EN­TRE­PRE­NEUR Small be­gin­nings

Financial Mail - - FOX - Gwen Ansell Michelle Smor­fitt Sources: Time Mag­a­zine, The Guardian

The SA mu­sic in­dus­try is volatile. Be­low the legacy in­cum­bents, small en­ter­prises rise and die like mayflies.

Yet Sheer Pub­lish­ing, which started tiny in 1996 and cel­e­brates its 20th birth­day this year, has done more than sur­vive. It is now among the top five SA pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies by mar­ket share.

“From nowhere, we’re now ei­ther fourth or third,” says founder and MD David Alexan­der, “depend­ing on if you count Sony and EMI — now merged — as one com­pany or two.”

Alexan­der cer­tainly didn’t en­vis­age that tra­jec­tory when, two decades ago, he ap­proached Da­mon Forbes of the Sheer Sound record la­bel about ad­ding a pub­lish­ing arm to the busi­ness.

Six years as a mu­sic jour­nal­ist, mu­sic or­gan­iser, and founder of the Tequila la­bel had shown him there was a gap in SA’s orig­i­nal jazz sec­tor: at­ten­tion was on per­for­mance and record­ings; no­body was look­ing af­ter the com­po­si­tions and com­posers — “which, in the long term,” Alexan­der says, “are a mu­si­cian’s pen­sion plan.”

He was drawn to Sheer be­cause of its cat­a­logue strength, and its busi­ness model. “Sheer’s strat­egy could cope with launch­ing new or niche artists on lower bud­gets and help them grow.”

At the same time, dis­cus­sions were start­ing on lo­cal mu­sic quo­tas. Alexan­der was in­volved, rep­re­sent­ing the Mu­si­cians’ Union of SA: “For­mat quo­tas made a real dif­fer­ence, show­ing di­rect ben­e­fit to our clients.”

Much has hap­pened since then. Sheer Sound Pub­lish­ing be­came Sheer Pub­lish­ing Pty — in­clud­ing the pub­lish­ing arm of Tequila Mu­sic — in 2000, and grew its in­de­pen­dent iden­tity. (The Sheer Sound record la­bel went to Gallo in 2014.)

The com­pany now rep­re­sents mu­sic pub­lish­ers across Africa as Sheer Pub­lish­ing Africa.

“Africa,” says Alexan­der, “has been trans­formed by phone tech­nol­ogy. It’s the place where our mu­sic al­ready has re­spect, with half a bil­lion mo­bile phone own­ers. Just one dol­lar per phone per year would triple the size of the African mu­sic in­dus­try, through the mu­sic we sell to each other — but that po­ten­tial hasn’t yet been mon­e­tised.”

The birth of his son, Sam, trans­formed his at­ti­tude to his busi­ness. “Ini­tially it was a life­style in­dus­try for me: trav­el­ling, en­joy­ing mu­sic, networking. Then I re­alised: I must be able to tell Sam with pride what I’ve been do­ing with my life.”

That led to in­ten­si­fied busi­ness stud­ies and greater em­pha- sis on sign­ing a wider range of lo­cal com­posers “pre­vi­ously out of my reach”.

But he also at­tributes his suc­cess to the au­ton­omy he grants to his part­ners (of the 15 staffers, GM Karabo Moti­joane has been with the com­pany for 20 years; roy­al­ties man­ager Re­hana Pillay for 14) and the firm’s learn­ing cul­ture.

“Moti­joane is very con­nected to the world of ver­nac­u­lar hip-hop: strong sign­ings such as Sk­watta Kamp and Cassper Ny­ovest came out of that. You need young peo­ple who know new gen­res and can sign pro­duc­ers I haven’t even heard of yet.

“I don’t want a hi­er­ar­chy in place. When I came into mu­sic pub­lish­ing, my grey-haired com­peti­tors were pa­ter­nal­ists who with­held knowl­edge to cre­ate de­pen­dency. That made mu­si­cians un­happy. Be­cause I’d been in mu­sic as a man­ager and or­gan­iser, I un­der­stood that songs were like mu­si­cians’ ba­bies. It takes ed­u­ca­tion and trust-build­ing to be given charge of that.”

So what does Alexan­der make of the SABC’s “90% lo­cal” pol­icy? “In prin­ci­ple it’s pos­i­tive,” he says. “But poli­cies must be based on the right quo­tas — Icasa wants 30% for com­mer­cial sta­tions and 70% for pub­lic broad­cast­ers. You can’t af­ford mixed mes­sages, and must deal con­sis­tently with jin­gles, and soundtrack mu­sic for TV, as well as record­ings on ra­dio.

“Only if quo­tas are part of an advertising-con­scious long-term strat­egy will your busi­ness do well enough to even­tu­ally make the pay­outs. It’s no quick fix.” It has grown rapidly with com­pa­nies such as Uber, which is the most vis­i­ble player in this econ­omy, de­spite the fact that it doesn’t own cars or em­ploy driv­ers di­rectly. The gig econ­omy is fore­cast to make up 40% of the US econ­omy by 2020. This is in part due to low bar­ri­ers to en­try and the flex­i­bil­ity of­fered to in­di­vid­u­als. It ven­tures into un­charted ter­ri­tory and chal­lenges con­ven­tional em­ploy­ment prac­tices. New ways to reg­u­late em­ploy­ment to pro­tect work­ers have yet to be de­vel­oped. Some work­ers have de­manded bet­ter con­di­tions and wages. Driv­ers at UK-based De­liv­eroo ob­jected to new pay terms and, af­ter a cam­paign, suc­cess­fully pres­sured the com­pany into con­tin­u­ing to pay them per de­liv­ery, rather than per hour.

David Alexan­der Son’s birth changed his at­ti­tude to his busi­ness

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