This is an old story, one that begins before the other music industry stories I still have to tell. It’s the one about how I missed Faithless the first time around.
In the early 00’s I was working as a waitress at a small-town grill. The tips were good but the people, not so much. My boyfriend got us tickets to see Faithless live in concert. I was looking forward to it because he was into dance music, and Faithless was the only band he liked whose songs I actually knew (and liked). Also, it was a time when South African promoters only brought out one international band a year, so best you be there.
The week of the concert, I checked the shift roster and there it was, my name on the evening I’d asked to have off. And so, after not being able to get anyone to fill my shift, I pitched up to work because I’m that person. Sad Boyfriend went to the concert alone.
That night Sad but incredibly resourceful Boyfriend got me an autograph of every member of Faithless. It’s memorabilia that I still have, long after the small-town grill closed and we broke up. My Calvinistic parents didn’t teach me that it’s okay to throw in the towel sometimes. I’ll certainly teach my son about Loss Aversion and Sunken-Cost bias, and also to just quit stupid part-time jobs if they get in the way of life.
Next month multi-instrumentalist, DJ and producer Sister Bliss will be in South Africa doing a Faithless set, and I wouldn’t miss it for anything. This is the talented woman who led the expedition into a Man’s World behind the decks, while at the same time wrote all of Faithless’ hits (there are so many). God Is A DJ, and I’ve been waiting to see her for years.
I’ve lost count of the people who have told me that I would love Up The Creek, so this year I finally hit the road with my lilo.
My wingman, the seriously talented and ridiculously hard-working photographer Henry Engelbrecht, drove us there after a red-eye flight on Friday morning. As the valleys unfolded we found ourselves in the middle of farmland with a secret ingredient: a gorgeous river. It was only knee-deep when we got there, but lilos (and festival-goers) don’t care.
Tent, mattress & bedding – check, check, check. I went off exploring the river stage, food stalls, bars and landscape. It’s such great venue and setting, everything is close together but never too crowded, and in the event of you needing to be alone for a little while, there’s plenty of space for that too. The organisers cap the event at 2500 tickets, and this number is just right.
Cashless Howler RFID armbands were a stroke of genius. I first saw these in 2016 at Panorama NYC, and have been singing their praises since. Being able to walk around without having to remember to look after a wallet or card is a liberating experience, and the process of cashing out took me less than 5 minutes (funds clear in 1-2 days). It’s a transparent, crime-diminishing feature that makes it as easy as possible for festival-goers to trust a payment system.
Liny Kruger from LK Mediabook ran the media and held a feast of a breakfast for us on Saturday morning, despite a bit of a drizzle. I kept hearing from people that Swellendam is always hot as hell, but this year the rain and clouds broke the usual 40-degree Celsius temperatures. There was always something to do, whether missioning between the stages or getting food or going to a bar or bumping into someone you know. And of course, all the excellent music!
It was a treat seeing bands that aren’t usually on the Gauteng circuit. BRYNN was a breath of fresh air, friendly and incredibly intense on stage. With Hezron Chetty on violin, it felt like the crowd might orgasm. Dave van Vuuren is also a band member in Southern Wild, and these two bands are both at the top of their game.
Fokofpolisiekar were luxurious to watch. Not only did they perform my favourite song Tiny Town (first time I’ve ever seen it live), they also audibly shifted a gear into AC, while showing people they’re the same on-stage rockers you remember from varsity. Cape Town crowds are different, and it was good seeing them in their natural habitat.
Other highlights included Retro Dizzy, a glorious hot mess of bodies and rock guitars, as well as the Sublime Tribute Project (so much fun and bouncing, don’t think I’ve ever smiled or sung as much at a festival). I missed The Shabs, but I hear they’re a hoot. Crimson House played on Thursday before I got there, and I missed my beloved Bongeziwe Mabandla on Sunday in order to rush back to Cape Town (so that I could climb The Mountain).
Leaving the festival was a piece of pie. Without an early lift back, I hitchhiked for the first time in my life. Gail, A carefree middle-age woman in a Mazda 2 piled full of lilos, gave me a lift all the way to my Airbnb in Rondebosch. I would never dream of hiking for a lift with a stranger, but the festival seemed so open and trusting that I was convinced the universe would serve up an interesting experience (it did – “It’s later than you think” is the casual wisdom tucked into Gail’s sun visor).
