Heard it on the radio: Musicians need the airwaves to make it

Rapper Riky Rick captured media and public attention last week when he announced his departure from Mabala Noise, the controversial label to which he and scores of other artists signed last year.

He made this announcement in a series of tweets, which hinted that his widely publicised Metro FM Awards acceptance speech had backfired, and that he felt that he’d made the wrong decision by signing to the label.

The thread culminated with a precise and measured tweet:

Though surprising to a large number of his fans, Rick’s departure was not viewed as a cause for concern, mainly because of his previous success as an independent artist.

Independently, Rick churned out hits such as Boss Zonke, Nafukwa and Amantombazana, with the last two songs released under indie label Motif Records.

To support their argument that the KwaMashu born rapper could thrive on his own, some fans made reference to Chicago-born hip-hop artist Chance the Rapper, who won a Grammy without signing to any music label, an unprecedented feat.

Chance opted to release his music for free online and generated his income from touring and selling merchandise.

What Rick’s fans overlook is the fact that even though the United States and South African music industries share certain similarities, they function in different ways based on their own specific contexts.

In South Africa, artists such as Rick, who manage to make it big independently, are the exception. In South Africa, music released solely on the internet can’t turn an artist into a household name as it can in the US.

One reason for this is that streaming isn’t as popular in South Africa. As a result of our sky-high data fees, downloading an entire album, even if it’s free, costs the average consumer an arm and a leg.

But things are changing. In 2015, Kid X, another South African rapper, released his mixtape 3 Quarter Pace on the internet for free, where it was downloaded more than 500 000 times.

Kid X received a South African Music Award nomination and was subsequently signed to Cashtime Life, a label owned by rapper KO, a veteran who started out as part of the trio Teargas.

Once signed to a label, the advantages and security that musicians receive can’t be denied.

In a 2015 interview with DJ Akio, manager to the rapper Reason and member of the popular events company Kool Out, he mentioned that: “In South Africa, radio is king, more specifically Metro FM and 5FM. If you aren’t playlisted, people don’t get that familiar with your song. You can’t do it off of downloads alone.”

For musicians, the all-important goal of radio airplay is no walk in the park; it takes the muscle of a reputable label to knock down the numerous barriers to entry that many artists face.

Durban’s ByLwansta, one of the most hard-working independent artists in the country, wrote about this in a Tumblr post: “When you’re an independent artist, you have to knock down doors till it hurts. A label gives you a doorman.”

Having performed at popular events such as Back To The City, and raking in thousands of plays for his videos and songs on YouTube and SoundCloud, ByLwansta deserves more airplay than he has received, but because he has no label backing him, it’s an uphill battle.

ByLwansta’s example is not unique. Celebrated artists such as Mashayabhuqe KaMamba, YoungstaCPT and Dope Saint Jude enjoy niche success and international tours, but because of limited airplay on major South African radio stations, they aren’t as well-known as artists such as Emtee, who is signed to the Ambitiouz Ent label.

Major labels such as Universal Music Group or Sony Africa aren’t as influential as they were 10 years ago because of the rise of independent labels. This year, the artists heard on the radio are backed by independent labels such as TS Records (Zahara), Native Rhythms (The Soil) and Ambitiouz Ent (Emtee, Amanda Black, Fifi Cooper).

And even though Rick may have given internet artists hope when he said: “If you are watching this right now, forget radio. If they don’t play you on radio, you better go to the internet and make your songs pop on the internet,” the reality that radio is king in South Africa still remains.

Brilliant artists such as Priddy Ugly, Melo B Jones, The Brother Moves On, P dot O and Jitsvinger have a strong online presence, but remain on the fringes of the mainstream — which isn’t necessarily a negative thing.

After all, innovation in music has always occurred on the fringes. This year, the fringes are on the internet.

One of the biggest internet success stories has to be Cassper Nyovest. A few years ago, Nyovest was an up-and-coming internet rapper, who had the advantage of working with heavyweight HHP.

He used to release his music for free online, and once his singles were downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, radio had no choice but to playlist him.

But, just like Rick, Nyovest is one of the exceptions. Perhaps they function as torchbearers, whose methods many up-and-coming artists need to study. Both show that being successful in the music industry is not as simple as uploading a song online and tweeting a link.

In the near future, the concept of a music label may be eliminated. In the meantime, signing on the dotted line will have to do.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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