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Sony Music Entertainment boss implicated in another music event cancellation mired in corruption allegations

Sony Music Entertainment boss implicated in another music event cancellation mired in corruption allegations
Illustrative image | Sources: SA Music Awards (Samas) organiser Nhlanhla Sibisi. (Photo: Supplied) | Sony Music Entertainment Africa MD Sean Watson. (Photo: Facebook) | Durban ICC. (Photo: Supplied)

The South African Music Awards (Samas) are mired in yet another controversy as a leaked document shows concerns over how now-cancelled KwaZulu-Natal funding worth R28-million was going to be spent. It also transpires that the man behind the 2014 Tribe One debacle is a senior member of the board that oversees the Samas.

A document purported to have been leaked from inside the KwaZulu-Natal provincial treasury department reveals internal concerns over highly irregular expenditure that led to the last-minute withdrawal last week of provincial sponsorship of the South African Music Awards (Samas), on the orders of President Cyril Ramaphosa himself.  

News24 reported that Ramaphosa instructed tourism MEC Siboniso Duma to withdraw his department’s sponsorship of the event – a whopping sum of R28-million, according to the leaked document. 

Duma subsequently slammed the media’s use of the figure as part of a “campaign of disinformation”. 

The Samas are run by the Recording Industry of South Africa (Risa), which hit back at the Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (EDTEA) in KwaZulu-Natal on Thursday, 26 October, for pulling the primary funding for its controversial annual event, just three weeks before it was due to take place, on 17 November.

In recent years, the Samas have experienced a slew of setbacks, postponements, dismissals for violation of rules and allegations of mismanagement and corruption, under the leadership of Risa CEO Nhlanhla Sibisi. 

“We note with dismay that a … national cultural asset that has been in operation for 29 uninterrupted years, longer than any other award ceremony in South Africa and the continent, has been characterised as a conduit for looting,” Sibisi said. He noted that Risa had negotiated a three-year contract with the EDTEA and would consult with their “contractual partners… to carve a way forward”.  

Tribe One aftermath

Tribe One Dinokeng

Sony Music Entertainment Africa MD Sean Watson. (Photo: Facebook)

The subsequent uproar is reminiscent of the aftermath of another government-funded music event that failed at the eleventh hour. The organisers of the 2014 Tribe One Dinokeng music festival squandered tens of millions of rands in taxpayer funding on an event that was advertised as the largest music festival in Africa, but which also fell apart weeks before launch. It was spearheaded by Sean Watson, the MD for Africa of the world’s second-largest record label, Sony Music Entertainment, and his colleague and friend, music events producer Jandre Louw. 

Daily Maverick wrote about the Tribe One saga in detail earlier this year. A video summary of that story, by Maverick Life editor, Emilie Gambade, and associate editor, Malibongwe Tyilo, is now available. 

As the primary representative of Sony Music Entertainment Africa – a key stakeholder in the recording industry – Watson is a senior and long-standing member of Risa’s board. It is the organisation’s sole oversight mechanism. Unlike several other collective management organisations (CMOs), Risa is not regulated by the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission, and the industry has no ombudsman or other watchdog entities in place. 

CMOs are responsible for tracking, tallying and distributing royalties to musicians and composers who are their members – effectively, the economy of the music industry as a whole, and a key source of income for artists and composers. 

Last Thursday an image ostensibly of a page from a KZN treasury department document was sent to Daily Maverick, showing a breakdown of the EDTEA’s proposed expenditure for the Samas’ two-night event. The department refused to comment on the provenance of the document.

Sama trouble

The image of a document purporting to be from the provincial KZN treasury which was sent to the Daily Maverick.

“Provincial treasury is seriously concerned with the costs of the event,” the document reads. 

“The Provincial Executive Council of the 23rd of August supported the provincial government partnership with the SAMA in principle [words originally in bold]… 

“The department’s submission to provincial treasury does not indicate whether the department has assessed the value for money and return on investment of funding this event.”

It provides a summary budget for the event, which includes:

  • R11.5-million for “Sama live broadcast and non-broadcast show cost (Friday and Saturday)”, excluding venue fee (estimated at just over R2.9-million);
  • R2-million for a Sama red carpet show on the Saturday night;
  • R1.8-million for pre-event marketing activations;
  • R70,000 each for six “influencers”, excluding “all accommodation, travel and activity fees”, but noting that those would be “for KZN Tourism account”;
  • R6.5-million for a Lifetime Achievement gala dinner;
  • R3-million for a “Sama goodie bag experience at the Durban Promenade”;
  • R225,000 for a Sama golf day; and, crucially,
  • R2.55-million for a “host province association fee” – which appears to be a barely veiled euphemism for a kickback for the KwaZulu-Natal government.

The writer of the report appeared alarmed by this line item, too. “It is not clear who the association is that the department will be paying and why they are paying,” the document reads. 

It also questions why the broadcasting fees are “exorbitant”; why the red carpet event is listed as a separate expense and why there is no indication of the involvement of the SABC or any other broadcaster that could allay such high costs. 

When asked via email whether he denied the EDTEA’s budget breakdown for this year’s Samas – the organisation’s signature event – or why neither he nor the rest of the Risa board queried its contents, Watson did not respond.

According to its website, another of Risa’s current board members is Sipho Dlamini, who quietly left his post as CEO for sub-Saharan Africa of the world’s largest record label, Universal Music Group to join music company Gamma in March 2023. His apparent removal and replacement by Manusha Sarawan should have extended to Risa as well, as the organisation’s MOU requires that its board be staffed by an elected group of representatives of the major record labels, as well as representatives of local independent labels.

In 2018, Dlamini was implicated in a forensic investigation regarding a R47-million investment of Southern African Music Rights Organisation (Samr) members’ royalties into a new CMO in the United Arab Emirates, which never got off the ground. Dlamini, who was the CEO of Samro at the time and who proposed and spearheaded the investment over several years, left the organisation to take up the top job at Universal Music Group while the scandal was unfolding. The funds’ disappearance was never fully investigated, although the forensic investigation recommended that Samro pursue the matter criminally. 

Unmitigated disaster

Samas discord

Jandre Louw (far right) with former South African president Nelson Mandela. (Photo: Facebook)

Watson’s purported business partner, Jandre Louw, replaced Watson as CEO of the Samas for two years, when he left to head up Sony Music Entertainment in 2009. Louw’s second event in 2011, which he moved from Sun City to Montecasino in Johannesburg at great cost, was an unmitigated disaster. He was fired shortly thereafter, and went on to helm the Tribe One Dinokeng festival attempt, along with Watson. The failed concept cost residents of the City of Tshwane at least R45-million and resulted in an empty field. 

Sama’s long-term headline sponsor, MTN, pulled out of the event for good in 2013. Risa has had to fundraise annually ever since. 

Artists say they are thoroughly fed up with the rolling allegations of incompetence, mismanagement and corruption, the opacity of the operations and the behaviour of executives at South African CMOs like Risa, which exist solely to ensure artists – some of the country’s most vulnerable and exploited professionals – get paid their dues from the songs they compose and perform. 

“We are just participating with crumbs in this industry,” said Grammy award-winning South African artist and record producer Zakhele Madida, known as Zakes Bantwini. 

‘We should be ashamed’

Samas discord

Zakes Bantwini says the Samas have broken musicians’ trust. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

“We should all be ashamed, because we’re all consuming music –brands, government, the private sector – everybody should be ashamed. Why can’t we preserve the music industry, making sure that the artists that we enjoy so much can be supported, so that they continue making music?” 

Following the 28th Samas in 2022, Risa CEO Sibisi pledged to “overhaul” the Samas, following public denouncements by Bantwini and others, who complained that the judges– and the event planning and execution in general – were simply not up to standard. Bantwini said nominees simply didn’t attend last year’s event because of “the judging processes being unjust, corrupt and myopic thinking and a lack of vision.” 

“Regrettably the Samas have broken our trust, they have devalued the honour and prestige, which the awards once stood for. There is no integrity in the way in which the show is being produced … in extending the basic courtesy of respect to the artist,” Bantwini said.


Samas implosion

Nhlanhla Sibisi, CEO of the Recording Industry of South Africa, has noted ‘with dismay’ that the SA Music Awards, ‘a national cultural asset … has been characterised as a conduit for looting’. (Photo: Gallo Images / Oupa Bopape)

At the time, Sibisi attributed the organisation’s failings, and subsequent delays in staging the 2023 awards, to a lack of sponsorship post-Covid. 

The Trade Union for Musicians of South Africa (Tumsa) said this latest Sama scandal once again brings to the fore the “stark reality” of the severe challenges facing those brave enough to try to pursue music as a career. 

“It is difficult to equate a provincial department spending such an exorbitant amount of un-budgeted resources on a one-night [sic] event that historically and controversially has been known to cater mainly for Industry elite and their acquaintances, most of whom are not musicians themselves.”  DM


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