The Strangled Cries of Musicians in Debt
1st December 2002

After the tragic death of Johannes Kerkorrel, there were rumours afoot that he had killed himself because of financial trouble. Though I knew him well, I honestly don't know if this was true. I only know what he told me a few days before: that he couldn't wait for his contractual obligations to his record company to end. Exactly what his complaints against his record company were, I never heard. He did not live to tell anyone, and, unless the secret is buried somewhere in his computer hard-drive or if it emerges in correspondence, we might never hear the full story.

I do know, however, that many musicians in South Africa have financial troubles. This is due partly to their own ignorance or incompetence - musicians are notoriously laid-back when it comes to such matters - and partly to the lack of respect given to musicians in our country. In spite of the fact that we are in the midst of an explosion of local music unheard of since the days of Sophiatown, we have, until now, not developed a culture in which musicians are paid properly, informed properly, or treated like the professionals they are. Under the new laws, domestic workers are better protected than artists. In the days of Sophiatown, the enemy was Apartheid. The enemy, today, is poverty, mismanagement, and large-scale ineptitude.

In a sense the problems facing musicians are exactly the opposite of the problems facing the Springbok rugby team! I could not help laughing when, as I happened to watch a BBC channel the other day, the British commentator mentioned a disciplinary hearing being conducted around a dangerous tackle by Werner Greeff. The surname "Greeff", pronounced in British English, sounds exactly like "grief". Yes, indeed, many are the woes and griefs of the current rugby Springboks. But about one thing they cannot complain: they are getting enough money, whether they are delivering the goods on the field or not.

Musicians in South Africa are delivering the goods. But I do not know of a single musician who gets paid R75 000 per gig. That is what the rugby Springboks get. Maybe I am in the wrong job after all!

Apart from the tragedy of Sophiatown, which happened before my time, I myself have lived through at least three related tragedies in local music during the last decade or two. The first of these tragedies happened in the eighties, when the few really talented musicians on the South African horizon did not receive the accolades from the general public that they deserved. It was terribly unfair that James Phillips died a poor man. It was terribly unfair that John Mair had to sing cover versions in pubs. It is just as unfair that someone like Valiant Swart, who has been doing his thing on public stages since bevore Voëlvry, has only lately been noticed by the establishment.

The second tragedy unfolded during the nineties when, all of a sudden, we had a vast number of new acts who actually did attract attention locally, but somehow did not manage to crack the international market. While everyone outside America and Britain knew about the Spice Girls and George Michael, South Africa saw the rise and demise of such potentially world-class acts as Sugardrive, the Springbok Nude Girls, Squeal, and many more. These guys came and went, and the outside world did not notice. In a few years' time only their hardcore fans inside South Africa will even remember their names.

The third tragedy is happening right now. On the plus side: all of a sudden, we are starting to make an impact abroad. David Kramer's plays are hits in London, Boo! is picking up a following in Europe, links are being forged through agents such as Rhythm Records and Oppikoppi for more and more musical exchanges between Holland and South Africa, Saron Gas has been offered a dream deal in America, etc etc. At the same time, the entire local music scene is a-buzz like never before in South African history. We have never had so many up-and-coming names all at the same time. Yet there is a downside. These young artists still have to contend with the antiquated system of supply and demand, product and reward, that existed before the eighties. There are not enough innovative record labels to fulfil the need. There are precious few lawyers who specialise in the needs of musicians, let alone know anything about copyright (at the last count we knew of only three, and it is my unbelievably good luck to be married to one of them). Musicians are still at the mercy of, not only big business, but lazy agents, corrupt club owners and a large array of laws and rules and contracts which they simply do not understand.

It would have been convenient if I could point a finger at a record company and say "You guys are breaking the law". But I cannot do that. I do not know of any instance where a record company has actually broken the law. But I do know of countless instances of questionable conduct, unethical decisions, deliberate obscuring of the facts (especially where contracts have to be signed) and covert or overt disrespect towards musicians.

