Meet our Member: Sabam in Belgium

(c) StudioDann

In a bright office space on Rue des Deux Eglises in Brussels, sits SAA’s member Sabam. The building, designed by René Aerts and Paul Ramon, has a facade of windows shaped as vintage television screens, making every view a different TV-programme. We met with the CEO Steven De Keyser to learn more about Sabam’s work for audiovisual authors.

''We exist for more than 100 years as a company. Being truly multidisciplinary and multicultural makes us unique, but it also creates challenges.''

Belgium's complex governance system, with its three distinct regions – the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north, the French-speaking Walloon in the south, and the bilingual Brussels capital, not forgetting the German-speaking minority in the East cantons – presents a unique landscape. Steven explained that regional and linguistic nuances can also be seen in TV and film productions. In general terms, in the south, content (in French) tends to be more cultural and a successful film in cinemas attracts around 20-30,000 visitors. While in the north, content (in Dutch) is more entertaining, and films score around 400-600,000 admissions. However, Sabam embraces the multidisciplinary and multicultural dimensions of its country. Steven illustrated with the example of when Sabam brought together screenwriters of Dertigers, a popular TV-series in Flanders, who explained to other writers about how the project was made. This resulted in the development of Trentenaires, a similar series for the context of Wallonia. Another example was the TV fiction 1985, which was a co-production broadcasted on both Flemish and French-speaking channels.

Sabam is committed to making sure that each discipline is empowered within the company, told Steven, and continued explaining that this is why they modernised and changed its governance. The number of members of the Board of Directors is now fewer. There is no longer a revenue threshold for a candidate to the board nor any age limit, and soon an independent chairperson will be appointed. Sabam also aims to enhance diversity in terms of cultural background and gender, and they are engaging more with its members to make them feel included and more participatory.

''We are transforming the way we want to operate, and investing in better understanding of how the rights of our members are being valued.''

Steven told that Sabam wanted better to understand and be present at the table when monetisation or valorisation of authors’ works was being discussed. A project for this year is to simplify the tariffs in the public performance to clarify for those paying Sabam that what they pay for has a value, it is not a tax imposed upon them. On the members’ side, Sabam aims to address the buyout industry and seize new opportunities to monetising their creations. ‘Connecting Creation to Value’, are the three words that sum up Sabam’s 3-years plan and the direction of their work. In terms of figures, Sabam collect 207 million for all its repertoires, whereas over 20 million is for the audiovisual sector. Sabam has almost 5,000 members that are audiovisual authors, from both parts of the country and in all sub-disciplines.

''I'm here because I'm convinced that authors are entitled to an appropriate way of being rewarded.''

Sabam has been a founding member of the SAA at its very start in 2010. However, Steven joined Sabam as their CEO in December 2021, for three reasons. Firstly, because of his conviction that it is essential to foster and sustain creation, by making sure authors are being appropriately rewarded. Secondly, he was drawn to the challenge of taking on an organisation in need of transformation. Thirdly, the complexity of a multicultural and multidisciplinary organisation was also a factor to why he took on the job. Steven is a lawyer by training but has spent most of his career working on what he is most passionate about, people making a difference. With Sabam, these are the members. Before joining Sabam, he integrated Reprobel (the collective management organisation specifically for reprographic rights) and Auvibel (the private copying multi-repertoire CMO) together. Prior, he worked with IP rights in the field of trademark and patent.

What the SAA is doing is essential to the industry and for authors, said Steven, acknowledging the value of the SAA’s position papers and knowledge resources. Due to the changes in Sabam governance and focus on transitional and organisational development, he noted though that Sabam was not yet making enough use of the benefits of the SAA. However, he promised that in the future they would make sure to contribute and get a return on their membership.

It is a crucial period ahead of us, said Steven, referring to what Artificial Intelligence means in terms of technological evolution and for their members’ rights. There is also an economic drive and pressure to lowering costs of production, hence why we see buyouts, he added. He shared his observation that while the cultural and creative sectors were good at describing the problems, they were not always realistic or concrete enough in their solutions to tackle these challenging changes.

In terms of the Belgian EU Presidency, Steven did not have much expectation on what the Presidency could achieve during this elections’ period. Besides the European term coming to its end, the governing cycle on the local, regional and federal levels are also ending this year. However, Sabam took the initiative together with CISAC, to invite Prime Minister Alexander De Croo to meet with CISAC chairman Björn Ulvaeus to discuss AI, the creative economy and the need for a regulatory framework to better protect the rights of authors.

The week after our interview, the Belgian EU Presidency organised a Conference on Copyright in Namur. The SAA's Secretary General, Cécile Despringre, participated in a panel on the first day about ‘creator’s remuneration in the context of musical and audiovisual streaming’. Steven was invited to speak about buyout clauses on the second day. He described buyout practices as a growing industry phenomenon associated with globalisation, a desire for predictability of financial flows and low-cost AI generative alternatives. He stressed how such economically driven practice is unbalanced and based on unequal bargaining power and ignorance. Prohibition is not sufficient, there is a need for peer and consumer pressure, and market transparency. He therefore recommended to build on the principles of the DSM directive, and develop tools that prohibit buyout practices in subsidies, grants and financial aid. Compliance should be controlled and audited so that the industry lives up to requirements for fair remuneration. You can access his and other speakers’ presentation here.

Annica Ryng

Public Affairs and Communication Director, SAA