Akon may not be considered among the top artists or lyricists in the rap game, but there’s no denying his business acumen.
During his recent appearance on Drink Champs, the “Locked Up” hitmaker opened up about his lucrative ringtone rap hustle in the mid 2000s, breaking down how he was able to stay ahead of the curve, out-smart his label and secure his financial future in the process.
“What made me a little bit different was, I was a businessman first,” he said. “I’m looking at how much singles we selling, but then, the ringtones — everywhere I’d go, I would hear songs on people’s phones!
“And I said, ‘Yo, how much are you paying for that?’ They said, ‘$4.99.’ I said, ‘Damn! That’s for a couple of seconds? And we selling singles for $1.99 for four minutes?!'”
Akon then explained that he shrewdly called his attorney and asked him how much money he was making from ringtones. But when his attorney informed him that the term “ringtone” was nowhere to be found in his contract, he hatched a plan to make sure that he’d be entitled to a major payday when it was time to renegotiate his deal.
“So then I started making music specifically for the phone,” he continued. “‘Cause it’s $4.99 for a few seconds! Any basic businessman will tell you that’s where the money is! So every song that we were releasing was very ringtone-friendly, especially ‘Mr. Lonely.’
“So then we put the records out, but we would always make ringtone versions — different parts of the song we would chop up. That was my main focus; I didn’t care about the singles. Every record I produced, I made sure it was ringtone-friendly.”
He added: “Before you know it, we were making so much on ringtones, but it was money sitting in a pipeline. They think I ain’t know, but I knew. They didn’t know that I knew! So I was just letting it pile up, letting it pile up. When renegotiation came… n-gga.”
As songs like “Smack That,” “Lonely” and “I Wanna Love You” earned millions of sales through ringtones, Akon claimed that his label attempted to pull a fast one on him by slipping the term “digital” into his contract, thus securing his digital rights. But the Konvict Muzik founder was hip to the game.
“They tried to slip that digital language in. I said, ‘Uh uh! That’s a separate deal altogether,'” he recalled. “At that time, I was in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most ringtones sold ever. I mean, above Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, The Beatles — it didn’t matter, we trumped everybody. So we just waited.
“I was like, ‘Digital’s too broad. Let’s break that down.’ And these contracts’ll do that to you. They’re counting on you not understanding it. But what’s interesting is, even the attorneys at that time didn’t really understand it. But I was always ahead of tech.”
He added: “So the word ‘digital,’ I knew exactly what that meant. But I also knew where the world was going … I said, ‘Nah, let’s define what this is specifically so if a new technology comes, we can define that as it comes.'”
Akon wasn’t the only artist who made bank during the ringtone era. Soulja Boy also reportedly made millions from phone-friendly hits like “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” and “Kiss Me Thru the Phone,” earning himself a spot on Forbes’ Hip Hop Cash Kings list in 2010.
In an interview with HipHopDX earlier this year, Big Draco claimed he was making up to $100,000 a month at the height of “Kiss Me Thru the Phone”‘s popularity, with the majority of that money coming from fans calling up the number that was sung by Sammie in the song.
“That number was like a fan line. So every time somebody called that number, I was getting paid off of that shit,” he said. “It was like a subscription. You could text it or call it, so I was probably making like $100,000 a month off of that, just people calling that number.”
He continued: “So probably after like two years, three years or something, the company that I had the number with, they shut down. So I guess once they shut down, somebody came and got the number, you feel me? But I gotta get that number back though, for sure.”