Amapiano: people power plus WhatsApp breaking the legacy music value chain

A friend of mine – admittedly not a dance fan – was once invited to watch the video of Riverdance. After 20 minutes of Michael Flatley doing his interminable heel-toe-begorrah thing, she horrified her hosts by piping up “When does it actually start?”

Bandwagon-jumping – and will album covers ever stop using anonymous women as decoration?

Too much bandwagon-hopping amapiano music – currently hitting the airwaves in anticipation of the Desemba party season – sounds like that. It’s a backing track: a slice of rhythm waiting for a soloist to do something interesting over the top. Not all of it, however, as the links in Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi’s interesting analysis in New Frame make clear – we should not, by now, even need to argue that a really good DJ is as much of a creative improviser as any horn player. If you want to know how the best of the genre sounds, Mohlomi’s your man.

Where he’s dancing on shakier ground, however, is in his argument about what it needs right now, which his headline-writer summarised as “monetising in the marketplace.” (That headline – thank goodness – has now been changed. The drift of the story has not.)

That’s the last thing it needs. If it happens, amapiano as a fresh musical force will die. Rather, the future lies in the kind of grassroots anti-commercial infrastructures that musicians in other countries, such as (pre-Bolsonaro) Brazil, have built to break free of Big Music.

Broken value chain

We’ve known for 20+ years worldwide that digital has broken and upended the music industry value chain. It used to be that musicians bust their guts earning peanuts working crummy stages for half their lives to score a recording deal. No longer. Now, as increasingly anybody with a smart device can put sounds together, the ‘recording’ becomes a promo tactic to draw people to your shows. Live performance and all the things you can leverage off it (T-shirts; CDs and DVDs of that set, as it happened – because it’ll never be precisely the same again – more) are now the top prizes on the value-chain. There’s a library full of industry studies discussing that.

Big Music strikes back

That unsettled a lot of people – but it unsettled Big Music most of all. Ever since then, the legacy capitalist music companies have been brewing up tactics to restore their position as prime surplus-value extractors from working musicians. They have, to some extent, succeeded. The mission of A&R at the labels is now to seduce artists who have already built their own followings via social media – so they can skim a percentage off work they didn’t do, for as long as the artist stays in ‘fashion’. For many musicians, paying to keep an album on a streaming or digital sales platform costs more (in dollars) than the cents they receive from it. If musicians earned peanuts before, that’s diminished to pine nuts today. Pulverised.

What’s most exciting about amapiano is that it’s the first of our home-brewed, syncretic, groove-driven sounds for dancing to take really full advantage of the people’s internet – WhatsApp – for distribution.images.jpg

What was most depressing about Mohlomi’s article was the number of his music-maker sources clamouring to hand over the autonomy won from that in exchange for the “expertise” of the labels. Sure, Big Music has expertise – in making profits. Making interesting music comes way down the list of priorities, and spending money on an artist – once you’ve stopped being flavour of the month – even lower.

Collective people-power

Brega-funk-dancers Recife.jpg
Baile funk in Recife, Brazil

But there is another way. It’s a way pioneered in Brazil about a decade ago, by people who didn’t aim to be commoditised “brands”, but rather to keep their low-income communities dancing, creating, thinking and eating. Nevertheless, it engendered a national, high-earning, off-axis circuit, and was one of the foundations of the Brazilian funk movement, which has today seen baile funk – a form analogous to our various incarnations of SA house and which started at favela (township) house and street parties (baile) – heading to be named a national cultural treasure. (At least, pre-Bolsonaro, because the music and even more its grassroots organisation pose implicit challenges to the current rightwing regime. Even before his ascension, conservative senators were calling for it to be banned.) The musicians did it not by entering “the marketplace”, but by coming together to start their own, autonomous, collective-based industry model. This article from Open Democracy describes the roots of the movement. This one talks organisational logistics

Kiss of death

Pop music is by its nature ephemeral. Nothing wrong with that – it’s the seed-bed for all kinds of edgy new ideas. Signing a hot trend to a major label, however, is the kiss of death. The trend becomes a brand: novelty frozen into provenly marketable formulae; risk-taking and experiment stifled. Remember Nkalakatha? Next thing you know, amapiano will start being danced to by bankers at Northcliffe braais, and discussed by middle-aged 702 presenters with cut-glass accents. Which latter…er… actually happened  a couple of weeks back.

Fortunately, grassroots musicians keep on inventing – so what’s next?

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