Next year I’ll go from the Thursday and be the last to leave on Sunday. It’s so pleasant and relaxed, you can call it a holiday, not just a festival. Cheers, and thank you, Up The Creek.
When I joked (badly) in January that this Chinese year of the Rooster is really just the Year of The Cock, I had no idea. There were so many great songs for the last part of the year, and not even from all the big bands or artists that you’d expect. In-between all the political, economic and climatic mayhem there was some sensible music being made.
Trends for the year include hearing amazing female vocals everywhere I listened and a return to “solos” in pop songs (guitar solos for sure, but other instruments too). Trumpety-trump proved to be a strong influence, adding a whole new chapter to the history protest songs. Everyone from Arcade Fire & Mavis Staples to Billy Bragg took a stab from across the pond, not to mention all the angry music (see Best Of Albums list). On the Side B playlist, the orange man gets a cameo on “House Cat,” and is summarily dismissed by a nonchalant Mark Kozelek (as a cat). But that’s just one of the 2.5 hours of my favourite tracks from July-December 2017. Let’s all hit shuffle and go on holiday.
1. The National – Sleep Well Beast
The National really are at the top of their game, and this album seems so effortless and smooth, I’d like to inhale it. They struggle though, and the intensity with which they wrestle their creative beasts are so pleasing and intoxicating. There’s absolute harmony and discordancy at work here, as well as really intimate lyrics. The record features the band’s first real guitar solos (there are two and they’re glorious).
2. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
The most brilliant record released this year to be met with equal and opposite amounts of scepticism. It’s one of their best to date and is overshadowed by their previous work. I only discovered LCD Soundsystem late anyway, but to me, this record sounds like prime LCD Soundsystem: the same themes but darker and the same sharp wit but with more bite. I don’t know why everyone calls it a comeback album when it’s clear that James Murphy never left the room.
3. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice
This record is my go-to album for 2017. It always matches the mood. With lots of happy, sad, rocking and laid back bits of quirky wisdom it makes sense that an honest, down to earth record would be the outcome from these slacker-rock indie darlings.
4. The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
This album builds on the high standards set by Lost In A Dream, with the same wash of sound that transports you somewhere else. The mood is higher and the sound bolder, as if to resolve the two records in a celebration of victorious, dirty guitars.
5. Richard Dawson – Peasant
An exciting and strange British freak-folk album from this dude who came out of nowhere. Dawson shows incredible bravery on this medieval Celtic off-key album. It’s dirty with beautiful melodies scattered haphazardly, and the record sticks and stays with you. The weirdest and most groundbreaking album that has chosen me for a while.
6. The Weather Station – The Weather Station
Oh, my kingdom for beautiful Canadian singer-songwriters! This record is classic Folk Gold in the vein of Joni Mitchell, but at the same time is Tamara Lindeman’s confident own voice. With mint production, engaging lyrics and a rolling musical urgency, this is definitely both a vinyl/headphone and crowd-pleaser record.
7. Protomartyr – Relatives in Descent
Finally, a band has risen to take the flame from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Protomartyr are pissed-off and mysterious like a good Goth-inspired Post-Punk band should be. They have great rhythm and pace, with a surprising lulling quality for minor chords and dramatic badassery. Definitely music to watch Trump speeches or have existential crises to.
8. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers
A very simplified GY!BE record that hits home and feels very true to now. The album fits in well with their body of work, although it’s by no means an extensive movement of beautiful music. Rather it presents a well-organized progression of rage as grandiose tracks bombard your ears for just under an hour. A cathartic listen.
9. Rostam – Half-Light
An eclectic debut from one half of vampire weekend. The album turns pop song structure around while echoing traditional pop melodies. An inspiring sweet, detailed album from Batmanglij that doesn’t really go anywhere, but that’s entirely ok.
10. Bongeziwe Mabandla – Mangaliso
A record that masterfully balances the traditional and new. South African Xhosa music has never sounded this modern or hypnotic, and this album turns sweet world music turned on its head.
That’s it. Special mentions to Bjork, Sza, Josh Ritter and Sylvan Esso. As Vicky would say, “soz lol.”
There’s something arresting about Feist’s haunting voice. Her new album Pleasure (with lead single of the same name) was released earlier this year. It’s edgy and raw featuring her signature sweet vocals. Also, it’s like 2007 all over again.
