, you can’t put your shit out 3 months before or 3 months after my artist drops!” Hmmmm, sounds like it’s a business.

Then there are the REAL label politics that you have to worry about if you get signed with your song that has a feature. There is some animosity between major labels—for example, Universal and Atlantic, so clearing anything at one label to appear on a release from the other is a nightmare. So if I am doing a deal with Universal for an artist who is signed to Atlantic (remember, most smaller new labels don’t clear appearances ahead of time), I know that getting that clearance will be difficult. I remember hearing a song on the radio with Gorilla Zoe (Warner) featuring Lil Wayne (Universal). I was so surprised that Block was able to clear a Lil Wayne verse. Turns out it didn’t clear and the song was taken off the album after it had already hit radio and was climbing the charts. If Universal made Warner pull the song from radio, what would they do to Little Local Records, LLC?

Welcome to the music business and have a nice day.

[Written 2008 (c) Wendy Day]

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