Industry Profile: David Alexander
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess) This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: David Alexander, founder/ owner/managing director, Sheer Publishing.
Despite music publishing in Africa being an ever-expanding business, licensing music to or from the continent has long been overlooked within the global music community.
South Africa’s Sheer Publishing seeks to change that by transporting Africa’s musical treasures to the rest of the world while taking advantage of such key markets on the continent as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana–which have developed very sophisticated media industries–to exploit its domestic and international catalogs.
Recently DJ Black Coffee beat out urban compatriots Cassper Nyovest and AKA to become the first South African music artist to win a BET Award. The award-winning DJ/producer was crowned Best International Act, Africa category during the international segment of the recent BET Awards in Los Angeles.
DJ Black Coffee’s win is arguably the most significant international recognition for a South African musical artist since flautist Wouter Kellerman won a Grammy in 2015. It follows in the international footsteps of fellow countrymen Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Juluka, Johnny Clegg, the Soweto Gospel Choir, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, Lucky Dube, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo from the past.
As well, the Parlotones, Kongos, Die Antwoord, AKA, Seether, Louise Carver, and Jeremy Loops have more recently made their mark outside South Africa.
Alexander founded Sheer Publishing in 1996 to exploit a gap in the local jazz scene. Today Sheer Publishing’s vast catalog holdings brim full with African and international music.
Sheer Publishing represents such pivotal international music publishers in Africa as Kobalt Music, Mushroom Music, Mute Song. World Circuit, Budde Music, Freibank Music, and Times Music.
Sheer Publishing has had music placements in such films as “District 9,” “Tsotsi,” and “Searching for Sugarman.” As well, Sheer Publishing has placed music on television shows such as “Private Practice,” “Jacob’s Cross,” and “Big Brother Africa,” and in commercials for Castle Light, Vodacom, MTN, Makro, Cadbury’s PS, Wimpy, Engen, and Ackermans.
Alexander holds a Bachelor of Social Science degree from the University of Cape Town, and a post graduate diploma in Business Administration from Thames Valley University.
You recently moved into new offices in Johannesburg.
We bought a building near where we were. It is completely our own space. It is the Share Publishing building. We had always been with record labels and distribution companies.
You oversee a head office in Johannesburg as well as staff in three satellite offices.
We are 15 full-time staff in Johannesburg as well as having part-time agents in Accra, Yaoundé, Cameroon, and Nairobi. My partners are Karabo Motijoane who is the general manager, and Rehana Pillay who is our royalty manager. Karabo has been with me for over 20 years, Rehana joined 14 years ago
How are the publishing activities divided among your staff?
We have a full creative team here. That is two library and two commercial music staff. We have three people in the royalty and accounts department. Everybody else is in copyright administration. Compared with the multinationals that are teams of 4 and 5 people, we are certainly killing them in terms of “touch spots.” I think that’s a big thing for local and international clients. If I have somebody attending to their queries in a very short time—and we do that. We do that with our clients, and we do that with PROs (performing rights organizations), and with the MR (mechanical rights) societies because we have this huge and robust administrative system, then we are able to deliver value.
With the satellite agents, Sheer Publishing has become very active in the Anglophone territories of Africa.
They are three companies, and in one case it’s an individual. They are meeting with clients. We give them the tools, and then they interface one-on-one. If there’s a music conference or a music week or something like that then we will go and speak at those. I will send four people to Kenya Music Week which is called ONGEA that has become bigger than just about Kenya. It’s Kenya plus Uganda, and Tanzania. They are trying to focus on Africa. And then we travel. We travel to Jinja and Kampala in Uganda and to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. We send people from our (head office) team to assist the agents. In order to spread the good news about copyrights on the African continent, you really have to be changing a mindset from where it is at the moment which is that people have never been remunerated according to the usage of their songs.
Africa still exports very little music, and much of it is in the form of live shows, and not recorded product. It remains difficult for North Americans to find recorded African music.
Yeah, that’s very frustrating for me. And even then when South African acts tour they normally play at a festival, and they come back. There’s no attempt to spread out, and use that long distance ticket to do some small shows on the other side.
The global perception of South African music has long been Ladysmith Black Mambazo discovered internationally by performing on Paul Simon’s 1986 “Graceland” album. But the local music scene includes rock, hip hop, hardcore, funk, ska, folk, blues, afrobeat, afrohouse, kwaito, jazz, and world music. Recently, DJ Black Coffee was the first South African to win a BET Award, and Kongos, Die Antwoord, and AKA have been stirring up global interest.
