Death of the dinosaurs: Why does our music industry suffocate innovation?

Edward Kgosidintsi considers the local mainstream vs independent media industries, and why the onus is on us as an audience to grow SA’s experimental music scene. The opinion piece is followed by a two-part Q&A with Angela Weickl and a label executive. 

The South African media industry is structured to suffocate innovation. This is because it’s controlled by an oligopoly of dinosaurs and incumbents who’ve collectively settled on a permanent formula of content generation. Their frozen formula undermines the very value of the artists and audiences they depend on for their fortune and as a result there’s a cap on imagination in this country. An imaginary line which if breached is believed to lead to confusion and disdain from an audience that can only take so much complexity.

The South African Music Industry  (1)

We have a local mainstream media and entertainment industry whose chief interest seems to be pandering prosaic and predictable content to an audience they believe to be just as prosaic and predictable – hence our F.M. radio stations, television networks and arts events are engaged in a synchronised syndication of stupidity. The tabloid is the flagship of the news industry; the soap opera is the flagship of the television industry; the slapstick racial comedy is the flagship of the film industry; and our radio waves are clogged with house music and auto-tuned trap for the youth listener and smooth jazz and chamber music for the older listener. Our entire media industry rises from an assumption that only the most palatable versions of human expression have a viable market in this country. This widespread industry misconception can be attributed to the antiquated methods of market research utilised by key industry players also known as: the dinosaurs. Most of them are still using ratings and voluntary surveys to assess the tastes of the contemporary audiences. Yes, this globalised silicon age audience which hasn’t turned on the television or used their radio for anything other than its USB port in eons. The culmination of this misconception is that South African audiences have become self-sufficient scavengers of media content, depending on the fountain of precarious torrents and homies’ hard drives for their spiritual sustenance. This fountain itself is filtered with limitations of expedience and perhaps its largest disadvantage is that its consumption isn’t statistically quantifiable. This is why there’s an abject disconnect between what the available data says we’re into and what we’re really into.

On the other hand, the local content which reaches global audiences tends to suit the mould of an expected African aesthetic. This rings true especially in the music industry. Hence acts like Shangaan Electro, Black Coffee and DJ Spoko fare much better in foreign markets than Card On Spokes, Bateleur and Hlasko do. The idea seems to be to keep Africa simplistic, nostalgic and primordial in its purity. Jovial repetitive dance music genres like gqom and tribal house hog the spotlight on even the most subversive international media and entertainment platforms like The Fader, Noisey and Boiler Room. African music is sanitised of its strangeness. Dark mutant music being made by the more avant-garde artists of the scene is given the silent treatment by local and international mainstream media because its aesthetic is complex and progressive – all adjectives incompatible with preconceived notions of what African music should sound like.

The South African Music Industry  (2)

The local independent music industry, however innocently infantile it may be, isn’t much better. It’s spoiled by the politics of elitism. Everyone wants to be the sole pioneer and monarchy of the indie scene. So when they gain a little traction, they hinder progress by only booking their bedroom DJ friends at their gigs and starting a label where friendship with its founders is an A&R prerequisite. It’s one big nerdy gentlemen’s club falling over the same sword as their mainstream counterparts: A stubborn and short sighted loyalty to the formula. So fans find the same lineups recycled at all the indie gigs to the point where if you’ve been to one event in the year’s alternative music events calendar, you’ve been to them all. This is why there are amazing local acts that have been signed to obscure indie labels overseas thanks to the democracy of the internet but no one’s ever heard of here. Because they haven’t done their due diligence of schmoozing with the cartel of cool kids who run the events, venues and radio stations which govern the musical landscape both locally and globally. These outsiders concerned only with creative progress pay a collective penance for their sin of not trying to belong. They’re snubbed by the indie oligopoly for wanting nothing to do with the factionism and cliquey politics of the scene. So they remain names only recognisable to other artists and devotees to the underground music scene.

The onus is in our hands as the audience. We must learn a collective approach to supporting the experimental music scene as opposed to the individual based approach we’ve been applying. We must learn to go to shows of avant-garde musicians who aren’t our friends but are just making great music. When it is our friends’ shows we’re going to, we must learn not to make a thousand guest list requests but to just pay for the growth and sustenance of the scene. We must learn to demand more from our events, radio stations and music television networks. We must be uncompromising with our demand for the cutting edge: Always new, always thought provoking, always ground-breaking. Avant-garde for avant-garde’s sake. This credo is what governed the cultivation of the jazz revolution of 1950s, the rock ‘n roll renaissance of the 60s, 70s psychedelia, 80s punk and 90s hip hop. Great movements of counter-culture are fuelled by the frustration of an audience taken for granted. An audience misunderstood by society for too long to stand being patronised anymore. This is South Africa’s threshold moment. We’re tired of being served the same old slop in the pig trough of our media industry.

