We talked with the “Queen of Music Clearance” Deborah Mannis-Gardner about leading a company of women, racial profiling in music, and the future of music as it relates to the people who create it.
There is one person who Drake, DJ Khaled, Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre, and more rely on to protect them from litigation over samples and interpolations. Their secret weapon is Deborah Mannis-Gardner, also known as the “Queen of Music Clearance.” She established DMG Clearances in 1996 to help hip-hop artists clear samples at a time when the genre was not the billion dollar industry it has become. She named her company after her initials; an attorney named Mike Selverne started calling her “DMG.” and it stuck. She may be just over 5 feet, but she’s a petite powerhouse with an equally powerful voice, backed by 30 years of experience.
She makes it possible for music to earn money from its uses, and to be heard by wider audiences through their placements on films. Mannis-Gardner negotiates the terms for using existing material on new original works, or for using a song in a game or a film. Her clients have been everyone from Run-DMC to Eminem. She also oversees the uses for the catalog of Led Zeppelin, a group that rarely gives the blessing of a clearance. In addition to song clearances, Deborah wields her superpowers for film and gaming uses. She spent four years securing clearances for the HBO documentary The Defiant Ones, earning a 2018 Guild of Music Supervisors Award in the process. Recent artists she’s cleared samples for include Big K.R.I.T., Logic, and DJ Khaled on the newly released Father of Asahd.
We caught up with this unsung hero at Midem, the music and technology conference held in Cannes, where she gave a talk about the state of music exploitation and copyright uses. Deborah was very candid during the conversation. She talked about leading a company of women executives, racial profiling in music and the future of music as it relates to the people who create it.
What’s it like to be the dominant player in this space as a woman executive?
In the beginning, I think they all looked at me as this little white, Jewish girl. They didn’t give me much attention — they just wanted me to get my stuff done. Today, my company is all women. And not women that have degrees in music; these are women that are strong, career oriented. I brought them in, taught them the clearance and music side of the business, and we became a powerful force. Janice Shreve was a schoolteacher; Rachel Lefkowitz worked in customer service at a publishing company, and she’s a photographer; Deborah Evans of Della Music works with me; and I just brought on Nicole Johnson. She used to work for Warner Chappell and Universal Music Publishing. I set up my company for women, so my team can have children, hours can be flexible, and we still put in those 40, 60, 80 hours or whatever our clients need from us.
If Busta [Rhymes] or Khaled calls on a Friday night…we can make ourselves available.
How meta is it that now we have hip hop artists sampling hip-hop artists? Do you find there is more of a shorthand in these deals or not?
It doesn’t matter. Rap sampling hip-hop should be easy, but they make it really difficult. It really bothers me. The love and respect isn’t there. I hate the dissing at this stage of the game. I know there are rap battles and whatnot, but country artists don’t do this to each other. I think if someone else wants to sample your voice, as an artist, you should accommodate them and let them sample you.
A lot of people don’t realize the degree to which sampling was criminalized in the ‘80s, even called outright theft. I think about the Biz Markie case…
Those are fabulous words you’re using. They called it “stealing.” People would say: “they don’t have any talent. They don’t play instruments. Hip-hop’s not gonna last.” And people were stomping on CDs!
Did you ever envision the outcome of award show recognition and legitimacy?
It’s nice to see the recognition; hip-hop is dominating the charts. It’s nice to finally see these artists coming up on stage. Back then, award shows used to be so scared of having rap artists on stage. Guns N’ Roses used to use profanity, but it was okay for them to be on stage. I still think it’s a very racist world — and there are definitely double standards in this industry.
Where do you see this double standard show up in your line of work?
If you listen to country music or alternative rock and a lot of stuff sounds “similar”…but when it comes to hip-hop and rap sounding similar, immediately there’s legal action being taken. Tell me that isn’t in a way racial profiling? I know I’m white, but it doesn’t mean I can’t see what’s going on. Sampling is a talent. It is a skill. Berklee School of Music now allows people to audition with electronic equipment. That’s huge! We need more education, explanation, and understanding to take the music to the next level.
Do you find marquee artists who may or may not need to clear samples still eschew hip-hop in the name of purism, or are they more open to the income opportunity and the chance to have their catalog revived?