Correct. You also have Jeremy Loops (born Jeremy Hewitt) selling out North American shows. He just had a North American tour recently. He’s kind of singer/songwriter along the lines of Ed Sheeran and Mumford & Sons.
The 23-year-old hip-hop musician/producer Emtee is also starting to gain an international audience
Emtee is the youngster who is on the rise in rap. For the rappers, we represent Cassper Nyovest. He and AKA are the two big rappers in South Africa. We have rock bands like the Parlotones which have also toured North America. I think that there is a diversity of acts, as you say, that are very much limited to the large shows. Someone like (American producer/trumpet player) Dave Love is passionate about South Africa. He has done everyone from Hugh Masekela to Ladysmith to Oliver Mtukudzi. He worked with Wouter Kellerman on his 2015 Grammy album (“Love Language”). But because we don’t have an export council, there’s nobody coordinating the positive message about South African music internationally.
Drake reportedly filmed his “One Dance” video in Soweto recently.
Artists like Drake and Beyoncé, picking up on that Nigerian sound into their productions, are going to be responsible for exposing a whole continent’s worth of music because off the back of that, you are going to find a lot of Nigerian acts and producers working with international artists. I think that once that Nigerian sound has run its course, other things like the azunda sound from Ghana will surface in the global pop world or, maybe, they will move to an East African sound from Tanzania.
The diversity of fresh undiscovered sound on the African continent is what we are so rich in. It’s like the diamonds and gold under the ground, but you have to dig a little bit and to refine it a little in order to shape it for a global market. But we definitely have all that future to look forward to.
Do many international music industry figures attend the annual Moshito Music Conference in Johannesburg which is now in its 15th year?
A few. I think their focus is now in bringing in some of the festival bookers. They work with the British Council to bring the guys in from the National Theatre, and The Roundhouse. People that book acts. Moshito works with Alliance Francaise to try to bring in some of the African record labels, mainly Francophone-speaking music industry players from Benin, Cape Verde, and the Ivory Coast to learn first-hand from a pretty mature music market about how we do things.
Some of the African attendees include representatives of IOMMA (Indian Ocean Music Market) which takes place on Réunion Island at the beginning of June every year. WOMEX runs a couple of non-European music conferences, The Atlantic Music Expo in Cabo Verde, and Porto Musical in Brazil. There’s been an alliance between Moshito and the Atlantic Music Expo. The chairman of Moshito works with the Atlantic Music Expo on the festival In Cabo Verde.
Last year, you did some workshops with Ngoma Nehoso, the Zimbabwean artist developmental, and promotional company. One of the workshops centered on how Zimbabwean musicians and songwriters have very little information of how music income can be realized.
We were in Harare doing some workshops with them. They brought financial advisers to talk to the artists, and to the licensees. They also brought in somebody from Zimura which is the music right collection society there.
Since you have worked with such Zimbabwean musicians as Oliver Mtukudzi, Thomas Mapfumo, and Victor Kunonga you know that most Zimbabwean songs do not make it into the world market because they are produced in vernacular languages.
Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi, two very well-known musicians in the world music sphere, are clients of ours from Zimbabwe. Oliver has released albums in the U.S. on the Heads Up/Telarc imprint. He’s prolific. In Zimbabwe, he releases two albums a year. One of the those– the “Best Of”–will get released in South Africa. For an international (release), they will compile, maybe, two years for a release elsewhere. But he’s prolific. Thomas Mapfumo lives in the United States. So there are Zimbabwean artists that have made it out. Each country (in Africa) has their well-established acts that have broken internationally but understand that when I say broken, it’s not something you can compare with (the aboriginal and non-aboriginal band) Yothu Yindi that broke out of Australia into the (international) pop market in the mid-80s.
Many of these acts fall into world beat category.
Conversely, you also work with the Afro-pop super group, Sauti Sol.
Sauti Sol is from Kenya. They are pretty amazing. A 4-piece like the African version of One Direction, slightly older and with more of a female market. They are an amazing group. They really are.
Are film and TV synchs a growing segment of your business?
Once we built a big administration system a few years back one of the things that we could tell from SAMRO (Southern African Music Rights Organization) was that we were doing very well in radio royalties which was a direct reflection of our mechanical royalties. The big songs were radio hits. But we were really getting nothing out of TV. TV, we learned very quickly, was not about having commercial music. It was about having library.
In 2000, fortuitously for us, Ron Singer, who ran World Wide Music, passed away. We took his assistant, and we took a bunch of their international libraries, Cavendish Music (in the U.K.) was the biggest. We had Cavendish, and finally, we were earning money out of TV distribution.
