Royalties, Publishing & The Realities of the Music Business

"Music is a creative product, with its own specific copyright"

Few songs in 2021 matched the global reach of Amaarae’s “Sad Gurlz Luv Money.” In a year full of breakthrough moments, the Ghanaian artist’s spritzy collaboration with Moliy enjoyed a great run, especially after its remix with US-Colombian star Kali Uchis. It debuted at #80 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and went to #1 at the Spotify Viral chart, also charting on US TikTok and on the UK Singles chart.

However, it has been revealed however that the record’s main creators aren’t exactly on the best terms. Earlier this month, Moliy took to Twitter to make strong ownership claims against her collaborator, Amaarae. She revealed that she wrote eighty percent of the original song, and claimed she wasn’t properly credited on the remix and has had “limited visibility” on the two videos that’s been released. She also faulted Amaarae for allegedly lip-syncing her lyrics without her approval and ultimately said she hadn’t received “any proceeds from the record and have no idea what’s been accumulated so far.”

Sharing the thread on the Ghanaian Independence Day, the matter was eagerly discussed on social media as diverse opinions stood out. Some were quick to call out Amaarae, obviously on the grounds that it’s a universally relatable feeling, to perform so diligently and not be fairly rewarded. It was, however, resolved that no fair assessment can be made if the other party didn’t explain their side of the story.

Hours later, Amaarae responded with a thread of her own. Charting the start of their working relationship, the Ghanaian-American singer revealed how Moliy reached out to her for a prospective collaboration and she gave Moliy two minutes on her acclaimed debut album ‘The Angel You Don’t Know.’ Amaarae shared this was “because I believed in your talent and wanted to give a fellow Ghanaian up-and-coming woman an opportunity. I had the confidence to take a backseat and let you shine.”

Amaarae went on to dispute Moliy’s claims of sidelining her, saying she has always expressed her love for Moliy and that, at her first live festival performance in America, she shouted out “this special artist” who created the song with her and asked the crowd to do so as well. “Meanwhile your team was busy fighting my team in the background and sabotaging our efforts to promote the record,” she wrote, breaking down the financial and social investments that have been responsible for the song’s success. Amaarae also shared that Moliy’s demand for her share of revenue was unusual because the costs for promotion had not been recouped.

According to Amaarae, a number of confrontations suggested that Moliy’s team almost sabotaged the promotion of the record and that the artist herself did not promote the record until it began blowing up on TikTok. Near the end of her thread, Amaarae confirmed that Moliy “has a larger publishing split on the original than I do and an equal publishing split on the remix…she is credited as a featured artist on both songs meaning she can earn her mechanical royalties.”

There’s been a lot of takes on social media, some finding Amaarae’s riposte satisfactory and others, quite not. There’s no doubt that both parties will now be looking to solve their differences behind the scenes. Still, there’s a larger conversation that’s now been opened, one that takes the legal framework of collaboration into a larger context, especially now that afropop is moving into the world and, more than ever, artists are joining forces to conquer new ground.

To this end, we spoke to Tokunbo Komolafe, a music and entertainment lawyer in Lagos, Nigeria and Frank Nwafor, a music publisher and co-founder of Jam Distro to find out more about royalties, publishing and protecting oneself in the music business.

Our conversation which follows below has been lightly edited for clarity.

NATIVE: To start off, what’s one thing every party should have in mind when creating a song?

FRANK: As a main artist without features, it’s essential to send out split sheets. There are two split sheets which are necessary and a main artist should have their publishing split sheets and the mechanical royalty split sheets. A producer is not entitled to mechanical split sheets but is entitled to publishing split sheets. When a featured artist is involved, the publishing split sheets is necessary for everybody involved, which includes the producer, main artist and the featured artist. No matter how little a person participates in a song, the person is entitled to something from the publishing of the song. If an artist is featured on a song, and is paid in cash upfront, then the artist isn’t going to get any percentage from the song later on. That’s why a split sheet is necessary to avoid any future drama.

