Shenseea vs. Vybz Kartel vs. the business of music – a teachable moment

We all watched as the social media “he said/she said” war of words and music camps unfolded a little over a week ago in the Jamaican dancehall. Following the release of the original recording for Loodi from Vybz Kartel’s camp, it became clear that the song was never meant to be the famed collaboration with dancehall beauty Shenseea we’ve grown accustomed to.

Since the release of the original track, everyone involved in the debacle has chimed in, giving their own side of the story. Obviously, I am not one to comment on what ‘really’ happened as I was never there. Still, the entire episode brought home something I have always said both as a musician and a businesswoman – ‘business best practices apply irrespective of the product you’re selling.’ As far as the business of music is concerned, this saga reinforces that there is still much work to do concerning artists being more involved in the business aspect of their careers. Many artists in dancehall, are still failing to realise that talent is not enough, and that the belief that it is, is making many of them their own worst enemy.

Why talent matters, but then it doesn’t

Truth is, being talented is great. For an artist, talent will bring about many important opportunities. However, it is good business practice that will help artists maximise those opportunities and not be taken advantage of in the long run. The sane goes for managers, producers, and other stakeholders. If you think of some of the most successful artists out now, they are not necessarily the most ‘talented’ of the bunch. Chances are, however, they have very well-managed careers. Importantly, the most popular is not necessarily the most successful either as there are lots of “out of the spotlight” options for artistic success. It is those who can negotiate the best business terms who come out on top.

Artists need to get it together

No artist in 2017 should be in a position where a manager, producer, publicist, A&R executive, assistant or anyone else brings a potential project to their attention and questions regarding matters of licensing, plans for the project, performance, composition, and production rights and royalties are not asked. All these matters should be clearly handled and sorted on paper before one note is ever sung or one lyric or melody penned. The failure to do so indicates that artists are not thinking long term, and quite frankly may either grossly undervalue or misunderstand the worth and profitability of one’s intellectual property.

Even when it has not yet been brought to market for consumption, a recorded song is a product. I challenge you to find another industry in the world where the product is brought to market for consumption BEFORE all the business foundations have been laid. It almost never happens. However, in dancehall, artists and producers alike are ‘voicing’ on riddims and releasing songs before they have established relationships with publishers or registered with performing rights organisations and other industry-government. Intellectual property matters; and in the art and culture sectors it is particularly important as every good or service you can think of is intellectual property.

Dear dancehall: who owns and earns from what

There are several stakeholders that must come together for the final product we call ‘a song’ in popular music to come together. The three basic stakeholders include composers, producers, and the performers. A beat-maker is a composer and is sometimes the producer of the song. Making a beat does not automatically make you a producer, however. The persons penning the lyrics and melody are also composers. These individuals may or may not be involved in the performance of the song. The performer of the song is obviously the artist and perhaps other vocalists or instrumentalist who may contribute to the song’s performance on record. Finally, the producer is that person who brings all of those elements together (sometimes with the assistance of an arranger) to create the final product to be distributed for consumption in the marketplace. Of course, when ready for market, other stakeholders such as record labels (who usually own the masters), distributors, publishers, and others come into play.

A quick example: From the outside looking in at the Shenseea/Kartel situation, Kartel and Jay Crayzie are the composers. Kartel owns/has rights to the lyrics (and the accompanying melody), and Jay Crayzie the instrumental that was used to ‘inspire’ the final product. Of course, there are performance and production rights too to consider in light of the final release which was produced by SoUnique records and had contributions from Shenseea. In a perfect world, all parties should have a say in how their intellectual property will be used in the final analysis and how they will be compensated for the same. The point is, it is important to be clear on who owns what how much of the royalties each stakeholder will have a share in and how the same will be treated BEFORE the final product goes to market. The more stakeholders are involved the clearer the terms need to be and the more important it is for these terms to be in writing.

Knowledge is still power

Many say ignorance is bliss, but nothing could be farther from the truth. What you don’t know can leave you at a significant disadvantage, and in business could leave you nursing bankruptcy. It is unfortunate that even in an age where technology has put so many tools at the artist’s disposal, many of them still REFUSE to educate themselves and take charge of their careers. It is important for artists to KNOW that their managers work for them and not the other way around. There is NO way a producer, manager, publicist or anyone else should be making the final decision concerning your career as an artist when you are the one bearing the greatest risk by having your name and brand associated with the same. When the mess hits fan and blows around the room it is the artist who will come out smelling foul. Learn all you can and implement business structures that work in the best interest of your brand, your artistic work, and what you are trying to achieve.

Have a plan 

It cannot be stressed enough how important it is for music creators – artists, composers, producers alike – to have a plan. Your art is your business. It is not enough to just ‘try a ting’ and hope for the best. Having a blueprint that guides your way forward as an artist will help you to stay on track, set objectives and make decisions that are in line with your ultimate goal(s). Your plan should include a clear strategy and measurable targets. Yes, even the arts need measurable targets. Write them down and keep them ever before. Tweak as you go along and get organised.

Being talented or hoping for a ‘big break’ is not a plan. Many of the artists with this kind of thinking are one-hit wonders for a reason. It is not enough to ‘eat a food,’ devise a plan with a clear strategy, set measurable targets, and systematically work towards them. Yes, even the arts need measurable targets and a plan. It may require more work behind the scenes and you may move slower, but you will get where you’re going on sound terms and you are likely to better maximise the opportunities when they do come.

The final word

For heaven’s sake, get a publicist – do, mi a beg yuh lol. #AlrightBye

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Kei Dubb
Kerri-Anne "Kei Dubb" Walker is a multilingual jazz-fusion musician, writer, and arts and culture management technopreneur. An astute business woman skilled both in the business and practice of the arts and entertainment, Kerri-Anne is the owner and face of Kei Dubb which manages her music entertainment and art/culture business management products and services through subsidiary trademarks and service marks.

As a consultant, Kerri-Anne inspires and equips performing and visual artists to quickly create a business blueprint designed to help them profit from their art without sacrificing artistic integrity. As an entertainer, she rocks stages and is known both for her unique sound and for hosting exclusive concert events.

Other passions include seeing to the development of cultural policy designed to support new creative industries business models and stimulate growth at the microeconomic and macroeconomic levels in developing Caribbean nations, long conversations over dinner and wine, and endless days at the beach.

Be sure to connect with Kerri-Anne all over social media at @keidubbnujazz.