Unsung Heroes VI: David Alexander
by Sheldon Rocha Leal
In 1998 I made a decision that I was going to follow my true calling and abandoned the prospect of becoming a lawyer to purse a career in Music, my first love. It was a risky move, fraught with potential pitfalls and the possibility of a life filled with many struggles, including financial deficits. Although it has been difficult at times, it is fortuitous how the universe opens all the right doors when one is on the path to self-actualisation, almost as a confirmation. As part of my journey I have met many interesting and influential people in the music industry and one of them is the iconic David Alexander.
In my first year after completing my first degree, I enrolled at Allenby Campus to complete a Sound Engineering Diploma. I felt that if I was going to pursue a career in music, I should at least have an understanding of the technical side of the business. It was, therefore, only in 2000 when I entered the second year of music studies at Allenby and first met David Alexander. He was the Music Business lecturer at the institution and I was in awe of his knowledge and foresight. He instilled in me a passion for South African music and music traditions, something I had previously not possessed, as well as a passion for the business of music.
I was so inspired by what he did (and does) that I spent the majority of my postgraduate studies investigating and documenting the South African music industry, as a way of adding to the body of knowledge about the industry. Something that is greatly lacking in this country. I even interviewed him for my Honours degree capstone project, 11 years later. David Alexander was the first person who told me that “in the future” we would be listening to music off a little box on which we could store hundreds of albums, an MP3 player. This was before the iPod even hit the market. His insight into the music industry was like being exposed to a music business oracle. It was this ability to stay ahead of the curve, as well as trend forecast, align himself strategically and identify the gaps in the market, which has made him a music business success, leader and maverick.
So who is this man and what has his contribution been to the South African music industry? Well, that’s what I’m here to elucidate…
David Alexander was born and bread in Johannesburg and eventually matriculated from the prestigious King Edward VII school in Houghton Estate. He says that at this point in his life he wasn’t focused on music and never imagined he would pursue a career in the sector. It was only whilst completing his tertiary studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT) that his interest in a music career were piqued. At UCT he formed part of student council and as a member he was responsible for events management, organising gatherings such as RAG and inter-university encounters. As the chief in charge of events he would select the repertoire and book the acts that would appear and be played at sanctioned occasions.
He then left the country for a period and on his return established a music industry magazine, which gained some traction with advertisers, but not with the buying public. Using the experience he’d acquired booking bands and at the magazine he progressed to managing bands and artists. He started producing music videos and music, with a subsidy granted by the SABC, at the time, to generate authentically South African content. The success of this work led to the establishment of his own promotions and artist management company, which later spun-off into a music publishing division, Sheer Music Publishing in 1996. In order to promote the artists he was representing he also started a recording label and a distribution wing. He has been a member of the music fraternity, in total, since 1991. This is quite a feat for a guy who started off his tertiary studies in theology and later graduated with a Bachelor of Social Science from UCT.
David Alexander is the personification of the entrepreneurial spirit, being able to identify the next gap in the market and place himself in the strategic position to benefit from these gaps. His ability to remain one step ahead of the curve has ensured his longevity in the music business. I remember approaching him at a Moshito festival in 2011, where we were both guests speakers, and asking him about his business and the state of the industry. This was at a time when recorded music revenues halved with the advent of the new virtual music reality and digital piracy, resulting in many major recording labels scrambling to determine there next course of action. He told me that his business was doing better than ever, because he is in the business of content, and that the industry would always need content to function.
This conversation stuck with me for many years: he is completely right, without content the music industry ceases to exist, so whoever controls or owns the content controls the business. It has taken decades for musicians to realise that they are actually in the power seat and in recent years we have seen music creatives taking back their industry from big business, with the advent of the DIY Musician. In 2020 Independent Recording labels (Indies) controlled 34.5% of the recorded music market, resulting in a drop in the major record label’s domination from 66.5% to 65.5%. Indies have been growing incrementally over the last few years and majors (Sony, Universal and Warner Bros.), as single entities, are now smaller than the combined force of independents. The music industry, as a whole, saw a 7.4% increase in revenues in 2020, which amounted to a rise of $1.5billion, during one of the world’s worst health crises and over 60% of this income was generated from streaming. Additionally, famous songwriters and creatives have started selling their publishing for millions to big business, people like Stevie Nicks, Paul Simon, Shakira…Big business has finally cottoned on to the fact that the money is in publishing and content. David knew this decades ago.
