When Deborah Mannis-Gardner began clearing hip-hop samples in the early 1990s, she relied on her acting skills to get the job done. At the time, she says, performing rights organization BMI would only allow three questions from people looking for a song's copyright holder, so Mannis-Gardner, 53, pretended to be someone else every time she called. "I come from a theater background, so it was easy for me," she says at a Philadelphia café near her home office in Hockessin, Delaware. "I would call Los Angeles, New York and Nashville and use different accents and names, depending on the time of day and who I was calling."
Her tenacity paid off. Mannis-Gardner, who founded her own DMG Clearances in 1996, has become the foremost authority on global music rights clearances in film, TV, advertising, video games and music. Besides helping superstars like Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé and Rihanna clear samples, her client roster includes acts with catalogs that are notoriously difficult to license, from Led Zeppelin to Prince. "For me, it's all about the fairest deal, not the lowest, so everyone is taken care of," says Mannis-Gardner, who won a Guild of Music Supervisors Award in 2018 for her work on Grammy-winning HBO documentary The Defiant Ones.
After attending Emerson College in Boston, the Delaware native moved to New York. She got her start editing music together for media pulls before landing gigs at now-defunct clearance house Diamond Time (which worked on karaoke songs) and RCA Records, where she cleared samples for Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep and SWV. "I would go to meetings where people came up with ideas," she says, "and I'd say, 'You need to clear that,' or 'Excuse me, you can't do that.' I loved it."