If you’re an artist looking to get another artist on a feature, I would advise to throw in an obligation one pager. This obligation one pager involves how an artist posts, supports etc. Another important thing is the clearance process because it is only when your split sheet is signed that a track can be cleared. Anybody can come and throw a percentage at you that doesn’t align with what you want, so you can negotiate for a higher price. When looking at the percentage, it’s necessary to keep in the back of your mind that investors can come into place. It’s always advisable not to over split cause when investors are involved, they always prefer percentage to any other option.

TOKUNBO: With what I’ve seen, I think they’re very interested in their rights, royalties and money too. Although, I would say it varies cause it depends on the literacy and exposure of the artist. I’ve worked with clients that, prior to the time the song is even released, they ask for their money upfront while a few would request for their money after their song has blown up. Also, compared to the time I started working in the music space, which is about 6/7 years ago, artists needed to be convinced that split sheets was important. But now, most of them or about a half of them demand for split sheets and producer agreement. I think it’s a giant leap in the right direction and it can only get better if there’s more education and more avenues to learn.

“We’ve passed the days where when an artist makes music and the only way to make money from the music is performance fee or appearance fee.”

NATIVE: Why is it important to protect and look out for your rights and obligations?

TOKUNBO: This is because at the end of the day, it’s their creative product. Artists have put in effort to create something unique, tangible, something to stand the test of time and, it’s only right that they earn something from it. Now the actual product is the music, the music has its own specific copyright, IP right and is a creation on its own. We’re in the era where people sell their own catalogue like John legend selling his IP rights to different entities and then making millions of dollars from it. Even in contracts, when doing contracts and you’re listing the revenue channels of the song, the primary revenue channel is the music, so your streaming revenue, publishing revenue, even your endorsement deals are called ancillary channels.

The main thing really should be the product. However, the reverse was the case in the past, when we didn’t have streaming platform and there was rampant piracy which made it difficult for artists to make money. But now with technology, DSP, and actual distribution companies doing their work, things are getting better. Even investment companies are seeing value in IP and are willing to put money behind to purchase it. My advice is for everyone to hold on to their catalogue, even if it’s 5percent or 10 percent of the piece in the pie because it’s not even just for now. It’s just like pension that you can earn from in the future because if the music is good, we would keep listening to your music and you will keep making money from it.

NATIVE: In Africa, where the music industry is still finding its structural footing, how easy is it to protect your rights as an artist, songwriter or producer?

FRANK: It’s easier now than before because now you can communicate with DSPs if you have a copyright infringement release and they can take it down. Gone are the days where one has to go through a long process or find the person that released it and you can also report blogs that release your songs without your approval. Although, I think the Alaba market thing is still an issue because you can’t go to every shop and scatter there to check which store has your music. However, compared to 5 or 6 years ago , it’s better now and as time goes on, people will become more aware of their rights which would, in turn, give room for improvements.

NATIVE: Are there still structural challenges as regards the Nigerian constitution, or just like attitudes on intellectual property in the entertainment industry?

TOKUNBO: From the legal perspective, there’s an entire process to follow. Here, you can take the parties to court. They can be sued at either the Federal or High courts which have the jurisdiction for copyright or intellectual property matters. At the end of the day, the whole point of justice is to be quick but in Nigeria, there are many issues with the court system. For instance, it can take awhile to get a fixed court date when there are other channels for alleviating these issues. A quick alternative is that you can always communicate with the DSPs, that you have a copyright infringement issue with necessary proof. This usually takes about 24 hours before the song is pulled down from streaming platforms.

In my experience, with my clients, we communicate with the DSP and also take them to court. This way, it’s a bit more forceful because just taking down the song won’t redress the pain caused to the other party. However, when you sue them, then you can sue for damages or they settle out of court. The only problem is the legal landscape in Nigeria. They are very slow. It’s almost not even beneficial to go to court, but we still do it to show seriousness or to force the other party to settle.


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NATIVE: In your experience, when do things usually go sour and how can that be fixed?

FRANK: Things can go sour anytime. In most cases, things go sour when the artist starts to blow up. For example, in the case of Moliy and Amaarae, according to what I saw, I don’t think it should have gone that far. You can still go for your rights as an artist without burning that bridge. In the music industry, for every song that you distribute, the person investing in that record has to be recouped before any discussion on royalties. The discussion on splits can be had but damage in relationships begins when people start thinking about how much they can actually gain rather than focusing on how big the record can actually be.

