For the past six months I have been working on a project in collaboration with the independent London-based music publisher Carthage and funded by a Creative Voucher award from Creativeworks London; exploring how music publishers use copyright to sustain and support the musical careers of traditional musicians outside the West. We focussed the study on the griot musicians of Mali in West Africa, several of whom, including Kassé Mady Diabaté who is widely regarded as one of Africa’s finest singers, are represented by Carthage.
Griots come from an ancient musical tradition, stretching back eight centuries, and play a unique role in West African society as storytellers, holders of the oral tradition, messengers and peacemakers. The griot arts – which include singing and the playing of traditional instruments like the balafon (a wooden xylophone), ngoni (a traditional lute) and kora (a 21-stringed lute made from a calabash) – are ‘endogamous’, meaning they are passed down through families (as our collaborator Dr Lucy Durán explains in her brilliant series of films on griot culture, Growing into Music). Griots perform at all the major rites of passage in Malian society and traditionally they made a living through patronage; griots would be attached to the royal courts, or attend one of the noble families, and be paid in cash and lavish gifts when they performed.
Griot music is just one, though arguably the most important and influential, of a plethora of musical styles and traditions which compose Mali’s astonishingly rich musical culture. This has been recognised in the West largely through the genre of World Music, the modest marketing campaign cooked up in 1987 in a North London pub by a bunch of independent labels, deejays and publishers, which thirty years later has had a significant impact on the global music market. Not only have there been commercial hits – like the Buena Vista Social Club album that sold 12 million units – but World Music has brought generations of brilliant traditional musicians from across the world to the ears of the global listening public. Within World Music the music of Mali has been a particular success story. From the ‘desert blues’ of guitarist Ali Farke Touré to the Golden-voiced singer Salif Keita to the Tuareg-rock of Tinawarien and the Grammy-nominated Afro-blues of Amadou and Mariam, Malian music fusing traditional forms with Western pop has been globally celebrated. Alongside this fusion sound the music of a more classical griot tradition – people like the virtuoso kora player Toumani Diabaté (a Grammy winner in 2006), ngoni maestro Bassékou Kouyaté and singer Kassé Mady Diabaté – has also gained global attention and international acclaim.
These players have toured and recorded widely across the world and signed deals with labels and publishers in Europe to manage their copyrights. European publishers, like Carthage, track their rights (copyright is actually a ‘basket’ of rights, that include payments to songwriters, for sales and radio and payment to those who own rights of particular recordings) through the somewhat antiquated, sometimes labyrinthine circuits of global copyright collection (every territory does it slightly differently and there is no single agreed database or process). These publishers tenaciously pursue royalty payments that are then channelled back to the musicians in Mali.
Our project looked at how this process was working for the artists and if it was the best system for helping to sustain their careers. Research revealed that managing copyrights is a process fraught with complexity, and that the way copyright is structured, based on European notions of private property, single authorship and the superiority of melody over rhythm, make it a very blunt instrument when applied to oral traditions. To take just one example, Malian griot music, like many traditional forms of music, tends to rely on a relatively small repertoire of original songs – between 25 and 50 – with no clear sense of who wrote them. They are a historic shared resource, a commons, collectively owned. But each griot adapts these songs to new circumstances, updating or transforming the lyrics, changing the arrangement or instrumentation to suit the occasion: so should they be able to claim copyright on what is in effect a ‘new’ song, or should there be some way to channel payments back to the community from which the song originates? These are both practical and ethical dilemmas, and the kind of issue that World Music publishers, like Carthage, struggle with every day on behalf of their clients.
On top of these ethical questions lie a series of technical problems that require meticulous handling – this ranges from the apparently mundane but vital issue of correct spelling (if artist names or song titles are misspelled in databases then money cannot find it’s way home, this is especially problematic for non-western names, like, for example, Kassé Mady Diabaté), to knowing how to negotiate the internal processes of collections agencies in different territories. France’s venerable agency Société des Auteurs, Compositeurs et Editeurs de Musique (SACEM), for instance requires claims for new arrangements of traditional songs (so-called ‘trad arr’) to be accompanied by a written transcription of the music even if that music has never been written down before. Experienced publishers recognise the subtleties and difficulties of working in each territory.