TV (music), by value, is pretty close to radio. It is about 75% of what radio pays, and it is spread out through only a few TV stations (in South Africa). So library music became very important to us. In 2011 we decided to invest in a local library, and we bought Skumba Music that had 1,500 tracks. We built it to where Skumba Music now has 15,000 tracks, most of them instrumental, background music for TV. We now have the largest South African music library that is all available under the blanket license.
The 2015 TV miniseries adaptation of the 2007 award-winning novel by Canadian writer Lawrence Hill “The Book of Negroes” was…
It was shot here. There are a lot of film companies that come to South Africa to shoot because of the wide diversity of locations, the cheap locations, the experienced crews, and the benefits found in the conversion of their money. Most often they do post-production elsewhere. We have started to build world class film facilities, and now a lot of that post work is staying here, and we are getting an opportunity to contribute to the music on those projects.
Of course, South African composer/sound artist Philip Miller composed the original music score for “The Book of Negroes.”
He’s done a couple of things for E1. Phillip is probably best-known in the art world for the work that he’s done with William Kentridge, probably the most famous living visual or multi-media artist. Phillip was Emmy-nominated for “Mary and Martha,” the Philip Noyce (television) film, and he’s done a couple of big films like HBO’s “The Girl.” He’s working on a film with Michelle Pfeiffer right now.
You represent documentary music composer Brendan Jury who used to be the groundbreaking South African rock band, Urban Creep.
Exactly. He played viola and sang in Urban Creep, and he is a songwriter. He and Chris Letcher (on guitars and vocals) were in that group. Brendan is an amazing composer who has moved very nicely into composition. He does a lot of work for one of the big broadcasters here M-Net (the subscription-funded South Africa television channel), and he does do quite a lot of documentary work.
You recently renewed a contract with Creative Songs, a household name in South Africa with its children’s music and book catalogs.
Yes. Amazing stuff. And here in South Africa that sells very well, physically. They actually sell CDs. They are selling 10,000 CDs every six months. An amazing catalog.
[Creature Songs is the music publishing arm of Beautiful Creatures formed in South Africa in 2004 by Alan Glass, Ed Jordan and Paul Choritz who felt there was a need for “parent-friendly” children’s music. Beautiful Creatures prides itself on being uniquely South African with a positive global message.]
Have you been able to attain film syncs with music supervisors in Los Angeles or elsewhere?
I’ve been to Musexpo in Los Angeles a couple of times. That’s where I learned about the sync panels. At MIDEM, I did the sync panels that Sat Bisla organizes. Some business has come out of that. At this year’s Canadian Music Week I did the Sync Summit, and I met all of the music supervisors in Canada. I think we already have a placement for Jeremy Loops out of that. So we are active about pushing syncs internationally.
You go to MIDEM each year.
Yes, every year. There was a time I went every second year, but since1996 I have been there 15 or 16 times. Most of the 20 years, I have been there.
Other than seeking new business, MIDEM is a pivotal music industry conference at which you can meet all of your international clients.
Perfectly put. Also, it’s a way of learning what is new out there before it comes here. We are a follower market. We are always waiting to see what happens internationally. Then two, three or even five years later, that’s what happens here.
I’m at the cutting edge going to a conference like MIDEM. I can be changing my business soon afterwards. I can be changing my business soon afterward. Conferences are like a deep dive. You can immerse yourself in the music business for five days, and everybody else is doing it. You come back home, and you think, “What did I learn? Let’s take the best of that, and let’s apply it now.” Tomorrow, I will think, “I’ve applied a little bit of that. Let’s adjust again, and move again.”
Moving forward step-by-step.
I have a philosophy called “shock theory” about being adaptive and moving quickly. So I keep moving, and I keep adjusting. I have an idea of where an end point might be, but I’m not 100% sure how to go there. It doesn’t prevent me. I don’t get trapped waiting, and doing nothing. I will make a move. Being agile and nimble…being an independent, and not being beholden to anybody, I can do that. Unlike the multinationals here, we can compete very well because we don’t have to kick everything back up to some executive board, then wait for them to make a decision overseas, and then send it back down through the chain to take action. We make decisions every day, and we are always open to new ideas.
So when Kobalt Music comes with label services we think, “Wow, what an amazing business. It plays into our strength for administration.” Needletime Rights (referring to the remuneration that recording artists and record companies receive when their repertoire is performed in public) has just been brought here in South Africa. It’s a big royalty that is going to be paying out once the broadcasters start to pay, we are going to do that. But also we have a business in label service on the admin side. Not in putting out records but in the administration of neighboring rights, and video performance licensing.
While you represent African-based publishers seeking representation in licensing music in film, TV, commercials, and radio, you also represent such international music publishers as Kobalt Music, Passport Music and Times Music of India.
