Without a songwriter there is no song

September 2011

Caribbean singer-songwriter Shontelle
(Photos: ShontelleOnline.com)

Caribbean singer-songwriter Shontelle Layne, known to her fans as “Shontelle” entered the global music scene in 2007 when the team that discovered successful R&B artist Rihanna offered her a deal she could not refuse. Shontelle’s success as a singer-songwriter comes from her ability to put a story to lyrics in a way that resonates with her fans. She pens her own music and also writes for other artists, including Rihanna. Shontelle understood from the outset the importance of managing her music, her intellectual property (IP), as a business asset. She recently talked to the WIPO Magazine about the challenges she has faced as a songwriter, the lessons learned, and her hopes for the future.

Key accomplishments so far:
  • Shontelle’s recording of “Impossible,” released in early 2010, peaked at number 13 in the Billboard Hot 100, and its YouTube video clip has had over 30 million viewings.
  • Her single “T-Shirt” went platinum in the United States.
  • The Obama presidential campaign invited Shontelle to feature her song “Battle Cry” (released in 2008) on their Yes We Can: Voice of Grassroots Movement compilation CD; she also shot a tribute video in honor of Barack Obama.
  • She performed as an opening act on tour with R&B singer Beyoncé Knowles.
  • Her songs feature in various television series and films.
  • Shontelle has received 11 Barbados Music Awards.
  • She was the winner of the 2011 Award of Excellence from the Copyright Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (COSCAP) Foundation, Inc. in April 2011.


Singer or songwriter - which do you prefer?

That’s always a hard question but I think the role of the songwriter is very important. Without the songwriter there is no song. I really enjoy being able to make others experience something through my words and my music. I can also continue to write songs when I stop performing. As long as my brain functions, I will always be able to write songs and create music. Songs never die.

When your name appeared on the credits of Rihanna’s LOUD album, how did you feel?

There are no words to express it. It’s not just the excitement of being associated with an artist of that caliber, but that Bajan [Barbadian] girls are doing this together and we’re shining a bright light on our country. I’m very proud of this accomplishment.

How does a songwriter earn a living?

It is not that complicated. It’s really just a matter of managing your IP. A team of writers, musicians and producers or a combination of these writes a song. They then decide on the percentage of the royalties, “the split”, that each writer will receive. Royalties are usually a percentage of the revenues derived from the use of the music or of the fixed price per unit sold. These are paid to a collecting society, which then distributes them to the copyright owners.

Songwriters often work with publishers, giving them permission to license and synchronize music to different platforms (e.g. film, television) in exchange for a percentage of the royalties. A good deal with a powerful and creative publisher can really boost revenues. Once everyone, including the record label, is happy with the audio files they are pressed into CDs or put online.

However, before you can benefit from your IP as a songwriter, you have to sign up and register your work with a collecting society. They calculate the royalty payments due for the use of your material, collect the money, and make sure you are paid.

Thanks to the sound advice of my manager, Sonia Mullins, who was adamant that I join COSCAP right away, I have been able to collect on everything that I have written. I learned from the outset that anything you create has value. If you have created something that others want to use, you have the right to earn something from it, but if you don’t register your work with a collecting agency, you can’t collect on it.

I asked lots of questions and visited the websites of collecting societies all over the world because I wanted to know how they work. It seemed unlikely that one collection agency could track my music everywhere in the world. I learned that many of them are affiliated and collect on each other’s behalf and that to become a member I had to pay a percentage of my royalty earnings. When you understand the deal and what you can potentially make, that’s when you start handling your business correctly.

My lyrics and music are my IP. I work really hard and if anyone benefits from it, it should be me.

You have to surround yourself with trustworthy advisers and must never underestimate the power of knowledge. I believed that the best way to build business value from the success of my music was to set up my own publishing company. This means that in the future I will be able to sign on other writers and help them in their careers.

Are writers paid an upfront fee or royalties only?

