By, Wendy Day
Imagine that you are an unknown struggling artist. Young Thug 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. BG went to jail and his boy has some verses for sale to keep money flowing to him while he’s locked down. You’d like very much to have Young Thug, Akon, or BG on a song with you. But it’s not as simple as just having the money to pay for that feature…
Signed Artists Need Their Label’s Permission
Any artist 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 SoundCloud page for free, I must get a signed agreement allowing me to use the feature. 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 in any way (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 over saturated, 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 Yo Gotti, were most likely 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’re 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.
Features Are A Waste Of Money
And lately, meaning the past 5 years or so, I’ve avoided features because suddenly every up and coming rapper decided getting a “co-sign” from someone famous would make them famous, even though it has never really worked for anyone before them. So having a feature from an established artist today, I feel, makes new artists look like they are clueless, as if they have no talent and are just trying to buy their way into the industry. That laziness is a turn off. Plus, buying a feature is a waste of money better spent on marketing and promotion of a hit record.
Let’s say you are one of many new (unknown) artists who has someone famous on a record. You don’t stand out–you are just one of many (prior to Lil Wayne going to prison, he bragged that he was featured on 73 songs). And IF someone does happen to check out a song because someone famous is on it (even though most people do not), they are listening to the famous person’s verse and moving on. It doesn’t make you stand out, it’s not a co-sign, and it makes you look like you are trying to buy success instead of earning it. A truly talented rapper with an emerging fan base would want to stand out on his or her own. Features occur so frequently these days, they do not stand out.
And let’s be real: you aren’t buying the famous rapper’s friendship or support for your song or your career. Why not build your buzz and do songs with established artists when it benefits BOTH of you, so you don’t look like such a mark? At some point, you will build your buzz to the point where established artists will seek you out, vibe with you, and get on your song (Drake with the Migos, Kanye with 2Chainz, Nicky Minaj with 2Chainz, etc). At that point it’s a win win and they absorb some of your new artist heat and you gain some of their fans. So give up that idiotic notion of feeding your own ego of wanting to brag to your friends and family that you have a song with, say, Rick Ross. They see it for what it is: an insecure cry for attention from a struggling wanna-be rapper who paid someone famous to get on a song. In fact, they’re probably secretly hating on you because you didn’t invite them to the studio to meet Rozay. LoL
Getting A Famous Artist On Your Already Hot Single
So, what does a small local label do that has NO connections to the industry or the major labels to clear a feature? The real answer: You don’t feature a signed artist. Or, you get your artist super hot on the streets and in clubs and established artists will come to you. Now here’s where the line gets real murky, because often the more savvy street labels (like CTE, Grand Hustle, YMCMB, etc) want their artists performing along with the hottest local artists, but the major label that OWNS them, 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 feel well-connected, and it might even make it easier to get radio spins or posted on blogs. 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) 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 it 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 Young Thug ‘Stoner’ song. I bet 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 features. 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, blog money, DJ money, promo tour money, marketing money, etc….and you’re on your own to market and promote it.
What About A Hot Producer?
My personal preference for a single is to feature a hot producer rather than a featured artist because I don’t need a clearance to use a hot Drumma Boy track or a killer Sonny Digital beat. I prefer experienced, established producers who have already had successful radio records. Not only do they have a better (proven) understanding of what it takes to get a song on the radio, but the producer’s name is recognized by the DJs and program directors. It gives a legitimate association without needing a clearance. You still need paperwork. It’s called a Producer Dec. It gives you the right to use the track for commercial use (to sell downloads and CDs, and perform the song at shows) as a single and a video. But no label has to clear it because labels don’t “own” producers…at least not yet.
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 Atlantic 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 or feed your own ego. 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 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 song 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.