A sample doesn’t necessarily have to be familiar to be effective. Similarly, you don’t need to know anything about Pat Shannahan to have still been affected by the results of her quiet, tireless work. Shannahan is a sample clearance expert, tracking down rights holders and clearing music for commercial use for records both renowned and underground as well as for film and television. Especially of note is her longtime work for Australian cut-up masters the Avalanches, for whom she cleared samples on both 2000’s Since I Left You and 2016’s Wildflower.
Maybe you’ve never heard her name, but you’ve certainly heard her work. Throughout a career that has stretched more than two decades, Shannahan has cleared samples for the likes of the Beastie Boys, Beck, Sounds of Blackness, Kool Keith, Public Enemy, Ghostface Killah, the Chemical Brothers, Ice-T, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and far too many others to fit in a single breath. Her work has left an imperceptible imprint on 20 years of recorded music as a result, serving as the secret weapon for artists whose output can be at least partially defined by their creative sampling and taste for bottom-of-the-crate curios. We often take knowledge of sample sources for granted in the age of Discogs, Genius, WhoSampled and Wikipedia – even if we know those outlets can be less than reliable – but Shannahan represents a primary source, pursuing this information beyond the confines of cyberspace.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Shannahan herself is a difficult person to track down - 100% of her business comes from referrals, her company My Forte has no public-facing website and, although she’s been previously quoted in a legal text on the law and culture of digital sampling, public interviews have been scarce. Speaking to RBMA’s Aaron Gonsher, Shannahan discussed her early career in the music business, memorable moments from her time spent tracking down elusive rights holders and her thrill at working with the Avalanches.
What were you doing in the music industry prior to working exclusively with samples?
I was in music publishing for years prior to starting my own sampling business. I was with Island for many years before they were sold to Polygram. They had a very eclectic catalog – things like Grace Jones and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, reggae music. We were probably the first people that were approached about doing samples when it first became the thing to do, so I had a little more experience in dealing with samples than other people I talked to in the music industry. That gave me a little leg up when I actually started my own business.
When you were first becoming aware of sampling, did it feel like something that you had to take a personal stance on in terms of the aesthetic value? Or was it purely part of the business side of things at Island at that point?
I looked at it as a new, creative source of revenue. A source of revenue, but also a new, creative art form. There are a lot of people who have a real problem with it – they always have and they still do. They get very grumpy about sampling and go, “Why don’t they write their own stuff?” You know?
I have tried to explain to people for years that this is a very interesting art form, and as long as people are licensing the rights, it’s a very, very interesting thing… But some people are open to it, and other people are not. It seems very hard to convince certain people that this is an art form; that many artists who sample consider it a “tribute” to the artists they are sampling. In the early days, at least, it was sort of like a game for the young kids that they could find the samples and figure out who was being sampled, and they loved it. But like I said, some people get it and some people don’t, just like a lot of things in life, I guess.
You’re talking about explaining sampling as an art form. When you’re pursuing people and trying to clear rights, how do you contextualize what someone like the Avalanches are doing for, say, an older musician who has zero connection to their world or a tenuous grasp of sampling as a concept in general?
When I’m reaching out to someone, I first send a written request and I describe the project. It’s really a very limited request. But if I can get someone on the phone who I would be dealing with, I would basically explain who the artist is – “These are the Avalanches” – and try to make them understand what creative geniuses they are, and how creatively they use the sample, too. That it’s something to be really proud to be a part of, and see if I can get them to negotiate something that’s reasonable.
The Avalanches are special because what they do is so different from what so many artists do. Not to diminish what other artists do, but some out there take a piece of a work, or maybe even a few bars of another artist’s song and recording, and they loop it throughout their entire track and then just put a rap over it. What the Avalanches do is this amazing layering process, which is why it takes them so long to make a recording, because they’re perfectionists. They keep working at it and working at it until they have woven this music that is so phenomenal. It’s like if they made a quilt: They took all these little pieces of all this material, and all this fabric for making a wonderful quilt, and somehow you sew it all together to create another whole big blanket. That’s about the best way I can describe what the Avalanches do.
It’s just phenomenal. It’s quite different and it’s all done from bits and pieces of things, until they have created a whole new work. A lot of the other artists may be taking a guitar lick or a drum loop, all of which is fine. But what the Avalanches do is just something amazing that nobody else has ever done.
