Friday 2 September 2016

Afro Ng'ombe

IP and African Music Industries: An Interview with Phil Chard - part 4

Phil Chard
Part 4 of our interview* with Phil Chard brings us fascinating discussion on making a living as a musician on the continent and the thin line, the very grey areas, between infringement and licenses in Africa.  (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3)

Little Leo:  As you move through the industry and follow it and work with it in all your various capacities—you’ve been involved for quite a while, the African Hip Hop Blog is eight years old, 2 Broke Twimbos about two/two-and-a-half, what kind of longevity do you see in the music blogging industry?

Phil:  It all depends on what their long-term goals are, if they have long-term goals at all.  A lot of the stuff that I see now, I don’t see a lot of these guys surviving much longer because their business models are predicated on either content theft in some manner shape or form, or just empty content.  And eventually the consumer is going to wise up and be like these guys aren’t giving us reputable information.  And they’re going to stop going there.  But a lot of these companies they’re run by people who actually rely on that cycle.  So everything is on a two-year cycle.  They’ll start something; it’ll reach its peak, and as it starts to dip, they’ll move onto the next thing.  They’ll replicate the business model, but just under a new brand.

L:  Interesting.  And do you see artists, producers, songwriters—and maybe the answer’s different for each of these—and other people involved in the industry, do you see people who actually are able to make a living and make a career out of the content industry?

P:  Uh, yeah, it’s very country dependent.  So, if you’re looking at the three biggest markets in Africa in terms of entertainment: they are West Africa, which is essentially Nigeria and Ghana; Southern Africa, which is South Africa; and then East Africa, which is Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania.  Those are the biggest markets.  The most developed in terms of the music industry is South Africa.  Nigeria’s coming along now.  But I’m sure, as you know, artists still aren’t getting their needle time collections.  So, that’s limiting a great amount of revenue.  But, in terms of South Africa, guys can easily earn a very, very good living.  As long as they crack a certain threshold, they can survive on shows alone.  So you’ll see a lot of artists, they’ll actually predicate their whole careers on releasing free music and then their revenue stream is the shows and then endorsements here and there and that’s about it.

L:  And that’s mainly for South Africa?

P: Even in Nigeria.  In Nigeria, artists actually hire the pirates.  I don’t know if you know this.

L: Yeah, I actually have heard of that.

P:  So, when an artist releases an album, he’ll go and sell the master copy to a pirate.  And then that works on two levels: A) they’re getting paid for their work, because if they don’t give it to them, they’re not going to get paid anything.  And B) it helps spread their music.  The music spreading and then being played in taxis and in public allows them to gain popularity, which then translates into radio interviews and radio play, which then translates into performances.  And, performances in Nigeria are huge.  Guys get invited to private shows can get upwards of US$50,000 for a show.

L:  There are some big ogas in that country who will pay a lot for those.

P: So, it’s a very lucrative business for them over there.  But, they play all sides of the fence.  So, they’ll make sure it’s available for free and then you’ll also have sites like NotJustOk.  NotJustOk, for example, that’s a website predicated on dubious copyright practices.  But they’ve now become so big that artists need NotJustOk to plug them.

L:  So when artists do that, when they’re getting paid by the pirate, selling the initial copy to the pirate to then produce and give out, or they’re trying to solicit NotJustOk to play their music, when does it turn from being a pirate infringing thing into part of the industry and part of the business model?

P:  I think that’s what it’s become now.  Which is why I’ve said it’s a uniquely African situation.  Where in the beginning, you’d find like what NotJustOk would do is: They’d get the content. They’d then download it and they’d add their tags like “downloaded at NotJustOk.”  And they’d change all the id3 tags to make it all NotJustOk.  And that was how they’d promote themselves.

Before a certain time, artists didn’t realize that there were DMCA laws that were in their favor, that they could issue takedown notices to the websites, or that their content had been stolen.  They didn’t know how to go about retrieving stolen content.  And while they were figuring that out, NotJustOk was becoming this massive behemoth.  So now they realized, “If NotJustOk doesn’t plug my stuff and I don’t have access to their 2 million readers, I’m shooting myself in the foot.  So, I’d rather give them that song for free and then bank on getting money other places.”  And NotJustOk realizes that leverage.  In some instances, if an artist wants an album review, they’ll be like, “yeah, we’ll review your album, but we’re gonna pick 3 songs to give away for free.”

L: Sort of bargaining for the publicity?

P: Yeah.  And then there are other sites that are just operating off of straight payola.  So, they won’t review an album unless you pay them for the review.

