Ninety percent local music on SABC? Too little context; too big a number

In theory a wonderful thing happened today. SABC CEO Hlaudi Motsweneng announced that from midnight last night all SABC radio channels would be broadcasting 90% local music for the next three months. For the past 20 years, the South African music industry has been requesting increased local content quotas, with the more jaded noting that the sincere observance of even the existing meagre quotas by the state broadcaster would be a positive start.

In its announcement, the SABC claimed that it has already regularly been playing 40%-60% local music. Anybody listening to an SABC commercial station at peak hour might have their doubts…

So this is a great move, isn’t it? ISN’T IT?

Actually, not entirely. Let’s be clear: the principle is unarguably correct. Experience from Australia to Zambia, over close to half a century, demonstrates that generous, properly enforced local content quotas grow quality, employment, and revenue for national music industries. Done intelligently, it’s good for national culture too, since it sensitizes listeners to both heritage and current creativity, and implicitly encourages cultural participation. And anything that acknowledges South African talent deserves credit.

But such a move needs a supportive context to succeed.

For a start, it needs ethical, knowledgeable DJs who constantly update themselves about the full range of what is available– not merely the music made by their friends, or by the record labels that treat them well. Those DJs need to be able to talk to their listeners in an informed way about the music they play. Implementation also needs ethical, musically educated producers who can open the selector system to that full range. Sadly, with commercialization (and excepting a few remarkable individuals) SABC channels have juniorised deejaying to the point where some programmes seem to employ only inane, chattering button-pressers; we don’t have too many Shado Twalas or Mesh Mapetlas these days. As one cynical Tweeter opined: “Does [the SABC move] mean PennyPenny on endless repeat?”

So what plans does the SABC have to upgrade and educate its DJs? SABC insiders who were at yesterday’s meeting where the change was announced, say that the fiat came suddenly, with little space for discussion. That does not sound hopeful for a parallel programme of staff development.

For the industry and artists to benefit from the move, radio stations need to be committed to meticulous reporting and full, swift, efficient disbursement of royalties due. The SABC’s record on this has not been untarnished in the past. A cynic might wonder whether punitive exchange rates escalating the future cost of overseas royalties might not be a factor in this decision, and to question whether the move will be accompanied by any more enthusiastic commitment to paying local royalties. Or by the announcement of a more effective and efficient monitoring and reporting system, since most of the rights societies have serious questions about the present one. Or even by an increase in the royalty percentage to accompany the quota change…

What plans does the SABC have to ensure the full financial benefits of the change are released to music-makers?

Although there have been ongoing generic discussions about local content with some South African music industry players for a very long time, it’s not clear to what extent smaller independent music-makers or genre specialists have been included in these talks. Music makers need to be ready to respond to the increased demand for local music. If they are not, the result will be a continuation of the uneven playing field.

What plans does the SABC have to bring small independent music creators into the picture? Without encouraging and facilitating access to the kind of quality and diversity independent music-makers can bring to programming, the result – for pop music – will be either a flood of cheap, imitative time-filler music, or indeed, as that Twitterer feared, the same few headline stars on endless repeat.

Within more specialized music genres, the position is different. Many of those – gospel, Afrikans music and jazz – already have ample good music that doesn’t get enough airplay. Jazz lives in a ghetto of one- or two-hour weekly slots on most SABC stations – when it is played at all. When jazz forms an occasional part of more general music programming outside of those specialist slots (as, for example, on SAFM’s early morning HeadsUp show), it is rare to hear anything less than five years old. The good, new and often highly accessible music that’s bubbling up in the genre – from Bokani Dyer to Tutu Puoane to Frank Paco and more – might as well never have been released.

We’ve been given very little indication of what ‘local music’ will mean, except that the language of lyrics will not be a criterion. That could mean that Afrikaans pop, or (if Africa is ‘local’) Congolese soukous***, or Sotho gospel (all of which are plentiful) get more time on the selector on every station. Is that what’s intended? Changing formats in this way will inevitably impact both listener profile and advertising revenue, and while those impacts may not be negative – the audience for gospel, for example, is larger than all other music audiences combined – the SABC, as a taypayer-funded entity, owes it to the public and Parliament to be transparent about the financial calculations and projections involved.

[***UPDATE NOTE Since this was written, my speculation about more soukous music has unfortunately been proven wrong. I cited it as one African music industry well placed to fill programming gaps, since it has extensive, high-quality product. In fact, music from the rest of Africa has almost disappeared from the SABC airwaves since the 90% diktat. That’s sad in many respects. We are losing damn good music that demonstrates one set of possibilities for building national music industries. Maybe more importantly we’re losing music that expresses and builds shared African identity and humanity, in the face of the inward-looking xenophobia currently being manipulated by corrupt local government election campaigners.]

The position of classical music is more complex. Here, “local music” has often been defined as SA-recorded versions of the European classical repertoire – often recordings from concerts the SABC has sponsored, which, therefore, have smaller cost implications for the broadcaster. What we almost never hear is contemporary South African repertoire. What plans are in place for the increased showcasing of music by, to take a tiny example of contemporary South African composers, Mokale Koapeng, Phelelani Mnomiya, Bongani Ndodana-Breen, Michael Blake or Paul Hanmer?

Finally, there’s that 90%. The world has changed since the Zambian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation created a thunderclap enhancement of their industries with intelligently generous local content quotas. The same dramatic effects are now unlikely to come from one isolated change in quotas without any reforms of the music ecosystem within which they function. That kind of dramatic change came from the operation at that time of a ‘gatekeeper’ model for the role of the (especially state) music broadcaster which simply no longer exists. Today, listeners with any kind of  online link now have multiple sources of music. Those sections of the population who haven’t – the poor, or those living in remote rural areas outside wifi reach – depend on their free-to-air SABC station to find out what’s going on in the music genres they love, and their vision is global, not narrowly local. Music broadcasts serve an informational as well as an entertainment function. A quota as high as 90% risks shutting large segments of the population off from information about music around the world.

Of course, it’s only for an initial three months. A similar limited promise was made by the SABC for the period around the FIFA World Cup in 2010, but made very little audible difference on certain commercial stations. How will the pilot be monitored? How will its ‘success’ or ‘failure’ be defined and then measured? And if it ‘fails’, will we simply return to the current unsatisfactory situation?

We know quotas work, and that South African music is easily plentiful, robust, and beautiful enough to fill a properly implemented 60-70% quota with space to spare for what’s hottest, most intriguing and most startling in the music of the rest of the world. Ninety percent feels a lot like what has now happened to SABC international news reporting: a tiny handful of idiosyncratically selected and often misleadingly compressed items tacked on to a bulletin or feature programme. It feels, in fact, not so much like pride in local music as like political grandstanding, and a retreat from how the listening world currently works.

NOTE: This blog was amended on 12/06/16 to add additional context to paragraph 15.


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