Making It Big In Mainstream Music



What does it take to “make it big”? In the music industry, this question is often asked – perhaps more so than any other. Making it in music is challenging. It’s a fiercely competitive industry, bursting at the seams with talented up-and-comers trying to carve out a space for themselves amongst a sea of already established and well-loved artists. It helps to start by understanding the global context in which musicians are now operating.


“The music industry has changed worldwide with respect to how we consume music and the technology that enables it,” says record producer, sound engineer, musician and head of A&R at Just Music, Matthew Fink. Highly acclaimed South African performer Lira echoes this statement and says that “musicians have to find new ways of preserving their craft” now that they’re operating on a global stage.


Speaking specifically about the South African music landscape, 5FM radio presenter and producer Nick Hamman sees it as a space that is “more diversified than ever before. This makes it difficult to analyse as a unified whole, as many markets within the landscape operate largely in isolation from each other.” Within the contemporary youth space that 5FM plays in, there has been an explosion of incredibly talented artists and producers across a wide variety of genres. “Overall,” says Nick, “I think it is an exciting time to be in the South African music scene.”


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Someone who shares these sentiments is Wynand Myburgh, a member of Van Coke Kartel and the manager of Jack Parow. His extensive travels have shown him how the music industry differs from country to country. He says, “Everywhere in the world there are people that aspire to perform, to create or even to become stars. South Africa is rich in culture. We have produced highly successful rock bands, created new genres like kwaito and more recently, we have seen a massive explosion in hip hop. From a creative point of view, I think our industry is on an all-time high.” Still, there is room for improvement – while our industry is relatively young, Wynand feels that it lacks a lot of infrastructure and government backing to foster development and maintain a standard.


A definite shift in this arena is occurring over radio and television platforms, with an increasing amount of homegrown content being aired. The broadcasting and license agreements that radio stations and TV networks have with ICASA control the percentage of local music that must be played, and the organisation will soon be introducing quotas which channels who aren’t pushing enough local content will have to comply with. Even with regulations in place, it’s still a matter of getting your songs into the right ears. “The question asked when a song is submitted to any station is not whether it is good or bad. Taste is a unique experience and attempts at such a classification would be pointless,” says Nick. However, there are a few benchmarks used to measure whether a song is ‘good for radio’. “We look at duration. A pop song usually shouldn’t be longer than 4 minutes. A quick and punchy intro, good quality production and accessibility will always work to an artist’s favour.”


As the director at Dream Team SA and the chairperson of the SAMAs, Refiloe Ramogase comments on the value of awards shows in the music industry. “They are great PR platforms for musicians,” he says. “A top award show in SA will have television audiences of between 1.5 and 5 million viewers. These represent new potential audiences that an artist/band can then harvest and monetise.” For musicians, the size of their audience and their profits most often go hand in hand. “Making music is an honest living,” says Matthew. “If lucrative is what you’re after, you’re going to need a hit record.” Lira counters that being a musician can be lucrative, but it requires financial responsibility. “Artists who are popular on the live performance scene can make loads of money very quickly and often lose it just as quickly.”




Interestingly, when asked what a money-making sound in SA is, Afrikaans music was mentioned almost unanimously. “Dance music will always be popular, but as evidenced by last year’s top selling album by Riana Nel, good old fashioned wholesome music is still far more popular,” says Lira. The commercialised Afrikaans market remains one of the most economically powerful, and the fact that Skouspel have partnered with Big Concerts to sell the FNB Stadium is a testament to their strength. Even so, high physical CD sales or gigs don’t necessarily translate to be the most profitable overall. This is especially true when, as Nick points out, there are so many more avenues for creating revenue than there have been in the past. “Musicians today make money on Youtube, through radio play, endorsements and sync deals,” he says. It’s not that stats don’t count, it’s just that originality counts for so much more. According to Refiloe, “There is no ready-made sound. The market rewards newness and freshness.”


While many musicians go the indie route, none can deny the value of having a strong team or a support base – the kind found through a record company or a talent management agency. Not all agreements are the same – the label may facilitate the production whereas some artists provide a completed recording – but generally speaking, a label’s primary function is to market, distribute and promote the material. “Getting signed and receiving bucket loads of money from a label for merely ‘arriving’ is an urban legend,” says Matthew, who is looking for great song writing, captivating stage presence and the elusive ‘X-factor’ in an artist. Either that, or “The Beatles produced by Dre.” Another route is to find a manager, a looser role that can be defined according to the parties involved. Certain managers will give creative input, others will simply perform an administrative role. No matter the arrangement, Wynand emphasises that “It’s not up to a manager to make you famous, that quality is something that should come from you.”


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Nick sums up the saturated music industry saying, “It’s not as though the pie has got bigger, but there are a lot more people trying to grab a slice.” So, the question begs repeating, what does it take to “make it big”? “No-one who is big does not have something special about them on top of working extremely hard. Those are two of the most crucial things,” says Wynand. From Lira’s experience, commitment and perseverance are what it takes – her own slow, steady journey to success bears testament to this. In her early days, when judging her progress on a month-to-month basis became too disheartening, she took a step back to monitor how far she’d come over 6 months or a year. But she knew that every bit of effort she put in would contribute to the bigger picture, and she kept at it – taking every opportunity that came her way and forging her own when opportunities didn’t present themselves. “You had better have patience, tenacity and heart,” says Refiloe. “This thing seldom happens overnight.” For Nick, it largely boils down to talent. “Cheap tricks won’t give someone a long and fruitful career. Malleability and the ability to stay relevant over time is very important. The South African music industry is very small and interconnected. A good attitude can go a long way, but so can a bad one.”




Follow this Glenfiddich series for more articles and interviews with 7 forward thinkers in art and culture to discuss their careers and what they predict for the future of their industries.



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