TOKUNBO: I did come across that case and what stuck out to me is the importance of having your contracts sorted out prior to the release of a song. For instance, during negotiations and preparing the contract, there will be conversations about the commercial aspects of the record, so like the percentage to be split with the featured artist, the publishing share, and if there’s a remix to the song in the future, who owns that and how would that be split. This will also include discussions on social media posts, promotions, their appearances in video shoots and, also negotiations on recouping. For instance, if the featured artist was asking for 25% of the mastered earnings, the negotiation can be 25% but 25% of the net profit. Net profit means whatever we make from the record, after the expenses have been deducted.

This particular case just highlights the necessity for doing your contract properly. Moliy also made a complaint about Amaarae singing her portion of the song but sometimes in contracts, this can be addressed. There can be an agreement stating that both parties have rights to perform depending on how it is worded. If the entire copywriting in the master, belongs to the primary owner of the song, they can perform the record, if they want to it doesn’t really matter who it belongs to. If they own the rights, they can perform it, and the other person also has rights to perform because they also own it. In this Moliy and Amaarae case, I would say it’s really just a thing of communication and clear contract terms. It’s a good thing that it came out because it does highlight to other artists who’ll be featured on other songs to do the right thing prior to release.

NATIVE: So far, we’ve spoken about artists with good teams and capital. How about independent artists who cannot afford a lawyer or a manager?

TOKUNBO: There are different ways to negotiate these things. There are entertainment lawyers who are flexible, there are entertainment lawyers who won’t charge as much, depending on how you negotiate. Now for managers, they usually earn a percentage off the artist’s earnings, so I don’t think there should be an excuse about not being able to afford a manager. However, in the event that a record was released without any professional on the team, then the song blows up and you want to then clear it, there are companies that actually do these things for a living, clearing songs after the fact. In these instances, you just have to set up meeting with the other artist’s teams and if they are unable to clear, you clear what you can until there’s an issue. I would add that the right thing to do is reach out to the team of the person and come to an agreement of some sort because at the end of the day, earning 10% is better than not earning anything at all, if that isn’t sorted.

NATIVE: Looking at it from the outside, it seems like protecting your interest takes away from the fun of collaboration. Have you come across clients who just won’t do that?

TOKUNBO: Yes, there are clients who won’t bother simply because they won’t want to deal with the back and forth. Some clients are just like whatever they want, give them or let’s just release the song. As lawyers, this is certainly not advisable to any client,  but at the end of the day, it’s a business and not a sprint. It’s a long race and relationships are so crucial in the Nigerian entertainment industry. You have to think about where you are as an artist, and put things into consideration when demanding and negotiating royalties and publishing. Most of the time, in the Nigerian entertainment space, it depends on your level as an artist. There are some artists who focus more on the music and leave their producers and lawyers to do whatever they can to get their money so that it doesn’t affect their creativity or relationships but it’s the managers behind the scenes that are fighting.

NATIVE: What do you think about artists’ education with regards to rights, what to do, what not to do? How do you think we can bridge the education gap on this issue for African creatives?

TOKUNBO: Education is really important. The more educated the ecosystem we have, the better for us. When people in the ecosystem understand the business, it makes my job as a lawyer easier. I don’t have to explain to you this is what royalties are or this is what publishing rights are. So yes, education is paramount and it’s our responsibility to educate people, but also people who are more experienced and learned should take up the responsibility to pass the information across. For me, I speak to a lot of students about the kind of knowledge they need to have as an entertainment lawyer and share resources they can use, podcasts, youtube videos, articles they can read. Also, in my team, we try to give our clients a little level of education on the different rights in music.

FRANK: Artists can also help themselves by taking online courses, online courses will definitely help you. With artists signed to my distribution company, I take my time to actually learn on their behalf, I learn and summarise to them. Yes, their job is to create, but at the same time they have to be very knowledgeable about the music business. You have to have a good team that actually believe in you and even with that, you can’t depend on anyone. So, it’s best you have the knowledge and know these things. An hour a day should not be too much for an artist in terms of studying and understanding the business.

Featured image credits/NATIVE

Words by Emmanuel Esomnofu and Q&A by Wonu Osikoya and Wale Oloworekende.