Meet The Woman Who Helps The Beastie Boys, Beck And The Avalanches Clear Their Samples

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Pat Shannahan and a couple of the records she helped make happen: Janet Jackson, Shaggy, Beck, every Beasties album since Ill Communication. (Photo Jonny Coleman)

Pat Shannahan is the shadowy figure working behind the scenes on some of the most innovative and legendary albums. She's made some of your favorite records happen by clearing samples for scores of amazing pop, rap and R&B records. Some of her most notable credits use sampling as their spine, including every Beastie Boys record since Ill Communication and both Avalanches records. I learned about her through the latter, a band of sample-crazy Aussies who just put out their first album in 16 years, and made it clear that Shannahan is the detective that has made some of the best mainstream music of the last few decades actually happen.

When someone has to track down who represents the recording and publishing rights of a given piece of music, she's the woman relentlessly and thanklessly sleuthing.

I met Shannahan at her home in the West Valley, where she lives with three rescue dogs and her husband Hadley Murrell, a world class fixer, producer, musician and guy who knows everyone. We spend the afternoon in air conditioning and trading stories, as she schools me on how the byzantine profession of sample clearing and her method of negotiating came to be, and how the music industry is continuing its free fall.

So you began your entertainment career as a dancer. What happened there? When I stopped dancing, I had a problem with my leg. It was a very dramatic story. They said, "you'll never dance again," and it was time to get a real job.

So I got into—quite accidentally as a temp—the music business and publishing and copyright administration, which I knew nothing about. But in infinite corporate wisdom, ABC Music in New York fired the only girl who knew how to do it. And they laid it in my lap and said, "Here, you do this." So that was the beginning of my career in music.

[When I was with Island Records] I was asked to be on the board of directors of this organization by Martin Cohen, who's a legendary entertainment attorney. His brother Herb Cohen was a manager who managed Frank Zappa, all those people.

I did that and I joined the board. And Hadley was there at the first luncheon. That's how we met. A few months later, in June, Martin had this big party. He called it his summer solstice party, with this magnificent spread up in the Hollywood Hills. And he raised all his own goats and chickens and animals and made his own wine and cheeses. He was a very earthy guy.

It was a day like this. The heat was unbearable. I almost didn't go. And then I went, and I was by myself. And Hadley was by himself. And we started talking, and then we started laughing. And everyone wanted to know what was so funny, because we were having the best time of anybody there.

When Island was sold to Polygram [in 1989], I just did not wanna be there anymore. It was so crazy. I just knew life was never gonna be the same again. And I was so used to working for such a small creative company, and Chris had us put out a record in 48 hours and somehow we'd made it happen. By the time Polygram got finished telling me the number of reports I was expected to do by the end of the week and get to people, I didn't know how I was ever gonna get any work done. So, I said, "You know, I don't think I want to do this anymore." So I left and I didn't know what my plan was. But an attorney I had thrown a lot of business to said, "Hey, what are you up to?"

I had my severance so I was able to take some time off. I couldn't figure out what my next move was. Jobs were pretty hard to find at that point and not so great anymore. So he said, "I got this artist. He's done all these samples and everything. I haven't got time to clear them. Would you like to help me out with this project? The guy is called Prince Paul."

He said, "Come on, help me out. You can use my office if you want to." I was the head of business affairs at Island, and I had a strong business background. I came up in an industry where you only used a lawyer if you were going to court. Nobody used lawyers for anything [other than that]. Then the lawyers started creating jobs for themselves, because they wanted to get into the industry. I negotiated all the contracts for the biggest artists because my boss—my immediate boss Lionel Conway—was tired of paying high fees to the lawyers. It was a month before they were getting back to you with the deal memo. Then I'd find all these mistakes in the deal. He said, "You're doin' it from now on!"

You came from a musical background yourself, so you could appreciate it from the artist's side too. I understood both sides, the business and creative. I was with RCA and ABC and worked for the business affairs guys. I learned about all the contracts. I typed them all. I did them all. And I had a lot of contractual knowledge of how the industry works. Because I had been an artist myself, I understood artists. And how scared they were about contracts and things and what they didn't understand. So I always told them, "I'll explain the whole thing to you. If you don't have the money for an attorney, I"ll explain it to you." I understood their reluctance to sign anything. I had to sign a lot of contracts in my dancing career.

All of my business—for the most part—has come from attorneys, because I have a reputation among them. And they know that I know everything they need and want and don't want. They knew they could trust me to do the contract without them and they just say "yea" or "nay" if I'm having problems. I made their life very easy, in that way.

So I went up to Hadley's office and set up shop in his office. I remember one guy who came in and said, "Hadley, you're the only person I know who's had the same phone number for 25 years." People would always come up and know he was still there. It was very hard for us to leave, actually.

We had a lot of fun. There were a lot of crazy characters there. Everybody had their own business. It was really a fun place to work. There was a lady who performed electrolysis. She had a business to die for. She had the most beautiful transvestites and transexuals standing in line outside her office to remove the hair. They were magnificent. That was always fun.