David was very clever in his business dealings, aligning himself and his companies with various key music industry stakeholders and benefiting from these associations. In the long run, not only did he achieve personal success because of his dealings, the people he represented also benefited professionally and financially. There have been many firsts in this iconic music business executives’s career. He was the youngest member of the National Organisation of Reproduction Rights in Music (NORM) in 2004 and later become the institution’s Chairman. In 2014 he oversaw the split of the company into 2 entities: The Music Publishers’ Association of South Africa (of which he is a director) and Composers and Publishers Association of South Africa (CAPASSO). David was also a founder of the Musicians Union of South Africa (MUSA), MOSHITO in 2003 (the biggest music conference in Africa) and the South African Music Export Council (SAMEX), of which he was chairman.
He also sits on the board of the International Music Publishers Forum (IMPF) and SAMRO, the South African Music Rights Organisation. David has been a regular attendee at MIDEM (Marché International du Disque et de l’Edition Musicale) held annually in Cannes, France. In 2016 at an annual general assembly of the International Federation of Music Publishers (ICMP), held at MIDEM, he was appointed to the Popular Music Bureaux, representing African Music Publishers’ Associations. As part of his duties, on the board, he is responsible for keeping the global music industry alerted to threats to intellectual property on the African continent. Besides being a member of SAMRO (South Africa’s biggest collection society), Sheer Music Publishing is also a member of the Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK) and Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON). The company also represents the publishing interests of various international companies in South Africa: Kobalt Music Publishing, Bicycle Music Group, Mushroom Music, Mute Songs, Songs Music Publishing and Passport Music.
Sheer Music Publishing controls the publishing interests of various including Cassper Nyovest, Kwesta, The Parlotones, Sauti Sol (from Kenya), Orezi (from Nigeria), Salatiel (from Cameroon) and Stonebwoy (from Ghana). Other South African songwriters represented by the company include: RJ Benjamin, Cedric Samson, Philip Miller, Mandoza, Chris Chameleon, Kabelo, Gito Baloi, Zahara, Stimela, Van Coke Cartel and Brendan Jury. The company has placed music on a variety of TV shows and movies including the Academy Award winning “Tsotsi”, four time Oscar nominated “District 9”, “Private Practice”, “Jacob’s Cross” and “Big Brother Africa”. Furthermore, a subsidiary of the company, Skumba Music, possess the largest South African music library catalogue in the country, consisting of over 350,000 high quality recordings, and growing.
By 2020 Sheer Music Publishing was lauded as the largest independent music publisher in Africa, which lead to a major acquisition by Downtown Music Holdings, who was looking to expand their interests into Africa. Downtown Music Holdings, which also owns CDBaby, FUGA and Songtrust, amongst other assets, have now spread their interests to 6 continent in over 20 cities worldwide. This acquisition would give South African and African artists signed to Sheer Music Publishing access to an international platform and more importantly online and virtual music distribution networks. The association would help elevate African music onto an international stage, whilst giving Downtown Music Holdings access to a burgeoning and relatively unexplored African market. The African population consists of 1.2billion people, of which 60% are under the age of 25, the youngest population in the world. According to a 2021 report by IFPI, Africa & the Middle East are the third fastest growing music regions in the world (after Latin America & Asia), experiencing an 8.4% increase in 2020. Downtown’s acquisition was clearly orchestrated to take advantage of the latter mentioned market realities and opportunities.
From a kid in Johannesburg to one of the most influential record executives not only in South Africa, but in Africa and the world, David is the embodiment of, if you want to achieve something, set your mind to it. His attention to detail, entrepreneurial aptitude and passion for the music industry has articulated into not only personal professional success, but success for those associated with him and his companies. I am proud to say that I got the opportunity to study under this great man and interviewed him for one of my postgraduate degrees, giving me the opportunity to bring our relationship full circle. I know that the successes and accolades will keep on coming for this legendary music executive and hopefully one day I’ll be reporting about how he’s been awarded the Order of the Ikhamanga.
He taught me that we need to be proud of our music industry, that there is greatness in South African music and the music business and has gone to illustrate this in innumerable ways. David Alexander is the personification of the fact that it is not only the stars that make a difference in the music business, but that the industry is a success because of all the people who work behind the scenes. The reality is that the people who work behind the scenes are more often than not the real stars of the business and the ones who make it work and David is more certainly one of these stars.