Selling Beats

Selling Beats

by Sue Basko

 Imagine: You create a beat that sounds like a leaf blower with something stuck in it.   The beat is used to make a bouncy K-Pop song, along with a silly video.  The video and song go viral. Someone is making a lot of money.  Is it you, the beatmaker?  That depends on the underlying contract when you sold the beat.   When you license or sell any beat, the deal should include that you make a small amount more for each copy that is sold or each time it is streamed.  Without such a deal, you might have sold your beat for $10 while someone else gets rich selling the song made from it.

A beat is a short bit of music or sound that is meant to be the hook of a song.  Or it can be the underlying bed over which a rapper or singer or producer creates a song.  Beats differ from loops in that beats are meant to provide a unique focus for a song, while loops are meant to be staples that might be put into many songs.  Loops are noodles; a beat is that fabulous mushroom perched on top of the pile of noodles.  It makes a song what it is.

Many beatmakers like to sell their beats.  Some sell downloads off their own websites, and some sell on websites designed for beat sellers.  On your own site, you will take a higher percentage, but your beat may get more exposure on a group site.   Then again, on group sites, your beats may be buried.

Before you sign up for any beat selling website, have a lawyer read the contract.  Many of these sites have contracts that are contradictory, even senseless.  I just saw one site that says it gives the full beat sales price to the beatmaker, with the buyer paying a small transaction fee. Then it goes on to say that some categories of sellers will be docked with a 40% commission fee paid to the site and others will be docked with an 80% commission fee.  These categories are made to sound special, as if it would be a privilege to be included.  The same site has very confusing and contradictory rules of what the buyer is allowed to do with the beat once purchased.  

My usual thought is that if a website cannot convey in clear simple language what the deal is, then the website owners are probably unclear what the deal is.  And surely, if there were ever a dispute and the contract ended out in a court of law being interpreted by a judge, if the judge cannot figure out the intentions of the website owners from what is written in the contract, then anything can happen.  Therefore, have a lawyer read over the contract before you join. If the contract is not crystal clear, don't  join.  Go to a website that knows what it is doing and that considers its agreements important enough to hire a lawyer who can write well to craft its contracts.

If you want to create your own beat selling site, there are site layouts you can buy, all set to be placed onto your own website.  You will need site hosting, a domain, and to purchase the layout.  One such pre-made layout is MusicMakerTheme.  This is sold for $37 or $57 via paypal, depending on the features.  

There are 2 basic ways to sell beats: Licensing and Sales.  A license means that you retain the copyright, but you license the buyer to have certain rights.  A sale means the buyer is being assigned the copyright on the beat, and can use it for whatever purposes.  If you sell a beat, you lose all control over it.  If you are selling a beat, you need to be sure you are getting a price for it that will satisfy you, even if the songs created from it go on to earn a good deal of money.  That's why licensing with a good well-written contract is usually best for the beatmaker.  If however, someone famous is offering you a nice chunk of change for a beat, it might be a good bargain. But that is a rarity.

Most beats are licensed. If you are opening up your own beat shop, you should have a music lawyer write up your licenses.  Do not try to do this yourself.  And do not copy licenses off another site, unless you have them checked out first by a lawyer.  Lots of bad licenses get copied and passed around this way.  This can lead to genuine disaster.

The main categories in licensing are nonexclusive and exclusive.  Many beat selling websites have this all mixed up. They will sell a beat as nonexclusive and also exclusive. This truly makes no sense. Either the beat is nonexclusive, and multiple people can license it,  or it is exclusive, and only one person can license it.  Some use the term "semi-exclusive," by which they mean they will sell the license for the low nonexclusive price to as many takers as come along, and if someone wants to buy it as a "semi-exclusive" license,  the beatseller will stop licensing it to others from then on.  However, the licenser paying the higher semi-exclusive price may find that those who earlier bought the less expensive nonexclusive beat license have the same rights as they do.  It is hard to create and sell an original hit song if there are already 35 other people making songs with the same beat.

On the other hand, it is hard for a beatseller to refrain from licensing a beat for $10 or $20 many times, hoping someone will come along with more money.

The dream of beatmakers is to be commissioned by someone famous to create exclusive beats for nice high prices.  Such a dream is as much about connections and friendships as it is about beatmaking creativity.  If such an opportunity ever presents itself, make sure you bring in a music lawyer to write or read the contract.  The important thing is you want to make some small royalty on each copy sold or streamed, as well as a small piece of performance royalties.  You don't want to be the beatmaker whose beat is in a song being played on the radio hundreds of times per day, and you're not making a penny from it.  And that is what will happen if you don't have a music lawyer in on the deal.

One of the most important legalities of beats is that they must not contain any loops or samples by anyone else, unless you have a signed clearance agreement to use the loop or sample.  On this, too, you must have a music lawyer.  The beats you sell must be 100% your own work, or with legal clearance. This means you cannot take any part of any other loop, other beat, and cannot sample any song, any movie, any TV show, etc., even if you remix it, remove parts, change it around, etc.  If you are using any such bit of sound created by anyone else, you must have a contract with them that spells out very clearly what they are giving you the rights to use, how you may you it, and how they will be paid for it. 

If you use a bit of sound belonging to someone else in your beat, without clearance, your beat is poison and so is every song made from it.  The people who licensed your beat with the good faith belief that it was your original work can be sued for copyright infringement by the owner of the sample or sound that you used without permission.  The financial responsibility will come back to you.

Buying a copy of an old record or movie does not give you rights to take samples of the sound and use them in your beats.  Owning a physical copy is different from owning the underlying intellectual property rights.  If you want to use a snippet of sound from a movie or TV show or old record, you must get clearance.  Sometimes getting clearance is expensive and sometimes the owners refuse to give clearance.  That is their right.  If you have been denied clearance, and you go ahead and use the sample anyway, expect to be sued.

 If you want a type of sound, usually such samples are easy to create on a program like GarageBand or ProTools.  For example, say you want the sound of a 1940s radio commercial.  Rather than get clearance on such a commercial, you can create your own fictional product and write your own commercial or part of one, record it simply, and add filters to give it that 1940s sound.  A can filter, a limiter, a bit of a crackle or scratch sound, and a small amount of bounce and you'll have a 1940s sound.  With the variety of filters and effects on GarageBand, you can make almost any kind of sound.

How long should your beat be?  Most beats are made in a set of lengths or measures.  If a beat is supposed to be a hook, it will probably be about 3 seconds to 5 seconds long.   A hook beat can be sold in a longer version and cut down, or it can be sold as a set of various lengths.  

A kit of complementary beats that could work together in a song can be sold.  This might also be considered a remix kit.  Such a kit might contain original loops or might contain stem tracks from an existing song being licensed out for remixing.  A remix kit might contain as many as 20 beats and loops ready to be remixed into new creations.  Most contracts that go with a remix kit will state that the elements themselves cannot be changed, other than being shortened.  Other contracts allow for more manipulation of the beats or loops, and this can make for some highly original, exciting sounds.    Most such contracts will also include a provision that a new element must be added, such as unique original vocals.  This provision assures that the end product will not sound too much like the original.  

To sum up, the two main rules in selling beats is to own what you are selling and to have well-written,  contracts that clearly spell out the deal. 

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