Yes, all of those. We have developed a robust administrative system. We use Vistex (which provides specialized rights and royalties management software for the music, media and licensing industries). We have Music Maestro (which allows information to be transferred between all users of Counterpoint and label applications). The best decision that we made 14 years ago was to spend an obscene amount of funds–compared to what we were earning in rand–to buy the system, and to carry on investing every year in upgrading, and training. But it has allowed us to compete with the multinationals here because we can inject huge volumes of music copyrights. Today, everything in the music industry, especially on the copyright side, is about big data. We can assuage the files Kobalt has—what is it 300,000 songs–or Times Music. We don’t have all of Times’ catalog because they haven’t put it into a proper format. They probably have a couple thousand Indian titles.
Kobalt Music has an immense music catalog.
Kobalt is a publisher that forces us to be better at our jobs because they have an amazing technology system that backs up their copyright information. They ask very tough questions of us. We, in turn, get to learn, to internalize, and then apply that experience and information when it comes to managing our other clients.
Why wouldn’t Kobalt Music open up in South Africa on its own?
I think it’s purely economics. We have to look at what they collect and what they would keep. They couldn’t afford to pay someone like me to have an office and have someone junior to do the work.
Do you represent Kobalt Music for all of Africa or only South Africa?
Just Sub-Saharan Africa. Because we are direct members of MCSK in Kenya (The Music Copyright Society of Kenya), and COSON (Copyright Society of Nigeria) in Nigeria, the two (copyright collectives) societies on the African continent that are “performing.” When I say “performing” that means that they are actively collecting more money, and they are paying according to usage. The reason that most African societies are failing is that generally they are based on the old PRS model.
PRS African societies collected money from hotels that used foreign music and repatriated that money back to the U.S. The now localized societies can’t pay their overheads with the limited income from hotels. They need to license radio and television. Most struggle to do this at any significant tariff on advertising. The result is overheads are largely a component of income, as much as 50%. Usage data is not received or, if it is received, it is not processed. Members are paid an annual fee for membership, maybe around $100 at Christmas time, and not according to actual usage. They get paid for being a member. This doesn’t encourage new members who are getting played on radio and TV to join which further hampers proper licensing of radio and TV which repeats the cycle So nobody sees the benefit in taking their songs to those territories.
South Africa’s Copyright Amendment Bill was tabled in the South African Parliament in May. A few days earlier there was the historic announcement by the SABC (The South African Broadcasting Corporation) that they will increase local music airplay to 90% on 18 public radio stations, as well as introduce a tariff increase from 3.2% to 4%.. Will we see positive changes in South Africa’s music industry if the copyright amendment bill goes forward in Parliament coming months?
You are talking now about some very scary stuff.
Well, there was a considerable downward spiral in South Africa’s music economy in 2014. A lot of music users today, according to SAMIC (the South African Music Industry Council) are not accredited. Copyright reform is overdue in South Africa. What’s your take?
Good and bad. What is good is that what will come will be the communication to the public for the publishing. We have had communication to the public for masters even though that is tied up in courts because of the broadcasters and the record industry fighting about rates, and when the tariff is applicable. But we have never had a communication to the public for composition. Now that everything is going streaming having that would be great. Unfortunately, there is also the protection of traditional knowledge.
That’s the government indicating that they want to protect works of a traditional nature, and protect the authorship of orphan works.
Exactly. They think that we need to protect local songs that belong to the community instead of allowing them to go into public domain. We should protect them on behalf of the community. So someone like Gallo Publishing has a lot of these old copyrights. Stuff that was done by Miriam Makeba, and the Skylarks or whatever. Here comes the government saying, “Well, hang on a second. You did an arrangement of a traditional work, and you then claimed the publishing on that. We are not agreeing with that. We are not going to protect that on behalf of the community.” Therefore we are going to set up a whole administration system to protect the copyright for them (traditional and orphan works). It’s bizarre. So there’s good and bad elements of the copyright amendments.
[A part of the Johannesburg media conglomerate Avusa, The Gallo Music Group has an unparalleled catalog of indigenous music that includes 85% of all recordings made in South Africa prior to the mid-’80s. This includes recordings by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Letta Mbulu, Juluka, Spokes Mashiyane, Lucky Dube, Yvonne Chaka, Stimela, Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse and Solomon Linda & his Original Evening Birds, Stimela, the Soul Brothers, West Nkosi, and Amadodana.]
Gallo has a considerable catalog of what is considered traditional African repertoire, particularly Zulu songs.