The Reminder was released in 2007. It’s hard to believe that was 10 years ago and we were just getting to know Facebook. I was sitting in an open plan marketing office, listening to the record when I received a notification that my half-brother would like to be Friends. I’d spent my entire late childhood and teenage years daydreaming about him and my half-sister. I’d met him once, a handsome young man studying something important at University, but she’d remained a faceless stranger. I knew that she worked in advertising because my mom once gave me a torn out magazine article. It described her as an independent female Mover and Shaker at a sought after agency, which fanned the flames for storylines over years of only-child daydreaming. And then just like that, there was a friend request from someone I didn’t really know but shared a surname and some DNA with. I didn’t breathe for a minute. Accept.
We made plans to meet up and before I knew it I was on my way to a Wimpy in a small farming town. That month I was listening to Feist a lot. Universal had just released my flavour-of-the-month record, and the fact that I was working on it made it that much better. It’s funny how memories get associated with music. The Reminder was supposed to be that great award-winning Indie record I forgot about and rediscovered one day. But just hearing her voice takes me back.
That day was overwhelming. I spent hours speaking with my brother. We danced around the issue of my dad and tried to find things we had in common. It was good. We both tried. And then around lunchtime, my half-sister showed up. I was ecstatic, so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. And in hindsight, such a fucking n00b. I wore all of the cozy family fantasies on my sleeve, and even though she kicked back skepticism at every opportunity, I soldiered on, trying to build that relationship. I drove the 2 hours back that day a little sedated and misty-eyed. Like a big secret had just been let out.
Over the next few months, I got to know my brother and his lovely wife. I introduced them to my husband and met my nephew. The blossoming romance was beautiful, we had heart-to-hearts about things that mattered in our lives and shared everything from painful experiences to the shape of our fingernails. I put together a pack of CDs for them because sharing music is a privilege that brings people closer together. It’s so personal, and getting a new music recommendation right is the kind of curatorship victory I thrive on. Of course, I added Feist into my sister’s hamper. Because Indie is badass and you know, Fearless Female, etc.
My sister, on the other hand, remained aloof. My Friend Request was met with silence. Her Twitter profile was full of talk about forgiveness and change and empowerment. We Facebook Messaged a bit and there was a phone call or two. I can’t remember how, but she told me that she didn’t like the Feist album. She thought it was too girly, and not upbeat enough. I thought that was weird. It was such a cool record and practically everyone liked it. And just like that, The Reminder became an allegory for my relationship with my estranged siblings.
About a year later at their family farm, my half-sister insulted my husband. To be fair she didn’t insult him directly, but rather our relationship, saying that we’re together because I had father issues (there’s an age gap). I drove home disappointed and hurt, and the road was long. She’d made all sorts of assumptions about my life, from which she’d been absent, but I had done the same. My mind switched between self-doubt (why doesn’t she like me), and self-hate (why do I care). I visited my brother but stopped asking about her. We saw each other at my brother’s birthday party a few years later. It was awkward, but she was friendly. We talked a little after that, and then one day she told me that she didn’t want to know me.
It’s astonishing how you can let one person hurt you so much, without them even knowing. My half-sister doesn’t want to know me because we share the same father, something I literally have no power to change. My father has been trying reach out to them for years, with mixed success. He is a difficult and complex man, but his relationship with them has nothing to do with me.
I still love Feist but can’t listen to The Reminder in one sitting. Her new album Pleasure is superb though. It seems to have gone relatively unnoticed as there aren’t enough reviews for a Metascore rating despite an April 2017 release date. If you’re in a quiet mood you should definitely listen to “A Man Is Not His Song”. This year I’ve been slaying a few dragons in my life. I’m also trying to listen to more Feist.
“Sealion” is track 6 on The Reminder and isa super-classy, catchy AF cover of Nina Simone’s “Sea Lion Woman.”
Adapted from a talk at the #futuretuned Radio Days Africa conference (5-7 July 2017).
The music industry has always been at the forefront of disruption in technology and, in some ways, it seems as if there isn’t a corner of it left untouched.
A year ago at Radio Days Africa, a guy from one of the labels told the audience that they didn’t need radio anymore. He justified this by saying that subscription services are now freely available and that people can listen to what they like, without having to listen to radio’s advertising or DJs. Having spent 10 years at a major label, I know for sure is that it’s the other way around — it’s radio that doesn’t need labels.
