#CT CBD: In pursuit of balance

City sounds: Nomadic Orchestra, one of younger contingent of bands that occupied the city centre in 2012. Photo: Facebook

City sounds: Nomadic Orchestra, one of younger contingent of bands that occupied the city centre in 2012. Photo: Facebook

Cape Town has struggled with balance for centuries — a consequence of both its colonial history and its legacy of apartheid. Over the past two years, the city centre and inner suburbs have seen a decline in the number of live music venues.

Straight No Chaser in Buitenkant Street closed, as did The Assembly in Harrington Street (but has recently reopened as The District, under new ownership), and Tagore in Observatory also shut its doors.

This has translated into a slight slump in the city’s ability to facilitate live music (in both instrumental and electronic form).
The question is: How did we get here?

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

I was 13 when I first encountered music that fell outside the scope of my school day, although it was in 2008 when I experienced music on a greater scale. At the time, the city centre’s music profile was moulded by the prolific ska wave of the mid to late Noughties (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 city centre 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 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 by promoters was still in line with what was considered low-risk by certain club owners, because a diversified line-up formula for events had become standard throughout 2013 and 2014.

But the intrinsically longer-term focus of live-music events would eventually be challenged by 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, facilitating playlisted, non-original music.

This resulted in a shift 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.

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 positive attributes. Diskotekah is a queer-positive party, which focuses on techno as its music of choice to create a space in which dress-up and drag are encouraged. The 021 Lit Collective, with its hip-hop parties at House of H, and Uppercut at The Waiting Room have played leading roles in driving parties owned by and catering to people of colour.

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

My approach is not to consider any of this in a positive or negative light, but rather as states of balance and imbalance. Maybe it was necessary for live music to take the backseat for the positive outcomes of parties such as those of the 021 Lit Collective to arise. Or maybe bands in Cape Town just aren’t that good at the moment.

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. These are just a few examples of talented artists and bands. Too often though, artists are required to host their own events, which hinders growth, because acting as both artist and promoter is often unsustainable.

An artist’s passion is born out of something personal and, currently, often rests in a niche. As these niche audiences are nurtured over time, they develop a greater sense of loyalty than do the themed party audiences.

This requires promoters to choose the right venues, which allows 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 become aware that live music is a long-term game, we could see a resurgence of spaces where both musicians and promoters can thrive. Also, live music and themed parties 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, we still see a three-to-one ratio for DJ-focused parties over live music. Perhaps we just have to wait for people to become bored with the former and hungry for the latter.

It’s possible, but contradicts the overall argument I’m making, which is an appeal for balance. If we can find balance and nurture the city centre to a point where different music events can coexist, then we can forego the “us vs them” mentality. 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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