Unchain my art

The system to pay out royalties to musicians in South Africa says a lot about the racial inequalities in the local industry.

Lausanne, Festival de la Cité, 2017. Image credit Gustave Deghilage via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There was really only one music news story in South Africa in February 2021: the protests by musicians Eugene Mthethwa, of the kwaito pioneers Trompies, and Ringo Madlingozi, now an Economic Freedom Front member of parliament, (backed by a statement from his political party) against the South African Music Rights Organization (SAMRO) concerning alleged delinquency in paying royalties.

SAMRO’s job is to administer performing rights on behalf of its members. They do so, “… by licensing music users (such as television and radio broadcasters, live music venues, retailers, restaurants, promoters and shopping centres), through the collection of license fees which are then distributed as royalties” to artists.

The claims by Mthethwa and Madlingozi  coincide with a Facebook post by vocalist/composer Ziza Muftic—supported by multiple followers in the music profession—about the user-unfriendliness of the current SAMRO website, and the perceived breach of natural justice in placing an expiry date on live performance submissions, when the performances have happened and SAMRO has presumably collected on them.

I have not examined the documents related to the Mthethwa/SAMRO dispute. SAMRO’s Mark Rosin has denied wrongdoing and suggests there is a broader context of dispute including monies allegedly due from Mthethwa to SAMRO. I do follow the logic of Muftic’s Facebook post; it makes sense to me. I’m not a legal expert or an actuary, and it’s up to experts such as those to untangle the rights and wrongs of specific cases and practices.

This column is not about these individual cases. It’s about the broader issues: that severe relationship problems clearly persist between the country’s largest royalties collection agency and its constituency at the very time when musicians are most desperately in need of revenue; and that, once more, the government department tasked with overseeing the sector remains silent and apparently unknowing about it all.

I say “persists” because the elephant in the room when discussing anything to do with SAMRO is the organization’s negative history during apartheid. Established in 1961 under Dr Gideon Roos the organization became (whether deliberately or not is less relevant in 2021; it was unarguably unjust whatever the intention) a vehicle for all kinds of abuses perpetrated by the white-controlled music industry against black artists, from white producers assigning themselves or their designated stooges as the owners of Black creativity, to the classification of much popular music as “traditional”, which erased the creativity and denied the financial rights of its modern makers.

We cannot blame the current SAMRO administration for that—but it lurks as a malevolent shadow over any interactions with artists today, even when nobody mentions it.

The first step towards setting relationships with artists on a better footing would be an honest, impartial, transparent reckoning with the past. Establish a mini-Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the recording and rights industry; hear testimonies; report findings and develop a reparations mechanism, whether financial or in the form of scholarships or other investments in the future of Black South African music. However large (and they probably won’t be), such reparations can never be adequate against the psychic pain caused, but they would represent an important acknowledgment.

Prompted by the Facebook entry, I looked—with advice from a registered musician friend—at parts of the current SAMRO website. It certainly is user-unfriendly: clunky, hard to navigate, and written in far-from-plain language. Another aspect of repairing relationships would be to correct that as quickly as possible. And we do, of course, have more than one official language, with great music made in all of them—why force everybody to operate in English?

In July 2020, ConcertsSA (an organization often associated with SAMRO) commissioned a survey of live streaming activities in South Africa: “Digital Futures.” Among the recommendations respondents made were some directed at collective management organizations in general, and some directed specifically at CAPASSO (Composers, Authors and Publishers Association) and SAMRO. Repeatedly, the need for simple, transparent and accessible systems and processes, and forums for meaningful constituency input were foregrounded by respondents, alongside making faster, more accurate payments.

Complaints about the justice and effectiveness of royalty disbursements are by no means a uniquely South African issue. A quick Google will turn up dozens of articles on the topic, covering all aspects of intellectual property (IP) administration, and most countries. (See, for example here, here and here—a tiny sample from what’s out there.) In South Africa, as I’ve noted above, the issue is further poisoned by historical injustices.

The lack of comment from the government Department of Science, Arts, and Culture (DSAC) is concerning. This blog has noted before that the Department prioritizes “creative industries” aspects of the arts, and thus is often more distant from other kinds of debates. But these issues—the practices around IP and collecting and distributing royalties; the earnings of artists—are central to a creative industries perspective. A few days have passed since Mthetwa and Madlingozi’s protests—but far longer since this and related rights and royalties controversies began bubbling. DSAC’s silence remains deafening. Even the usual routine statement—in line with the Department’s responses to various sports body scandals—noting events and appealing to all involved to get their acts together, would have been a minor improvement on nothing.

Even if the Trompies star’s chains aren’t quite as weighty as those brandished by SAPOHR’s Golden Miles Bhudu over the past 20 years, his protest should remind us that all is not well with royalty administration in this country, and that nobody can afford (in the case of our musicians, literally) to let it fester unattended for much longer.

Further Reading