By Charles Amoah
To answer the question of whether musicians can make a living in Ghana and where the jobs are requires an examination of what was available in the past, and if we have been able to maintain and add to them.
The rich and diverse cultural heritage in Ghana has cultivated many talented musicians/instrumentalists. These foundations have helped many others to ease into other styles and genres of music. These instrumentalists were occasional performers who probably weren’t earning much but many evolved into professional groups and Bands. Early social trends for the demand of entertainment venues and live music created the need for skilled musicians across the country, which in turn promoted healthy competition and stimulated creativity. Local tours and concerts by bands to promote their music kept many musicians working regularly. These commercial successes unfortunately made the leaders more popular and richer in comparison to the rest of the band members. This necessitated the need for talent categorization and individual recognition as well as proper compensation for their contributions. These agitations, coupled with economic turbulence in later years, pushed many of these musicians to pursue solo careers locally and internationally. This was a mixed blessing, since as much as the country lost many of their musicians to this exodus, some returned as quite successful and more experienced musicians who helped in reviving the music scene in the early 80s and later on. Did we sustain this momentum and produce more jobs?
Most musical groups in Ghana created and produced albums periodically. The industry also had representations of some of the major record companies and labels to see to the success of these productions. Their departure and the breakup of many groups due to economic and social turbulences in the country slowed the growth of the music industry. The global decline of CD sales and the plague of piracy have further worsened the issues. In an attempt to make a living, some artists have opted to produce only singles, marketing them extensively to generate a demand for live concerts and some earnings. Perhaps the minimal investments on singles are easier to recoup and even profit from than investing in a whole album and have them sit on shelves.
Ghanaian musicians are gradually considering the internet for the sales of their music. It’s definitely a marketing tool that can create exposure and job opportunities, especially abroad. However, minimal returns and the lack of standard payment systems make its success a challenge.
Concerts and live performances are definitely one of the major areas to make some decent money as a musician. As much as there have been some sort of increase in their number, especially with the hip-hop or hip life artists, for example, the unfortunate practice of artists using DJs and playbacks for their ‘live’ performances, mainly to cut costs, has not helped an already struggling industry. Concerts that normally carry bigger budgets would have been an avenue to provide some good earnings for musicians. Ironically this is where the misconception of musicians in Ghana making money originates from, when in actual fact they are referring to the artist/singer/rapper and not the instrumentalists.
Most musicians gig or perform to make a living. These gigs also help aspiring musicians to gain more practical experience and perfect their professional skills. However, the country’s nightlife scene suffered following the coup of 1966 due to curfews and social unrest. Economic instability resulted in the closure of many entertainment venues and a loss of work for musicians.
There has been a gradual revival of live music in Ghana. However, the growth is minimal in comparison to the number of musicians available to work. Individual musicians come together for a particular gig or job, making selections very subjective and mostly benefiting the same, select group of people. An interesting and growing area of live performance (and therefore income) seems to be with churches. The inclusion of live music in worships and increase in gospel concerts are giving some employment to musicians.
Studio recording sessions
Technology has undoubtedly had some major impacts on the professional musician. One obvious area has been in the studios, where computers and sequencers have replaced session musicians. In Ghana, not only are recording sessions non-existent, but critics argue that the decline in appreciation for live studio recordings has resulted in the rapid extinction of session artists and instrumentalists in general, particularly for less common instruments such as the oboe, saxophone, clarinet, trombone and flute, among many others.
The great pioneers of music through the years have demonstrated the benefits of a proper music education. Besides the practical and theoretical tools that a musician gains, one of the obvious rewards is the subsequent ability to earn a living from this acquired knowledge through teaching at music institutions or giving private lessons. Here, education and experience go hand in hand. This is where a musician should not compromise the core qualities and requirements. To maximize earning potential, one may have to be able to play or teach more than one instrument. A music teacher must know how to read and transcribe music notation and have a good understanding of various genres and styles. A very troubling fact is that music is not being emphasized or has even been completely eliminated in most educational curricula in Ghana, so the lure of teachers to this necessary field is dying. Some stakeholders have argued that this is exactly why we need to train new music teachers, establish music academies and promote music education.
Other sources of income
Related industries like film, theatre, television and advertising are major areas that can provide a source of income for professional musicians. Talented artists can earn money by contributing to soundtracks and writing scores, or by getting their songs used on TV adverts. However, the unfavorable trade practice of using any music or altered songs for product jingles in advertisements, instead of the original material, not only takes income away from the local musicians but also stifles creativity and industry growth.
Favorable social trends, international job opportunities and having the means to invest in music-related businesses seem to have been the recipe for the successes of some musicians in Ghana, such as Dr. K. Gyasi, Koo Nimo, Kofi Ghanaba, Ebo Taylor and Osibisa. The question is: can we really say they made a living in Ghana when almost all success stories have required working in foreign countries ¬- and sometimes even staying there - to sustain their success?
If making a living as a musician in Ghana is measured by concert or festival performances, for example, then there is definitely not enough work for the average musician to live off his/her chosen career. Something is terribly wrong when the likes of Hugh Masekela, George Benson, Herbie Hancock or U2 are still performing regularly, while many of their peers in Ghana are struggling to earn a living and dying as paupers because there are no jobs for them. This is a troubling fact that has pushed the current administration of the Musicians Union of Ghana (Musiga) to create a fund to help aged musicians.
What needs to be done?
Industry stakeholders continue to demand changes to help generate desperately needed jobs. There are calls for training academies to nurture and produce globally competitive professionals. Industry structures, global practices and standards have to be properly implemented and maintained. Professional unions, collecting societies and legal agencies have to function effectively for jobs to be created and maintained. Issues like establishing pay scales in unions, improving skills specialization and categorization needs to be addressed. There also have been calls for more favourable government incentives for organizations and individuals, for example in terms of tax breaks or exemptions to encourage investors and promoters of music.
Current accusations, agitations and legal battles plaguing the Ghana Music Rights Organization (Ghamro) and Musiga continue to retard the progress of an already struggling industry. Hopefully the ongoing debates will lead to positive changes for the sake of the musician in Ghana.
Only when all these critical elements are in place can one easily and properly guide any aspiring musician on how to make a living as a musician in Ghana. This will be based on basic outlines, such as: identifying and creating a niche in the market; marketing yourself; acquiring the right team in terms of legal and management representation; understanding copyrights and royalties; knowing the benefits of unions, collection societies, and other available industry structures; and learning how to incorporate all of the these elements to become more successful and ensure a sustainable music career.