​A pursuit of balance for music in Cape Town's city centre

Liz Wright and her band. Live bands have been hard to find in Cape Town lately. (Mpho Moshe Matheolane)

Liz Wright and her band. Live bands have been hard to find in Cape Town lately. (Mpho Moshe Matheolane)

Cape Town has struggled with balance for centuries – a core consequence of both its colonial history, and its legacy of apartheid architecture. Over the past two years, Cape Town’s CBD has seen a major decline in the number of live music venues: from the closure of The Assembly in Harrington Street (which has recently reopened as The District, under new ownership), to Tagore’s shutting its doors in Observatory, and the loss of Straight No Chaser in Buitenkant Street, to name only a few. This has translated into a slight slump in the city’s ability to facilitate live music (in both instrumental and electronic form).
So the question seems to be: How did we get here?

It certainly hasn’t always been this way. When I was first exposed to Cape Town’s diverse and vibrant live music scene, there was a plethora of spaces in which I could enjoy music produced live on stage.

I was 13 when I first encountered music that fell outside of the scope of my school day, though it was in 2008 when I experienced music on a greater scale. At the time, the CBD’s music profile was moulded by the prolific ska wave of the mid-to-late-00s (Hog Hoggidy Hog, Fuzigish, The Rudimentals), the Afrikaans rock and punk revival (Fokofpolisiekar, Foto Na Dans), and the pioneering drive of African Dope Records, the force behind dance-and-hip-hop inspired electronic music (Felix Laband, Sibot, Real Estate Agents).

Over the course of the following few years, ska and Afrikaans punk/rock gave way to more Indie outfits and electronic music shifted into a fairly balanced mix of electro, drum ‘n bass and dubstep. In 2012, the CBD was injected with a flurry of bands from a relatively younger contingent (Beach Party, Christian Tiger School, Beatenberg, Bateleur, John Wizards, Al Bairre, Nomadic Orchestra and Grassy Spark), with a mirrored increase in independent events driven by promoters of a similar age (YOH!, naas, SWIM and City Bowl Sessions).

At this point, the promoters facilitated a burgeoning hybridisation of electronic and instrumental music, which meant that they were able to deliver a diversified line-up to a single audience that was eager to absorb as much as it could. This investment in time and energy by promoters was still in line with what was considered ‘low-risk’ by certain club owners, as a diversified line-up formula for events had become somewhat of a standard throughout 2013 and 2014.

However, naturally, the intrinsically longer-term focus of live-music based events would eventually be challenged, as it began to face competition from a more dependably profitable formula. Themed parties such as Drake/Kanye Fest, Ice Cold and Big Big Fun Fun, began to grow in popularity. These were parties where the theme was the focus and thus, they facilitated the playing of playlisted, non-original music.

This resulted in a shift in focus towards DJs and selectors who did not need to be paid as much, and thus were a less risky investment for promoters and club owners. Unfortunately, this would play a major role in devaluing the artist’s position on stage for a kind of curatorship and aesthetic sensibility.

So where are we now? In 2017, we find ourselves with a multitude of diverse themed parties throughout the city every week – many of which have undeniably positive attributes. Diskotekah is a queer-positive party which focuses on techno as its music of choice, in order to create a space where dress-up and drag are actively encouraged. The 021 Lit Collective, with its hip-hop-centric parties at House of H, and Uppercut at The Waiting Room have played leading roles in driving the narrative of parties owned by and catering to people of colour.

However in midst of the wave of all these theme parties, one can’t help but notice that the city’s live music has taken the backseat.

My approach is not to consider any of this in a purely positive or negative light, but rather as states of balance and imbalance. Maybe it was necessary for live music to take the backseat in order for the positive outcomes of parties like that of the 021 Lit Collective to arise. Or maybe bands in Cape Town just aren’t that good at the moment. However, we can’t deny that it’s a two-way street. If promoters and venues aren’t actively focused on facilitating live music, we can’t expect bands or artists to feel encouraged or inspired.

By just scratching at the surface, names such as Andy Mkosi, OBie Mavuso, Cute Couple, Original Swimming Party, Fever Trails, Card On Spokes and Bongeziwe Mabandla are brought to light – and these are just a few examples of incredibly talented artists and bands. Too often though, artists such as the ones mentioned are required to host their own events in order to perform – another hindrance to growth, as acting as both artist and promoter is often unsustainable.

The passion surrounding an artist is borne of something personal and, in our current climate, often rests within niches. As these niche audiences are nurtured over time, they grow with a greater sense of loyalty than that of the themed party audience.

This requires promoters to choose the right venues which allow for them to start small and build slowly, rather than filling a club for the night after a themed party. Live acts don’t often cash in on the first show.

But if promoters remain conscious of the fact that live music is a long-term game, we could see a resurgence in spaces where both musicians and promoters can thrive. Also, live music and themed parties don’t have to be diametrically opposed. The two can, and do coexist – evidence of this can be found at venues such as The Waiting Room where in any given week you could have Rainbowtime or Prime (themed parties) take place on a Tuesday, a line-up of bands could play on the Wednesday, Uppercut on a Friday and Private Life (a vinyl-only disco party) on Saturday. Even then though, we still see a 3-to-1 ratio for DJ-focused parties to live music.

Perhaps we just have to wait for people to become bored of DJ-focused parties and hungry for live music again. It’s possible, but contradictory to the overall argument I’m trying to make – which is an appeal for balance. If we can find balance and nurture the CBD to a point where different music events can coexist, then we can forego the “us vs them” mentality which we see so clearly in everything from personal to global politics. With balance, we can ensure that live music returning to the fore doesn’t pose a threat to DJ-focused parties. It just requires a shift in perspective to realise and celebrate their differences. After all, competition may be healthy, but it isn’t always necessary.

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