MILAN — Court cases in Italy are notorious for dragging on for years. But in 2015, Bruno Bergonzi won a definitive ruling in a case concerning “Takin’ Me to Paradise,” a 1983 song he co-wrote with Michele Vicino at the height of the Italian dance boom. Bergonzi alleged that Prince plagiarized the song on his 1994 hit “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” A couple of decades later, judges in Rome agreed with him.
The situation has been complicated by the fact that Prince died in 2016. Nevertheless, Bergonzi is disappointed that neither the authors nor their publishers, Warner/Chappell Music, have been able to recover the money owed, which he estimates to be “a few million dollars.” Publishers, Bergonzi tells Billboard, “should safeguard the interests of all their artists.” (Warner Chappell Italy declined to comment.)
Even as the two songwriters struggle to wrest the judgement from Prince’s estate, Bergonzi has no complaints about the collection efforts of Italy’s main collecting society, the Italian Society of Authors and Publishers, or SIAE. “As far as we’re concerned, SIAE have been doing a great job in recovering the rights that have matured over the years through the collecting societies in other EU nations that have recognized the sentence,” he says. Bergonzi is not alone in his assessment that the collecting society has come a long way from more troubled times. The SIAE was placed under an external administrator in 2005 and again in 2011 for a variety of reasons, including poor management and slow rights distribution.
Today, the picture is quite different, say artist managers and label heads in Italy. Claudio Ferrante, who runs Artists First, which represents musicians in all areas of the business, including publishing, says that SIAE has undergone massive improvement over the last decade. “It has been modernized and is now one of Europe’s most efficient collecting societies,” Ferrante says.
SIAE, which stands for “Società Italiana degli Autori ed Editori” (the Italian Society of Authors and Publishers), is one of the world’s oldest collecting societies. It was founded in Milan, home of La Scala opera house, in 1882. It was set up in order to collect rights in all areas of artistic endeavor. Its original music committee included Giuseppe Verdi, arguably Italy’s greatest composer. SIAE later moved to Rome, the country’s capital. Since 2013, SIAE’s turnover has grown by 16%, from 674 million euros to 781 million, says the organization’s director general, Gaetano Blandini. At the same time, it has cut costs by 10%.
According to CISAC, SIAE is now the world’s sixth-largest collecting society after the U.S., Japan, France, Germany and the U.K. “Ten years ago, we weren’t even in the Top 10,” Blandini says. And after 30 years in the wilderness, SIAE has once again taken its place on the executive board of CISAC, which represents the world’s top-eight collecting societies.
“SIAE today is a more effective and influential society than it used to be,” CISAC’s Director-General Gadi Oron tells Billboard. “It has made changes to its management, invested in new technology and research, increased efficiency and cut costs. The society’s digital innovation has led to systems that are now used not just in Italy but also by societies elsewhere in Europe.”
As for efficiency and costs, Blandini says management has cut staff to 1,150 from 1,500 members in 2010, and the number of managers from 65 to 42. The society still covers all fields: music, theatre, cinema and literature. Music represents the lion’s share, more than 80%, Blandini says. SIAE is served by an army of inspectors — 500 employees and 400 agents — who work mainly at night, listening to any form of live music they can find. Blandini jokes that “SIAE agents are everywhere. There are probably two organizations that are more widespread in Italy, the Catholic church and the carabinieri [Italy’s main law enforcement agency]!”
Even one of the society’s more disgruntled members has been won over. A decade ago, Toni Verona, who runs Ala Bianca, a record label and publishing company, was an outspoken critic of SIAE’s management. Today, he is a member of the organization’s Surveillance Committee. “The old guard has retired and a new generation of dynamic managers in their 40s, like Matteo Fedeli, who heads the music section, have taken their place,” he says. “Today SIAE is run like a company, rather than a society.”
Another factor in SIAE’s renaissance has been the European Directive on Copyright in 2014, says Claudio Buja, who is a member of SIAE’s Management Committee, in addition to being president of Universal Music Publishing Ricordi. “This opened up collecting to competition and SIAE effectively ceased to be a monopoly,” Buja says.
The European Directive also opened up the market in neighboring rights. The main society is SCF, which operates on behalf of the major recording labels. Enzo Mazza, who runs both SCF and FIMI, the major labels’ representative body, reports that SCF’s revenue grew by 4.17% in 2018, distributing more than 52 million euros to its members. “For the first time, neighboring rights provided more income than the physical sales of CDS and vinyl,” Mazza says.
These figures also reflect the decline of physical product. Record industry revenue in Italy now accounts for only 27%, while streaming accounts for 41% (and overall digital more than 60%). A decade ago, streaming accounted for less than 10%. This should offer great potential for rights collection. But even though SIAE is highly efficient in terms of mechanical collection, “When it comes to digital, technologically we’re behind and there’s a fair bit of malfunction,” Buja says. “France and Germany are more advanced. Italy still has a long way to go.”