A lot of people love Paul's Boutique, and I do too I guess, but I don't think it's as cohesive as what The Avalanches have been able to accomplish. That's the album the Beastie Boys wish I had cleared. They've had a nightmare [of legal issues].

They didn't clear anything? Basically. They found me after that and started clearing everything.

The Dust Brothers produced Paul's, right? I believe. That was before my time. They produced Beck's Odelay, which I cleared.

The Avalanches have done what no one else has ever done. I've done so many samples with so many artists, and trust me—a lot of them are just taking one little bit and looping it over and over. There's not a lot of creativity there.

Hip hop and house producers are probably the most guilty of this. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were my clients for forever. They used samples very creatively, but nobody has done what the Avalanches have done.

When did you start working on Wildflower? 2009. I can't say for real. I started clearing samples in 2009, which none were used on the record.

They threw those out? Yeah, those songs aren't on the new record. I cleared a ton of stuff that didn't make it onto this album.

So you've heard all these other unreleased Avalanches songs? I have to present the entire track—as close to the finished produce as possible—to the publishers and labels, or else they won't clear the samples. They want to hear exactly how their music is going to be used. Now, they never have given me a finished track, but we use a sophisticated system for delivering this music. And my letters are very legally specific about not letting anyone except them. "If I Was a Folkstar" was leaked about a week before.

And you cleared everything on the first Avalanches record? Right.

How long was that process? Oh, gosh, I'd have to go back and look at my calendar. That one went a lot faster. When they came to me, they were pretty much ready to go. It was probably a couple years.

With the new record, I started in earnest again in 2012. These publishers and labels will hold your quote for 30, 60, 90 days. And our Avalanches project went on hold, several times over the years. So I'd have to go back to the labels and publishers and renew these quotes to keep them alive. I think they do that because sometimes people won't come back.

At the end of 2015, The Avalanches came back to me and were like, "OK, we're ready to go." I thought it was going to be a reinstating the licenses I had already cleared. They came through with like fifteen new samples, and I went "Whoaaa!" I had not been prepared for that.

I had another project for a wonderful documentary film I was working on. The filmmakers needed to raise more money, so their project was on hold for a year. They came back at the same time [as The Avalanches] and wanted their licenses. For the last seven months or so, I’ve had no life. I go from my computer to my bed and my bed to my computer, literally. Fortunately, I love what I do and the people I work with. But I have been among the very sleep deprived for a very long time.

So you’re pretty persistent when you’re trying to track down who controls the rights to some of these obscure records? If you own a song that one of my clients needs—very obscure, that’s the nature of sampling often to find very obscure records—I will find you. If you own this record and you exist on this planet, I will find you. Someone knows you. Someone knows where you are. And I will find you.

I imagine you’re dealing with publishers and people in different parts of the world. For The Avalanches, I’m in three time zones. Their managers are in the UK. They’re tomorrow in Australia. And I’m dealing with America all day long, and it’s always the race against the clock with New York. At the end of my day, Australia’s waking up and going to work. Then I’m up at the crack of dawn again.

How does clearing for samples work—a flat fee buyout or percentage? In an ideal world, I’m looking for a flat-fee buyout, so we never have to renegotiate. But that’s never gonna happen with a major or anyone who is sophisticated within the industry.

Some of the things like Avalanches were just snippets of things. I’d say, “Come on, it’s just a snippet. It’s just used once.” I’d try to get people to be reasonable.

A major will absolutely not agree to a buyout if it’s just one second. They absolutely want to participate with everything down the line. So you have to deal with that. You try to get them to be as reasonable as possible, and—let me tell you—sampling is where they are the most unreasonable. There’s some people out there with some real bad attitudes. They’re not music people.

Everybody wants to own a piece of the new work. Sometimes they’ll come back and say, “I want 50% of the new work.” Sometimes, I have to be like, “It’s just a drum loop!”

Do you ever threaten to just find another similar piece of music? The one thing I never do is insult or diminish their work in any way whatsoever. Because now I’m setting up a hostile situation. People are very paranoid. And it is so easy for somebody to shut me down and say, “Well, guess what? Don’t use [the sample] then.” And a lot of people do that. But that’s a big mistake.

When I was on the other side, I really resented it if somebody tried to diminish my work. Negotiate with them! I’m always very sensitive to that issue. And what I try to do is to get people to feel sorry for me. I try to give them perfectly legitimate reasons.

It’s a very fine line you have to walk. Most of these people you’re dealing with are very insensitive. I’ve got to find another way to get to them. And when you’re dealing with samples, I’ll get the old, “Why don’t they write their own stuff?” attitude. They don’t get it at all.

Isn’t that a really old-fashioned attitude at this point? It’s a non-existent idea. Even at the beginning, they don’t understand it’s a different type of art form. It’s a different animal. It’s like a collage. I try to explain it like, “The kids love to try to guess who’s being sampled”, but often they don’t get it. You’re not dealing with creative people, and that’s the number one thing you have to realize.