L:  How do artists then handle infringement issues on the ground?  You’ve gotten into some of what the standard practices are, but in terms of artists protecting their work, what are the basic practices?  We don’t see a lot of lawsuits.  You’ve talked a bit about these kinds of agreements like with NotJustOk and things.  What other practices do they have if they know of another artist using their music or if they learn about some new way that it’s being distributed without their authorization?

P:  In most case, it’s hard to paint it with a very wide brush because it varies from case to case.  But with the incidents that I’ve seen across the board, it’s mainly the distributors and it’s mainly the labels themselves that understand these issues that enforce them.  So, for example we used to have a very active Soundcloud page.  We’ve scaled it down somewhat because of these issues. 

Artists would send us their music and be like “You guys really have a following on your SoundCloud page.  Please post my song on your SoundCloud page and then redirect them to my download page.” Or the iTunes page or whatever it may be.  What we then find is they would give us the song and they’d email us the written agreement, but they did not inform their distributor or their distributor did not have the mechanism in place to quote-unquote give us an exception.  So then we get takedown notices from SoundCloud that this song matches this song and has been removed from your account.

L:  Right.  We actually have issues with that here in some of our industries too, where different parts of a company don’t speak to each other and marketing sends something to be put up on YouTube and then legal sends something to have it taken down.

P:  Yeah, exactly.  And most of those issues, we’ll see that those takedown notices are being issued by the distributor or by the label, it’s rarely the artist.  Artists rarely—artists just want their music, especially in Africa right now, an artist just wants people to hear their music.  They’re thinking, and they see the quarterly statements from SAMRO and SAMPRO, whatever collecting agency they’re using, and they know that what they’re earning a quarter for a great selling cd does not compare to what they can earn in a weekend from shows.  So the whole revenue stream has now shifted from selling cds to getting bookings.

L:  And there are definitely artists who are out there petitioning their governments to crack down on piracy.  Nigeria, particularly, often makes a big show of going into Alaba market and other markets in the country and confiscating all the infringing cds and burning them and stuff.  {Example from a few years ago; example from this year.}  But at the same time, artists are making deals with otherwise-pirates.  They’re also kind of flaunting this lavish lifestyle, which you talked about in your rant, how especially when they get their first contract, they go out, they live like superstars but they can’t support it.  How much do you think that kind of thing, where they’re presenting to the government that they’re poor and they need help and they can’t survive without these extra laws or this extra enforcement, but then they’re turning around and showing the public that they’re extremely wealthy, how does the public perceive that?  How much does that hurt their brand or what they’re trying to accomplish?

P:  I think it’s pretty much the same as you guys.  So, in America with what happened between Metallica and Napster.  On the one hand, Metallica and Lars were pushing this whole thing like “these guys are taking money out of our pockets, blah blah blah,” and then you flip to MTV Cribs and there’s Lars with his twenty-room mansion and you’re like “but yeah, but I’m sure you’re doing ok.”  It’s the same thing here, but it’s also a double-edged sword in that artists have adopted the culture of materialism, the American culture of materialism.  So, you’ve got to sell the dream to get people to buy into you.  And you can only sell the dream in most cases by showing a lifestyle that you don’t live.  And then, by doing that, you’re now overdrawn, so you then need to go back to the government and be like “You might have seen the Lamborghini in my video, but that’s not my Lamborghini.  But you see, I really need to pay rent, so you guys need to help me get my money from these guys.”

But in most cases, I’ll give you an example:  Zimbabwe is almost as bad as Lagos in terms of this out-and-out piracy.  There’s an interview I did on 2BrokeTwimbos with someone called Sanii Mahkalima.  He used to run an independent label in the early 2000s.  And he was talking about how they used to, independently, they used to push 100,000 copies of a product.  And in Zimbabwe, that’s a very, very, big, big number.

What they used to do was, they used to go to the flea market.  So, they’d get their cds printed at Gramma Records, a legitimate place.  They’d pay them.  They’d then take these cds, because legitimate stores like Spin-a-Long which is like your Tower Records, they weren’t accepting these cds.  They were like “No, we don’t know these names; we don’t know you guys.  We’re not taking the risk. No.”  So they’re like “Ok, fine; we’re going to the flea markets.”  So the guys at the flea markets, they’d start by leaving their cds and then collecting money at the end of the week.  But then demand got so high that guys at the flea market were like, “No, we’ll pay up front.”  And then demand got so supremely high that guys were now bartering for exclusive deals like, “I’ll take all your cds.  But you gotta promise you not going to see to anyone else at this flea market, so I’m the only person at this flea market with the cd.”  And then they’d use that, you know, to control the price or try to upsell and sell other stuff.

