This Grammy-Nominated Songwriter Explains How She Wrote Chart-Topping Hits And Still Went Bankrupt

Imagine hearing a hit song you wrote being played in the mall you’re shopping in, yet you’d never received a dime for it.

That was Ashley Joi Boyd’s reality in the early aughts when at just 25 at the time, she was forced to file chapter 7 bankruptcy even after working as a songwriter for years and having penned songs for stars like Ja Rule among others.

“I was not making anything,” Boyd tells ESSENCE. “I wasn’t making anything, but I was coming out of pocket for studio time. I was paying for engineers to the point that I learned how to record myself. But even after all of that I got almost no money for my time or skill.”

Her sentiments echo that of many songwriters that have shared their discontent with the compensation structure for song publishing in the music industry. For instance, an Instagram video posted on February 6 from Grammy-winning songwriter Tiffany Redd, delves into the deep disparity songwriters face when getting paid for their work.

“Them Grammys don’t pay the bills,” Redd said in the video after explaining the predatory tactics music industry executives and some artists deploy when divvying up publishing credit. “Those plaques do not pay the bills. There are people with Grammys and plaques who can’t pay they rent. I know. People who are super accredited are broke.”

Music publishing has always, especially now more than ever, been the bread and butter of many artists’ careers.

As ESSENCE previously pointed out, noticeably shorter song lengths stem from streaming platforms’ pay per play operating model, in which low streaming music layouts have caused song length to shorten so listeners are encouraged to replay the song more often, thus bumping up the amount artists earn. 

As Brooklyn White wrote in a 2022 report about the business state of music, a platform like Spotify pays major artists between $0.004 and $0.008 per stream, which incentivizes artists to create shorter tracks. If one has been properly credited with having written the song, they will likely have the right to lean on publishing rights to either license the song out to other companies for usage, or sell it completely.

For songwriters in particular, the financial equity chasm is just as dire.

Between $700-$800 million of mechanical-royalty income related to songs that were streamed between 2018 and 2022 that has not been paid according to a March 2023 Variety op-ed jointly signed by the advocacy organizations Songwriters of North America (SONA), the Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC), and the Music Artists Coalition (MAC).

At the beginning of her music career as a singer and songwriter, Boyd said she was offered a record deal with Murder Inc, the once famed label founded by Irv Gotti that signed star artists like Ashanti and Ja Rule. It required that she give up 75% of her publishing to the label.

“It was ridiculous,” Boyd says. “Everything is glamorized, but that business is never broken down to you. The business of publishing is never explained, and they make it seem like it’s minuscule, when really it is the main source of income for the industry.”

She ultimately walked away from the deal but continued to work in the industry as a songwriter. Despite making enough to eventually purchase a home in her early twenties, her earnings didn’t save her from the housing crisis of 2008. She was plunged into thousands of dollars of debt.

“The value of my home plummeted and I was forced to file for bankruptcy to reorganize my finances.” And reorganize is exactly what she did.

“I was so diligent that I almost became obsessive about my credit score and getting myself back to being mortgage-ready,” Boyd tells ESSENCE. It took her four years. “It was a tedious climb. I still was not making a lot of money from the industry, but I really had to cultivate this mindset that everything was going to be what I needed it to be. I had to make it work.”

She details her financial repair journey in her new book Financially Fly: Mastering Money and Wealth for Women. In it, she offers tips for women looking to achieve monetary security. 

The book delves into budgeting, money management, understanding the virtues of credit, planning for life events, mindset shifts and even communicating with your partner about finances. “I was inspired to write the book because it got to a point after being a wife and mother to two children, I lost my edge about staying on top of my finances,” she tells ESSENCE. “I think getting married and having kids within a short time span, my attention shifted, as it does with most women. And I just had a moment one day where I realized I wasn’t as involved with the decisions that were being made in my house.”

Boyd’s husband of nearly 10 years, famed fellow songwriter Poo Bear who’s worked with everyone from Justin Bieber to Usher, had been entrusted to handle most of their household’s business affairs.

“It’s some girls’ dream to have that situation, but I feel like that does not allow you to create the best environment for yourself. It’s never good to turn everything that has to do with you over to somebody else, no matter how much you trust and love them.”

Along with penning the book, Boyd also leaned into further developing her publishing company and a real estate career, two professional passions she nurtured when her children got a bit older.

Unsurprisingly, after getting back on track financially Boyd was inspired to diversify her revenue streams after realizing the stark inequities songwriters are likely to face if they primarily lean on that profession for their livelihood. Through her publishing company, Boyd signs and mentors songwriters to help bolster their careers in a way she says she never got a chance to enjoy.

“Our deals are fair and we take no more than 25% of our artists’ publishing,” she shared. “This is totally opposite of what I was as offered.”

Boyd said she hopes to inspire aspiring creatives to lean into their dreams while still building a solid financial foundation for themselves along the way, because both are possible. “Adopting an abundance mindset is so key because that affects everything, including your finances. If you desire something, the first step is knowing that you deserve it and then putting the structure in place to get what you want. You can do it. Just remember to protect yourself.”

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