But do artists from Mali, a country that continues to struggle to recover from colonialism, years of despotic government and the continuing fallout from a military coup and an Islamist insurgency in 2012, really need to look to the West for approval and reward? Would it not be better for them to stay at home, working the traditional griot circuit and help develop Mali’s domestic music industry? All the Malian artists we spoke to would like to have a hand in developing Mali’s own creative economy, but the challenges are stark. Piracy of cassettes and CDs is rampant and largely unchecked – one estimate I heard was that 90% of the music bought in Mali is bootlegged – and the legitimate domestic recording industry is consequently on its knees.
Meanwhile Mali’s state-owned copyright collection agency, Bureau Malien des Droits d’Auteurs (BuMDA), is widely viewed as dysfunctional at best. Those musicians I spoke to who are members say that royalty payments are infrequent and nugatory and reporting is inaccurate and unreliable. In short there is an absence of trust in the system, that contrasts with the way musicians feel about their London-based publishers, like Nick Gold at World Circuit and Guy Morris at Carthage, who provide timely royalty payments and accurate six-monthly sales reports, so musician can see exactly what they are being paid and why.
This is compounded by the shrinking of the traditional forms of patronage that used to sustain griot careers. According to Lassana Diabaté, those paying for weddings and other social events are increasingly turning to cheap audio playback technology (somewhat ironically known as ‘mini-balafon’) rather than paying for a griot band. A handful of the most famous singers are still much in demand, but their backing bands are increasingly seen as surplus to requirements.
The musicians and European publishers I spoke to would all like to see a transparent and reliable collection agency in Mali and a functioning domestic music market. Indeed Carthage, via local intermediary Violet Diallo, recently helped organise a meeting of BuMDA members in Bamako, attended by over 100 artists, aimed at sharing knowledge of global copyright and strengthening the local infrastructure. Yet this will be slow work in the context of Mali’s currently very challenging economic and political outlook.
Copyright is an imperfect system, much in need of reform. It certainly favours the interest of corporate copyright holders like Disney, and has in many cases been imposed from above by the US and Europe, via international trade agreements like TrIPS (Trade Related aspects of Intellectual Property). But, for legendary producer and publisher Joe Boyd, copyright is “a bit like democracy: the least worst system”, and international agreements mean royalty income can be traced and recovered, relatively easily if you have the skills, across more than 200 countries. For Mali’s beleaguered musicians the chance to tour and record in Europe and the US, and to benefit from the royalties that follow, forms an essential part of their income. As Lassana Diabaté put it to me, “If you don’t have an international career, you’re screwed.” European publishers, like Carthage, thus play a significant role in helping to sustain the musical careers of Mali’s griots and nurturing an environment where musical skills can be passed to the next generation.
Having said that, of course, the global music industry itself is in the throes of a profound and painful transformation wrought by digitisation. What seems clear is that sales of physical formats like CDs will continue to decline as streaming booms (Spotify subscriptions are growing at 33%, and the launch of Apple Music will push streaming growth into overdrive). This is profoundly reshaping the economics of music and impacting hard on those, like World Music labels, who traditionally relied on strong CD sales.
These changes, and the tricky issues around copyrights that come in their wake, are having a profound impact on the independent sector and raising a whole new set of challenges.
One thing for sure is that the management of intellectual property is becoming even more significant in the new music economy, so publishers becomes even more central. Carthage and others in the independent sector need to organise themselves and find a way to be heard alongside the voices of Apple and Taylor Swift, in the current debate about how to devise a fair, transparent and comprehensive way to track copyright online. Here the independents must act as advocates for their artists to ensure the system works for niche artists as well as superstars. If they get it right we can look forward to a scenario where the very latest digital technology is zapping the ancient, beautiful music of Mali around the world and into every iPhone, with every little stream flowing back into a river of income that will nourish and feed the next generations of Mali’s griots.
If you are interested in Copyright and IP issues then you may like to read Using Intellectual Property in the Creative Industries (White Paper) by Chris Reed & Maria Anagnostopoulou, Queen Mary University of London. The White Paper investigates how creators exploit intellectual property outside the traditional structure of formal contracts, to identify their working practices and their normative stance on those uses (which might not match the law’s normative position), and to discuss with them what legal and non-legal mechanisms might be helpful in undertaking these uses more effectively.