We call today The Day of Goodwill, but in much of the Anglophone world it’s still ‘Boxing Day’: the day when some feudal lords gave their servants Christmas boxes and religious institutions distributed the collections from their alms-boxes. In other words, the title celebrates times when a decent life and livelihood depended on the capricious charity of the rich and powerful. I’m glad we changed the name.
But it’s an appropriate day to update the story of a particularly capricious bunch of the powerful, historically reluctant to pay for the work – in this case the music – of others: the SABC.
A while back, I urged readers (https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2019/10/14/vatiswa-ndara-the-sabc-bailout-and-showbiz-exploitation/ ) to support the petition of The Kiffness for the repayment of R250M owed by the SABC to musicians in royalties. On November 1, the SABC declared – oddly, there is no corresponding press statement currently posted on their website, so I can’t link you to it – that it was doing just that.
The public broadcaster announced it had paid 35% of the R160M it it had owed to one of the biggest collection societies, SAMRO, had committed to a schedule of monthly repayments, and would have cleared its historic debt to that organisation by April 2020, as well as being up-to-date with current invoices.
SABC spokesperson Vuyo Mthembu told Channel 24: “…the public broadcaster is cognizant of the fact that musicians rely on royalties over and above performance to make a living and artists need to receive what is due to them.” Samro’s Ditebogo Modiba in turn confirmed to the same channel that it had received the amount and that “all of the money received from the SABC will be used to secure the payment of royalties to our members, which is our primary and core function.” We don’t yet have information about SABC’s deals (if any) with other collection societies, or about the fine print of repayment plans – bearing in mind that there’s just below another R100M still outstanding to SAMPRA, Airco, Risa and Capasso.
That’s fairly typical of the feudal attitude South African authorities have often displayed towards the right to livelihood. Royalties are neither charity nor the kind of thing you can decide to pay or not – the right to receive them is legislated, nationally and
internationally, and governed by contracts. Royalties matter. They are the life insurance policy of anybody who writes or records music. A live show might offer a more impressive-sounding payment, but it’s a once-off. Royalties have the potential to provide steady, lifetime, cash flows. Artists all over the world struggle to collect, and the digital music revolution has intensified those struggles (see, for example, https://www.digitalmusicnews.com/2019/11/20/songwriters-artists-fight-music-streaming-royalties/ , https://www.theverge.com/2019/5/29/18531476/music-industry-song-royalties-metadata-credit-problems, https://variety.com/2019/music/news/discovery-networks-composers-music-royalties-1203434924/ ). In South Africa, the struggle takes place against a historical backdrop of intense, race-based exclusion and exploitation from recording companies, state broadcaster and collection societies alike. There are debts far beyond the monetary owed to our black artists.
Still, the SABC’s move is positive.
It may, however, simply represent kicking the can down the road to the collection societies, some of which have been characterised by Kafkaesque bureaucracies and what can only charitably be called chequered histories in terms of governance and actual disbursement. We’ll have to rely on musicians themselves to tell us whether the money is actually landing in their bank accounts. Otherwise, 1 April 2020 – promised as SABC musicians’ Boxing Day – could turn out to be double April Fools Day instead.
I hope you’re having fun celebrating whatever you celebrate at this time of year. Don’t forget the workers in precarious employment — such as many musicians – who may not be able to afford to.