It depends. A recording artist may want me to write a song and may offer an upfront fee. Sometimes, I agree to write something for no upfront fee but make sure that I receive a percentage of the royalties. Either way, you have to be sure that you benefit from the arrangement. The best way for a songwriter to protect his or her interests is to have a contract drafted and signed. This allows you to collect your rightful share. There are a lot of people out there who don’t fulfill their promises so contracts are very important.

I have had my music released without my permission and without a royalty split agreement. Now, I never do sessions without contracts and split sheets to be sure this doesn’t ever happen again.

How does a writer negotiate royalty splits?

When writers work together on a song, they usually split the royalties evenly. But sometimes a song might be almost finished and the recording artist or the producer might say “I think this needs a touch of Shontelle” and they’ll call me to write one more verse. In these instances, I might choose to take a small percentage and finish the song. It really just comes down to what you agree on but it’s very important that you set it out on paper. Once it’s legal, you register the song and collect the royalties.

If you are just starting out and have an opportunity to write for a well-known recording artist, their contract with their record label might specify that they are entitled to a percentage of the song’s publishing revenues. Some recording artists are big enough to do this. You say to yourself, “If I don’t agree, then I lose this shot and they won’t sing my song and my name won’t get out there”. I’ve been there. I wish there was a way to stop this but at present there is nothing emerging songwriters or musicians can do about it. That’s why it’s so critical to be well informed. You need to know what you’re up against and to be smart about how you deal with it. Every business decision is an investment in your future. 

Is an artist’s brand as important as their music?

Absolutely. Branding is a very important part of the music business. I began developing a brand strategy early on in my career. It’s a good idea to protect anything that defines you; your catch phrases, for example, are part of your brand. These things make you the name and the artist you are. Trademarks and the deals they underpin are a valuable source of revenue.

I work with two public relations companies to strengthen my brand and make sure it’s fully leveraged. Sometimes companies approach us, sometimes we approach them. We are currently working with other brands like CAT, Chrissy L., Cynthia Steffe, Guess and Blackberry, and have worked with VEET and Hanes.

Why would a popular brand want to work with a rapper or a pop artist? Well, companies recognize that if someone is popular then people want to emulate them. If a pop star wears these brands, then their fans will probably want to wear them too.

Touring is also one of the best ways to boost my brand as a musician. It enables me to get my face out there and be heard so that people connect with my music.

What are your views on music piracy?

Piracy is theft. People who take your music, sell it and make money from it are stealing something you have spent a lot of time and money creating. It’s a criminal activity, and while it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to abolish it completely, we can try to create an environment where people are less inclined to steal.

One of the big problems with piracy is that it is difficult to catch the thieves and make them pay. Today, people are becoming less tolerant of it given its negative impact on the industry and individual artists.

"I think the key to ending piracy is to make sure that buying music is easier than stealing it. "

What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?

It wasn’t so long ago that I didn’t have a record deal. I looked around for opportunities and took advantage of what was out there: MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and gigs to showcase my talent and gain exposure. I believed that one day the right person would hear me. The fact is, music is a business like any other, so it’s very important to study your art, research your fan base and acquire as much knowledge as you can about the industry. The more you understand it, the more leverage you will have. A keen eye and a trustworthy and reliable team are essential for your business to develop and thrive. But you have to get out there and make it happen.

What’s the future of music in the Caribbean?

The Caribbean is a gold mine of talent. We have, for example, Hal Linton, Damien Marley, Livvi Franc, Aaron Fresh, Sean Paul, Vita Chambers, Rihanna, Shaggy, and bands like Cover Drive. These have all been signed up to major labels.

Music has value and we should never forget that. In the Caribbean region, there is a lot that we can do to improve the music business, by focusing on developing the wealth of local content for example. People really underestimate IP and the value that it has.

A re-styled version of Shontelle’s album No Gravity is scheduled for release later this year.

by Shalisha Samuel

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