Why I won't be at Coke Fest

The following is a response to the discussion surrounding the exploitation of South African musicians by event organisers. More specifically, it tackles some of the points made by someone I have the utmost respect for, Richard Mulholland, in this post of his. I agree with Rich 99% of the time, but I differ with him on this one.

Here is my take on things:

I spent a number of years in the music industry and at first I would’ve agreed with Rich about supply and demand on the point of bands playing shows for very little money, or even free, in exchange for exposure.

But having lived the industry as a band manager, emcee, radio presenter, music journalist, DJ and even band member, I was exposed to our local industry from just about every angle.

What Coke Fest and many other organisers in SA do is straight-up exploitation of our local artists.

Sure, there are bands that agree to play for free or very little, like the local bands lined up for Coke Fest. But there are many more bands who won’t. It’s the guys who need the exposure and generally aren’t very professional who agree to being exploited. Self-respecting professional musicians won’t do it. It damages the perceived value of their shows, how the market views them and enforces the misconception that bands make money from selling recordings – and that it’s OK to get them to play for a pittance.

It isn’t OK. And album sales are not how musicians make money. Surprisingly, many of our local artists don’t even understand this.

The music industry in South Africa is fairly rotten and the ecosystem of events organisers and multinational labels have created a paradigm where artists get paid far less than they are worth, and have to be overly thankful for every booking they get, to the extent that it costs them more money to play a gig than they make from it sometimes. When anyone complains the organisers will say, “we didn’t force them to do it.”

But they don’t tell you how many bands turned down the offer.

And just because someone is willing to do something for free or very little doesn’t make it OK for them to. That’s why minimum wage exists.

Our younger bands will also get starry-eyed at the idea of playing along side their international heroes. And this is what makes the exploitation stick.

It’s pathetic that organisers have millions to throw at international bands, but nothing to give local performers. Not because the internationals don’t deserve the money – they do. But our local guys don’t deserve to be treated like second-class musicians.

I resent Coke Fest and its ilk. It, along with our commercial music stations, contribute to both the celebration of mediocrity and lack of respect that keeps South African musicians down. They give exposure to mostly middle-of-the-road acts who don’t mind, or even know that they are being exploited. Some self-respecting bands will jump on the bandwagon because they have no other choice given the realities of our industry. But many just won’t – and as a result they won’t get played on radio or approached by event organisers.

The assertion that bands make money from album sales, and that concerts are like book tours for authors, is also completely wrong. Musicians do not make money from album sales – record labels do. Even the biggest acts in the world make much more money from live shows than from their album sales. This is why independent artists are increasingly giving away their music – because albums and radio play are a way to get people to shows, not the other way around.

The keyboardist from one of the world’s biggest rock bands told me that his band pocketed more money from two weeks worth of live performances than they did from the sales of their last album, which was on the Billboard 100. I won’t name him because I know he won’t appreciate being dragged into the debate.

In South African bands, and especially rock bands, will never sell more than a few hundred copies of any given album. Now and then someone will break the 2000 mark and in very rare occasions things will push into the tens or hundreds of thousands – but never in the rock genre. The reasons for this aren’t important, it’s purely illustrative of how much money albums bring in.

The artist will receive a few bucks off of each album if they are signed to a major label, which must be split up with the album producer and all the members of the band. The label will make a number of deductions for marketing and other things too, depending on the artist’s contract. And it is rare for bands to do more than one album per year. More like one every two years.

We’ll use another friend of mine as an example – someone who played in one of the biggest SA rock bands of the late nineties. To date he has made under R10000 from album sales and royalties. But his band would cut him an average of around R3000 per live show, depending on the size of the gig and what they were paid for it. You do the math. Even then, he was being paid far less than he was worth – but that’s how we do things in SA.

We have amazing talent in this country, but it gets kicked down so that other musicians who don’t deserve the publicity, but are willing to play for free at festivals, get all the attention. We have also created a situation where South Africans somehow feel that international bands are worth more than South African bands.

I’m not suggesting that every band played on 5FM is mediocre, or that bands who want free exposure shouldn’t be allowed to get it. But the current situation allows for more mediocrity than anything else. And it damages the entire industry, because musicians don’t have to be anything special to get gigs or airplay – they just have to be happy with being poor and selling out. The fans think that SA bands are inferior, which they often are, and musicians won’t speak out because they don’t want to limit their prospects.

The best bands in the world make music they love without thinking about money. I know, because I’ve asked them. You can’t be awesome without believing in your product. Too many bands in this country produce what they think will get them airplay, and ironically get nothing for it.

It’s not cool. And it needs to change.

Until it does I will continue to boycott events like Coke Fest.

One may, quite naturally, think that I have a chip on my shoulder from my time in the industry, but I don’t. I had a ball, learned some hard lessons and achieved everything I set out to. I was never at the end of any raw deals – in fact, I was sometimes the person handing them out and I regret that now – but I didn’t know any better.

I’m commenting as an outsider, who still sometimes dips my toes into the industry.

I'm a writer and broadcaster who also designs apps and strategies for disruptive startups in the financial world. Find out more on my about page.