New Streaming Platform Raises Hope for Artists

Ethiopia has long been home to musical artists with immeasurable social impact, from the traditional azmari who had the unique permission to critique members of the nobility with carefully crafted lyrics in times past to modern-day musicians who have fought against government censorship and oppression to keep the show going. Unfortunately, the artists have reaped less than what they deserve from their hard work due to the laxness around copyright laws and a lack of a proper system for distributing royalty payments. EBR’s Tirualem Asmare explores how the launch of a new music streaming platform has the potential for meaningful change.

On December 8, 2022, many young and veteran musicians were inking  deals with a new music streaming platform – Sewasew. Maritu Legese, Henok Mehari, Fitsum Abebe, Mamila Lukas, Poet Alemayehu Kebede, Tsedeniya G. Markos, Tsegaye Eshetu, Rahel Getu, and Tewodros Kassahun, a.k.a. Teddy Afro, were among the more than 70 artists who shook hands and exchanged signed agreements withHabtu Negash, one of the founders of Sewasew.

Others have gone beyond the signing. Kamuzu Kassa’s Shakura – an album that brought together Ras Dani, Ja Lude, Dagmait, Zebiba and other artists, was also released by the streaming platform.

This is not the first digital music streaming platform in Ethiopia. In 2011, the late Elias Melka, Johnny Ragga, and Haile Roots banded together to found Awtar. Although it joined the music industry as the first homegrown streaming platform with a lot of buzz and hope, Awtar died out without much of an impact.

 Sewasew seems different.

The platform allows mobile user audiences to look for and access songs of their choice through subscriptions for personal consumption. The platform does not allow the sharing of downloaded tracks, making it impossible to pirate the art. Sewasew already has something to boast about – 60,000 people had downloaded it 45 days after it was made available on play stores.

“Two albums have reached the audience through our platform and we are working with Teddy Afro,” Habtu told EBR. “We hope Teddy’s album will reach audiences soon.”

Supported by Samrawit Fikru, founder and CEO of Hybrid Technology, the company behind Ride, Sewasew has been offering a minimum of ETB one million for an album. Artists can receive higher payments through negotiation, unlike Awtar, which used to offer a blanket rate for all albums.

Sewasew charges its user ETB 21 for a weekly subscription, while monthly and annual subscriptions cost ETB 90 and ETB 990, respectively.

“Recent developments in our financial sector in terms of payment systems are really helpful,” says Habtu. “We receive payments through Telebirr and Enat Bank, while international consumers can use international payment systems such as PayPal.”

The multimedia company is also planning to launch streaming platforms for podcasts, audiobooks and movies, according to Habtu. The podcast streaming will be launched in two months, while the other features are expected to follow close behind. Making films is also on Sewasew’s to-do-list.

“We have lived paying for our albums using the money we made from stage performances,” Henok Mehari, a member of Mehari Brothers Band, told EBR. “One hopes to be repaid, but artists have lived without being able to get returns on investments in making their albums.”

Mehari hopes platforms such as Sewasew will grant artists a safe environment and allow them to focus on the art while the business side of things is structured in a way that also benefits them.

Henok brought no less than eight albums to the platform; two of which were produced in collaboration with his siblings, while the others were recorded with other young and talented artists. He hopes to see his work available to audiences on Sewasew soon.

 “I think the arrival of music download apps will be a big boost to the music industry,” Tsedenia G. Markos told EBR. “The price people used to pay for music CDs and the (lack of) durability of that medium was unfair to consumers, according to Tsedeniya. She believes platforms like Sewasew are key to solving these issues.

The rise of streaming platforms could also provide an answer to a question that has long haunted the music industry – copyright.

The adoption of a codified penal code and civil law in 1957 and 1960, respectively, is when Ethiopia first began to protect copyrights. Even though the 1957 penal code was designed to punish those who violated copyright terms with jail time or fines, these provisions were insufficient to fully address concerns with contemporary copyright protection. In order to create the nation’s first complete legal system, the government promulgated the Copyright and Neighboring Rights Protection Proclamation No. 410/2004 in 2004. The adoption of this law was viewed as starting a new chapter in Ethiopia’s fledgling copyright scene.

