For months, two remarkably similar singles from rival labels have been battling for attention on charts and playlists.
In one corner: Southstar’s “Miss You,” released through Sony’s B1 Recordings, a fast, piano-heavy electronic dance track that pulls lyrics from Oliver Tree‘s “Jerk.” In the other: Robin Schulz and Oliver Tree’s “Miss You,” released through Atlantic, a fast, piano-heavy electronic dance track that also pulls from “Jerk.” Both songs are exactly three minutes and 26 seconds long; both have been all over Spotify’s Global Viral 50; both are currently on Billboard’s Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart.
This has worked out well for Tree — whose vocals are front and center in a pair of viral hits — and less well for the other artists involved. Southstar’s breakthrough single was initially unauthorized, and it has now been eclipsed by an official version from an internationally-known artist. And while Robin Schulz’s remix, which came second, was sanctioned, the producer has become a target for internet ire (“you should be better than this,” one user tweeted at him), because it looks as if an established DJ and producer is pushing a newcomer out of the spotlight.
As a result, a potentially triumphant moment has devolved into a debate over who stole from whom. While Southstar initially sampled Oliver Tree without permission, he has also publicly accused Schulz of theft. “He said to me [via Instagram message], ‘I’m sorry. I thought we’d do the song together. I never wanted to steal your song,'” Southstar tells Billboard. “I think it was a lie from him.”
In a short statement, a representative for Schulz said only that “Southstar listened to the wrong counselors. His team decided to go a confrontational way instead of a conciliatory [one].”
This duel serves as a cautionary tale for rising artists: Taking a “wait and see” approach to clearing a sample can have dire consequences. And it’s a reminder of how sharp-elbowed the music industry can be, especially when hits are involved. Although tens of millions of listeners have played Southstar’s “Miss You,” a representative for Atlantic Records — which owns rights to the Oliver Tree original, “Jerk” — said in a statement that “the Oliver Tree and Robin Schulz version… which we commissioned, is the definitive version.”
“Southstar remixed ‘Jerk’ without permission,” the statement continued, “and then released a version with re-recorded vocals to avoid fully compensating Oliver Tree and his label.”
Southstar does not deny that his initial remix was unauthorized, but he “loved it so much” that he felt compelled to put it out anyway. He says he had already finished the “Miss You” instrumental when he encountered Tree’s vocals on TikTok. “Jerk” is a somber, pouting rock song, but the clip Southstar encountered on the app was sped-up, so Tree’s voice sounded chirpy and helium-addled, at odds with his misanthropic lyrics. Southstar found the a capella version of the track on YouTube, took what he wanted from it, and wove it into “Miss You.”
Excited, the producer proceeded to upload “Miss You,” uncleared sample and all, to streaming services in May. He notes that he reached out to Tree “out of respect” on Instagram before uploading the song, but did not hear back. “It was always in my head that the song was not cleared,” Southstar adds.
It’s not uncommon for unknown artists to upload songs with uncleared samples in them. The vast majority of these tracks never become popular, so they continue to float around the internet, flying beneath the music industry’s commercial radar. Challenges arise, however, when songs featuring uncleared samples go viral. Now the piece of music is worth money, and sample owners come knocking, looking for their rightful cut. The artist who didn’t clear the sample has little to no leverage in the ensuing negotiations, because those rightsholders can issue a takedown for copyright infringement, stopping a hit in its tracks.
Few people listened to “Miss You,” according to Southstar, until the rapper Yung Hurn posted the track on his Instagram story. The single then started to carom around social media, and soon Southstar was fielding offers from all the major labels. “Sony and Universal came to me and said, ‘We really love the song, and we can get it cleared for you,'” the producer recalls.
Atlantic, Oliver Tree’s label, was also in the hunt, pursuing a viral dance track based on a record in its catalog. “Atlantic U.S. came to me and they said — really unfriendly — ‘Look, we know you have the song, and we want to buy the song from you,'” Southstar says. He says they offered him less than 10,000 euros, and it was “not a nice offer.” A representative for Atlantic disputed this: “Any claim that we didn’t try to negotiate with Southstar in good faith to license his infringing version of the track is not true.”
Southstar had initially sampled “Jerk,” meaning that he needed to obtain rights to sample both the recording (what’s known as “the master”) and the composition (“the publishing”). To escape the first obligation, he had a studio singer re-record Tree’s vocals. Since Southstar was no longer sampling the “Jerk” recording, he then only had to get clearance from the three songwriters responsible for the melody and the lyrics of the track — Tree, Marshmello, and David Pramik. Southstar obtained that clearance; in exchange, he gave up 100% of his publishing.
What happened next was bizarre, like watching a man try to shake his shadow.
Southstar signed with Sony’s B1 Recordings and released his new, officially cleared version of “Miss You” on July 30. Atlantic released their own remixed version on Aug. 5.
Months later, on Oct. 12, Southstar released a sped-up version of his track. Just five days passed before Atlantic released a sped-up version of Schulz’s song.
Southstar was working at his job in a Berlin supermarket the day he heard Schulz’s “Miss You.” “I was so shocked I really couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Schulz had played my music before. And I had already written to him — ‘You are so nice, thank you so much for playing my songs in your set.’ I thought, ‘No way he could have actually done that.'”
Southstar’s “Miss You” has more than 65 millions streams on Spotify, an enviable total for a new act. But Schulz’s “Miss You” has more than 107 million. It’s getting roughly twice as much support from streaming services — last week, Schulz’s version appeared in 203 of Spotify’s editorial playlists, according to the analytics company Chartmetric, while Southstar’s popped up in 107. The gap between the two versions is even more pronounced on the airwaves: Schulz’s “Miss You” is growing at pop radio, while Southstar’s rendition is relegated to a few dance-focused stations.
“Wolfgang Boss [who runs B1] called me and said, ‘I’m really sorry, I have never ever in all my years in the music business seen something like this happen,'” Southstar says.
In case there wasn’t enough drama and complication, the producer Twisted put out a third remix of Tree’s track called “Worth Nothing” in September. That one was also initially uncleared before earning an official release via Black 17 Media and Artist Partner Group. (APG was in a JV with Warner and Atlantic before going independent.) “Worth Nothing” is actually performing better than the other two remixes of “Jerk” on Spotify’s Global Viral 50 chart.
As the versions continue to pile up, Southstar is trying to move on — to think about the next hit. “I think I can do that again,” he says. “And I’m really motivated now.”