Liberian Artists Are Demanding Structural Change In The Music Industry

demanding an uptick in earnings and general valuation

In Liberia, December is the prime earning season for most musicians. It’s known worldwide as the peak period for live performances and shows. Due to widespread piracy and mobile data issues across Africa and the absence of a music streaming culture, there are reduced avenues for artists to earn a living off their music. As such, most Liberian artists depend on the fees earned from live shows as their primary source of income.


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A post shared by Bucky Raw 🇱🇷 (@buckyrawofficial)

Last year, in a viral moment that sparked polarising conversations, a leaked chat between the management of Bucky Raw, one of Liberia’s biggest artists, and the organisers of the Liberian Music Awards revealed the singer’s management rather high demand for $10,000 as fees at the award ceremony. Fee payments are a riotous game of rules, processes and bureaucracy in the music industry, with the key players more entangled than the ordinary fans might think. Nonetheless, the leaked chat reignited age-old conversations, urging for there to be change to years of mistreatment.

For many Liberian artists, the current structure fails to adequately compensate them. While details of performance fees are kept on a need-to-know basis, it’s widely known (off the record) that “A-list” Liberian artistes earn between $800–1500 on average for live shows within Liberia, with “B and C list” artists earning much lower. Artists are also paid for club performances or appearances which are more commonplace but attract a lower fee. For music listeners, attending a concert to watch one’s favourite artist perform is an investment in an experience, however, for artists, the stakes are even higher when consideration is given to the fact that their earnings are then split between their management, venue organisers and team.

What’s left in the end is meagre and exploitative enough to prompt a call for industry-wide change, which Bucky Raw himself reiterates in an interview with the NATIVE. “For me, this goes towards how much they think we—the Liberian entertainment industry—are worth. We need to add value to our work and add values to ourselves. We need to do this for the next generation of entertainers coming after us,” he shares in a phone conversation with me. “People listen to our music for free instead of streaming, same people would support not paying artists enough, same people would still mock Liberian artistes for being broke. I don’t want to be a broke legend.”

Much ado about performance fees

Access to internet and data services in Liberia renders streaming an unreliable source of income for artists. Widely known as one of the highest and most expensive in the sub-region, sold at at 2.8GB for 5 dollars, music listeners resort to free streaming services such as Audiomack or illegal downloads. According to World Bank statistics, the gross national income per capita stood at just $570 in 2020 which means that many Liberians cannot afford the exorbitant data costs nor can they afford to pay a monthly fee for a streaming service.

In Liberia, there is a rich culture of purchasing music from street vendors who transfer unlicensed files of song recordings to consumers through CDs or direct uploads on their smartphones. These underground vendors have the songs on laptops which they then transfer to a memory card or smartphone. They operate from kiosks which are present in different cities across Liberia, posed on major highways and streets to attract young consumers. With the lack of adequate distribution channels or infrastructure in the music industry, there has been little or no pushback against them despite the intellectual property ramifications they pose.

Due to the large number of consumers who resort to these backend downloads, artists, composers and producers do not earn royalties for the music they make and miss out on a significant portion of their earnings. In lieu of this, most artists have to garner their income through alternative means. The typical set-up involves the artist first creating the music, then distributing them on online platforms, including local blogs, that provide music for free downloads. If their song blows up, the artist then leverages on the popularity of the song to make money from live performances or endorsement deals.

This system is unsustainable for most artists as they are left without remuneration when live shows are unavailable – for example shows were banned and are yet to regain full steam since the COVID-19 health pandemic. Additionally, Liberian artists also lack the access to tour their local cities and towns, largely due to the country’s bad road networks which reduces their options for remuneration. This unreliable transportation network has also led to an over-concentration of events and live shows to the country’s capital city of Monrovia, which itself lacks any suitable venues for large-scale events.

A game of numbers

In Liberia, the cost of production can be high in comparison to the earning capacity of its musician. Currently, production of a song costs between $150 – $200 on average, while video production costs start from $600, excluding additional costs attracted for promotion and branding of songs. Many Liberian artists have argued that the current fee structure does not reflect or match the high cost of production and in turn, leaves them at a disadvantage for pursuing their craft.