If we are to cope with the current explosion of local talent, the music industry must be prepared to adjust likewise. It is no longer acceptable to withhold publishing money from musicians simply because the musicians don't understand where to collect the money or how music publishing works. It is no longer acceptable for agents to collect their own fees if they have not made sure that the musicians have received payment. It is not acceptable for gig organisers to book a performing artist for a certain venue and then move the concert to a larger venue after the contract has been signed for a small set fee. Musicians should share in the success of their own work. For far too long, too much money payable to musicians have been ferreted away by insignificant middle men who do nothing to deserve their pay checks. Certain very questionable methods of doing business have been going on for so long in the South African music industry that they have become the unwritten law, the standard practice.

I will mention only one example. It is a good example, because I know this is something that happened to Kerkorrel some years ago, and recently the same record company has done exactly the same thing to me. A year or two ago, a "Greatest Hits" CD of my own work was pushed into the market, behind my back, by these guys. They got away with this because their paper work was in order, no laws were broken. Yet every song licensed to appear on this album had been obtained under the pretence that it was going to be used for a "various artist" type compilation. I usually agree to people using my songs like that: compilations are extremely common these days (a new compilation of Afrikaans dance numbers appear approximately every ten seconds), and the money I receive from such sales is a bonus. But when my own "Greatest Hits" CD hit the market - at the worst possible time in my career, with a totally inappropriate cover design, spelling mistakes in the sleeve design, and no promotion at all - it took me completely by surprise. Not only that - I have now forever been robbed of the opportunity of releasing my own "Greatest Hits" album at some later stage of my career. Though no actual theft took place, the release of this ghastly CD left me feeling violated and cheated. I sent an angry e-mail to the record company who did this, but received no reply.

The first guy in any company who starts querying practices like these is bound to catch a lot of flak. Yet it is essential that these practices are queried, not only for the sake of the musicians, but also to ensure a situation of long-term client satisfaction between the makers of music and the sellers thereof - inevitably, this will, in the long view, also benefit the pockets of the record companies.

Not too long ago a spokesman for Gallo went live on TV with the statement "Musiek is nie kuns nie, dis 'n besigheid". What unbelievable depths of cynicism and contempt one needs to attain before being able to utter such a statement! Of course music is art. Even bad music is art. And of course art, whether good or bad, can make money. In a healthy society - and I like to imagine that we as a society are undergoing a slow process of healing right now - the concepts of quality and quantity need not be mutually exclusive. Far be it from me to try and pretend that bubblegum art should not exist at all. Bad music will continue to make money for as long as the public wants to hear it. But good music need not be commercially unsuccessful altogether. After all these years, I am still heartened by the fact that the Beatles sold more records than the Dave Clark Five ever did. (However, it is unfortunately also true that, had the Liverpool of the early sixties existed in modern day South Africa, we might well have a situation where the Dave Clark Five got invited to play the Superbowl while the Beatles get stuck with playing the Hidden Cellar in downtown Stellenbosch every weekend.)

My plea for better treatment of musicians is not an idealistic or even ideological one. I know that we do not, and never will, inhabit a perfect world. I realize that, in more instances we would like to admit, the musicians themselves are partly to blame for their lack of progress (some of these okes, it seems, roll joints from their SAMRO statements). I am not a Marxist, and I do not suggest impossible and impractical reforms. I am simply pleading for ordinary people to pay more attention to the so-called Big Picture (as well as the small details). We need more entrepeneurs who invest more time and money into more record labels. We need festival organisers who understand the complexities and risks of organising large rock festivals (it is always better to first practice with a couple of small ones). We need more accessible lawyers to represent musicians when they deal with existing record labels. We need agents who are prepared to do slightly more than simply pick up a phone (of course, the job description of an agent does end somewhere - they are not expected to tune our guitars for us, or take our girlfriends home if they get drunk before the second set - yet it would be nice if they were just a little bit more involved than they have been so far.). We need more radio stations who are prepared to play more local songs, not out of a sense of obligation, but because, believe it or not, most of those songs make for pretty good listening!

My wish is for a South African music industry that respects itself, respects its musicians, and is in tune with the growing and changing needs of the market.

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Koos Kombuis - Rock Legend

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