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Music's in the Clear: An interview with music clearance expert Deborah Mannis-Gardner

A conversation with the lady who helped make one of the best video game scenes of 2020 come to life.

In film, television, and video game production, there are many adjacent fields that, while not a part of the creative process per se, are vital to the project’s completion. In the digital world, one increasingly relevant role is that of Deborah Mannis-Gardner, owner of DMG Clearances.

Having worked in music clearances for the past three decades, Mannis-Gardner has both witnessed the rise of the field through the explosion of the rap scene of the early '90s and its renewed relevancy amid the complexity of music rights in the streaming era. Her career has covered multiple corners of the entertainment industry, from those early days securing samples for rap songs to clearing tracks for projects like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the 2003 Jack Black vehicle School of Rock. Most recently, she was the person who made sure that the blood-pumping jukebox level Bar Room Blitz in Back 4 Blood was accompanied by tunes to match, channeling the glorious, genre-classic pub scene from Shaun of the Dead.

In this Q&A, she gives some insight into the continued necessity of music clearance agents, how the role has changed since the ubiquity of streaming media, how to get into the field, and even how to approach music clearances if you’re an independent studio or content creator with a smaller budget. Read on.

Game Developer: So how does a person get into the profession of music clearance in media?

Mannis-Gardner: That's a great question. I started back in 1990, with not too much experience working for a company called Diamond Time, where I was just really learning about music clearances. And that was really the explosion of hip hop and rap, which was a genre of music that I really kind of connected with because it felt similar to punk rock music, in my mind, as a rebellious form of making statements. So I actually started doing sample clearances. And back then we were told hip hop and rap was a phase, it wasn't going to be around. But I stuck with it. And what that led to was me being able to work on video games and film and television; a lot of clearance people were frustrated [and] didn't like the idea that a song might have eight to 10 writers and publishers. Jump ahead to 2021 and it's an even greater number--because a lot of these guys like to give their engineers .5 percent, someone who cleaned the floor their .5 percent, so there's a lot of people to get approval [from]. So that gave me the opportunity. I started with Rockstar Games with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Oh wow, that game had a great soundtrack.

 And that was my first video game! Talk about baptism by fire. I've been doing all of their games since. I did all of the Rockstar games, which is pretty amazing. It was sample clearances that opened the door for me to do everything else. This kind of stuff is now being offered as classes at colleges and universities: how to do music clearances. So I lecture at a lot of colleges and universities, and I bring on a lot of interns and I make it a teaching facility. One intern was at Widener Law, she was at ESPN, she was at Comcast, and she was just snatched up by Google. So I would say to people: if you want to get into this, get an internship, get an entry-level job, learn how it's done.

Would you say that the primary challenge is the complexity of securing consent from so many different individuals on a single sample?

There's a lot of complexities. I mean, for me, we clear most of the samples. Drake's my client, you know, Mary J. Blige, Megan Thee Stallion. So we usually have all these splits from working on the albums. If we don't, I can go into my system, punch in a writer's name, and chances are, I've had interaction with that song, or that writer or that publisher, to fly back memories of how to deal with the person, was it a difficult person was it, you know, all that kind of stuff. And I try to keep everything friendly and personable. We all should be having fun at what we do. I kind of get excited when people get sampled by big artists because it really opens up the door for people who might not have been familiar with their music to hear it. There are so many different layers and levels. It's exciting. I love it.


"These are the things that I talk to people about: what is their end goal? What is their budget? What are they seeking to do? And then my job is to hold their hand and guide them."

Have you ever had an influence as to what song ended up in a final product?

That's more the role of a music supervisor versus a music clearance agent, and I have worn both hats. I did the documentary, The Defiant Ones, the story of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine--I actually got an award for that one. And I am wrapping up a motion picture that's coming out next year, called Spinning Gold, which is the story of Neil Bogart, the creator of Casablanca Records. Most of my clients are really open to conversation, especially if they go to sample something and I'm like, "hey, whoa, this is a difficult copyright holder", or "this is going to be out of your budget". There are some people that will listen. And then there are some people, like in any art, where-- they want what they want, and if they can't have it, then they move on to something else. What I can do is give guidance, give advice. Some of my clients, I kind of tell them, "I'm like Linus's blue blanket", I'm there to comfort them through the process.

So let's talk about Back 4 Blood, for example, had you ever worked with Turtle Rock for music clearance before?

I hadn't, and [they're] really fabulous people to work with. So they were handling [the music clearances] themselves, and then the publisher was like, "You know what, we don't have time, you need to finish it up yourself". So they reached out to me and I happened to have a lull, I wasn't working on anything for Grand Theft Auto. We actually kicked it up pretty quickly. Steve [Goldstein, president and general manager of Turtle Rock Studios] was really open to suggestions. His daughter was actually giving suggestions because he really felt it was important to have female representation in the jukebox [scene] and he was phenomenal. Great team of people to work with.

In my initial review of Back 4 Blood, when I played the Jukebox scene, it was so energizing. As an art critic, it is generally frowned upon to have incidental uses of music that end up setting the tone for a scene. And yet, I liked it so much. As a zombie movie fan, it felt like an homage to Shaun of the Dead. Was there more than one song available for that scene? For example, if I were to go back and play that level again, would I only hear Black Betty by...? Who was that, AC/DC?

That's not AC/DC.

You’re right, it's not AC/DC, who is that? It's not the worst guess. [Editor's note: the version of Black Betty as performed in Back 4 Blood is by Ram Jam].

No, no, it's not but you know, AC/DC is one of the hardest to clear for anything and [they’re] quite expensive. So it's cool when you get them. I have cleared AC/DC, we did it for Grand Theft Auto, I've cleared Led Zeppelin for School of Rock.

