31 Dec 2019 doesn’t only end a year, but a decade. What did that mean for music and the arts more broadly? Wherever we look, we’re faced with the imperative to find different ways of doing things.
Streaming assassinates serendipity
Face it, album sales have tanked. The rise of music streaming has been the industry trend of the decade. It offers convenience to music consumers and a worldwide reach to music creators. Maybe…
South African artists often pay dollars they can’t afford to earn cents from streaming. They see their holistic creative concept (because, irrespective of format, that’s what a jazz album represents) disaggregated into floating single tracks because, hey, 99c is more affordable than $10 for the whole thing.
The streaming services operate in a highly integrated digital communications industry, so that often what they offer is something some other arm of their profit machine has a financial interest in selling. And so they create algorithms designed to shift you from what you might be interested in hearing to what they think you should buy. (I’m indebted for some of this framework to Nick Pinkerton’s Guardian analysis of movie streaming https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/12/streaming-giants-cinema-history-sites-netflix. Music is slightly different – but not that different) Meanwhile, they control what’s available out there in the aether, and can decide instantly and arbitrarily that something doesn’t exist any more.
You need to know what you’re looking for to search beyond an algorithm serving up things that echo your last search. If you don’t know that something existed, it’s very hard to discover it by chance. (Just try constructing a complete life and discography for any veteran South African musician only from what’s online. Then ask the artist if what you have found is complete and true.) If you believe the myth that everything that ever was exists online and nothing exists outside that, the walls of your world have been squeezed much tighter around you. And while this is going on, the streamers are busy harvesting your data to sell on as their most profitable commodity, to people who seek to make you buy more, or to think, or to vote, their way. Keep an eye on the work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (yes, a different EFF https://www.eff.org/ ) who have an interest in doing things differently.
Placemaking marches on, clubs close, independent spaces open
This time last year, I reflected on the relentless rise of placemaking: the often corporately-directed re-zoning of inner-city and formerly low-income areas such as those around Maboneng. Placemaking masks itself in pre-existing social and cultural capital, commissioning murals behind which homes and job-creating micro-businesses get bulldozed to make way for artisanal coffee shops and apartments that generate fat rentier profits. Joburg’s inner city, from Jeppe Hostel to Hillbrow, continues to be privatised and hollowed-out by this process. While in the short term a few cool arts spaces may emerge from it, in the longer term they’ll only survive if they can enhance the profitability of the other stuff. Which means they’ll need predominantly to serve high-spending elite arts consumers. Once more, impoverished communities that already exist and assert their own creativity get shafted. See
In January, the Orbit jazz club closed. That wasn’t entirely unconnected to placemaking in Braamfontein – gentrification raised the overheads of sustaining a large venue and handed unsympathetic property companies control over the environment such a place needs. That was only one cause among many, however, and ticketed metropolitan venues raise their own issues of inclusion and exclusion.
But, as many of us hoped, alternative spaces, established and new, are filling the gap. When the Roving Bantu Kitchen https://rovingbantu.co.za/ hosts jazz these days, there’s often standing room only. Intermittently, the Untitled Basement on Reserve Street (https://www.facebook.com/UntitledBraam/ ) hosts the same kind of creative improvised music the Orbit used to embrace. And now, sharing its underground amenities but otherwise independent, another multi-use performance space has opened right next door: The Forge (https://www.facebook.com/theforgejhb/ ) The Forge opened in early December with free afternoon sets from Tumi Mogorosi and the Ancestors and Zoe Modiga, nailing its flag firmly to the mast of innovative music. It’s a sister space to the Commune Bookshop over the road, and has modest areas for exhibition, theatre, movies and music. That opening gig was packed by an audience that listened thoughtfully and grooved joyfully. Before the music began, the collective that shapes policy for the Forge explicitly outlined a mission to keep its events progressive, relevant and accessible in terms of cost and hours – for once, somebody’s thinking about the politics of placemaking and about doing things differently.
