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‘Sample Clearance Queen’ Deborah Mannis-Gardner on Keeping Prices Low, Deals Fair

"Sample Clearance Queen" Deborah Mannis-Gardner on keeping prices low and deals fair

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.”

Deborah Mannis-Gardner
Mannis-Gardner has been working with Redman since his first album; she calls him Reggie, and he calls her Debbie Deb.  Gene Smirnov

In recent years, Mannis-Gardner has been active on the new frontiers of music usage, working with Rockstar Games and clearing music for use in a Google Doodle. She’s also a consultant for precleared sample library Tracklib, which she sees as an opportunity, not a threat, to her work. “This is a means for people who don’t have big budgets to be able to sample,” she says.

What do you do if a copyright fee is more than a client can pay?

I’m dealing with an artist right now whose music is very expensive to license. We had a very small use — 18 seconds one time in the song intro — so we came in really low at 10% [of publishing royalties]. They’re like, “Unless it’s 20%, don’t talk to us.” We cut the sample out. I usually advise a client not to pay that kind of money. This is an A-list artist, but it wouldn’t make sense budgetwise. It wouldn’t make sense to set a precedent. If you do that, then they’re going to say that they were sampled by another A-list artist who paid six figures and feel as though they can always get those kinds of figures.

Have budgets for synchs gone down?

Some ads, I’m told, “I have $75,000 all in,” which means $37,500 on the synch and $37,500 on the master, which would clear a song for six months for a commercial. Back in the day, you could get half [a million] to $1 million. I’m working on a commercial for a client who’s changing the lyrics to a song that deals with bathroom smells; let’s go with that. The songs that we are trying to appeal with are big names, but quotes were coming in with a quarter million to $1.2 million. But when you’re singing about poo…

Deborah Mannis-Gardner
“I have been collecting skulls for 30 years,” she says. “Stone, bone, clay, metal, paintings, dolls and jewelry.” Gene Smirnov

That’s the price you pay for poo, I guess. Have the fee splits among label, publisher and artist changed since you have gone into the business?

It has changed a lot. When publishers are sampled, as compensation, they will ask to own a percentage of the new copyright on top of a nonrecoupable fee, which can range from $1,500 to $3,000. If there are multiple publishers, each publisher would get the same nonrecoupable fee; for example, if the sampled song is [Soul II Soul’s] “Back to Life” — which is co-published by Sony/ATV and Warner Chappell Music — the percentage they both agree on for use of the sample would be pro-rated between them, and each publisher would get the same advance; i.e., $2,500 apiece. On the master side, the sampled label cannot own a piece of the new song. They can require a specific revenue. Usually it’s a recoupable advance, a percentage of PPD [published price to dealer] pro-rated as applicable, and then a percentage of artist net receipts for third-party and streaming, which can range from 5% to 50%.

Initially, when clearing samples, publishers would ask for a recoupable advance and pro-rate that income. Back when we started doing this, we did buyouts, then advances against penny rates, which changed into advances with rollover payments. They have almost all moved away from that structure. Labels outside the U.S. and smaller boutique labels have been asking for a percentage of gross receipts as pushback from a percentage of artist net receipts. It’ll be interesting to see how that turns out.

Deborah Mannis-Gardner
The Nightmare Before Christmas is her favorite movie, and she worked on Hamilton. Gene Smirnov

Do you really give everyone your number so they can call you whenever they need?

I started with phone calls at 8:00 this morning, with Mary J. Blige trying to reach me at 1:47 in the morning,. I’ve got to stop sleeping with my phone. I’d rather someone come to me and I prevent something going drastically wrong, but it’s funny because DJ Khaled is one of my favorite clients and he calls me personally all the time, but if I don’t answer the phone the first time, he just keeps calling until I answer. He’s adorable. He’s like “What’s up? What’s going on?” He flew me to Florida to his home just to hear his new album.

What kinds of new opportunities for music usage are you seeing? And how you feel about augmented reality?

I’m working on a game right now, and I’m not allowed to say who it’s for, but goggles are involved. We’re going into a whole new kind of game and the publishers and labels are like, “I don’t know, this is a little scary. We’re gonna limit it.” It got a lot of denials from some really big names. I’m like, “Let’s see how we can change it to make this game work.” I’m working on an audiobook with music in it on a level that’s never been done before. They’re all like, “You gotta treat this in mechanical.” I’m like, “It’s not mechanical, it’s something different.” It’s not quite brand rights, it’s not like paper; you’re on your phone listening to something. You just have to have these conversations, keep it going, and see why they’re so hesitant. It’s not like no one’s going to make money because the technology is changing.

Deborah Mannis-Gardner
“Winning the Guild of Music Supervisors Award was the cherry on the sundae,” she says about The Defiant Ones.  Gene Smirnov
Deborah Mannis-Gardner
She became Eminem’s sample clearance agent after working on 8 Mile. Gene Smirnov
She became Eminem’s sample clearance agent after working on 8 Mile.Gene Smirnov