Nashville in Africa: Unchaining Ghana’s Melodies

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Everybody knows Ghana is blessed with gold, cocoa and now oil, but one of its greatest resources is still neglected and untapped: the creative talents of its songwriters, composers, and bands. If Ghana recognised, developed, and supported this talent, it could become a big source of wealth.

From Highlife to Hiplife, Ghana’s sounds fill dance floors all over the continent. Indeed, Professor John Collins of the School of Performing Arts at the University Ghana estimates the Ghanaian music industry could generate US$53 million a year from foreign sales. And Ghana did pass a strong copyright law in 2005, although it still has not been fully implemented.

Unfortunately, it takes more to build a music industry than talent and (unenforced) law. Enforcement of the law and a music business with effective private institutions, such as music publishers and industry associations, are required.

But a lucrative music business is not just the luxury of a wealthy economy. It can play a part in building an economy.

As our study “Nashville in Africa” explains, African countries can look to the US city of Nashville, Tennessee, to learn how a creative industry can help a developing economy. Nashville is home to the Country Music industry, which creates $6 billion a year for the city’s economy and supports tens of thousands of jobs.

Nashville was not always this fortunate. Eighty years ago, it was the centre of one of America’s poorest regions. Incomes were a mere 40% of the US average, a large number of people lived off subsistence farming and malaria was common.

The beginning of Music City

Nashville’s fortunes began to change in 1927 when an enterprising music publisher named Ralph Peer introduced America and the world to Country Music with his pioneering Bristol Sessions recordings. Just as importantly, he helped pioneer a business model that turned music into a huge commercial success.

Peer did win-win deals with his artists. He paid them well for their recordings but his music publishing company also paid them royalties for the new songs they wrote and assigned to the company. The artists had a reason to write new material and the publisher had a reason to make sure he promoted songs and collected money for their performance. This model drew many songwriters, musicians, and entrepreneurs to Nashville. Other music publishing companies, record labels, recording studios, and ultimately royalty collecting societies were founded, earning Nashville the nickname of Music City, USA.

Victor Tieku in Ralp Peer’s shadow

Today, a Ghanaian musician and producer aims to be Ghana’s Ralph Peer. Victor Tieku, owner of Kampsite Music, is putting together a music publishing company to create the same sorts of opportunities for Ghana that made Nashville a multi-billion dollar music city.

He plans to set up a music publishing business that will promote and license music for radio and television, in advertisements, films, ringtones, and recordings by other musicians.

Although African countries have long had collecting societies, they have largely failed to collect and distribute royalties to songwriters and other artists. For years, Ghanaian musicians have complained bitterly of the failings of the Copryight Society of Ghana.

In the U.S., successful music publishers like Ralph Peer’s company came first, and then later organised themselves into associations to collect royalties. Such private initiatives are more accountable to those who create them. In hindsight, it was probably a mistake for African countries to create collecting societies before there were functioning music publishing companies to hold them accountable.

Fortunately, Section 49 of Ghana’s 2005 Copyright Act now allows publishers and composers to form private royalty-collecting organisations.

Tieku’s initiative with Kampsite is the first instance of an entrepreneur seizing the opportunity created by the bolstered law. It is an encouraging step towards building a Ghanaian music industry that rewards artists for their creativity and contributes greatly to the economy.

Music piracy

But rampant piracy is still a major problem. The 2005 Act contains a number of good provisions to achieve this, but has still not been implemented. Without better enforcement, piracy will frustrate any improvements by entrepreneurs like Tieku.

Perhaps the new government will do better. Attorney General Betty Mould-Iddrisu has expertise in intellectual property and was previously Ghana’s Copyright Administrator.

Kampste and Peermusic partnership

Ghana’s music industry could and should have a bright future. One interesting twist is that Tieku’s Kampsite has partnered with Peermusic, the music publisher founded by Ralph Peer. He’s working with Ralph Peer II, who sees opportunity in West Africa as his father saw in Tennessee.

As the example of Nashville shows, it takes more than a rich cultural heritage to improve the fortunes of musicians and the wider economy. Getting the laws right, enforcing them and letting entrepreneurs and musicians do the rest is what worked for Nashville, and it can work for Ghana.

Mark Schultz is an Assistant Professor, Southern Illinois University School of Law, USA. Alec van Gelder works at International Policy Network (IPN), a London-based development think tank. They are authors of “Nashville in Africa” . Franklin Cudjoe is Founder and Executive Director of IMANI Center for Policy & Education and Editor of African Liberty. IMANI published “Nashville in Africa” in Ghana.

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