Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Authority Stealing: African musicians fight music pirates

Unbeknownst to Africa’s countless tourists and more than a few of the continent’s teenagers, it appears that buying music cassettes and compact disks off the street is most likely illegal. That’s because the music is probably pirated.

This illegal music market costs musicians $10 million a year in Ghana alone and has become a serious hindrance to a vibrant industry, says John Mensah-Sarpong, president of a Ghanaian music industry group.

Music pirating is a $4.5 billion industry worldwide – at least in 2003 it was. The industry group IFPI claims that in most African countries seven out of ten CDs sold are pirated. The worst case scenario belongs to Morocco, where organization leaders say nearly all recorded music is pirated. Things are better in South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, where pirating makes up 40 percent of music. In Ghana, Mensah-Sarpong said his organization estimates pirated music to make up 20 percent of the cassette market alone.

Musicians are taking a beating
African musicians have long decried the illegal copying of their songs to the press, only to leave the interview, walk a few feet outside and see kids hustling pirated CDs and cassettes in the full sunlight. Relations between musicians and piraters came to blows in Abidjan in the spring when Ivorian reggae star Fadel Dey was attacked when he and a group of musicians confronted a group of hawkers selling his counterfeit cassettes. Dey claimed he and his musician friends merely wanted to show authorities how the scourge of counterfeiting affects their lives. What they got was a beating.

“The result of their act of bravado was a not exactly what they had hoped for,” writes Daniel Brown in MondoMix.

Witnesses say that police stood by idly as the artists were set upon by a large group of hawkers and men armed with rocks and sticks. Dey and fellow-musician Gbazza Figaro were knocked unconscious by bricks. Dey needed over a dozen stitches, and was close to losing an eye. He has since left hospital and is in a stable condition.

Big-time African musicians like Youssou N’Dour have long railed against the effects of piracy on the industry. In a recent interview with China Radio International, Amadou of the Malian duet Amadou & Mariam claimed piracy was killing African culture.

Piracy can damage our chance of succeeding. But it's not just that. It affects everybody. It's a deplorable phenomenon. It kills creativity. It kills culture. It kills the creators. We tell young people who are copying and downloading music illegally that they are killing the music. If you really like an artist and you want him to go on making the music you enjoy, well then, why don't you pay for his CD so that he can make a living. We can't survive just on what we are paid for giving concerts. There have to be rights too. It's copyright that allows the artist to earn his living and to keep on working.

How good does it sound in an old taxi?
Some record executives assert African authorities knowingly look the other way when it comes to music copyright issues. It’s another form of the culture of impunity, they say. One could make the argument that pirated music offers regular Africans the chance to afford real African music – even though the production quality is often hit-or-miss.

Outside of pirated music, copyright issues do exist at almost every level of society. Radio stations often use famous songs for advertisements; the same with television news programs and dramas. In Nigeria, musicians are becoming more aggressive and taking royalty cases to other media. "We have many cases in court right now,” said Nigerian superstar King Sunny Ade, the Chair of the Musical Copyright Society of Nigeria, in an interview with African Entertainment. "We're fighting with the Nigerian Copyright Commission, because we want them to make sure that all radio stations, television stations and so on, pay the royalties to the musicians.

Sunny Ade said the country has instituted the anti-pirated Hologram seal, which acts as a certificate of authentication for the compact disk. The industry group the Recording Industry of South Africa, claims the introduction of the Hologram has been ineffective in the southern part of the continent. Instead, that organization is focusing on educating listeners on the legalities of record piracy and illegal music downloading. In Ghana, Mensah-Sarpong pushed for the government to establish a Copyright Tribunal to assist musicians take legal action against copyright offenders.

As the burgeoning young population becomes increasingly more technology savvy, downloading music has developed into an important front in the fight against piracy, at least in Burkina Faso. One of the CD hawkers I know in Ouagadougou claims the hordes of young people using the internet has greatly depressed his revenues from selling pirated CDs. “I used to make money doing this, but people don’t buy music anymore,” my friend told me in downtown Ouagadougou. “Now everybody goes to the Cyber to get their music. You don’t have to be that rich to get one of those MP3 players and take the music with you.”

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