Nevertheless, despite the adoption of the proclamation, the Ethiopian government has yet to adequately enforce copyrights. In 2010, six years after the proclamation came into existence, the Ethiopian entertainment business was surprised when an offender who had forged Sony Music’s emblem on bootleg CDs and DVDs was exonerated. Zelalem Fisseha had  property valued at more than USD eight million (about ETB 370 million at the time) seized, but was eventually exonerated by the Federal Supreme Court.

The Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office (EIPO), backed by institutions of the judicial system such as the police, public prosecutors, and related organizations like the Ethiopian Musicians Association, was founded in 2003 to offer legal protection for intellectual property (IP) rights. The EIPO primarily aims to create legal and policy frameworks for the preservation of copyrights, educate the public, and develop the skills of right holders, law enforcement organizations, and policymakers. In addition, the EIPO works with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), of which Ethiopia has been a member since 1998, to maintain global cooperation for the protection of copyrights.

The optimum copyright protection for musical works has two dimensions: protecting both composers and performers. In Ethiopia, though this isn’t always the case,The rights of vocalists have usually received more legal protection than those of composers. The singer is typically regarded as the only owner of the copyright to a particular piece of music. But during the last two decades, the custom of honoring the “backstage” musicians has slowly gained ground.

The music and copyright businesses in Ethiopia have only recently started to actualize the concept of royalties. There was no institutional or legal framework in place for the collecting and distribution of royalties until late 2014. This was because the 2004 copyright law did not contain any legal provisions for a royalty system or the creation of a collective management society with the authority of the state to collect and distribute royalties.

The right holders were hindered by this legal loophole since they were still unable to reap the full financial benefits of their musical creations. This prompted the creation of a system for collecting royalties by an amendment to the 2004 copyright legislation spearheaded by both the right holders and the EIPO. The Copyright and Neighboring Rights Protection (Change) Proclamation No. 872/2014 came into effect after this amendment was approved by parliament in 2014.  The law allows for the creation of the nation’s first operational collective management society.  rThe Ethiopian Music Copyrights and Neighboring Rights Collective Management Organization (CMO) was ultimately established in December 2019 after three years of intense legal wrangling under the leadership of tenacious musicians led by the late Elias. Since then, the recently founded CMO has been striving to establish music royalties for the first time ever . The association has also started to establish partnership and discussion regarding the application of royalty payments in Ethiopia with renowned organizations like WIPOand BMAT, a Spain-based CMO, in order to acquire technology support and other related training.

The Ethiopian copyright scene already makes a sizable contribution to the national economy, despite the new royalty structure not yet being fully implemented. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) commissioned research in 2014 that revealed Ethiopia’s copyright industry –which is dominated by the music industry –contributes 4.73 Pct of the nation’s GDP. Additionally, it contributes 4.2 Pct to the growth of Ethiopian employment possibilities.

Even with the aforementioned precautions, Ethiopia’s music business still faces a serious threat from music piracy. Even though the government has established a number of enforcement mechanisms to prevent piracy, the business is nonetheless plagued by the dissemination of unauthorized copies. Piracy can take many different forms, such as the selling and distribution of counterfeit CDs, the sharing of works by artists on mobile devices, and digital replication and distribution of art. According to a national survey on copyright infringement conducted by EIPO, the rate of infringement for the year 2014 was 58.6 Pct. Out of this, the percentage of musical compositions that were infringed upon was 80.33 Pct, which was significantly higher than the 49.05 Pct rate for films.

“We will see its overall impact in the future,” said Tsedeniya about the new platform that she hopes to see serve as a tool to overcome the piracy and copyright challenges facing Ethiopian artists. EBR

11th Year • Dec 2022 • No. 113

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