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 emphasis 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."