I guess that’s why it takes them 16 years to make an album.
Right. Like I said, they’re really perfectionists.
How rare is it that you’re actually interacting with the artist or composer? Is everything just going through a publishing company?
For the most part, depending on whether the work is an independent work or not. Usually I’m dealing with the publishing company that owns or controls the rights, or an administrator who controls the work, and the record label. Every once in a while I find an independent artist and have to track down an actual human being. Sometimes that can be very, very difficult, to actually find that person and try to explain to them how it is, and make a deal with them. Everybody’s got different ideas about it.
Some artists have a lot of ego about their material, and they don’t want anybody else using it for anything other than in its entirety as a whole work. Like, to put in a film or something. Then others love the idea. It’s just up for grabs when I start off how it’s going to go.
What was the first album or release that you cleared samples for?
It was for a Prince Paul album.
Do you remember which one?
Not off the top of my head. It’s been quite a long time. I don’t recall the title of the album. I would have to look it up and see. I have a whole roster list, but for some reason that one isn’t on there, and I don’t know why.
Was there a certain point when you realized, “Wow, I’m really good at this?” Do you have any memories of trying to track down a particularly hard sample, or doing something that no one else had been able to do for that artist?
I never thought of it in those terms. I just don’t have that kind of ego. I think of it as always trying to do the best job I can for my clients and get them what they want, no matter what it takes. I just go to the wall doing whatever I can. I’m very, very persistent. I do have one story that’s kind of fun. One of my clients wanted this sample, this East Indian recording. Couldn’t find the owner anywhere. Finally, through a series of calls, I found that the guy who would know, or who controlled the rights, owned a record shop in India.
I somehow got a number for his record store and I stayed up all night to be able to reach him at his timezone. I think it was four in the morning our time that I called him. I got him on the phone and he didn’t speak any English, and I, of course, didn’t speak his language.
He finally found someone there who spoke English – not real good English, but I was trying to find out if there was anyone in America who represented the rights to this recording. It turned out that he understood me well enough that he put me in contact with somebody in New York who actually controlled the rights or was able to help me reach the person who controlled the rights, so that I could license the sample. I go to the wall, you know!
Would you say that’s the most extreme length you’ve gone to track down a copyright owner? Have you actually had to go to someone’s house, travel across the country, actually catch them in-person?
I had a very interesting experience once with Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Bless his heart – he was such a amazing artist, but he wasn’t very trusting. I ended up going over to his house – he lived here in LA – to conclude the deal with him. He wouldn’t sign the license agreement until I gave him the check. We met, and I literally had to hold the check in one hand while he signed the license and handed it back to me in the other hand. We simultaneously exchanged the check and the license. That’s how that one finally worked.
When you’re clearing the samples for something like Wildflower, are you a contractor for the Avalanches, or for the label? I’m curious what the workflow is in terms of how they get you the list of things they want to clear. What goes through who, basically?
Although I have worked both sides of the fence, usually my clients are the artists who need the sample. I am representing them and acquiring the rights for them. I have on occasion represented a small, independent record label or music publisher who has artists coming to them that want to license something. They’ve asked me to handle these rights for them. The majority of all my work is representing the actual dudes.
They have to send me a recording, how they want to use the sample. Most publishers and labels want the recording to be as close to finished as possible. They want to hear as close to what it’s going to sound like in the end as possible. They want a demo copy of the actual recording. I send them a written request and email an MP3 copy of the recording, so they can hear exactly what the artist wants. They may have to pass it on to their artist, or writer who wrote the songs, for their approval. They usually want to hear it. Also, the labels and the publishers want to know that they have permission to proceed with the samples.
When you’re receiving this work from someone like the Avalanches, does the label have a very strict budget, or is it more of a flexible number depending on the sample?
I know that I’m always working with a budget, and I try to get all the sample rights to come in as reasonably as possible. It’s purely negotiable. I take it back to my client’s representatives and say, “This is it. This is as low as I could get them to go. Do you want to use it? Do you not want to use it?” They’re the ones who have to see if it’s going to fit in their budget or not. Those decisions are usually made when I have all the sample clearances done and they can see what the whole picture is, what the whole album is going to cost them. They make their decisions from there if they’re going to drop tracks, or drop samples, or if they’re going to keep everything. It’s up to them... I just try to close the deals that I can.