Exactly. If you talk about the timing now….to make an intervention from now going forward is one thing, but with all of these things going backward, the horse has bolted from that stable. All they are looking to do is to create another system of administration to suck money out of the system from composers. What will happen if songs don’t expire, and don’t go into public domain? it means that you dilute the current revenue pool, and you will continue to dilute that revenue pool. It will always be growing exponentially because you are not letting stuff go into public domain at death plus 50 years.
The arrival of the Seacom undersea cable along the eastern and southern coasts of Africa in 2009 was the turning point in creating a significant generation of digital users in South Africa. Today, Over 60% of Internet traffic generated on the African continent originates from South Africa. The country has had iTunes since November 2012 and there’s also Google Play Music, and Simfy Africa streaming music.
The aggressive roll-out of LTE and fibre-to-the-home cable in South Africa is showing in the latest broadband adoption figures. This week content delivery network provider Akamai published its Q1 2016 State of the Internet report, which shows that 4Mbps broadband adoption in South Africa is now at 42%. Good news for the South African music industry?
Yes. LTE is kind of the equivalent to 4G, and we have had the launch of Apple Music and Google Play. We are certainly seeing good revenue from iTunes from a publishing standpoint. I was very pleasantly surprised to see the revenue that Apple Music is paying for streaming. It’s not quite what they are paying for the downloads. It’s probably about 20% to 25% of that. It will grow very quickly. Downloads in South Africa are maturing and peaking, but downloads on the continent is still growing. iTunes South Africa has operations in Nigeria, and Kenya and that activity is in a growth phase.
Are you encouraged by the SABC implementing 90% local music quota on radio, and the introduction of local content on TV? It is being suggested that this will stir interest from other public service broadcasters on the African continent.
We are already seeing other African countries saying, “Well, you are right. We should be protecting our own indigenous music.” I was part of the local content committee in 1994. I was representing the musicians’ union at the time sitting with the guys with the record industry, and with the broadcasters. We fought for the first local content (music) quota, and we achieved a quota of 20%. We thought that 20% was a reasonable number back then on commercial stations. That increased over the years in between from 20% to 25%, and now this year the regulated local content quota is 30% on commercial stations and 50% on public service stations. The SABC manages mostly public service stations that have generally been playing 60% local music anyway. So these will move from 60% to 90% and although this means more South African music will get played but the financial value of a license is very limited.
Mostly the SABC plays a variety of local music but on low rotation.
I think the great thing about this increase in local content is that we are seeing that. What happened before with the regulation of local content on commercial stations is that the commercial stations were very selective, and added only a very few South African tracks, and played those on high rotation to satisfy the quota. Your discovery process for new artists was very limited. So I think this (increased quota) now allows for greater discovery and diversity. That definitely is a good thing. I am seeing the emails, “Bring us the music that you were pitching us five years ago. That didn’t make it. We are happy to take a listen to it now, and see if it fits the format, we can program it.” So it’s an opportunity for a lot of artists that were limited by what was available previously. In order to keep the quality high, they are programming a diverse selection of artists which is great.
When I was in South Africa four years I was impressed by the depth of music I heard live, and on the radio.
That comes out of an apartheid-style of programming. From a development where you had separate radio stations for each language. So if you said that people need to be with their own tribe or with their own language then you needed to have a station for that. That continued for years. Now it’s not exactly the same blueprint, but it (music density) comes out of that mentality. You do find regional radio stations that do program for the vernacular language in that region only. Like Ukhozi FM (the Zulu cultural service) is the largest public service station. They are based in KwaZulu-Natal (province) and have over one million daily listeners. The most listeners of any station in the country. Much higher than any commercial station. However, the value of the advertising on it isn’t so great which is weird given the number of customers, but the rates aren’t high. On commercial radio advertising rates are very high. Of course, you know how it works with the PRO. As a publisher, you get a percentage based on advertising rate that your music is played on.
The SABC has two main commercial music stations, 5FM and Radio Metro. Their financial worth is more than the 9 public service stations combined. These stations target audiences in the LSM (Living Standard Measure) 6-10 range and therefore the rates for advertisers are much higher than on the public service stations. The PRO collects roughly 3.5% of advertising revenue from radio. The COO of the SABC Hlaudi Motsweneng has decided that these stations should be playing 50% local music after some pushback from advertisers, and listeners on the 90% level. So the increase from 30% to 50% on these two stations will mean significantly more money in the pockets of the local composers.
What led you to connecting with Sheer Music in the early ‘90s? You had been involved with a music trade, The Music Industry in 1991, followed by starting to work in 1992 at Tequila Music which would include Tequila Records, Tequila Publishing, and Tequila Productions which produced music videos.
