Do You Need Permission to Remix a Song? The Ins & Outs

Do You Need Permission to Remix a Song?

Remixes are a great way to get your name out there or create tracks for your own DJ sets. However, there seems to be some confusion around the legalities of remixing tracks. So how does it work? Do you need permission to remix a song?

The short answer is officially yes, you will need permission from the record label to remix a track. Doing so does have benefits, once you get the go-ahead you will be provided with the stems of the track. These are the broken down parts of the track i.e. vocals, drums and melodies will all be provided separately to you. This gives you a lot more flexibility and choice when you are creating your remix.

When you hear officially released remixes, such as those released on the b-side of singles, this is the process that will have been followed. On occasion labels or artists will actively seek out a producer in order for them to do a remix of their track.

The Irony of Official & Unofficial Remixes

Soulwax / 2manyDJs are highly in demand remixers
Soulwax / 2manyDJs are highly in demand remixers

One example of in-demand producers for remixes would be Soulwax for example. Who, ironically, made a lot of unofficial remixes and mashups which is how they became prominent in the electronic world in the first place.

Another benefit, and perhaps the main one, of having official permission is that your remix will be sellable. This means you can upload it and share it on your own accounts and even charge for it without fear of it being taken down for copyright infringement.

When it comes to how much money you make from a remix, this will be a deal that is made directly with the record label. It will be negotiated and agreed before you are ever sent the musical files to begin with.

Big-name DJs such as Deadmau5 (see his amazing gear here), would be paid very well for remixes. He would also only work on tracks he genuinely liked of course.

Unofficial Remixes

In reality, what happens a lot of the time is that people make unofficial remixes. This has its limitations of course. For example, you can only use the track as it has been released.

Therefore if you wanted to separate out the bassline, for example, then you can only really do this if there is a part already in the track where it is playing solo.

This means you are somewhat limited to what you can do with the tracks.

The Difference Between Re-edits and Remixes

It is worth noting that remixing is slightly different from reediting. Which is a fairly common practice in the DJ world.

A re-edit is when someone either reorders part of a track or takes their favorite parts and loops them so that they play longer. This makes them more DJ friendly.

An excellent example of this would be Skream’s remix of LaRue’s in for the kill. Although it is a dubstep track, it switches to a drum and bass rhythm for its finale.

High-Contrast then took this remix and re-edited it to make the last section much longer so he could play it in his drum & bass sets.

So in this instance, this is a re-edit. In this case, it just so happens to be a re-edit of a remix. Basically it’s the inception of the music world.

The Risks of Unofficial Remixes

A downside of unofficial remixes is that when putting them online you risk it being taken down for copyright infringement. Facebook and YouTubes have sophisticated algorithms to identify them automatically.

You are also unable to charge for unofficial remixes.

If you do try charging then you are likely to be sued and have to hand over all profits (plus damages) to the original artist.

This is why you will often find unofficial remixes being given away for free.

Some artists actually encourage this as it gets their name out there more. Others are directly opposed to the idea and will actively take unofficial remixes down.

The (potential) Benefits of Unofficial Remixes

Kissy Sell Out's Kissy Klub versions

As mentioned above, remixes can be a great way to become established and get your name out there. UK DJ Kissy Sellout, for example, did exactly this. Producing remixes by the bucketload.

It is reported that he produced up to a thousand unofficial remixes that he would use in his DJ sets. As he became more prominent he would also play them on the radio under the name of ‘Kissies Klub Versions’

Creating remixes in this manner is fairly common in the DJ industry.

The reason being, if you produce unofficial remixes for your own use then it means people at your DJ sets are hearing something familiar yet entirely unique.

So, unless the DJ chooses to share the remix anywhere, they will have exclusive use of it. This goes hand-in-hand as to why Kissy Sellout became so well-known for his DJ sets.

Not only is he animated behind the decks but he also had a wealth of remixes to play.

What If You’ve Produced a Remix?

Another common way of remixes actually getting released is for someone to make them unofficially and then actually approach the label for release.

Often this will be refused. Although if it does proceed further there are likely to be two courses of action.

  • Either the label will release them itself and give you a fixed fee for the work you have done
  • Or they will agree to a licensing deal.

In the latter case, you are free to distribute and sell the track yourself however, you’ll have to pay a fixed percentage to them for every single purchase.

Either of these is more likely if you are already an established producer.

Will a Label Try & Sue You Just for Making a Remix?

In general, no. However, it depends on how you have distributed your remix.