Over the last 15 years, music consumption has changed dramatically, and the power dynamic has shifted as a result. The music is better, but it’s less valuable because it’s available everywhere (and, often, for free).
Consumers now have direct access to all the new music they could ever want through subscriptions to Streaming Services. Spotify counts more than 30 million tracks, each available anywhere and at any time.
The real shift, however, is in how consumers are listening to music in this environment. Last year, playlists overtook albums in time spent listening; a number which only continues to grow.
It’s these playlists that will be radio’s competition if Radio doesn’t instead see Streaming Services as an opportunity. Radio needs to strategically use playlists as part of a larger brand positioning and marketing strategy. I could throw around the words ‘listener’, ‘user’, and ‘audience’ fairly liberally and, for me at least, they mean similar things. But most commercial stations are only incentivised to increase their listenership. That needs to change.
In addition to music consumption, music discovery has evolved. Music is no longer spread through silos by record companies pushing their priorities, or by stations having exclusive first plays. Radio is no longer determining which songs make it. Many stations know and have adapted to this, but that’s not enough. The real opportunity lies in the curation and discovery of NEW music — something that is already part of what any station does on a daily basis.
Streaming services are addressing the discovery challenge in their own ways. Spotify acquired The Echo Nest to assist with data-driven music discovery & personalisation. Their Discover Weekly playlist is a personalised playlist aimed squarely at promoting new artists and songs. Apple’s Beats 1, on the other hand, dives straight into radio territory by creating live, on-air-like shows. If you’ve ever listened to Beats 1 you’ll have noticed that it’s engaging, on-demand content which has more in common with traditional radio than podcasting.
But South African music radio? Well, it’s complicated. I believe that to grow you have to break new music. Even if you can’t play it on air.
Before Hlaudi dropped the 90% local content bomb, 5FM’s role as a national youth station was to break new tracks. The impact that this mandate had in differentiating 5FM’s and other SABC station’s respective playlists has been substantial (whether you think it’s good or bad).
What I think is being missed, however, is the opportunity that this created. Without a national station that could play new international music, many labels and radio pluggers looked towards the top regional commercial stations to start adding new tracks and, of course, this simply isn’t their mandate.
Which brings me to an issue I have with mainstream Top 40 in a world of music streaming — that they don’t offer anything different. Imagine, instead, if these stations made Apple Music and Deezer playlists of songs not on their playlists? Streaming Services are another vehicle where stations can have a brand presence, especially one that promotes music discovery. The benefit is being able to curate a much greater variety of music.
Sometimes I think the way radio treats music in a streaming world is irrelevant. In years past the life of a song may have been determined by radio, but these days a song may burn before a station even starts playing it, because it’s been on the Apple Music or iTunes chart for the last 2 months. There’s too much pressure on humans to make the right playlisting calls.
Radio is an incredible format. Apart from the live music scene, it’s the only pervasive real-time music format that is social, embraces the New and invites every listener to be part of a tribe. It’s exactly the thing that Streaming Services don’t have — a personal and passionate relationship.
Streaming Services emphasize the personalized playlists such as Discover Weekly because the data gets as close to an intimate, unique recommendation as possible. Data is their strength and, even though users are shown to switch between playlists a lot, the engagement is high. For labels, growth in this format is incredible, but it requires curation because, with so much to listen to, how do people know what music to listen to?
Cue Curated Playlists. Just like radio plugging, the labels have playlists curation companies that you may have seen. Universal owns Digster, Sony owns Filtr, and Warner owns Topsify. Labels glean insight into streaming track performance, and use those insights to adjust worldwide marketing campaigns. There’s no reason why individual stations or media powerhouses like Kagiso Media or Primedia shouldn’t have their own mood and genre playlists to promote their brands, or research tracks before adding them to the station. Users, listeners or audiences don’t necessarily just want to hear from one label or an artist. They want to hear about everything that there is to offer from someone they trust, and radio listeners trust a station’s music judgment.
Locally, some stations build streaming playlists based on their music strategy or the chart — but if you’re simply publishing the station’s chart, why would someone tune in? Why not test some of the tracks that didn’t make it to the playlist, along with some edgier tracks that may appeal to a smaller niche within your overall market, but not enough to make them suitable for playlisting? The takeaway for radio is that you have to be a little unique on Streaming Services.
