Is capitalism the only road to making it in the music biz?


Every time I attend a music industry gathering, I am struck by how far behind the curve our cultural policy-makers are.

Last weekend’s KZN Music Industry Imbizo, where I was a speaker, was a modest affair: a trade exhibition, some live performance showcases, and three days of talking heads variously pontificating, educating and entertaining, all folded inside the faded glory of Durban’s historic Royal Hotel. This year, the seventh edition was slightly more modest than the organisers had hoped, since despite a go-ahead from provincial funding mechanisms back in May, the cash still hadn’t arrived by the opening date of August 27th.

Nevertheless, there was an impressive guest list, headed for South Africa by one of the fathers of our modern jazz, Themba Mkhize, and for the visitors by Monte Malone, Senior Vice-President of A&R Worldwide and Seymour Stein, vice-president of Warner Bros Records and founder of legendary label Sire Records.

The symposium sessions were packed to overflowing. The seminar audience, though, was dominated by youngsters, all bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and eager to learn how to become a (hip-hop) star. We saw far fewer faces from music education, and from genres such as traditional music and gospel.

A young audience at the Imbizo exhibition
A young audience at the Imbizo exhibition

That was probably a pity, since both those genres are far larger than hip-hop – and gospel, nationally, is larger than all other genres of South African popular music rolled into one. Both traditional music and gospel have made necessity the mother of invention, developing their own highly effective professional networks, product outlets and performance circuits way below the radar of conventional industry commentators. They have much grassroots wisdom to share.

But what the dominance of youth did demonstrate is that digital savvy – at least at an individual level – is far higher in a roomful of musically-inclined young people than in a boardroom full of distinguished arts and culture bureaucrats. Everybody was wired into some kind of device, running the gamut from beat-up feature phone to shiny laptop; busily Tweeting, photographing, recording, taking notes, checking data. Nobody needed the power, speed and reach of the digitally-transmitted MP3 music file explained to them – they just wanted to learn how to use it better.

Nobody suggested that hunting down taxi-rank cassette vendors was still the industry’s most important battle. Indeed, Power FM’s Unathi Memela described how the Bree Street rank could be converted into an ally by the simple expedient of making drivers sales agents for CDs, “without even beating anybody up.”

But if there was a decent grasp of ‘how?’, the audience remained eager to debate ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ And there we began to see, starkly, the contradictions within the ‘creative industry’ paradigm for thinking about the music industry.

Often in the same address, contributors wrestled with the conundrum of being both the anomic, solipsistic, successful ideal-type capitalist entrepreneur, and staying a decent human being. Industry consultant Vusi Leeuw summed up the paradox perfectly, although he was by no means the only speaker to exist inside it. He urged the need for respect between industry players – but followed that up with “And respect money too. If you’re doing something for love, go to charity and stay there (…) That’s not a bad thing; it’s capitalism. Ubuntu has gone out of the window and I’m grateful for that.”

A little hard-headed self interest is perhaps understandable. South Africa experienced a long period of righteous cultural volunteerism in the service of the struggle. That was followed by an equally long period when politicians in a now- liberated South Africa continued to demand that musicians donate their services under some slogan or another. A little cynicism is likely to be added to the mix when it becomes apparent that some of those politicians were at the same time enthusiastically filling their own pockets.

The danger of talking about music within the music bubble is forgetting that many of the industry’s problems and challenges are not unique to the industry. They reflect the society around us. That society is shaped by political choices. And it doesn’t always have to be this way.

Writer Percy Mabandu
Writer Percy Mabandu

Music is not only a commodity to be bought and sold; a thing of price rather than value. It is wholly legitimate that aspiring musicians learn to do business in a more structured and efficient way to pay the bills and feed their families. But music is also the expression of hopes, dreams, fears and desires. Writer Percy Mabandu reminded us, in his readings from his forthcoming book on Winston Mankunku Ngozi that marketability is not the only starting-point for making great music. Yakhal’Inkomo spoke to millions as the top-selling album of its year because it crystallised the shared agony and yearning of “the black man’s pain” – not how things go better with a Coke.  Malone urged “You shouldn’t be in it for the money; your main goal should be the passion for music.” Stein, at the end of a wide-ranging set of reminiscences that began with listening to legendary radio DJ Alan Freed back in his childhood Brooklyn home in the 1950s, reflected “I love what I do…” and urged aspiring musicians not to seek glib formulae, but “have the courage of your convictions.”

Music organizer Akhio Kawahito reflected that the average life-span of a hip-hop artist in the market was “perhaps three years.” Mankunku began playing (piano) in 1950 aged seven. He was still playing (saxophone) more than half a century later, short months before his death. Maybe taking the longer musical view helps in getting a few priorities right?

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