With Tequila Music, I had a partner Jason Lurie. It was mainly a record label, and the publishing was a small adjacent business to that. He kind of ran A&R. I was living with a girl in Yeoville (in Johannesburg) which was a very multicultural area at the time. She invited Damon Forbes to have a record label name Sheer Sound. They did these amazing jazz and traditional artists. We did that with him, his wife, and my girlfriend. I was talking to Damon about the different things that we did, and I was very interested in his business side. Damon was very careful to spend only what he estimated the sales would achieve; whereas my thoughts in the record business are, “Well, let’s make something amazing and then we will get the customers after that.”
With jazz, you have to carefully budget and estimate how many units can be sold. With such genres as pop and rock, the sky could be the limit for sales.
Exactly. So my thinking was different to what we were doing with the label. Then I said to him, “What are you doing about your publishing?” He said, “Nahhh, I don’t do anything. My clients aren’t represented. Can we do something?” So we started a publishing company together and because we were in separate businesses, we hired a general manager Mark Connor to run the ship at the label (focusing on local dance and house music). Fast forward about three years later. Tequila Music had done record releases for Stimela, and Ratau Mike Makhalemele, an amazing jazz saxophonist (released worldwide by Atlantic Jazz Records). Still, the money wasn’t coming in to pay the bills. Jason and I were looking to do different things. Jason was going into the restaurant business. He bought a chain of restaurants called Moyo. Amazingly-designed African decor restaurants. Kind of developed on his philosophy of build something amazing, and the customers will come.
Sheer Sound initially issued a lot of out of copyright jazz releases
They did some of that but they also did a lot of imports. They did all of the World Circuit Records releases. They imported all of the Putumayo. They did Ryko. So they were involved with importing all of the cool world music including Ali “Farka” Touré, and also the 1997 album with Ry Cooder and Buena Vista Social Club which was a gold disc in South Africa. All on import. Cesária (Cape Verdean singer Cesária Évora) was pressed locally. She did amazingly well. She even came here (in 2001) with WOMAD for a live show. Damon Forbes’ label was only sold in 2014 to Gallo. It continued for a long time.
So Sheer Sound Publishing was the first iteration of the current company?
That was a partnership between Damon and I while I was still involved with Jason in Tequila Music. Sheer Publishing was then a roll-up of the two companies. It had both those partners and Mark Connor. I then bought them all out starting with Jason followed by Mark and, finally, Damon. Both Mark and Damon have their own publishing companies now. Mark has From Source Music, and Damon has Doctor Music, and he is now managing a couple of acts. He has Breakout Management, and he manages Jeremy Loops. He’s very involved in the live scene. He sold the record label and moved into the live music industry.
What was the publishing scene in South Africa in the ‘90s?
Well, we were making most of our money from mechanical royalties from CDs sales. Cassette was still a viable format. If I think back to 1996 cassettes maybe made up 25% or 30% of the market of value, and probably 50% of volume, and mechanical royalties, which were then 6.76% of the wholesale price (PPD) by agreement between the labels and the publishers. That (physical sales) probably accounted for 75% of our income. Back then most of the albums we had publishing on were not radio format friendly or if they were they were jazz stations with very little advertising income. So we received very little public performance income. Hence the skew between mechanicals accounting for such a large percentage of our business.
Back then I didn’t think strategically about publishing. It wasn’t until 1999 and 2000 when I did a two year—I registered for an MBA with Thames Valley University which was a UK-accredited university, but luckily it was offered by a business college, Milpark Business School. The reason I did it through them was that I was lecturing at the Allenby Music School which was part of the same group as the Milpark Business School. So I got a huge discount on fees to attend the MBA course. Their MBA course was an import from Thames Valley University – just with local lecturers. I did two years of part-time study there. Lectures every Wednesday night and Saturday morning
As you undertook your post-graduate work the National Party government was taking the first steps towards dismantling apartheid by lifting the ban on the African National Congress and other banned organization and releasing Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years of incarceration.
Correct. I registered for the MBA but, although I completed the course work, I never submitted the dissertation. So I received a post graduate diploma in business administration from Thames Valley University instead of the MBA.
You were teaching music business as a lecturer.
I was trying to figure out why I was in a business that was losing money and what was going on. Then I left the country because I wouldn’t serve in the army for conscription. I came back here, and eventually found a wife (Helen) in Durban, and got her to come to Johannesburg with me.
Other than that I have always lived in Johannesburg. I was born and bred, and I did my high school matriculation here. I was at university for four years 1987 to 1991 in Cape Town (receiving a Bachelor of Social Science degree at the University of Cape Town).
