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Africa’s One-Stop Licensing Shop

CAPASSO, the Johannesburg-based nonprofit association of authors and publishers, originally set up to collect mechanical royalties in South Africa, now also licenses mechanical and performing rights f…

Streaming is the future of the African music business, but making it work means licensing local music in each of the continent’s very different markets. That isn’t easy on the publishing side, since most African performing rights collecting societies are relatively young, and some don’t have the technology to deal with the vast amounts of data streaming services generate. Also, until relatively recently, many societies had stronger ties to European societies than to their counterparts around the continent.

CAPASSO (the Composers, Authors and Publishers Association), which acts as a digital licensing hub for Africa, is trying to change that. The Johannesburg-based nonprofit association of authors and publishers, originally set up to collect mechanical royalties in South Africa, now also licenses mechanical and performing rights for streaming in multiple territories across Africa on behalf of some of the continent’s various national societies. That means services like Apple Music can in some cases deal with one organization, rather than one in each country.

For decades, star creators in Africa have made worldwide deals with foreign societies, often PRS for Music or SACEM, which in turn has kept the African societies small. But CAPASSO, which gets Pan-African rights from national collecting societies rather than dealing directly with creators, allows services to license African songs that international societies can’t. (It deals with creators or publishers directly on mechanical licenses in South Africa.) That scale should let CAPASSO account to creators faster and more accurately, says CEO Jotam Matariro, who spoke about how the organization is trying to smooth out the complexities of Pan-African licensing. “There’s more trust now,” he says, “because of the way we’re doing things.”

How did CAPASSO become a kind of African ­licensing hub?
When Apple Music launched in South Africa, SAMRO [the country’s collecting society, the Southern African Music Rights Organisation] gave us the rights to collect performance royalties for streaming. In 2017 we were admitted into CISAC [the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers], and at a meeting in Kigali [Rwanda], all of the African collecting societies were pitched on having an international collection hub collect royalties outside Africa. At the time, there wasn’t a solution on the continent to manage all the data that’s involved in streaming. But we started discussing how we didn’t have all of the rights data [in order], and, if we didn’t have that data, how could we then make sure we would get paid accurately?

And your cooperation grew out of that?
Yeah. The difference between us and how it’s done in Europe is that those societies can invest in systems. Here in Africa, most of the CMOs [collective management organizations] are struggling. So we spoke to BackOffice, a distribution processing company that’s based in Latin America, where the economies aren’t so different from those in Africa. We didn’t pay anything upfront; as we collect the money, they get paid a percentage as a processing fee.

Was it hard to get the many societies to work ­together?
It was extremely difficult. We started with the English-speaking countries — with the French ones there’s a language barrier and they’ve historically had more ties to France. Then in 2018 ONDA [the Algerian collecting society] had a festival in Algiers and they invited us because they honored [South African singer] Miriam Makeba, and we signed a bilateral deal in front of the media. The other French countries followed last year. Now we call one another for advice. When another society was talking about licensing a mobile company, they called us to look at our contract. It’s very important to everyone to find an African solution.

Traditionally, the biggest African songwriters have gone to European societies, at least to license rights outside Africa. Do you think that will change?
The reason African creators join foreign CMOs is that there’s no money coming out [of African ones]. So that’s good for them — but it’s bad for everyone. But we believe this will change, and we believe we’ll play a role in that. We pay out every quarter, and we publicize it, so everyone knows that we paid their society, and a month or two later they should get paid. We’ll always have some creators who leave because they get advances [from other societies] — we can’t afford that. But we’re seeing more loyalty from big acts in South Africa, and as we benefit more from multiterritory licensing, we expect to have even more. If you don’t have the big names, it’s harder to make your voice heard.