How bands (try to) make music and money

Streaming services mean playing live now earns more income for musicians and gives a sense of how an album would sound. But better support is needed for artists wanting to take the live route.

In 2014, Asanda Lusaseni-Mvana, “Msaki” to her cult following and expanding support base, had only an EP to her name: the four-track Nal’ Ithemba. She had yet to release her debut album, Zaneliza: How The Water Moves, and the collaborative musical work produced with her coastal cohort of radical artists from East London and Port Elizabeth’s underground circles.

The EP, however, expanded her musical horizons and introduced her to like-minded musicians. Working from this base, Msaki used her knack for synergising disparate worlds to assemble a team for her debut album, which she recorded in studios in Johannesburg and East London. Yet even the yodas of synergy need money to finesse the music production process. So, how did she harness the magic?

“I had time to play the music live in enough spaces and to enough different people to get a sense of what an album would sound like, because of what a set essentially is. And that time playing to intimate audiences that were really connecting to the music gave me an opportunity to ask them to imagine what an album would sound like, because they had already engaged with the work,” she says during an interview in Johannesburg, where she is currently based.

The artist collected email addresses during these shows and then reached out to these supporters when the time came to record her debut album.

“They trusted the project before it existed and therefore enabled me to have a base with which to work from. I still had to raise more funds, and I had saved, but it was enough to start the recording process,” she says of the financial support she received.

Her expansive list of expenses included studio time, mixing and mastering, and session musicians. She also wanted the process to be documented, flying some of the album’s cast to East London for nearly a week to camp out and work on music. Food and accommodation became an added expense. However, getting people into one space to record the album in one go gave Msaki the organic feel she sought from the songs, enabling her to save on studio time.

It was not easy. “There was a lot of day-to-day, hand-to-mouth, working as something came in, or a little bit trickled in, then I [could] do the next thing. But somehow I was able to record and finish everything.”

A mutual mode of working

Like Msaki, musician Mandla Mlangeni puts together bands according to the project he intends to work on. The release of his debut album, Bhekisizwe, doubles as a crash course in how the value chain of music operates.

“It was a very important exercise,” he says. “Had I not started it, I don’t know where I’d be today. From the launch, knowing that when you launch the album, at least you have to have the CDs printed. It sounds obvious, but… it’s a very costly exercise. But I had help along the way. I’m very grateful to the few people who believed in my ideas.”

The collapse of the record label support structure has forced musicians to polish their DIY ethic, working for maximal impact with limited resources. This focus takes time away from the art of creating, allocating it to administrative tasks.

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As musician Itai Hakim notes: “Not everybody is doing all of the work that a record label or a management agency is willing to do by themselves. And maybe that’s the reason why a lot of bands don’t stay together, it’s because you’re gonna have to protect yourselves at every single point of exchange.”

Additionally, it’s more difficult for creators of what gets classified as “alternative music” to penetrate the consumer market because radio, a highly influential medium in South Africa, doesn’t take kindly to their sound.

“[The trend now] is to affiliate yourself with a brand and become some sort of an ambassador or influencer, [to] at least have more visibility in that sense. But I also think that, in the midst of all this hyper-visibility, the focus on the music sometimes gets lost. You are more concerned about how good is the production aspect of the show. Are we wearing the right clothes? Are we talking to the right publications?” says Hakim.

He also questions the logic behind using gig money, gained from playing shows, to pay for living expenses. “If all you’re using [it] for is to survive, how are you saving [up] for the actual production process behind a project?”

Cultural organisations and funding

This makes the work of cultural organisations critical. The German Goethe-Institut, the British Council Connect ZA programme and the Swiss Art Council’s Pro Helvetia Johannesburg liaison office have all contributed in this capacity.

Concerts SA – a live music development project administered by South Africa’s Samro Foundation with financial, administrative and technical support from the Norwegian foreign affairs ministry, Samro and Concerts Norway – offers a three-tiered operation. The project is aimed at supporting live music venues, developing audiences for live music via artist-run workshops at schools and facilitating artistic exchanges through the music mobility fund. The fund provides upwards of R30 000 for musicians based in South Africa to organise national or regional tours.

Msaki and Mlangeni are past beneficiaries of the mobility grant. Msaki toured Lesotho and eSwatini, while Mlangeni has put together multiple tours, including one with his Amandla Freedom Ensemble and another as the Afrikan Freedom Principle alongside pianist Cara Stacey and percussionist Matchume Zango. They toured Maputo in Mozambique and Mbabane in eSwatini, conducting composer’s workshops.

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Concerts SA project manager Violet Maila echoes the popular sentiment concerning the rise in revenue from live music. In South Africa, touring remains a far more viable stream of income than, say, the small sums generated from streaming services. “You get to travel and promote yourself as a brand, and it is the best way to show yourself off to new fans that might not have heard of you otherwise.”

“[The music mobility fund programme] is a platform that allows just that. It allows artists to have some ownership on what they are doing for their own revenue. [It is] a kind of artist development process. Grants like the MF are important and if picked up by other funders and/or cities and government, they can and should continue,” says Maila.

The grant is exclusive to South African artists, something she says can be rectified if similar-minded partners come forward. “This will also allow for so-called importing of talent, and not just exporting South African talent,” she adds.

Mlangeni has toured Europe, Nairobi, Mbabane, Maputo and elsewhere in Africa. He says, “Your first tour just scratches the surface. The second tour, you kind of know what’s cooking, you’re carving out, certain things can be done better. The third tour, you already know: planning, logistics. It’s now to gain market penetration, to get influence and stakeholder investment. That’s the stage that [I am at].”

Seeking out support structures

Structures exist, but these are neither owned nor run by people with a detailed, multiyear plan on how to develop the live music circuit on which bands depend for their livelihoods.

Concerts SA project coordinator Ignacio Priego says the onus is on collective movements to agree on the “ways and levels of taxation that big companies and the rich are subjected to, and then allocate according to our values and priorities where our money goes.” He continues: “There is clearly enough wealth around to support independent music touring and artist mobility. It is just a matter of commitment.”

Indie label Mushroom Hour Half Hour’s Andrew Curnow offers a comparative experience: “You go to London, it’s not about the commercial pop, it’s not about rap. There are ecosystems there. There are managers, there are booking agents, there are independent record labels, there are online radio stations that are playing the music, there are magazines that are writing about the music… You can actually be an independent musician, a band, and live.”

While making it in different ways is possible, a concerted effort by those who go to live shows is necessary. So is interest from policy makers and funders to empower regional, national and hyperlocal initiatives such as McCoy Mrubata and Lex Futshane’s monthly Ingqungquthela (The Summit) sessions, Pretoria-based Capital Arts Revolution’s monthly live music presentations and Msaki’s Alt Blk Continua interventions. Otherwise, there is no scene to speak of.

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