If you have created a remix and then contacted the label directly for permission, even if they say no then generally that will be the end of it.

Likewise, if you are only using the remix in your own DJ sets then you are unlikely to receive a cease and desist letter.

However if you are freely distributing your remix or selling it then, depending on a variety of factors, a label may contact you to take the track down.

So there is an inherent risk in using copyrighted music so you should always err on the side of caution.

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Do You Need Permission to Remix a Song If It’s Public Domain?

Public domain songs dont need copyright clearance... in theory

There are some tracks that are old enough to be considered public domain, in which case these may be suitable for remixing.

However, you would need to check individual copyright and licensing of that track. It is possible if a track is popular enough, then the label concerned will have updated and protected it almost indefinitely.

While it used to be the case that music would fall into the public domain after a set amount of time, seemingly these days it applies mostly to sheet music.

Recorded music still retains rights due to the additional work that has gone into it.

Playing a Remix in a Club

Playing remixes in a club

The performance and requirements of performance royalties are the same for both remixes and original tracks. Largely, however, when performing in a club, the requirement of paying performance royalties will fall to the club itself. If they’re running properly, they should be up to date with their licensing and payments.

This is a bit of a gray area of course. Because, if you are being paid and your set is made up entirely of unofficial remixes then, in an indirect way, you are profiting from those remixes.

That said unless there is a record executive from that specific label it is unlikely that you’ll have any repercussions from this.

Although as you become well-known and your mixes are shared then this could be an issue to be wary of.

Licensing

There are licenses available to purchase for some songs so it’s always worth checking if the song you want to remix is available.

There are a couple of different types of license that are worth investigating:

Mechanical Licenses

Mechanical licenses allow you to release things like cover songs. So you can cover a track with your own instruments or vocals and, as long as you have a mechanical license, release it as a for-profit song.

This applies to the US only at the time of writing, in the UK you don’t need a mechanical license to do this.

Master License

The other option is a master use license and this is what is required for remixes. The reason being that you are using elements of the original song and rearranging it.

Where Does Sampling Fit Into This?

Sampling is creating an entirely new track but by using sections of existing tracks. This is very well-known in Hip-Hop and is actually how Hip-Hop was started in the first place.

And it has actually been a bone of contention ever since.

One point is the debate over how many seconds of a track counts as a ‘sample’ and should be considered as ‘fair use’, and how much constitutes original work and should be copyrighted and billable.

RiP!: A Remix Manifesto

Girl Talk's album is made up entirely of samples
Girl Talk’s album is made up entirely of samples

The DJ/producer Girl Talk features in an in-depth documentary about sampling that is well worth a watch.

In it they discuss his ‘Night Ripper’ album, which is made entirely from samples, some are short as one drum hit. The album reportedly has up to 300 copyright infringements and could have landed him a penalty totaling $45 million.

Ultimately he was never sued as he never released his album for profits. Had he licensed everything officially it would have cost him far beyond a million dollars, making the album released completely infeasible. (You can see a list of all tracks used at the bottom of the page).

In the case of sampling, it largely depends on how active the label is. Strictly speaking, you need a master and mechanical license enabled in order to be able to sell your song via worldwide distribution.

Sampling Gone Wrong

A very famous example of sampling gone wrong would be the Verve’s ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ which sampled an orchestral cover of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time”.

By far the Verve’s biggest hit they didn’t make a penny due to a copyright dispute. While they had signed an agreement with the orchestral arranger, the Rolling Stones’ manager refused to grant a license for the track (The Last Time) that was covered in the first place.

That said in 2019 The Rolling Stones released their copyright to the Verve, meaning that any sales from now on go directly to the Verve.

In Conclusion Do You Need Permission to Remix a Song?

If you intend to release the tracks commercially then, in short, yes you do need permission.

And even if you are to make remixes for use only within your own DJ sets then you will likely still be covered by restrictions. That said it has been common to not seek these and enough DJs have done unofficial remixes without repercussions.

As mentioned Soulwax, Girl Talk and Kissy Sell Out all did this so it is unlikely that you would either. As long as you do not release the track for download by itself. While as part of a mixed compilation you should be okay.

However, if you’re going to follow this method be sure to use the track exclusively for your own rights and do not share it with anyone. Even if you give it to a friend and they upload it then ultimately you will be the one liable.

Therefore it’s best to keep your remixes completely to yourself and use them exclusively in your sets.

Note: The advice given in this post is general and should not be considered legal advice. Always check the rights restrictions and copyright legalities of tracks in your individual country and state at all times.

Sources

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