Brands own the arts
Another multi-use space opening last year was the AMPD Studios in Newtown. That’s a ‘creative incubator’ launched by Old Mutual; it’s clear about the bond it sees between the words ‘creative’ and ‘entrepreneurship’, and it’s unlikely to be a space where you’ll find advocacy for anti-capitalist creative praxis. It does have a knowledgeable advisory board, however, including the wise Letta Mbulu, and resources to learn and exercise music skills – how learners choose to use those skills must be their own decision.
But the AMPD Studios also illustrates the extent to which brands – especially finance houses – now own important aspects of the South African arts and are able to frame them as inseparable from global capital. Given the near-abdication of government – the erosion and instrumentalism of arts programmes in recent curricula; the failure to nurture independent community arts initiatives, and more – that’s hardly surprising. Support from somewhere has to be better than support from nowhere, doesn’t it?
Because what we haven’t seen enough of here yet is the debate and activism emerging elsewhere about the ethics of accepting such support. If some donor (private or state) reaps its surplus from planet-destroying fossil fuels, or winking at exploitative labour conditions, or spreading fake news, or peddling arms to Saudi Arabia, or building factories in the occupied West Bank, then accepting its sponsorship means you are colluding in making evil look good. Helping multiple ‘emerging artists’ out of their creative chrysalises – however fine the music sounds or the art looks – doesn’t change that. We need to talk about that, and about the fact that, historically, from the AACM in Chicago to the Gaur Collective in the Basque country, to the MAPP and the People’s Parks of South Africa’s struggle, people have the ability find ways to make and enjoy art outside ‘the system’. There are always other ways.
Artists asking questions: how did we get here?
And thus starting to interrogate the current set-up and look for alternatives has been gathering pace over the past decade. Greater numbers of musicians, including jazz players, are interrogating the prisons of current politics and economics, both through their work, and on panels and in debates. All kinds of fake cultural histories and theories obscure the debate. We are still told that political art has no aesthetics (and, indeed, that ‘politics’ is a word to be ashamed of). We are told that a ‘cultural/creative industries’ paradigm is the only framework for policy-making. (It was certainly the sole perspective any party manifesto employed in the recent election.) Yet across the world, that framework is being critiqued and rejected. (For an article linking this back to the mythology of placemaking, see here http://archive.sciencewatch.com/dr/fmf/2010/10novfmf/10novfmfPeck/ ; for a discussion of how inappropriate it is for African music, see here https://theconversation.com/its-wrong-to-cut-and-paste-global-north-policies-onto-africas-music-industries-123388 )
We are told that things went wrong in the 1990s because the “insiles” and “exiles” fought – a misinterpretation as grotesque as apartheid explaining away its murders as ‘black-on-black violence’. There were certainly all kinds of mutual misperceptions between those who stayed and those who left – but there was pretty solid consensus on the kind of cultural scene both groups hoped and yearned for. (Check out, for example, the documents of the 2001 Music Industry Task Team http://www.concertssa.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/DACST-Music-Industry-Task-Team-MITT-2001.pdf ) At every arts debate I have attended recently, somebody questions the handing-off of the arts to the marketplace that occurred in the 1990s – why and how did it happen and what can we do about it? We need to keep on asking and researching until we come up with some answers about doing things differently.
So let’s end with a questioning song for 2020: Bokani Dyer’s Mogaetsho, from next year’s album: Radio Sechaba:
“This song is dedicated to our leaders/Those leaders who seem to only love us when they need us/Mogaetsho
Remember why/They forget about the people/Remember why
They forget about the people/ your original intention/ mogaetsho
Remember why (Remember why)/They forget about the people
More power, more riches, more confusion/Remember why/They forget about the people/Hungry to lead but you’re going in the wrong direction/mogaetsho
Ofile o batla ke makopo a go tshepa go supa tsela mebileng mobileng (Mogaetsho)/Khumo di tlhakane tlhogo balatedi ba timetse gorileng (Mogaetsho)/Aye iye iye iye! (Mogaetsho)/Re thibetse kahle (Mogaetsho)/Aye iye iye iye! (Mogaetsho)/Igakole mogaetsho”
Have a change-making 2020!