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Moroccan Artists Earn Applause but Little in Royalties

Source : | 7 June 2012 |  World | 2596 views


CASABLANCA — The Moroccan rock band Hoba Hoba Spirit has legions of adoring fans.

When they are on stage, the audience sings along with every word. They play across Morocco and abroad. Words from their lyrics, such as “fhamator,” or know-it-all, have entered urban slang.

Still, after 10 years and 5 albums they don’t earn enough from their recorded art to live on. They have earned just $220 in royalties from their music, which is a mixture of reggae, rock and the North African indigenous music called gnawa.

“Once we gave a concert with a French band, and when they heard the crowd singing along with us, they thought we were rich,” said Reda Allali, the lead singer of the band. “They told me that in France with only one hit, an artist can live comfortably for years.”

Many artists around the world complain about lack of funding, but in Morocco it seems particularly difficult for a singer or film star to obtain a fair slice of the revenues his or her work produces for others. Arts funding in Morocco is so poorly organized and endowed that King Mohamed VI and his government are trying to remedy the situation by handing some of their favorite singers or film stars licenses for buses and other businesses to subsidize their acting or singing.

Of course, the ability to download music and other media through the Internet has made protecting artists’ copyrights a global problem. But in Morocco, artists say that the agency responsible for monitoring and issuing royalties is not protecting their rights — even when their works are broadcast on Moroccan television and radio.

“Every day our rights are violated,” said a rock singer, Khansa Batma, 33, who comes from a family with a long tradition of making music.

Ms. Batma is the daughter of Mohamed Batma, the founder of Lemchaheb, a group that was famous in the 1970s and 1980s, and the niece of the music legend Larbi Batma, a member of Nass El Ghiwane, a band the American director Martin Scorsese once called “The Rolling Stones of Africa.”

Ms. Batma says that despite their musical success, her family has always struggled financially and that she was unable to complete her college degree because of a lack of funds.

“The Moroccan Bureau for Copyright is supposed to find solutions and ensure respect of intellectual property, including the piracy,” she said. “Without fixing the music market, we will continue to evolve in complete anarchy where it’s best to be friends with the right person.”

The Moroccan Bureau for Copyright has in recent months denied withholding money owed to artists. The bureau could not be reached for comment for this article.

According to Sarim Fassi-Fihri, the president of the producers’ guild in Morocco, progress has been made in the past few years in helping artists collect what they should be paid. The copyright bureau now receives financing from the state, he says, and is more accountable.

The bureau has been around for decades but was not monitored in the past, Mr. Fassi-Fihri said, and there was no way to know where the money was going. While some famous artists have been receiving regular royalties, others received nothing.

He said that laws are not enough and that artists need to be proactive about making sure their works are registered and physically showing up at the office to ask for their money.

“Morocco has signed every international treaty on copyrights, and there are many laws that were passed to make sure authors get their money,” Mr. Fassi-Fihri said. “Many artists are not even registered yet. They need to be forceful about rights that were given to them by the law.”

He said that musicians are the most vocal about the issue but that other artists, like screenwriters and producers in the film world, are in the same boat.

Meanwhile, it seems that artists need to get creative in finding ways to pay their bills.

According to Mr. Allali, the singer, who also writes a weekly column in a magazine and hosts multiple radio shows, the only option for a Moroccan musician to earn a living from music is to perform live. Hoba Hoba Spirit performs about 50 concerts every year.

But he says that perpetual performing is not always a good solution. “There are a lot of problems in this. One can compose music without being a performer, in which case the stage is not even an option,” he said. “It also means that we can never take breaks and record new albums like everybody else.”

Handing out licenses for buses, taxis and other businesses has become an indirect way to finance artists favored by the government. The holders then rent them to someone who wants to start one of these businesses, bringing in several thousand dollars a month for doing nothing.

Such handouts are known as grimmas, and the joke is that those who receive them are winners of the grimma awards. They are suspected of producing work that is flattering to the king and other influential people.

In March, the Transportation Ministry released a list of Moroccans granted bus licenses to some performers. Those on the list included the singers Latifa Raafat and Naïma Samih and the actresses Mouna Fettou and Naïma Lamcharki.

Ms. Batma said that the way Morocco is treating artists showed that the country does not yet recognize their value.

“Respect of intellectual property means becoming aware of the importance of art for a nation and a culture,” she said. “Unfortunately in Morocco, we keep nourishing the festive aspect of art at the expense of the rest.”

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