The government then instituted a program called Murambatsvina, but what they did is they banned flea markets and they demolished a lot of the shacks and shanty towns that were developing in the high density suburbs, which was to disperse the political opposition.  But what that also created is that now, you’ve destroyed the distribution model for all these independent artists.  All these kids that were my generation, we’d stopped buying stuff from Spin-A-Long, which was the main distributor, because they weren’t stocking the music that we liked.  We would go to the flea market, because the flea market had all the hip hop and all the urban music from America and the local stuff.  But now, because flea markets have now become illegal, we do not know where to get the stuff. 

And around that very time, which is around 2005/2006, there are guys like Dash, who would download all this music and then plaster their name all over the stuff and then distribute these cds.  So they’d start burning mp3s and on that mp3 would be like 20 albums.  You’d go to school and people were just passing around everyone’s cd, and you copied it to your harddrive.  Now you’ve got all the latest music, which you’ve got for free.  And you now know where to get it, because they put their cell number like on the artist’s tags and everything so next...

L:  Like Mike Jones.

P:  No, Mike Jones [laughs].  You know what id3 tags are right?  So literally, artists’ tags would say “Dash Mike Jones” then his cell phone number.  Album, “Dash Mike Jones” then his cell phone number.  Lyrics, just a long repetitive list of his cell phone number.  So now you know, whenever you want to get new music, you call this guy.  And then there were guys that would burn cds.  So there were guys like Dash where you would go into town and these guys would—I can’t remember the figures but it was somewhere above a dollar figure—you could get cds burned by these guys and then they’d burn you mix cds and they would charge you a nominal fee.  And then they’d download this music from the internet overnight or they’d get it from friends overseas and that type of stuff.

I actually used to do that when I was in high school.  That’s how I’d pay for sneakers when I was in school.  Like I’d buy a cd and burn it and stuff like that, before I understood it was illegal.  But now, you’ve got a whole generation of kids that were used to getting music from these sources.  So instead of paying USD$10 for a cd or whatever it may be, they’re now playing 15₵ for a burned cd, and the burned cd is an mp3, so instead of 20 songs, they’ve got 200 songs.  And that then evolved into the flashstick generation.  And that now has evolved into the internet, where there’s a whole generation of kids my age and going down, that the concept of walking into a store, especially in a country like Zimbabwe, even in like Zambia and Kenya, even in Nigeria, the concept of walking into a store and giving someone money and getting a cd that’s sealed, that’s completely foreign to them.

L: Right.  Zambia used to have Mondo Music, but it closed, gosh when did I hear about it closing?  Maybe 2008, 2010, sometime around there.  But that used to be the place to get the Zambian music, or to get any cds before Game really had come in.

P:  Yeah, so now like, even in Zambia now, you’ve got Musica, But that is predicated on South African distribution models, so local acts aren’t getting in.  The same guy that told me about this issue with the Zambian music rights {see end of part 3] told me the same thing, in Zambia, artists don’t even consider record sales.  They’re just trying to get a next big hit so they can start getting bookings because that’s how they make their money, on bookings.

L: How much are artists looking for—when you talk about performances and stuff and that being the way to make money—how much are they looking beyond their own borders, looking to the rest of the continent or looking to the rest of the world?

P:  Once again, it’s very country-by-country.  South Africa was an island upon itself up until probably about 2 years ago to be honest.  I think the only artist that actually saw a continental reach were house acts.  And South Africa’s in a very unique position because South Africa controls African media reach.  All the satellite stations are headquartered in South Africa, so they have easy access and direct access to these stations, which are then distributed to the rest of the continent.  Bongo Maffin and Oskido, saw it early.  I think Oskido was one of the first, first artists to realize the global appeal.  And he’s been doing his show in Miami for the past decade, every winter.  But in terms of hip hop acts, they had no idea that other countries existed up until last year.

L:  I’d say that matches with my somewhat boxed-in perspectives.  I live in a bubble; I’m aware of that.  But I’d say in terms of what I’ve seen filtering through and getting to me here in America, even being somebody who looks for it, I think that matches.

We’ll stop there for today.  Join us for the last installment of this interview where we’ll talk about what, if anything, the legal system can do to improve the music industry in Africa.
*The conversation has been edited for clarity and reading ease; it is not an exact transcript.

Afro Ng'ombe

Afro Ng'ombe

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