New SGAE President Antonio Onetti Talks Next Steps, COVID-19 & Regaining Members' Trust

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Luis Camacho

Antonio Onetti

Despite boosting distributions, the Spanish collecting society has struggled with scandals and transparency.

After 30 years as a member of Spain’s General Society of Authors and Editors (SGAE), Antonio Onetti, a playwright and screenwriter from Sevilla, in southern Spain, was named the gigantic organization's seventh president in a decade.

Onetti, 58, takes over an organization mired in scandal and controversy. After a series of investigations over SGAE’s collection and management of royalties, CISAC, the International Confederation of Authors' Societies, expelled the Spanish society last year. The SGAE board tapped Onetti last week to lead the organization after ousting Pilar Jurado in April, after she served as president for 15 months.

Despite its troubles, SGAE, with more than 127,000 members (including musicians and audiovisual creators), remains an influential force in the global music industry. The organization reported collected royalties of 294.4 million euros ($319 million) in 2018, up 19% from 246.7 million euros ($267 million) in 2017.

Billboard spoke to Onetti about his immediate priorities, which include ensuring SGAE gets reinstated into CISAC, holding new presidential and board of director elections in October, and restoring faith in the organization he calls home.

You've accepted a very difficult job that is highly public and scrutinized. Why would you take on such torture?

Maybe I’m a sadomasochist! [laughs]. I was the vice president of the audiovisual department and I was asked to take on this responsibility and I didn’t want to elude it. SGAE has had a lot of problems in recent years. Some authors have left, others have stayed, and some of us decided we had to fix things from within, [from] inside our home.

Last year, we reported many prominent members had announced plans to leave SGAE by this year. And yet, membership has grown. What happened?

Many of those who said they were leaving didn’t. Others did, and among those whose departure pains me is [film director] Pedro Almodóvar. But I understand. I feel if they’ve left, it pains them, too. You don’t leave your home of so many years for frivolous reasons. You leave because you feel things are not running how you would like them to. We live in a competitive world, and you want your collecting society to focus on that, without anything distracting from that main task. And that’s what I aim to accomplish. I’m not going to make promises or ask authors to come back. I want to get our house in order so they’re proud to come back.

What needs to happen for CISAC to readmit you and why is it so important to be there?

CISAC is the international entity that brings together all collecting societies. They’ve asked us to meet a series of requirements. Some we’ve accomplished, some not. Among the things we need to do is call for new elections, hopefully this month, so they can take place in October. The other major objective is to shift the presidency of SGAE from an executive to a representative position. Having an author be the president has to stop. The president is a representative, but he’s not the executive. He’s not the CEO. That’s the way it works in all the societies around the world and I agree with that. I’m a very good screenwriter, but I wouldn’t be able to run the Coca-Cola company. In fact, I’ve started the transfer of power from the onset. We now have a new CEO, Adrian Restrepo. He’s a Colombian executive who was previously at the Peruvian society. Up until now, the president had oversight of everything. Now, the president will lose his executive powers. The president will represent the entity and will promote better political and executive relationships. The board will create policy. But the executive director or CEO will be the person that executes them.

I understand you need to establish an entity that supervises SGAE overall, made up of five authors and five independent people. Can you elaborate?

Spanish law and European guidelines ask all collection societies for this entity. SGAE didn’t have it. It’s an entity that would supervise all SGAE’s activities, both in politics and execution. 50% of its members are authors, and 50% are external appointees. It’s almost like a supervisory tribunal. These are the changes we have to implement and we’re moving as fast as possible.

Given everything that’s happened with SGAE, why should authors stay there instead of defecting to the competition?

We’re part of a free market, there’s more competition and each of us has to do the best job possible to keep authors happy. But, there’s something that differentiates us. We are an author-owned organization. A group of creators got together over 120 years ago to advocate for their rights. We are a community and we are the owners. There are other societies that really are offices that collect, but where the author is not the owner. The author is a client. Doesn’t mean that they can’t get good service there, but it’s very different. We’re not about being a profitable entity, but about benefiting the authors. Everything is reinvested.

What would you tell your authors at this juncture after everything that’s happened?

To wait for the results. In my opinion, we have to stop making promises. We have to stop saying we’re going to fix everything and “I can do it.” Wait for the results, and then decide. We have a complex heritage. We have a lot to do.

How has COVID-19 affected SGAE?

Some sectors, like radio, are not as affected. But our theaters are closed, our movie theaters are closed, tours are canceled, so are summer festivals and music festivals. It’s a hard blow for all collection organizations. In our case, we could lose up to 30% of our collections for 2020. But it doesn’t just affect us. Of course, we have difficulties. But what sets us apart from other organizations is we’re very solid thanks to our size and our scope. Plus, we have great raw material.

How is SGAE helping its creators during this difficult time?

Between this week and next we are releasing some 2 million euros ($2.2 million) to help authors in different ways. Some will get direct financial aid, others will get loans in the form of advances. We’ve set up a savings plan to make up for the dip in collections and also to raise money. We are reporting in June what we collected the second half of 2019. So many authors won’t feel the pinch until December.

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