The South African Music Industry  (3)

I spoke to two key players of the local music industry: Angela Weickl, founder indie label of Cult of Maybe, and an executive of a global record corporation’s South African division who chooses to remain anonymous. I asked them a few questions to gain their insights into where we are and why. Here’s what they had to say.

Angela Weickl

Do you believe the best South African music is reaching its intended audience both locally and internationally? If not, why do you think this is the case?

I feel like SA music is reaching further with every month that passes. Key industry players are championing the cause while artists are becoming more proactive, finding new means to share their music and also travelling abroad to get their music heard. It is a gradual process, the results of which are not easily measurable but will have long term effect.

There seems to be a blatant disconnect between the new wave of alternative local music showcased at quaint exclusive events as well as on the internet and what’s playing on the radio and at major clubs/events in our scene. Why do you think that’s the case?

In part, it has to do with the allure of the underground and being niche. This is often perceived to give an artist more credibility if they are not straight up mainstream. The biggest problem is that if you never leave your room or play anywhere but your local hang out, your music will never grow an audience. You stunt yourself creatively because you are offered no challenges. The real key is to present something new and interesting that grabs the attention of a new audience rather than changing to suit what people are already listening to. I see more major events and clubs taking risks on unknown or underground artists who prove their hustle and deliver on their hype. While not yet a rule but rather an exception, hard work is starting to prove valuable again.

It is often said that we as Africans are the last to recognise our own beauty. This is exemplified by an array of artists from Louis Moholo to Petite Noir who only got the local recognition they deserved after they were celebrated by the West. Do you agree with this sentiment?

Absolutely! Our downfall is that our industry is so small and not having a large local support base can affect the artist’s perception of their value and can be demotivating. It takes a thick skin and surrounding yourself with strong people to keep you motivated. Finding support outside of the country is often their only option and if they find success abroad then more power to them. Your goal as an artist/musician should be to share your music with the world and find whatever level of success you have deemed necessary for yourself. The means to which you achieve this end should be your choice, and if people at home are sleeping when you are working then you should go to where you will be heard and appreciated.

What do you think the government’s role should be in supporting our music industry? Do you think it’s done so?

A government that deems arts and culture a viable career choice will essentially encourage generations of youth to invest in themselves because from the outset they are not discouraged from being creative. Raising confident and independent youth will breed strong future leaders, how could you not see the mutual benefits of supporting generations that will be the lifeblood of their communities?

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

I would bridge the gap between opportunity and circumstances so that no matter who you are or where you are from you have access to the same resources, education and technology that is usually afforded as a privilege. This should be applied to all fields and not just the music industry.

Anonymous label executive

The major labels in South Africa tend to focus on smooth jazz, afro-pop, house and traditional/Afrikaans folk music, thereby almost completely ignoring the avant-garde/experimental music being made in the country right now. Why is this the case?

I think that different companies are structured in different ways and that major labels are structured in a way that they can create the best benefit for commercial artists. With large overheads major labels have higher sales targets that they need to fulfill in order to pay salaries. With avant-garde artists having smaller audiences and the ability to connect to those audiences directly, it wouldn’t make sense for either the avant-garde artist or the major label to enter into a relationship together as each party probably has a different goal and measure of success.

It is a rising trend since the dawn of the internet age for local artists to get signed overseas before local A&R reps and radio stations and events promoters even know of their existence. Why is this so?

If you’re talking specifically about experimental artists here, it probably makes sense for these artists to get signed to independent labels internationally that a) have a business structure that works for more niche artists and b) where those artists have a bigger market. For example, I imagine that with the right kind of promotion a band like John Wizards would sell more in Europe/UK than they would in South Africa.

What are labels looking for in terms of young talent in this current climate?

We’re looking for exciting artists with mass appeal that break through the noise. There are so many artists around – and so much access to their music – but it takes something special for artists to make an impact in this situation with so much music being created. Although “mass appeal” may have some dirty connotations for people, there are artists with mass appeal who really stick out like Riky Rick, Beatenberg, the people from the Wolfpack crew in Durban, incredible DJs like Black Coffee, groups like MiCasa etc. How different artists manage to break through the noise is different for each one, but the ones that do are taking contemporary sounds and giving them their own unique twists.

What advice can you offer to local musicians looking to get signed or booked to a major label or event?

Artists need to find that space between doing something that they love and something that they think could work commercially – if they want to be commercial artists. I think that one of the most challenging things for any artist is to be true to oneself whilst also being cognisant that the music industry is an industry; that being a musician means making a product and to be successful, the artist needs to find an audience that wants to buy that product. Most of all though, practice, write, repeat… and try to find your own twist to what you do; that’s how you’ll stick out and be noticed by events and labels. (Also, be real if being with a label maybe isn’t for you; lots of artists can do great things for themselves nowadays).

Cover image from Petite Noir’s ‘La Vie Est Belle‘ video. Internal graphics by Lauren Mitchell.

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