At Labs.fm, we’re firm believers that Radio can be better, and already do music recommendation reports as a service, such as which tracks are a good fit for a station to add or which tracks are in danger of burning. But, taken further, we’re able to look at audiences, recommend growing niche tracks, as well as build and manage those playlists. These are the kinds of activities that make sure a music strategy can compete with streaming playlisting, and also serve as extensions of a station’s brand.
It’s interesting to note that while Spotify publicly displays the playlist follower count, Apple music does not. BBC R1, with their over 400 000 followers can’t call those numbers ‘listeners’, but if surveyed, how would a Spotify user interpret the question “Have you listened to BBC Radio 1 over the last 7 days?” Perhaps, then, the greatest threat to radio is the way listeners are counted right now. Because if that Spotify user answers yes, or attended the BBC Big Weekend, I’d call them part of BBC 1’s “AUDIENCE.”
I make the case for Radio playlists because I believe these could not only provide valuable research data for radio but also be another Brand touchpoint. By aggregating many playlists, radio can be made a lot better, and stations can gain wider Audiences. I want radio programmers and compilers to use data and streaming playlists to be adventurous and take more risks. Stations have such a wealth of knowledge and listener trust. If other mediums such as playlists, podcasts and events aren’t prioritised, there’s no incentive for stations to do anything outside of traditional radio, and they’d be missing a massive opportunity.
You can listen to the full, original talk from Radio Days Africa on Iono.
Friends, it’s been a Milestone Year. Middle fingers and lots of changes for the better. A “Big One” (subtext: there’s a post all about it below). Put these songs on repeat, it’s been a hell of a good music year too.
I remember when I was still in high school my dad came home from work one evening and looked like death. Some of his colleagues had been retrenched that day. He didn’t know if he was next in line, and that thought was terrifying to our typical middle-class 1980’s nuclear family.
Fast forward to a few months ago, end February, when I was sitting at the small boardroom table across from my then-MD and the HR consultant. He could barely say the words or look me in the eye, and left most of the talking to the HR hit-man. It was a big shock, especially since my employer was so blatant about getting rid of me (the company wasn’t doing badly – three bros in management just didn’t like my girl power). Looking back on it now though, it was fine. Handling a crisis is one of my finer skill sets, albeit one I prefer to use less frequently.
So much of our occupation is wrapped up in our identity. It’s what we do with our time for 7 days every week if you have a 9-5. But somewhere between growing up (read: paying bills), contributing to Nkandla, and the here and now, the workplace has evolved. Suddenly “The 9-5” isn’t a thing anymore. My dad spent a large chunk of his life at one company, and that was wonderful and respected. When he retired he would get a gold watch and feel satisfied for a job well done.
But by the time I entered the workplace things had changed. I made a good move to Universal Music and started in marketing at the very bottom. 10 years ago this was a solid company with a safe reputation and management ran a tight ship. That all changed when UMG bought EMI. Personally and professionally, you couldn’t have brought together two more different cultures. The integration (or not) of these two groups was the hardest professional task I’ve ever had to work through. No one can be productive in an environment with constant bullying, one-upmanship and back-stabbing (and of course, immunity if you’re part of The Boys Club). It turned me into a person I didn’t like being, and I experienced a personal crisis while trying to deal with work stress. This was at a time when many people described the company as toxic. Thankfully, Sufjan Stevens saved my life.
If I could give anyone advice about working in a poisonous environment it would be: “Don’t.” It’ll tear you apart on the inside, and life’s too short to be unhappy. I’m no longer the Marketing Manager at a leading record label and I wouldn’t want to be that anymore anyway. The worst is over and record labels are back making money again, now from streaming, but the power dynamic has never been more flat. When you’re working at a label it’s difficult to have perspective and see the industry as a whole, partly because of arrogance but also because of the pressure. The competition is fierce and there are hungry, innovative companies out there working in the music industry. I’m working with two of those young companies now.
My husband, parents, and friends have all been extremely supportive. Since getting the boot I’ve also been reminded that one’s reputation follows you. By working hard and working smart you will always be looking after yourself. And change is good. These days I spend more time with my family, and I work with people who want to work with me. The old stigma of retrenchment shouldn’t really exist anymore. It happened to me and it turned out to be no biggie. A growing percentage of people worldwide are contractors who work remotely and virtually everyone has a side gig. If you don’t have one yet then maybe it’s time for you to get one.