Spain’s embattled General Society of Authors and Editors (SGAE) has yet another new leader. Antonio Onetti, a playwright and TV screenwriter, was named last week to head the organization, becoming its seventh president in a decade.
Onetti takes over the position vacated by opera soprano Pilar Jurado, who the SGAE board ousted on April 15 after accusing her of “lack of transparency.” Jurado spent only 15 months in the post and was succeeded by interim president Fermín Cabral.
Now, Onetti is taking over what is one of the most turbulent positions in performing rights anywhere in the world.
In the past decade, SGAE, a 120-year-old behemoth with over 127,000 members — including composers and musicians, screenwriters and authors — has gone from being regarded as a warrior for authors’ rights to a maligned society caught up in multiple corruption scandals.
Onetti’s most pressing challenge will be to ensure that SGAE gets reinstated into CISAC after May 28, which marks the one-year anniversary from SGAE’s expulsion from CISAC. At that point, CISAC will decide whether to readmit the society or not.
SGAE is also in the midst of creating new bylaws which would include establishing a kind of supervisory board that would include five authors who are members of the organization and five who are independent.
Onetti may be yet another short-timer. He told Spanish daily El País that new elections to decide SGAE’s direction are planned for October and he may or may not run again.
“We know SGAE is a crushing machine,” he told El País. “If I do well, I’ll put my name out there to continue working. That will mean we’ve met our objectives.”
Despite SGAE’s problems, Spain has experienced a surge in collections recently. The country’s music collections rose 29% in 2018 to 227 million euros ($245 million), putting Spain in ninth place in the world, according to CISAC. SGAE’s total distributed rights, including for audiovisual works, climbed 21% in 2018 to 324.4 million euros ($350 million), the organization says.
Long before it became mired in scandal, SGAE was known for engaging in vocal and often acrimonious battles for author’s rights that pitted it against Internet associations, the press and the public at large.
The real problems started in 2011, when the society’s lavish offices in Madrid were raided by officers from Spain’s Guardia Civil following a three-year investigation by Spain’s anti-corruption attorney. Several executives, including then-board president Eduardo “Teddy” Bautista were arrested or accused of fraud.
Then in 2017, 18 people were arrested in SGAE’s Madrid headquarters for their role in a long-running scheme known as “La Rueda” (The Wheel). Members who were also broadcasters played songs they owned rights to on late-night Spanish television, sometimes as low-level background music, allowing the broadcasters to collect hefty royalties for themselves. According to police documents, works included classical public-domain compositions by Mozart, Vivaldi and other composers that had been registered as copyrighted arrangements by participants in the scheme.
Onetti, who was also the president of the SGAE Foundation from 2012-2014, has been a vocal critic of “La Rueda” and has long advocated for a reorganization of the collecting society.