Play to be Paid! A brief guide on the business of music

Article by Majessty
Posted: October 01, 2019  

Music: whether you write it, record it, sing it, play it, sell it, or remix it, it’s imperative that you understand where you stand when you work with others, and how to properly protect your work.  The ownership of a composition (or copyright for that composition) comes with some benefits, so trust me, ignorance on this topic is not bliss.

Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK)

Registered under the Companies Act (Cap 486 of the laws of Kenya), MCSK is a non-profit making collecting management organization for authors, composers and publishers of musical works. Its main obligation is to collect and distribute royalties for public performances and broadcasting on behalf of its members.

Unfortunately, despite all the recent drama surrounding the MCSK, if you make music in Kenya, you need to register. Period.

Author, composer and arranger requirements are listed on the MCSK website in great detail.

Royalties Explained 

Simply put, artistes get paid royalties based on record sales. In a typical major-label deal, the artiste can earn somewhere between 14 – 18 percent of the record’s dealer price. (PPD)

But get this, before they see any money, the artist will have to recoup the recording costs, advances, and sometimes up to 50 percent of all video costs! Also, the label will probably make additional deductions, reducing the real royalty rate further. It’s rough outchea!

Record Deals/ Labels 

A recording contract might seem like the holy grail, (okay yes, a label deal can change your life) but record labels are NOT charities; they are first and foremost, business entities.  You need to remember contracts are legally binding agreements which can allow record companies to exploit an artiste’s performance on a sound recording, in return for royalty payments.

This is achieved through physical sales, such as CD, vinyl’s and cassettes; public performances and broadcasting of works; and the sale of digital products such as downloads and mobile ringtones like those “Skiza” tunes you always hear (yes someone just made money from that weird dial tone). The contract will often define a record to include audio-visual devices as well. So just know, any new technologies will be swept up into this definition.

Record labels invest huge sums of money in breaking an act and claim that they need this level of control in order to improve the chances of making a profit or, which is often the case, cut their losses.

Some DJs and producers actually sign deals under specific aliases, leaving them free to contract with other labels under a different pseudonym. Hint Hint.


Basically put, copyright is a law that gives the owner of a work (like a book, movie, picture, song or website) the right to say how other people can use it. Copyright laws make it easier for authors to make money by selling their works. If someone copies a work without permission, the owner can say they trespassed their copyright.

It all seems simple, but there have been countless lawsuits over who actually “owns” a song. Anyone who owns a copyright, or part of a copyright, holds the right to:

  • Make copies of the work
  • Create new works based on the original copyright.
  • Distribute copies of the work
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly

The copyright owner(s) make money by granting these rights to others.


A master is the final product. The owner of the master (either an independent artiste or the record Label) should be the person who pays for the project. The producer, in most cases, does not own the master recording.

Like with signed artists, the producer can, and often should, be given “points” (like shares) on the album.

Whoever wrote the song owns the composition. At least, that is the case for most music. There are a few exceptions (works made for hire, superstar artists negotiating a share of their songs) but for the most part, if you wrote it, you own a part of it; if you didn’t, there’s a chance you can get nothing.


Licensing refers to the act of getting the rights to use the music. Almost every single movie and television show has a soundtrack or a background song. If your song is featured in a film, commercial, radio or TV show, you are eligible for a licensing fee.

Musicians will often contract themselves out to create soundscapes for movies and television. Some artists even offer their music licensing rights to production companies for a set fee.  Of course, these fees vary greatly, depending on the budget for the project, and how badly they want your particular song.

BTW another black panther movie will be coming soon, so get writing! 

Other ways to make money from music: 

If you are out of ideas on how to push your brand and make money, cross-check this list for some tips:

  • Sell your music (You need to be readily accessible through all media platforms)
  • Sell merchandise (Merch is big business, especially if you have a loyal following)
  • Gigs / Play Live (If you don’t have much of a proven track record when it comes to pulling in an audience, you’re not in a great position to demand large fees)
  • Create a website (A great way to showcase your music, sell your CDs, and advertise your availability for gigs.
  • YouTube channel (YouTube is free. You don’t need to know anyone in the industry, and you can try over and over again until you get your Shawn Mendes moment)
  • Teach music, instruments or production (which allows you to hone your craft at the same time)
  • Record labels (We’ve already discussed this one, just be careful and FULLY informed)
  • Streaming (It’s the current trend! Payouts from streaming services tend to be small but they can add up over time)
  • Songwriting/composing (Write songs for other musicians, or compose music specifically for film and television.)
  • Session work (Solo artists need people in the studio to play various instruments on their recordings, and backup vocalists are also in demand.)
  • Licensing (Also previously discussed, but go get that licensing fee!)
  • Perform at cafes, gigs, weddings, events, bars, clubs or malls (reputation is developed and practice makes perfect)
  • Crowdfund your song or concert (Can be very lucrative as long as you deliver what you promise your fans and market yourself correctly.)
  • Work as a DJ (You know music and you know how to have fun right? Start deejaying for events, and while you’re there, throw a couple of your own songs into the mix.)
  • Create sound files (For those who play an array of instruments, especially the more unique ones)Now that you’re a little more enlightened about forms of compensation, artistes, don’t underpay your producers. Producers, don’t overcharge the artist. Everyone, pay your musicians.

    In short, respect your fellow creatives. You’ve spent years sharpening your craft and so have they. You both should come to the table with mutual respect and the desire to collaborate without the intent to take advantage of them.

    If we want the world to support Kenyan music, Kenyan music must first learn to support itself.




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