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What Songwriters Everywhere Can Learn From the Ghanaian Music Industry

Picture of Gameli Hamelo
4 minute read

“I couldn’t believe it,” Ghanaian-American singer/songwriter Moliy said in a recent interview. “I’m singing about getting paid, but I’m not getting paid.”

At the heart of this shocking claim is “SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY,” a hit single by Ghanaian-American singer/songwriter Amaarae, that features Moliy. On March 6, Ghana’s Independence Day, Moliy alleged via a Twitter thread that she has “yet to see any proceeds” from her contributions to the song, and doesn’t know how much revenue it has earned in total. 

She also took issue with not “being properly credited” for her efforts — as per the metadata available on Digital Streaming Platforms (DSPs) — and having “very limited visibility” in its music videos, both for the original and a remix featuring American-Colombian singer/songwriter superstar Kali Uchis. (The latter helped the track set records on several global charts.)

Amaarae's response was that revenue could not be shared when financial investments into making the song haven’t been recouped. She also said that her collaborator has a “larger publishing split on the original than [she does] and an equal publishing split on the remix.”

The controversy sparked discussions about signing contracts, and what to know before you sign. It also brought up the need to use and sign split sheets before the release of a song to guarantee ownership, royalties, and publishing rights are understood when several writers are involved. 

Making Sense of the Scramble For African Music 

Speaking of broken deals and disagreements within the Ghanaian music industry, Black Sherif — the Best New Artist of the Year at the Ghana Music Awards — has faced a setback in his quest for global stardom. Namely a lawsuit from the financier of his career, Shadrach “Snap Chavis Wayne” Agyei Owusu, for alleged breach of contract. It stems from Sherif signing a distribution deal with an American music company (EMPIRE) without Owusu’s knowledge. A reported leak of the contract suggested the star had “sold his life away”.

This particular situation places a spotlight on international labels and music companies signing deals with African artists in recent years, due to the increasing global crossover of African music. Referred to as the new scramble for Africa, it raises concerns about the type of deals that have been signed, who will own the intellectual property of African artists in the coming decades, and what it means for the continent’s music industry. 

What Should Artists Know Before Signing These Contracts? 

“As an artist, it is important to understand the basics of intellectual property,” explained Rita Anwiri Chindah, an intellectual property lawyer and host of the IPSERIES podcast. “Specifically copyright, as it affects your industry, concept of ownership, authorship, and how to commercialize your work. In signing a contract, you need to consider what you are looking out for in a potential investor while placing your best foot forward in terms of what you are offering because these music companies are businesses looking to get a return on investment.”

“Secondly,” she added, “read the contract [and] get your lawyer to explain each clause to you, [including] the term/duration of the contract, territory, publishing, royalties, governing law, dispute resolution, marketing, and distribution, release clause, and the option to renegotiate.”

What about artistes who don’t have the star power Ghanaian artiste Stonebwoy had when he signed a global deal with Universal Music Group’s Def Jam Recordings?

“Before the majors approach up-and-coming African acts, it is likely that such acts are already getting some buzz, and that alone gives leverage,” said Olayemi Oladapo, an entertainment lawyer at Uxbridge LP. “The level of leverage however varies, and of course, that would affect negotiations. 

He continued, “With that said, just like in other businesses, the value and type of deal you get would depend on a couple of factors, like leverage in terms of social media assets, current online streams and sales, relationships, and the negotiation skills of the team of the artiste.”

Oladapo also put forward options that would ensure artistes, producers, and songwriters hold onto their creative work. 

“There are alternatives to the general rules in terms of intellectual property transfer,” he said. “For example, artistes may decide to get a distribution deal instead of a record deal so they retain their masters, and songwriters may enter into a publishing administration deal to retain rights to their works.”

What Happens When Music is Devalued 

In a related development, Ghanaian producer, DJ, and songwriter Gafacci allegedly hasn't received any payment for a production that has been a television show theme for close to a decade. “Fire" by singer/songwriter Chase Forever is synonymous with The Delay Show, one of the longest-running programs on Ghanaian television. 

As the producer of the song, Gafacci owns a cut of publishing for his work as a songwriter. He doesn't have a lot of options to get paid, however, because Ghana's collecting societies exist mainly in name only and hardly crack the proverbial whip on offenders. Songs are placed in audiovisual works without permission or payment to the copyright owner(s) more often than not. 

“There is really not much some of our talents can do,” remarked Akinyemi Ayinoluwa, an entertainment attorney and co-founder of Nigeria’s Hightower Solicitors. “In this territory, we can continue to advocate that all the stakeholders in the creative industry who consume or exploit music pay [for the usage]. For now, what he can do is…get royalties for the song on verifiable channels where the song is being exploited.”

He continued, “And [with the song] available on streaming platforms like YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music, [a publishing administrator] like Songtrust and a collecting society can still collect on his behalf. He can probably look to those channels for royalties but I don’t think he would make a lot of money on the Ghanaian territory from exploitation by television or radio.”

He also asked broadcast media to “acknowledge” the value of music to their operations and the need to properly license its usage. 

Bringing Things Back Around 

These different scenarios illustrate the importance of understanding your rights as an artist. Even if you have a good team, it is necessary to educate yourself on the basics of the business of music. These include ownership, royalties, publishing, and the need to carefully review contracts (with the support of a music lawyer if possible) before signing on a dotted line.

While you can learn from the negative experiences of your predecessors, you can also help share the knowledge that you’ve acquired with newer musicians, so that in the future, artists losing out on their intellectual property will no longer be shrugged off as normal.  


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