While their claims are not unwarranted, structural challenges in the country’s music industry continue to pose a hindrance to any real change. With the lack of any real structures, costs and logistical challenges are a given for any event organisers or promoters in the industry. Currently, organisers of large recurring events including award shows, pageants and more, have to pay an annual franchise fee to the Ministry of Information and Tourism which grants them leave to operate. Those can afford these fees, and operate against all the odds, later face issues with venues due to the lack of large-scale theatres.

Most large indoor entertainment events are held in the ministerial complex hall in Monrovia. However, this hall has a maximum seating capacity of around 700 seats despite being one of the largest indoor venues in Monrovia. The cost of performing at the hall is also steep for most show-runners at its price of around $4000 per day. In contrast, event tickets are priced within the average range of $20-40 (for a regular ticket) so that music lovers can afford them. “You have a hall with a maximum capacity of 700. Additionally, half of the seating capacity in award shows would usually go to complimentary seats which are not paid for. These complimentary seats include artists, presenters, and other invitees. As a result, ticket sales might only cover payment for the lights and hall,” says Sean Gibson, an event organiser and promoter based in Monrovia.

He further explains: “When you factor in ticket sales in relation to other costs including personnel costs, videography, photography, security etc, it’s not then possible to pay one artist $10,000 for a 7-minute performance, considering you would also have around 4-7 scheduled to perform at the show. There is also the question of whether the artist can even pull $10,000 in sales.” Due to the costs of running an award show, organisers turn to corporate sponsors to offset the running costs as ticket sales might be inadequate. In Liberia, one of the country’s biggest music award shows is sponsored by telecommunications giant, MTN.

Foreign versus local

While Liberian continue to speak out against the low fees earned from live performances, their foreign counterparts, on the other hand continue to earn at a disproportionately higher rate than them for shows conducted within the country. Evidence suggests that this is largely due to the mainstream success of foreign music in Liberia—especially those of Nigerian and Ghanaian musicians.

Opponents of the current pricing system reject the argument that logistical cost is a bar to paying local artists more and this point is buttressed by recent shows which have seen foreign artists attract higher performance fees. The country has been graced with a number of successful African acts including Wizkid, Davido, Kizz Daniel etc, who continue to out-earn their Liberian counterparts. According to Bucky Raw and people in his camp, claims have been made that Ghanaian artist, Kwame Eugene was allegedly paid up to $5000 at the MTN Liberia Music Awards (MLMA) in 2018, a significantly higher amount than what was paid to Liberian artists. However, the MLMA has denied the fees paid and stated further that Kwame Eugene was brought to the show by their sponsors MTN and not the award body itself.


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A post shared by MTN Liberia Music Awards (@liberiamusicawards)

For Dede Dalmeida, who is an artist manager and the chief financial officer of the MTN Liberia Music Awards, she shares that performance fees are on a case-by-case basis: “I don’t mind artistes asking for better fees, but artists should not compare their prices with prices paid to artistes in another country. They need to understand the going rate in the country is determined by a lot of things such as cost of living, earning power in the country, size and growth of the industry in the country also matters. Most foreign artistes brought in and paid higher fees are global superstars brought in by mostly multinationals to elevate their brand.”

So what becomes of the demands made by Liberian artists?

It goes without saying that there is an urgent need to increase the performance fees of Liberian musicians. However, there is more pertinently a need for a better system that diversifies income for Liberian artists to earn from their music. In order to achieve that, the Liberian entertainment industry must first address structural issues surrounding monetisation of content, music piracy, distribution, and access to large performance venues. While local unions such as the Music Union have promised to help tackle these issues numerable times, Liberian artists are still hopeful for a solution that comes sooner rather than later.

Dounard Bondo is a writer based in Liberia. His writing usually covers politics, policies, human rights and entertainment in Africa. Dounard has bylines in BBC, Euronews, Quartz, and others. He also writes short stories.