Payback time for the kings of swing

In the early days of South African music, many stars sold their rights to record companies for a flat fee. Today they say they were exploited and are looking for compensation. Glynis O’Hara investigates

A recent visit to South Africa by The Manhattan Brothers’ Joe Mogotsi has brought an old music industry issue to the boil - that of the economic exploitation of mainly black artists in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

But now, for the first time, it looks like something might be done about it.
There’s a suggestion that all old contracts be reworked and brought into line with current business practice, giving these artists their due from now on.

The issue has already been brought to the attention of Cyril Ramaphosa at Nail and gone as far as a meeting between financial group National Empowerment Consortium (NEC) representatives and the heads of Gallo, because of the connection through shareholdings. It came about after a letter was sent to Dr Nthatho Motlana at Nail from Mogotsi, said Ramaphosa’s personal assistant at Nail. She told Ramaphosa about it and passed it on to the NEC.

Mogotsi, based in London since going there with the musical King Kong in 1961, was out here recently to shoot a Channel 4 documentary on his life, Songs from the Golden City, which coincided with Gallo record company’s imminent release of a “best of” of the Manhattan Brothers music.

But that’s where the trouble started - Mogotsi wanted a higher share of the royalties in compensation for being ripped off in the 1950s. He wanted 12%, as opposed to the 7,5% that someone like early 1960s star Helen Shapiro reportedly now gets for her re-releases, said industry sources, when percentage deals in the 1960s were often as low as 2%.

The Manhattan Brothers were huge in the 1950s, a four-part harmony group doing vernacular versions of ragtime and swing songs as well as writing their own material. They were also the first South African group to have a record in America’s Billboard Top 100, with a song called Lovely Lies, at number 45 in March 1956, and in the late 1950s brought the young Miriam Makeba on board.

But like many people in the industry at the time, they signed over their copyright for a flat fee. Later, like most others, they discovered what royalties meant and realised they’d lost out.

Dolly Rathebe, a singer and a composer, remembers being “paid peanuts, 2,10 per song,” and there were no royalties. “But we did it because we loved the music. Money was not the thing then. Keakae lebo Tsotsi and uNomewa were two of my songs that sold a lot. Most black musicians then didn’t know what it was all about, like most youngsters today.”

Dorothy Masuka, also a singer and composer, said most black musicians “were just very grateful to be given money”.

Neither woman harbours any bitterness. Masuka, who wrote the hits Iyo Pata Pata and Nontsokolo among others, added that when royalties were first explained to her, “I did get angry for a while, but maybe I should be grateful to the record company because now I’m famous throughout the world ...

“It would be nice if they just said `thank you’ by buying me a house, say. It’s not much, R170 000, then I could pay for my grandchildren’s school fees. But one has to forget the past and start all over again.” Masuka has a new version of one of her old songs, Ma Gumede, re-worked with Chicco, coming out soon.

As lawyer Mark Rosin points out, the very low flat fee buyout was not a situation unique to South Africa. “I’m not an apologist for apartheid business practices, but it must be said that generally the music industry was a rip-off throughout the world at the time.”

And while some artists were asking about “reparation” for the period, commented another source, no one had, for example, asked the American industry for any such thing. “There’s an endless pool of white guilt. Overseas there’s no way these claimants would get any consideration.”

But, said Mogotsi, Martha of 1960s soul group Martha Reeves and the Vandellas “told me she had a similar problem to ours and had succeeded in her claim for past royalties from Tamla/Motown.”

All this is not to say that people in the local industry do not recognise an injustice when they see one. Alan Cherry, managing director of Gallo Africa, confirmed Gallo was looking into the issue and just wanted to move forward on it. Rosin, who has been asked to negotiate a settlement between Mogotsi and Gallo, believes record companies should all pull out their old contracts, some of which still stand from the 1950s, and re-work and re-negotiate them.

“For example, someone who may have sold their copyright to Gallo for R2 000, should now have their contract renegotiated. And if the royalty share was low it should be adjusted upward. There’s frequently new exploitation of old works and new standards should be brought to bear. All it involves is a more equitable distribution.”

Stressing that Gallo had no legal obligation, but may have a moral one, he added: “I believe in a re-examination and fair compensation for the past. I wouldn’t use the word `reparation’ because that’s usually used for war damages or atrocities against human rights, which is not what we’re talking about here. But we’re talking economic exploitation.”

Another source was more vehement, saying the problem was not only historical: “Contracts today are mostly signed unchanged, so they have to be in the interests of those who wrote them. I’d like to see the record industry told to account for every contract they have and have them properly vetted. No record companies ever run courses on contracts and publishing for the artists, and they should.”

A re-examination of old contracts should also involve the listed composer being required to prove he or she composed that song, he added, noting that hundreds and hundreds of songs were registered at the South African Music Rights Organisation (Samro) under the producers’ names rather than the real composer’s. Proof could be difficult though, and it could take months, if not years, of research to unravel the truth.

It looks like the only way it can be done is through the complainants themselves asking for a meeting between the disputants and Samro officials and bringing proof to bear, or going to law.

“Duress and positions of power are often a question in determining who composed what,” Samro secretary Rob Hooijer said.

Interestingly, Samro, which started up in 1960 and tracks royalties on performance (ie, broadcasting or concerts, not sales), does not recognise a buyout of copyright. “So we’d still send royalties to a composer on any performances ... So Manhattan Brothers should have received royalties for any broadcasting,” Hooijer said.

However, Mogotsi said: “Samro never got in touch with any of the Manhattan Brothers, despite my efforts to contact them recently about infringements on the song Tom Hark. This song was a worldwide hit and is still being claimed by three other people.” The composer’s credit is crucial, because there are two areas of copyright - sale and use - and the composer is credited in both.

On the sale of recordings there are two subdivisions - one for the sound recording, which goes to the artist and producer, and the second for the composition, which obviously goes to the composer. But as far as public performance is concerned (in broadcasts and concerts) only the composer gets a royalty.

So it’s clear where most of the money is, which is also why the complex field of music publishing is so lucrative. Just ask Michael Jackson what The Beatles’ publishing is worth. He owns the rights.

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