Strangely enough, I’m working on a Miles Davis album, and we’ve added samples to it — and the estate is behind it, which is awesome. I love when people think outside the box.
What’s behind the loosening of clearances once an artist passes away?
When Prince was alive he did not want his stuff sampled. He was a purist. When he turned Kendrick down, he was like “hey man, I love this, but I can’t clear it.” Anita Baker does not allow people to sample. I respect her for that. So, when Prince passed and the music becomes more readily available, it’s kind of sad because it’s not what he would have wanted; not everything is meant to be sampled.
But under US copyright law, anyone has the right to do a cover song. Go to France or England, and they can stop you.
What’s the biggest change to the clearance world thus far?
Everything’s changing. Everything is going the way of streaming. Five years ago, I said that iTunes would die, and that we wouldn’t have MP3s, or even digital downloads — so at DMG, we revamped everything about how we negotiate. There is no more mechanical because there is no more hard configuration. Artists will make their money through branding, touring, merchandising and synchronization. Revenue is not going to come primarily from the music itself, but from how the music gets used.
The idea of “free music” was marketed to consumers, moving them away from CDs and vinyl to downloads. How can we bring the idea of music being of value back to the consumer end?
Education. We have to teach respect and teach people that if they want something, you should pay for it and not assume it should come to them for free. I have an 18-year-old son, and obviously, he streams and goes to YouTube — but when he likes something, he buys it. He loves the Gorillaz. He got the vinyl, the CD, and bought the digital download.
Streaming services enjoy both a subscription model and an advertising model they can rely on for revenue. Despite the music content being the appeal for subscribers, artists have no piece of that revenue. What’s your opinion about this imbalance?
The labels are seeing revenue on behalf of the artists for their content. Take Drake for example, who is making great money on the master side. His publisher, however, Sony ATV, is not seeing the huge revenue they should. But once the Music Modernization Act is enacted, and the values are established, I believe the money will come.
What do artists, composers and producers need to know about their responsibilities when it comes to samples?
I tell producers putting stuff up for sale on sites that has uncleared material in it that they need to clear whatever material they use before uploading. And if you can’t afford that, go to a site like TrackLib or Splice, who clear their material — and create music with it, so you can sample and create the art. I tell producers that if they can’t sample something from Tracklib, they’re lazy. Producers should be able to take anything and pull elements from it and create.
Since we’re on the subject of uncleared material…what’s one use you couldn’t clear?
I was working on a clearance for Dr. Dre for The Defiant Ones. Dre wanted to interpolate a song that’s just not available for sampling. The negotiations went on for two years, and it ended up not happening. Dre and Jimmy were OK with it, because they didn’t think it was going to happen; but the owner had said yes and then they changed their mind. We hadn’t papered it, we hadn’t finalized it, and that was the most upsetting for me. I was so sad that one didn’t happen…and I can’t even tell you what the sample was.
This question is for the film content creators out there who need music in their projects. Is the “most favored nations” approach to clearances (a flat rate mutually agreed upon by all rights holders for use in a film) still a tactic filmmakers can utilize?
Yes, it is — we got a really low rate doing “most favored nations” for The Defiant Ones. There’s a lot of groveling and begging, but it’s usually accepted with documentaries, less so for a major motion picture.
What are your favorite sample uses?
[Kendrick Lamar’s] To Pimp a Butterfly is my favorite album that I worked on, and we pulled some songs with samples that didn’t clear so I love listening to that version of the album. One of my favorite and funniest ones was Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Macy Gray covering “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart.” I think they’re drunk and in the studio and it’s hilarious. I got it cleared, but then he died, so it’s on the Internet, but it never came out commercially.
You said “I don’t believe in anything being free,” what did you mean by that?
When people ask me to get something cleared with a gratis license, I say “no.” Why should it be free? You’re willing to buy bottled water and coffee, so why should music be free? That is how the artist and the writers support themselves so they can continue to create more music. You live and breathe music whether you like it or not. It’s playing in the mall, the taxi, your doctor’s office; it has emotion and meaning. It has value. Why should it be free?
Thembisa S. Mshaka is a business author. Chuck D of Public Enemy calls her book, Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your Entertainment Business, “the definitive industry bible.”