Zimbabwean artists are perpetual victims of piracy just like every other artist in the digital age.
This story is best told by the street side vendor or unlicensed distributor who profits on artists’ creative efforts under the guise of “entrepreneurship” while using simple technology to sell content they have no rights to for a fraction of its value.
However, these sorts of crimes aren’t just being committed by the CD and DVD vendors on the streets. Even on the internet, some people are denying artists their dues through the distribution of content that they do not own.
Millions of people rely on platforms like Soundcloud and YouTube to access everything from the latest hit record to an obscure track from an artist who’s been forgotten by radio. They offer people free access to content that can be streamed as long as a user has internet access.
For platforms like YouTube, part of the deal, though, is that anyone accessing the content is exposed to adverts which help pay for the content by giving the owners some kind of return for watching that video or listening to that song.
As a result, whoever puts up a video can register as its owner and in the process can generate some revenue from all those adverts through every view. This model has shaped the access to free content online and it’s all fairly straightforward.
The problem arises when people who do not own the content put it up on their own channels and generate views for something they did not create or do not have rights to.
Views matter in the world of free digital content, so much that there is a price actually put on them. Denying a content creator access to those views is literally theft. Several Zimbabwean artists have fallen victim to this.
Household names and local superstars like Killer T and Oliver Mtukudzi, as well as the horde of yesteryear superstars like Leonard Dembo, John Chibadura, the Bhundu Boys and Plaxedes Wenyika have content that has appeared on scattered YouTube channels with different users generating views that could be converted into revenue by the creators themselves.
Alarming cases can be noted from Sungura and Zim Dancehall which are undeniably the two most popular types of music in the country. Content created by artists from these genres is accessible from different channels which garner hundreds of thousands of views per video.
Some channels like Musimboti and Proud Zimbo have even emerged as hotspots for Zimbabwean content, with numerous videos from different artists generating views for these channels and not for the artists themselves.
Even in cases where some relationship exists between the artist and the owners of the aggregation channel (examples of record labels’ YouTube channels fall into this group) the way the same videos on these channels end up being uploaded on third party channels shows how the property is never secured in the first place.
The entire practice can be avoided if artists only take the time to learn the essentials of content distribution online. Where artists cannot do it themselves, their managers are the ones who are supposed to assume that responsibility.
The process would involve creating the artist’s own official channel, registering ownership of material that is shared on the account and ultimately preventing anyone else from putting up the same song or video from a different account without their permission.
When another account tries to do this, the platform will, after identifying any similarities with any other content that is registered under another name and creator, prevent any further use of that song or video unless permission is granted.
Securing future revenues through technology
This sad situation surrounding YouTube content rights has been blamed on different factors. According to some people in the industry, the greatest challenge for artists is learning the basics of the internet as a music business tool as well as the revenue opportunity that comes with securing digital intellectual property rights.
As it stands, the money generated from YouTube advertising on content is paltry, and it only becomes substantial when a high number of views are generated on each piece of content. This has resulted in a lot of local artists writing off streaming revenue as a potential money earner.
According to Hope Masike, one of the local artists who have taken measures to secure content through official online distribution channels like YouTube, as well as Apple’s iTunes; when pressed with the need for immediate answers to the financial strains of managing a music career, digital channels that don’t have “substantial” immediate returns are usually ignored.
The same sentiment was echoed by a local producer, Begotten Sun, who says that instead of securing their great work online, artists sadly concentrate their efforts on low-hanging fruit revenue streams like live performances and whatever customised CD and DVD distribution model an artist can figure out on their own.
It all makes sense as an immediate business decision, but it’s a huge sacrifice of future revenues and the pleasure of the never ending returns on work that was crafted and perfected in the past.
When content isn’t secured, not only is the paltry revenue not realised, but other people can make money off it, either through views or even registering it as their own.
The reality of that nightmare hasn’t hit home for any artist as yet, but in the world of music and entertainment, there’s no telling what a sample from a song can be turned into by another artist a few years down the road.
An opportunity currently exists for people with the passion and understanding to step up and work with artists and their management, helping distil the opportunity of online video content distribution and intellectual property security.
The work done in this respect would secure content that is created now for future monetisation prospects. It’s hardly a play for revenue now, but as long as platforms like YouTube exist, it’s something that needs to be taken seriously.
Update – We had previously mentioned Winky D as one of the artists without an official YouTube account which wasn’t accurate. His official account is Winky Online.
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