In late December 2018, J. Cole and producer T-Minus were in a North Carolina recording studio, digging through files of samples, when the MC heard a warm, swelling horn melody.
"Cole's a producer, so he always has his ears open to ideas," says T-Minus. "I was just combing through samples and he was like, 'Yo, what is that? That sounds crazy.'"
"That" was a previously unreleased outtake of First Choice's 1973 track "Wake Up to Me," which had spent the past 50 years sitting in the proverbial vault of the iconic, long defunct soul label Philly Groove. Within weeks, the clip became the anchor of Cole's single "Middle Child," which arrived Jan. 23 and became the highest-charting song of his career, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The outtake came from Tracklib, a sampling service that hosts a library of over 70,000 songs it has pre-cleared with rights holders. Though the company launched in 2018, CEO Pär Almqvist and his co-founders built the library over six years, seeking out individual publishers and artists, as well as labels like Philly Groove, to represent both well-known tracks and unused takes and records that could then be searched and sampled.
"When [rights holders] meet us, they realize that it's not about coming in and exploiting or opportunistically trying to find something here," says Almqvist. "Our true intent is to build new infrastructure in this industry and to partner with the people who own the music to create new life for a lot of the music."
Tracklib is one of a handful of new digital libraries for samples that have emerged in the digital era. But unlike companies such as Kingsway Music Library, which producer Frank Dukes launched to offer original "samples" with guaranteed clearance, or Splice, which just raised $57 million in funding, Tracklib offers licensed stems -- individual tracks -- from vintage repertoire. "It's just a different feeling making music using live bass, drums, snares, strings -- all these elements," says Drumma Boy, a veteran producer and member of Tracklib's creative advisory board.
Depending on the value of the recording, producers can buy the stems for a fixed price and then, when they want to release the song commercially, pay for a sample license for revenue sharing based on how much of the recording is used. To start, a producer pays $1.99 for a track, and then a flat fee for a license to commercially release the music. Tracklib divides its licensing rates into three groups based on the popularity of the source material, with Category A being "big hits," B for "mid charts," and C being everything else. C, which comprises over 99 percent of the library, costs $50 to license, while B runs $500, and A clocks in at $2,500. (The "Middle Child" sample is in Category B.) After music is released, revenue sharing percentages are broken down based on how much of the song is sampled, ranging from two percent to 50 percent; in the case of Cole's "Middle Child," the sample's rights holders get 15 percent of revenue.
It can also shine a new light on a group like First Choice, which never had a top 20 hit. "Through Tracklib, we found a [great] place for the Philly Groove catalog to be explored and rediscovered," says Faith Newman, senior vp A&R and catalog development at Reservoir, which owns the label's recordings and publishing. "It's exciting to build upon the legacies of these important songs and inspire artists of a new generation."
By pre-clearing songs, Tracklib mitigates the risk that producers take when they sample. As one example, for Juice WRLD's "Lucid Dreams," producer Nick Mira interpolated a section of Sting's "Shape Of My Heart" without clearing it. After the song became a massive hit -- it was the second-most-streamed song in the United States in 2018, according to Nielsen Music, at 1.1 billion streams -- a frustrated Mira claimed Sting took 85 percent of the track.
As it has geared up, Tracklib has built its business team, hiring Deborah Mannis-Gardner, owner and president of DMG Clearances, who has worked with Drake and Eminem, and, in February, two Spotify veterans: former general counsel Petra Hansson and Niklas Ivarsson, who spent nine years as global head of licensing, to serve on its advisory board.
Meanwhile, producers like Drumma Boy and T-Minus are relishing the opportunity to use older music without the stress of the clearance process.
"I'm definitely sampling more -- there's so much rare music there," says T-Minus. "And I know what I'm getting involved with on the business end. Nothing's worse than having to remake [a beat]. You lose a lot of that integrity."