So what makes it so difficult with them? Are they just particular about where their work ends up?

They were. When you're dealing with the estates, it's a little bit different. Some artists are just a little bit... different.

I seem to remember...was it Led Zeppelin who was also very particular? [Ed note: It was.] Because I seem to remember Jack Black having to do quite an elaborate appeal to them for use of the music in School of Rock. But maybe it wasn't Led Zeppelin, maybe it was Pink Floyd.

Oh, it was a tough one. We cleared multiple songs for that scene. And we did not share [the] script and we did not share visuals. So Jack did this whole--which is at the end of the video, you see that, the whole thing? That is what was sent to the guys to get permission. In that movie, we cleared The Doors, the whole Stevie Nicks years. There are some great uses in that film.

The Radio Station Wheel UI From Grand Theft Auto Online
In Grand Theft Auto, in-game radio stations play real-world hits across multiple genres

Do you consider your job fun?

Oh, I love my job, and my whole staff. We're now up to 13 people. [Sometimes] we have meetings just to say, "Hey, how's everyone doing? Is everyone in a good frame of mind?" I always say, if you're not enjoying your job, you need to find another one, because you spend most of your waking most time doing your job! So we try to have fun.


What would you say is your favorite part of it?

 I think the challenge. I like the challenge that clients give me; I think that's fun. But sample clearances are really exciting for me because if I'm having a really bad day, and I want to come down, I'll go clear a sample and then just kind of brings me peace. It's like breathing for me.

You've worked on Grand Theft Auto series for a long time. And you've worked with Turtle Rock, but have you worked with any smaller studios, people who perhaps maybe don't have the same budget as a triple-A studio?

 I have, and those games and companies aren't around anymore. You know, Marc Ecko did a video game and that didn't happen. Or rather, it came out but it didn't really last. And I used to just give guidance to EA (I didn't want there to be a conflict). I've gone into Activision. DJ Hero-- I was actually part of [Scratch: The Ultimate DJ], which was at the center of a huge lawsuit. I was on the other side.

From my understanding, a lot of old media that has not been re-released or come out again yet has been due to music clearance, especially in terms of cost. Would you say that that's ever a constraint or a challenge with the companies that you work with?

Back in the day, we used to clear things for the shorter term. Whether it was television or video games, we would do five or 10 years to keep our budgets down. Then when you start clearing stuff for "all media worldwide excluding theatrical, in perpetuity", those fees start coming up.

With Rockstar and Take-Two Games, we went back and re-cleared every song for every game they did, so we have perpetual rights. Anything that didn't conform to what we needed, we would pull out the reissue of the games. So that's the standard terminology we use now for all these clearances: "all media worldwide in perpetuity, excluding theatrical".

The same thing applies to TV and film. So if there's a TV show or film that you're not seeing on a streaming platform, it's usually because of a rights problem, whether they don't have music rights or talent rights, there's something there that's preventing it. We have to keep in mind that a lot of stuff was created before we thought this technology was going to take off. It's kind of like going from vinyl to CD, and then digital. And then there's this huge gap. A lot of stuff is lost because copyrights are being bought and sold. And then you ask them, "Hey, can I have the original wave to incorporate in my movie or my game" or what have you, and no one can even find it. So we become this digital age, for hard configurations, good copies of stuff are getting lost and are not around.

Say someone decides that they do want to do your job. What do you think, education-wise, is the best way to prepare yourself for a role like this? Do you need to have a little bit of legal education?

Not at all. I do not have a legal education. I'm not an attorney. Most of my clients are attorneys, and they defer to me. With attorneys, it's black or white, it's this or that, whereas as a clearance agent, I can walk that gray line. I'm not saying necessarily you need to go to college to do music clearances, but I do think you need to be organized. You need to know the Internet and how to dig and look for things because this generation of clearances has gotten that much harder. And I always tell people, don't look to ever be in the spotlight being a clearance agent. Because then you're going to get caught up and you're going to forget what your job is, which is to make sure the rights of music is secured and whatever project needs the music, you stay within a budget so that people can afford your services and can afford the music to get that final product out there. There's a lot of paper-pushing and making sure that T's are crossed and i's are dotted, it's not glamorous. And if you're looking for a glamorous job, this is not it.

So let's say you were approached by a smaller studio with a lower budget who want to secure a song for their game but have no idea where to begin. How does one even start this process?

We give guidance and advice and we don't charge people for that. We get emails every day from people just saying, "this is what I want to do". And we guide them. We have like sheets we created, like, "if you're doing a documentary, fill out this form, and this will help you organize". It's all about organization. If you think about it, whether it's a video game, a new Apple technology, movie sample, what have you, it has to be organized. What is the project? Is it a sample? Is it a sync, is it you know, what kind of clearance is it? Once that's defined, then you need to find out what rights that person will need. So if it's a sample, they need "all audio configurations, music video world perpetuity". You do want to try to get synchronization-- you're not going to get it, it's usually a whole separate deal. In the world of sync, whether it's a movie, documentary, TV show, it's the same question--what's that medium? Is it going to just be an Apple TV or just Hulu? Or do you need the "all media excluding theatrical" or maybe it's a documentary and theatrical is an option so that you can get considered for Oscar consideration.

So these are the things that I talk to people about: what is their end goal? What is their budget? What are they seeking to do? And then my job is to hold their hand and guide them. My fees are listed on my website, but then I work within people's budgets. If it's a project I really believe in-- I'm doing a documentary called Katrina Babies that is dealing with the forgotten children of Katrina that are now adults, and understanding why they're violent or angry the way they are; we all forgot about them. I gave a huge discount on my fees just to be part of the project. So it's important that I talk to people, try to guide them, I can't hold their hand or carry them, but I like to give them the tools and educate them so they can do it.

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