Unchain Africa’s Melodies

Wednesday, November 19, 2008 

By  Alec van Gelder and Mark Schultz

Alec van Gelder (L) and Mark Mark SchultzThe worst piracy in Africa is not in boats off Somalia:  fake copies of drugs, movies and music hurt African economies even more. Western businesses may complain the loudest but sub-Saharan Africa’s own musicians have even more to gain from clamping down on rip-offs.

Senegal, for example, has been a trading hub for centuries, where different languages and ethnic groups have contributed to a rich cultural landscape with, as the travel guides say, music everywhere.

The World Bank’s recent Africa Music Project study said just "a dozen" of more than 30,000 musicians in Dakar achieve any success abroad, despite huge popularity at home. The average Senegalese musician is even poorer than the average Senegalese on less than US$800 a year. This passion and determination should be allowed to bear fruit but, for every international celebrity such as Youssou N’Dour, thousands live in destitution at home.

Unfortunately, many African creative talents share Senegal’s problem and, apart from a few pockets of commercial success, their talent is wasted. Where it is allowed to flourish it yields big benefits:  creative sectors contribute over 11% to GDP in the world’s wealthiest countries. In Africa, they barely account for anything.

Piracy is the most visible barrier to success. In some West African countries, pirated music dominates as much as 90% of the market. No African country has restricted pirated music to less than a destructive 25% of the market. Foreign music may be popular and widely copied but it is local musicians whose livelihood is blighted by the failure to stop rip-offs.

But piracy explains only part of the problem. Recording companies underpay musicians and renege on agreements; radio stations fail to pay licence fees for tunes they air; most royalties agencies are state-owned or politically influenced:  musicians get the worst deal in music.

It should be no surprise, then, that most commercial African music is recorded and produced in London or Paris.

High piracy and ineffective licensing are the symptoms. The lack of copyright enforcement is the disease, caused by failed civil and criminal legal systems.

Failure to enforce copyright protection renders worthless the only assets artists own. Making money from their craft becomes a pipe dream and the incentives to invest in musicians disappear. This failure has destroyed once-celebrated music industries in Ghana, Senegal, Mali and elsewhere.

A surprising source of inspiration comes from Nashville in the United States. Early 20th century policymakers pinned Nashville’s economic hopes on industrial development, based on access to raw materials and large government-funded projects. These hopes were never fully realised but Nashville found success anyway, thanks to music.

Nashville could never have succeeded without the region’s rich musical heritage. But a stable legal environment, and copyright in particular, was essential to turning barely-known talent into a marketable product. Copyright protected the investment by Ralph Peer, the architect of the pioneering Bristol Sessions in 1927, and it protected the rights of the Nashville musicians who recorded what became the first nation-wide Country hits–and all who followed.

Nashville’s multi-billion dollar Country music industry has spawned development in many other sectors too, making it one of America’s most vibrant cities.

This success can be copied. After collapsing in the 1990s, Zambia’s music industry has turned itself around. First came the new copyright law. Then, in 1999, a new Zambian record label, Mondo Music Records, sparked the revival. Much like Ralph Peer in Nashville, Mondo’s founder Chisha Folotiya showed the way for other entrepreneurs and creators, unleashing what he calls "exponential growth in the amount of Zambian music being produced in the last seven years, and also in the consumption and the appreciation of it."  "We want Zambian music to contribute towards the economic development of our country," he adds.

Encouragingly, Africa’s musicians are already one step ahead of Nashville’s folk-singers before their commercial success:  African music is already hugely appreciated elsewhere. But without a legal environment that enforces copyrights and contracts, Africans’ creativity is not protected and cannot contribute to economic development.

For example, John Collins of the School of Performing Arts in Ghana estimates the Ghanaian music industry alone could generate US$53 million a year from foreign sales if local conditions supported creativity.

Nigeria’s creative industries could generate about US$4 billion annually, information and communications minister John Odey said this month–but only if intellectual property rights are enforced, Copyright Commission chief Adebambo Adewopo added.

Only South Africa has a strong music business, with internationally-known musicians such as Hugh Masekela, the late Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Ray Phiri, and the Soweto Gospel Choir–not least because they have sound intellectual property rights.

Any country can benefit from that potential by allowing it to flourish. Creators are also entrepreneurs, even if they are playing for tips in bars, and, like businesses everywhere else, these entrepreneurs need economic freedom.

Unless legal systems empower creative talents by protecting their intellectual property, Africa’s musicians will continue to head abroad, taking with them the sounds, the entertainment and their money too.

Mark Schultz is an Assistant Professor, Southern Illinois University School of Law, USA. Alec van Gelder works at International Policy Network (IPN), a London-based development think tank. Their forthcoming study "Nashville in Africa" will be launched in South Africa on 26 November.