You’ve got to find a way to come at them respectfully but not have them dismiss you either. That’s the fine line I’m trying to walk. I’ve got to get to know the nature of the animal pretty quickly. Fortunately, I’m quite perceptive. So, people that I’ve dealt with before...I know who I’m dealing with.

With some of them, I go into prayer and meditation before I make the call.

Do you feel like you’re more successful if you can get someone on the phone? Yeah, I do. And that’s why they don’t want to get on the phone with me. Because they know I’m gonna talk them into something they don’t want to be talked into. Especially people that know me.

I had a guy say to me one day—while I was working at Island—I was giving him a quote for one of our songs for a movie. And he said, “Why is it that I always pay you more money than I want but I have so much fun doing it?” And I’m laughing.

He enjoys the relationship. That’s the cliche everyone always throws around—that Hollywood is all about relationships—but it’s true, right? It’s all about relationships. It’s really hard though, because the turnover is so profound at all the companies—especially with all the downsizing. I’m always starting a new relationship all the time, which is frustrating. So I try to present my best, most humorous fun self as often as I can. But there’s a lot of people out there who don’t have a sense of humor. They’re under a tremendous amount of stress. I take into consideration the fact that everyone in one of these jobs is given a mandate “just get as much money as you can”.

We’re in an asset and liability business, which is what has happened to the music business. It’s so sad.

When did you feel that? The end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s I began telling everyone I knew, “Find something in life that you love to do and start working toward it.” Because what’s going on here [in the music business] and the way we knew it, will not be around.

This is what I really don’t understand. It was the gnashing of teeth and wringing on the hands. Everyone screaming “WHAT ARE WE GONNA DO?!?” and then suddenly after the CD came, everybody’s making money from the transfer. Then, again, everyone yelling “WHAT ARE WE GONNA DO!?!”. Then sampling comes in like a miracle. And artists’ careers are suddenly being rejuvenated. James Brown, Bootsy, all these people who didn’t have careers anymore. People now needed money in their older years have incoming coming in. This was fabulous. And the labels and have publishers have done whatever they can to kill the business. They’ve killed the sampling license part of the business in the last few years.

My business is nothing like it used to be. Absolutely nothing like it used to be because nobody can afford it anymore. They want such ridiculous and outrageous fees. There’s some unethical things going on that make me nauseous.

I assume you don’t get to interact with the artists very much? Usually I’m dealing with the attorney or manager. But with the Beastie Boys, I’d have contact with Mike Diamond. We’d initially talk about the project with him and his lawyer. Mike kind of headed everything up for them.

So he was the creative leader? He was more of the business leader, I’d say, out of the group. I had very little communication with Adam Yauch before he passed.

Do you listen to the rap albums you work on much? I’ll be honest with you. I’m not the biggest hip hop fan in the world. But some of it I really, really like. But I LOVE the Avalanches because I’m a melody person, and I love what they do with melodies.

There’s this beauty—I’m going to meet them at some point [soon]—but I haven’t met them, but we Skype and talk a bit. They’re just such sweet, nice guys. I didn’t find them tripping or self-impressed the way I do with some artists. I’m so thrilled and excited for them, because they’ve been such sweet guys in my experience. For the first album, the majority of my contact was with label people and Steven Pavlovic from Modular. He is so fantastic. He brought me in originally. I was referred to him by Mario Caldato Jr.

Mario C from the Beastie Boys? Yeah. We’re still in touch. We’ll email. He’ll keep me posted on his projects. He’ll throw business to me.

This is the major problem that we have today: people don’t think they have to pay for music anymore. I blame the record labels as much as anyone else. Once the record labels failed to jump on Napsters and other facilitators of free music... the train has left the station. There’s no going back.

Nobody wants to pay for something they got for free. They don’t understand this is how people make their living. And what they are doing ultimately to this whole world of music... ugh. It just has no value to these people.

And streaming is just making everything worse. Streaming is an absolute joke. [Hadley] will get 50 pages of statements and the check is less than the postage stamp. What they have to do is change the Copyright Act. Copyright law is vague. But nothing will happen until after the election.

When I first started clearing samples, there was only one other woman in the business that I was aware of who was doing it. She was handling all of Ruthless Records and Eazy-E. I had Beasties Boys, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and Ice-T. The movie Straight Outta Compton was so nostalgic for me. It brought back so many memories. At that time, we were both doing a lot of sample clearances at the time. To me, that was the golden age of sampling.

I was under such trepidation when I went to go see Compton. It could easily have gone so bad so fast. I thought it’s either gonna be terrible or it’s gonna be really good. I was just in tears and shocked at how well done it was. A lot of the people in that movie ended up throwing business my way, or their artists were my clients. The attorney Ron Sweeney and Brian who owned Priority Records after that. The film was amazing, in my opinion.

That was when it all started happening. And for me, it was a miracle. It was a very viable business that I still have to this day. Although it’s changed a lot!

I’m a very persistent person and a persistent negotiator. I always try to be nice to people. I always try to remain patient and not get upset. I always try to think about that the other person might be having a very hard time themselves.