You left South Africa to live in the UK where you had family and friends because you were running away from the military police who wanted to arrest you for not turning up for military service.
Completely. I am very proud of all of the activism I was involved with at university in the Anti-Apartheid movement, and then the fact that I wouldn’t serve in the armed forces. While I wasn’t prepared to go to jail, I was fortunate enough that I could afford a ticket, and go overseas. I worked at washing dishes, picking vegetables, and selling timeshares in London in Great Portland Street. Selling weeks at a resort on Minorca. After a few months, my closing rate was so high, they paid for me to move to the island, and sell directly to tourists at the resort. When they dropped conscription, I came back to South Africa.
Your family has an impressive history of involvement with the Anti-Apartheid movement.
My great uncle Julius Baker was involved with one of the big trials almost at the same time as Nelson Mandela was. Another great uncle, Lewis Baker, was banned and restricted to his house. He couldn’t go out or have any visitors.
Julius Baker was a South African activist and member of the Communist Party which was then banned. He went into exile in the 1960s.
He was driven to Swaziland in the middle of the night when they heard his arrest warrant would be issued. He fled into exile in the UK. I met him when he was living in Golders Green (in London). He was the caretaker for the “Black Christ” painting which depicts the ANC leader Albert Luthuli being crucified by Hendrik Verwoerd. He stored the painting in his basement for 30 years before it was eventually returned to South Africa after Nelson Mandela was elected president.
[The 1961 painting, “Black Christ,” shows Albert Luthuli, the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was president of the then-outlawed African National Congress, flanked by two Roman soldiers who bear the faces of apartheid’s architect, former Prime Minister Hendrik F. Verwoerd, and his justice minister, John Vorster. The artist Ronnie Harrison was arrested, and the painting banned in 1962. It was later smuggled overseas, and displayed at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. After it was displayed abroad for several years, it disappeared until its discovery in 1997 in the London basement of Julius Baker. He had forgotten he had the painting until reading a newspaper article about Harrison’s search for his lost work. The artist sought the painting in order to bring it back to South Africa after its first democratic elections in 1994 which ousted the white minority government, and put Nelson Mandela in office.]
Lewis was a civil rights lawyer.
Lewis was a lawyer, and he used to represent a lot of black clients, and the government didn’t like that. He was on trial just a little after Mandela’s first trial, and before the second. In 1964, Bram Fischer was tried by the apartheid government which was trying to break the South African Communist Party. One of the people on trial with him was Lewis. He was eventually sentenced to prison, and later home arrest.
[Lewis Baker was a civil rights lawyer and a member of the South African Communist Party. In 1961, a State of Emergency was declared in South Africa, and Lewis went underground for awhile. He was subsequently arrested and tried with 14 men and women in the Bram Fischer trial in 1964 on three counts under the Suppression of Communism Act that they belonged to the illegal SACP. Lewis was sentenced to two and a half years on each of the two counts, two years to run concurrently for a total of three years. In 1970, Lewis and his family went into exile in London where he continued his political activities.]
After Thames Valley University you returned to the music business?
When we are talking about the post-graduate, I was doing that part-time. Evening and Saturday morning lectures. I was still trying to run a business. I had been to MIDEM. I think 1996 was my first MIDEM. At that MIDEM, the seed was planted that I wanted to become a music publisher.
How did that come about?
I went to MIDEM under Tequila Music, selling my records. Until 1999 and 2000 publishing was like 10% of our revenue. What I did learn from my lectures was that the music business–the recording business–was in jeopardy. If I was going to build a business, even a successful business based on the selling of CDs, I had to deal with the fact that customers eventually were not going to be buying them. Already, Napster, and Kazaa and all of those (peer-to-peer file sharing applications) were around. People were starting to send MP3s and to download MP3s. I used the lectures to kind of test market theory. It was based on going to MIDEM for the first time in 1996 and seeing on the top floors of the Palais (Palais des Festivals et des Congrès de Cannes), behind the closed doors with the shag pile carpets and chesterfield couches were the music publishers. But I was downstairs at the bottom of the Palais.
Always a madhouse of activity.
There must have been a thousand booths with everybody playing their own music. Everybody who could get a £20 ticket on easyJet over from London was there with a CD-R with their new track. Here I was a record label from South Africa. We had won South African Music awards. We had (Afro-fusion band) Stimela, a great band with (guitarist/singer) Ray Phiri who had played with Paul Simon (on “Graceland” and “Rhythms of the Saints”). We had their latest album (“Out of the Ashes”) and I couldn’t get a meeting. I had a crisis of confidence. I walked around the Palais, and then I went up beyond where I shouldn’t have, and I found the music publishers. I said, “Who are these guys? Why do they get to be here in the quiet, the serene calm, and the luxury? Why am I downstairs battling it out with all these kids with £20 tickets on easyJet?”
