SABC's 90% rule will fix our dismal attitude to our music

Thursday, May 19, 2016

By Harold Maloka

The announcement by the South African Broadcasting Corporation to play 90% local music has sparked a very interesting debate. Like many other issues in the country, the announcement provoked a diversity of views. The debates varied from whether SA has enough local music, to whether we are capable of competing on the international stage.

The biggest question is why would we question our own music, the music that made generations dance – the tunes of Letta Mbulu, Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Brenda Fassie, Bongo Maffin, Brothers of Peace, Boom Shaka, but also the mushrooming talents of Cassper Nyovest and Black Coffee, to name but a few.

Some of these artists have competed on the international stage and won Grammy Awards.

It is equally concerning to hear such questions when every year tickets for the Metro FM Awards and the South African Music Awards are so sought-after.

But where did it all begin?

There is a historical context to it: the South African radio playlist has always been dominated by international artists. Therefore the tastes of the average South African music listener are informed mostly by what they grew up listening to on the radio. Even if they got it from their elders they were influenced by radio playlists which remained the same for years.

It is well-known that to drive sales you have to build demand and therefore we have created a huge market for international artists – to the detriment of the local music industry.

An average household in South Africa that listens to music will ordinarily have artists such as Luther Vandross, Bill Withers, The Manhattans, Mariah Carey, and Sade instead of Mirriam Makeba, Zonke or Stimela, for example.

We have prioritised international music and failed to appreciate our own unique music.

South African music has to sound unique, just as kwasa kwasa from the Democratic Republic of Congo is unique to that country. We have to make a uniquely South African sound that can appeal to international audiences, if need be, but the priority is the SA audience.

The playing of 90% South African music on all 18 public broadcaster radio stations is a welcome initiative that must be encouraged. The music industry in this country is unable to trade as barriers to entry are high, with international music dominating the airwaves.

From the increased airplay the industry will gradually be able to sell more records, build enough revenue to improve on recording quality and fill up concerts to turn their efforts into profitable businesses.

Local DJs have compiled albums with music from international artists, with a few exceptions – which shows that we are a nation of international music consumers. These albums enjoy high sales – more than some local albums.

I recently visited a local record bar in search of music by one of our renowned artists, Sello Galane. I was saddened by the response. I was informed he used to personally deliver his products but now they don’t see him anymore. This is the sad reality facing our artistic industry.

Concerts featuring international artists are full to capacity despite high prices – these could be returns accrued to the local market and ultimately create much needed jobs throughout the chain of music production.

Recently, our country was abuzz with congratulatory messages and “history” was made when Casper Nyovest filled up the Dome.

Should it not be normal for a popular South African artist to fill up a music venue in his own country? This demonstrates the abnormality of the achievements of Cassper Nyovest.

With the kind of recognition initiated by the SABC, artists would be able to fill any venue, any time.

We have enough music to play on our radio stations. Our artists have proven they can compete on the international stage and win awards. They won after receiving recognition and exposure that enabled them to sell their products in both domestic and international markets.

We owe it to ourselves to give our music and musos an opportunity to prosper. Let’s drive local demand.

* Harold Maloka works for Government Communication and Information System.

* First published in the Sowetan on 19 May