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The year the music died — almost

For people working in South Africa’s live music sector, 2020 has been “devastating”. That was the term researchers read most frequently in responses to the live music and Covid-19 survey, published in November. As one respondent put it: “I have lost everything. All income, accommodation — everything.”

The study, called “Impact Analysis: Live Music and its Venues and the South African Economy During Covid-19”, was undertaken by the  South African Cultural Observatory, a project hosted at Nelson Mandela University. Its job is to track the socioeconomic effects of the arts and creative industries. IKS Cultural Consulting was commissioned to carry out the survey and Andre le Roux and I were the lead researchers.

We created an online questionnaire that built on the Cultural Observatory’s early assessment of the pandemic’s effect on the country’s cultural and creative industries.

The study was both quantitative  and qualitative, including questionnaire items and eight in-depth case studies. We received 697 responses — and found that nearly half our respondents are contemplating quitting live music for good.

A devastated value chain

The people we surveyed worry about the longer-term effects of the pandemic on audiences and society, and about their own ability to operate in the absence of an integrated national recovery plan. Of the musicians surveyed, 41% report selling their instruments and equipment to pay their bills; others are living on loans.

Our respondents come from all South Africa’s provinces. They work across the music value chain (from musicians, organisers, roadies and sound engineers to key venue workers). They include respondents like one whose “bread and butter activity” is recording choirs and traditional music groups. But all activity stopped and “the entire fraternity is at home wearing a mask”.

Our data presents a highly interconnected value chain, where single venues serve as hubs for multiple artists. The loss of one venue has an effect on work and revenue opportunities for musicians and related workers. One in four respondents said they weren’t able to continue with any elements of their business under lockdown. Even with the current easing of lockdown, which post-dates the survey, venues are constrained by restrictions.

Imperfect digital strategies

There’s a stereotype of the music industry as sleepy. We found the opposite. Musicians, promoters and venue owners responded to the crisis fast and flexibly. And 88% are adopting new online music strategies. One gospel promoter said they would use online platforms to sell and distribute music, “but it will not yield the same amount of revenue”. 

Despite this agility, many of those who are employers have had to end short-term contracts (23%), retrench employees (13%) or cut salaries (18%). Only 6% say they can continue to pay everybody they work with.

Government Covid-19 relief support requires formal documentation. But because of the predominantly informal and project-based nature of music-related work, many people were unable or ineligible to apply. Asks one: “All of my work was confirmed on email with contracts pending … how can I claim any proof?”

Only 7% reported successful applications for the various small-to-medium-enterprise support mechanisms and only 21% for the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture relief funding.

Conditionally hopeful

Yet close to half of our respondents, perhaps surprisingly, categorise themselves as conditionally hopeful.

What they need, they say, is flexible, integrated support across administrative boundaries and government portfolios. They also want programmes, projects and infrastructure to be decentralised. They stress a need to focus on the local — from compliance with local content quotas to funding of local music initiatives and performance spaces. 

National and local governments control many spaces — recording studios for live streaming; parks and squares for safer open-air concerts — our respondents point out. Granting bureaucracy-free access to these could kick-start revenue generation.

But inequality, especially the country’s digital divide, bar many respondents from such innovation, particularly those in rural areas. An organiser of live music in township communities says: “Our modus operandi is to bring music to the people. And if you think about where the people are, internet isn’t great there.”

What’s to be done?

To remedy this, our respondents say they desperately need an informed, listening ear from the government as much as they need financial grants.

Many responses describe perceptions and experiences of inefficiency, ineffectiveness and lack of practical industry understanding among officials at all levels, as well as concerns about corruption and bias.

But it’s not only the government that needs to be listening. The plight of live music should concern anyone looking to the return of South Africa’s diverse live music scene, and the employment, export revenue and joy it creates.

This is an edited version of an article first published in The Conversation.

The Conversation

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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