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Discop Africa: African Music Biz Tries to Find Its Groove

Digital transformation fuels hopes for licensing, royalties

JOHANNESBURG — “Why is the musician and artist always at the bottom of the barrel?”

The question posed by Michael Balkind, director of digital media strategist Contentbar, was on the minds of film and music biz veterans gathered at Discop on Friday, during a lively panel discussion on how African artists can benefit from the rapidly evolving digital music ecosystem.

Earlier in the day, Discop organizers announced the launch of Discore, a program geared toward music industries across Africa with a focus on music production and supervision for content, licensing, synch deals, and their implications for African artists.

A partnership with ONGEA! Africa, hosts of the annual ONGEA! Eastern Africa Music Summit in Nairobi, the inaugural edition will be held at Discop Abidjan in May 2018, providing an opportunity for music bizzers to interact with their counterparts in film and TV within the framework of Africa’s largest TV content market.

“Discore is an amazing opportunity for music industry professionals from around the continent to come and meet professionals, not only from around the continent, but from around the globe,” said David Alexander, founder of Sheer Publishing Africa.

The launch comes at a time when African artists are shaking off the REM-inducing label of “world music” with distinct new sounds, whether it’s Nigeria’s Wizkid rapping over a chart-topping collabo with Drake or South Africa’s subversive hip-hop duo Die Antwoord becoming a global phenomenon with their idiosyncratic beats and rhymes.

“Music is in cycles, and people always want the new flavor,” said Todd Brown, of XYZ Films. “Within the industry, people tend to look at what they already know, until something breaks out.” Once that happens, it provides “an opportunity for other people to come in and push the envelope in other directions.”

“The potential is huge,” said Marc Algranti, executive music producer and supervisor at Pulse Music. “There’s a lot of collaboration already happening in the commercial world, and we hope that will happen in the TV world as well.”

Turning those opportunities into a profit remains difficult without regulatory frameworks in place. Rights across Africa are a challenge.

“Just figuring out who owns a track can be difficult,” noted Brown. Legal structures in most territories need to be shored up, as well. While Nigeria boasts arguably the biggest and most vibrant music biz on the continent, “it’s not fully developed like the South African marketplace,” according to Enyi Omeruah, a music supervisor for SEE FEEM.

Without established fee structures, said Omeruah, Nigerian deals often involve “arbitrary numbers.” For musicians used to traditional revenue streams like CD sales and live performances, “a challenge is just knowing, period, that one can earn from [licensing], and what is appropriate to earn from that.” When it comes to residuals in Nigeria, “the framework exists, but there’s not a lot happening in that space.”

Even developed industries have byzantine laws to negotiate and fine print to decipher; for African artists not armed with a fleet of lawyers and CMOs, “it’s very hard…to navigate the royalties, the rights,” said Algranti.

“In the U.S….the systems are great,” he added. “Hopefully one day, the African market will be the same way, once the systems are in place.”

Despite the challenges, African musicians stand to benefit from the transformations that have swept across the global music industry, with digital technologies changing the way music is made, sold, and disseminated across platforms.

“You can get a laptop and write music these days,” said South African composer and producer Kurt Slabbert, of Bluenoise Productions. “You don’t need a $1 million studio to make a good track.”

Digital distribution platforms make it easier than ever before to be heard. Andrea Da Silva, global team leader of media and entertainment for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, stressed that the gulf separating African creatives from the American music biz is closing.

“Physically, there’s a distance,” she said. “But you need to use the digital economy so that that space…is not the barrier. There might be regulatory barriers, or other challenges government to government, but it’s endless for the creative community.”

Addressing the African music producers in attendance, she said, “We’re waiting to hear from you. We want to hear your message, we want to hear your story.”

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