I came back to South Africa, and I made it my mission to find out about (music) publishing. By the time I started studying in 1999 and 2000 there was already a seed planted in the back of my mind that this was a business that I could control the value chain from end to end. So much in the record business is out of your hands. Although you are investing a huge capital amount into an artist, the fact is that unless that artist gets up off their ass and converts that capital investment into sales to customers you are never going to recoup your investment. No contract can force the artist to go out there and do their job.
There’s the saying, “Copyrights don’t talk back.”
I like that. I’m a bit of a control freak. A little bit OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). It plays into my strengths which are systems, and administration. In fact, in the record industry, Jason at Tequila was the A&R, and I was on the business side of things. So once we parted ways, I looked at something where I could control the whole value chain from beginning to end. I learned how to collect copyrights, what contracts to sign, and to notify the PROs. We joined the mechanical rights society. There were then two then competing (in South Africa). So money was being slipped. We collected our mechanical royalties straight from the label because there was no intermediary. There was nobody taking a commission for doing that.
When I came into the publishing business in the late ‘90s, the old grey-haired publishers running Sony, Warners, Universal, PolyGram and BMG they didn’t want to share any information with me. They didn’t want to tell me how anything was done. They just said it was very complicated, and that “You need to come to us for administration. We will sort it out for you.” When I found out how simple publishing was I was amazed. Everybody had told me, “It’s very complicated. You can’t do it on your own.”
When I learned how simple it was I said, “If I can communicate how simple it is to prospective clients, they will join me.” There were two things that I did to get clients. One, I cut my rate from the going rate. I took 33 1/3% (of the publishing portion) when the rest of the industry was taking 50%. We were a company that took a third while all of the majors were taking 50%. That was a unique selling point for us.
The second thing that I did was explain what was going on with clients. I held their hands through the process because not only did we have to become a member of the PRO, but each writer had to become a member of the PRO. What you would find with the multinationals at the time was that they would look after their share, and they would send the writers the address (of the PRO), and tell them to sign up for membership.
Often the songwriter wouldn’t follow up.
Even if they did, they weren’t looked after properly. It was about filling out forms and being meticulous with administration. We took the forms and filled them out at our office, and submitted them.
The labels were all then making money then from recorded repertoire and didn’t have to babysit songwriters.
Yes. The record business was thriving. It was very hard for us to compete. When we had to tell writers why to come to Tequila and later Share Publishing when they had never heard of us, it was, “We are going to work hard for you. We are going represent you. We are going to hold your hand through the (licensing) process, and we are going to take less”. That is the philosophy that we still keep today.
You continue to take a third of music publishing?
And sometimes less. So that would be the starting position. For established writers, we will take 25% or even 20%. We are partners in the business. Very much like Kobalt or BMG Rights Management with their writers. We have looked to learn from these guys who are looking to make a difference in the publishing world, and how we can roll it out to our local clients.
What’s the current status of the famed Downtown Studio now that the National Arts Council has taken it over? It’s quite a big complex. It’s the old Gallo Studios.
Exactly. I think that Gallo said “Thank you very much. It was an albatross around our necks.” I don’t think that the Department of Arts and Culture were very strategic about spending all of that money on what is essentially is an aging technology and infrastructure. Artists do use it to record but with the way that technology has gone, people can now record in much smaller rooms with some fancy microphones.
[Downtown Studios was once the jewel in the crown of South African recording industry giant Gallo Records which was eventually bought out by the Times Media group. Downtown Studios went on the open market and was purchased by the National Arts Council. Since the purchase, the 5-storey building has been renovated, recording gear upgraded, and education and heritage initiatives created to shift the project to a community focus.]
With many music genres, certainly electronic music, you don’t need such a high-end studio for production.
Exactly. I don’t think that it was a good investment of public funds to be buying a studio, and I don’t think that the use since justifies what they spent on it. There’s always issues of who is on the board, and how much are they getting paid. “Where is the money is going.” Very much like what you are reading about SAMIC and other music industry organizations here. Because of the small size of our market, people compete very ferociously for the money that is available. That is wrong. I think that we should be building the market. That we should co-operate with our competitors. People don’t get it. They are very much fixed on protecting what is theirs.
Instead of joining together to carve out new markets.
A hundred percent. They should be concerned about growing the pie so that everybody has a slice of the pie.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario, and a consultant to the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta.