SACEM CEO Cécile Rap-Veber Led the Org to a Record Year: Here’s How – Billboard
Written by GRB on 18/07/2023
“There is a myth that at the SACEM restaurant, there are people serving food with white gloves and an orchestra playing,” the organization’s CEO, Cécile Rap-Veber, says with a hint of amusement in her voice. “It is a good story, but it is not true.”
Rap-Veber, who joined SACEM in 2013 and got the top job in 2021, is referring to what she calls its “old-fashioned” reputation. SACEM, which stands for Société des Auteurs, Compositeurs et Éditeurs de Musique, was founded in 1851 after composers Ernest Bourget, Victor Parizot and Paul Henrion refused to pay their bill at the Paris cafe Les Ambassadeurs until they got paid for the use of their compositions there. It became the first music collecting society, as well as the model for those that followed, and over the years, it grew into something of a French cultural institution: important, successful and perhaps overly aware of it.
Rap-Veber is not running your père’s SACEM, however. As a result of European Union (EU) legislation, collective management organizations (CMOs) in Europe now compete to represent and license online rights throughout the continent (and in some other countries) on behalf of songwriters and publishers. “We are now a global society,” she says.
SACEM still licenses public performance rights in France, but it now competes with other societies, most significantly ICE — a licensing hub owned and operated by the U.K. CMO PRS, the German GEMA and the Swedish STIM — to license works to online services in many international markets. (The United States is not one of them, but SACEM represents online rights in many markets for ASCAP and Universal Music Publishing Group, among others.)
Rap-Veber has pursued a “SACEM 3.0” strategy that she describes as “maximizing rates and minimizing costs,” plus offering new services like URights, which can track the use of music internationally, and MusicStart, which lets creators register their works on a blockchain-based system.
These strategies appear to be working. In June, SACEM announced that 2022 was its best year ever. CMOs across Europe are benefiting from the return of live music and growth in streaming. But SACEM grew more than its peers — its collections increased 31% in 2022 to 1.4 billion euros ($1.5 billion). Even as growth boosts the entire sector, “I have to prove that we deliver the best services at the best cost,” she says. “And honestly, I think we can prove that.”
Congratulations on setting a record for SACEM.
It might be a worldwide record as well. And there is nearly 300 million euros [$328.8 million] more on top of it. In France, we collect neighboring rights [royalties for sound recordings] and private-copy levies [on blank media, which are distributed among rights holders in various businesses] for all the culture industries. So if I talk about the performance of our team, it’s not 1.4 billion euros — it’s 1.7 billion euros [$1.9 billion]. And when I look at the first quarter of 2023, that’s also very good.
Why so good?
In the first quarter of 2022, France still had some COVID-19 restrictions, and then the summer and the rest of the year were great. We also have new agreements — with Hipgnosis, with [Hungarian CMO] Artisjus to collect online, and with ASCAP — plus renewed agreements with better rates, especially for online. And now we collect [for online uses] in more than 150 countries directly.
You talk about running SACEM like a business. Is that a reflection of the competition among the various societies?
There was a time when there was a kind of monopoly in each country. There was no consciousness of the cost because there was no competition. Then the European Commission said any rights holder can withdraw his rights for online uses, and suddenly we were in competition. And we have the highest tariffs in the world.
How do they compare with U.S. royalties under the new Copyright Royalty Board settlement?
They have reached 15.1%, and it will rise. We already had 15% when Apple Music released its service in 2015. And it’s not just the rate — it’s the minimum per subscriber. Ours is higher since it’s independent of discounts. When you see our effective net rate, it’s above 15%. I’m sure it’s easier for us than for a small Eastern European society: It’s the strength of your repertoire, and it’s unbelievable the repertoire we represent.
What’s your reaction to claims that streaming payouts are less fair for songwriters and publishers than recorded-music rights holders?
The highest tariff we had on CDs was 9% of the gross price. Then iTunes forced the community to agree on 8% on each download. Now we’re above 15%. Digital has become our biggest source of revenue. I think the main issue is that [the revenue is] going to very few people. There are people, especially in urban music, who are very happy.
CMOs are coming under pressure from some of the big publishers and platforms, both of which would rather strike direct deals than go through organizations like SACEM.
To go direct with one publisher? What does that mean? We represent [the publisher-led mechanical rights organization] IMPEL, [Canadian rights organization] SOCAN, Artisjus, ASCAP and Universal Music Publishing [among others], so we mutualize our cost [of operations] and we decreased our commission on digital for our members to 9%. That’s what I’m most proud of in the last [few] years. I want to use technology to process more at a lower cost. I think it’s the wrong way to think to go direct: It’s one thing for the majors, but what about the others?
You got the top job at SACEM in an interesting way. The tradition at CMOs is that the chief executive retires with a gold watch, but you basically replaced Jean-Noël Tronc as CEO in 2021.
Jean-Noël had been here for 10 years, and I was about to quit because — honestly, I had a job opportunity, OK? So I left SACEM, and Jean-Noël and the board had a discussion, and they decided to stop their relationship. The board asked me to take the interim job, but I already had this new job. And the team here said, “Are you kidding? You’re not going anywhere!” So I went back to the board and said, “I’m interested if you agree with my plan [for] SACEM 3.0,” and they did.
For a long time, there were no women running CMOs. Now there are many: Beth Matthews at ASCAP, Andrea Martin at PRS, Jennifer Brown at SOCAN and Cristina Perpiñá-Robert at SGAE. What took so long?
There was a lot of ego. It was a small circle of people: “We are so smart, ho ho ho! Let’s have lunch and a cigar.” CEOs then were more focused on an institutional view, and now we’re more focused on day-to-day matters and how to reduce costs. Women know how to reduce costs.
What’s your favorite song?
There are so many, it depends on the mood. The songs of the moment…
Serge Gainsbourg’s “Initials B.B.,” for sure. Songs by David Bowie, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John, The Beatles, “Live and Let Die” from Wings. When you want to feel better, listen to “Sunny” by [German disco act] Boney M. Or Queen of the Night [the aria in “The Magic Flute”] from Mozart.
SACEM operates in a very different legal environment from the United States. France has stronger copyright laws to protect creators but also regulations that require SACEM to set aside money to fund culture.
It’s part of our DNA because that’s what a “collective” is. With SACEM, you have the highest rates in the world: concerts, more than 8%; broadcasters, more than 3%. If we take tiny amounts [for cultural funding], you will still get paid more than from any other CMO.
Some Americans hate this idea on principle.
Many of these cultural funds come from private copy levies that don’t exist in the Anglo-American system. By law in France, and this is typically French, 25% of this revenue must be allocated to cultural action. So we pay out the 75% that no one else in the world pays, except GEMA. The publishers benefit from it, too, because it helps them develop new creators.
According to EU regulations, I am required to ask you about artificial intelligence.
Last year, it was the metaverse, but this will last much longer. We see opportunities and dangers. Opportunities: As a tool, it can help musicians create music. The main issue for us is how we know whether or not our works have been used in a new product [and] how we can get paid. It’s a worldwide discussion, but I think Europe — and I hope France — will be at the center of it. We already have 120,000 songs uploaded a day, and 60% of the 100 million tracks on Spotify have less than 100 streams a year. Why do the platforms take all of this nothing music?
A lot of songwriting talent in Africa is turning to SACEM or other European societies to license their online rights internationally. How are you handling that?
African creators are usually with their local societies for their home countries, but many are SACEM members for the rest of the world. One problem is that many of these societies in Africa are controlled by the government. The only thing I can do is partner with them to help them improve their systems. In Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, we just entered worldwide digital agreements so we can represent their repertoire for the world. We’re working with Morocco, too, and PRS is doing partnerships in some English-speaking countries. The idea is to be a bridge between the continents. I don’t want
to be seen as a colonialist — I want to be a partner.