I saw Robbie from the Avalanches refer to you as “The Detective.” At what point did you acquire that nickname and from who?
I really don’t know who started calling me that. He said “They call her...” so he must have been talking to some other people. Who actually gave me that nickname? I don’t know, but it’s an appropriate one. That’s really what it is.
The Avalanches have stuck very hard to the true art of sampling, which as I always understood it in the hip-hop community, the true art of sampling was to find these very obscure records and to sample them. They would all go to where the old records are and go to garage sales. They literally dig very deep into the recordings.
I always understood that that was the true way of sampling, not, you know, sampling the current hits that are out there. I guess I get the reputation for being “The Detective” because these records, it was so hard to find who owned them. Like I said, they were all put in the resale bin for $0.99 or whatever. It was very, very hard and is still very, very hard to locate the people who actually own the labels, and it’s harder and harder as major companies keep buying up other companies, because the information just gets lost in the shuffle. A lot of times I’m telling these companies, “It looks like you own this recording! Who made it?”
When I listened to Wildflower, I literally had tears in my eyes, because the Avalanches are so special.
They have no idea.
They don’t know. It’s so backwards. The systems have combined, and it’s very difficult for them trying to combine all these systems and programs, and everything was so incompatible. The people working there only know based on their computer screens what’s in the database. “Yeah, looks like you own this, so let me see if I can get more information to you. Check it out.”
How long did it take you to clear the samples on the Avalanches’ Since I Left You versus how long it took for Wildflower? Do you know how many samples there were on each of those individually?
Oh, boy. I think Wildflower had taken a longer time because we had to start and stop. Not a lot, but a couple of times. I started this Wildflower album in earnest in 2012. That’s when I started working on clearances. I’m just estimating right now, because I haven’t ever done a count, but it’s probably 50 samples.
50 samples, but they were not all used. They changed a lot of things. They changed a lot of songs over time. What actually ended up on the album was quite different from what we started out with. They added a lot of new songs, new works, new samples, so a lot of things don’t sound the same. That’s how much work they put into building an album, how many things they tried and how much time it takes for them to decide on what to include. Like I said, I’m estimating right now. I want to make it very clear those 50 samples, if that was the number, were not used. That’s what we started out with for this project, but many of those were never used; some of the songs were dropped in their entirety. Some samples were changed out for new samples.
How many projects are you working on at any given time?
These days I am working on a lot less than I used to, because the expense of it all has grown so much. Years ago, when an artist would get a deal, the record label would advance a recording budget to them. Out of that recording budget they would, if they sampled, use that money to pay me and the sample license fees, to pay an attorney to represent them and to record all of their material. That has all gone by the wayside over the last few years. There are no more advances unless you’re a superstar or a major artist. There is no more record deal for the young artist starting out. They basically have to do everything themselves, and they have to make a finished product and get it started themselves, and do it all themselves. Then, if they can get a lot of action on it, a major will swoop in and want to pick it up.
I know that there’s still a lot of sampling going on and the rights are not being cleared. A lot of them have taken a “catch me if you can” position, because they just simply can’t afford it. There are no budgets to work with and they have to do it all themselves.
In the same interview where Robbie [Chater] referred to you as “The Detective,” he also said that Wildflower was the first time you’d listened to the finished record. Is that accurate? Do you not listen to the finished albums of projects you’re working on, or was he just meaning that was the first time you had heard that specific album?
I get work product… That’s the very initial product, so a lot can happen with that before it’s finalized. It should be close to the final product, what I get, but things are always changed. Polished. More things done with it. I actually had not yet heard the final tracks.
My clients usually send me a copy as soon as it’s done… When I listened to Wildflower, I literally had tears in my eyes, because the Avalanches are so special. What they do is so beautiful, and I’m a big melody person. A lot of hip-hop really doesn’t have much of a melody to it – it’s maybe a loop or something like that. But what Robbie and Tony do is so melodic on some tracks. It’s just so beautiful that it touches my soul. It literally takes you somewhere. That’s what’s so special about it. I think it touches and moves people in a way that is very unusual and very unique.