Part of my job involves curating the sound of one of SA's most significant cultural influencers, 5FM. For the past two years I've played an active role in the process of critically listening to music submissions from local artists across a wide spectrum of genres, arguably the most diverse in South Africa. Fundamentally, the purpose of selecting music for a playlist on radio is to create an overall sound that defines the station's identity so as that it can be understood and appreciated by its intended audience.
For most musicians, getting played on radio is a huge deal. Some critics will argue that commercial radio is no longer necessary for artists to establish and maintain relevance and while it is true that alternative platforms and means of distributions are playing a more significant role, it is also certainly true, particularly in the South African context, that radio remains an important and potentially crucial medium.
For interested artists, the process of submitting music to radio hasn't really changed, but the music business has. The highly publicised decision by the SABC, including 5FM, to play 90 percent local music late last year has undeniably seen a shift in the culture of play listing. It's a move that 5FM has adapted to well, but I believe that there are going to be long term downsides for artists who are opportunistically looking at it the wrong way.
The biggest misconception is that this is a gold rush. Yes, it's true that it is now easier for local artists to get radio play, but this doesn't mean that listeners are any less critical. The biggest problem I've seen in the local music industry has been an attitudinal shift in many up-and-coming artists who've adopted a mindset of creating music that they think will pass what they perceive to be a lowered bar. Yes, the 90 percent local quota initially meant this was to an extent true, but this was a bubble that has already started to burst. As things begin to stabilise, the shortcomings of this mindset will become more apparent and artists need to be aware.
The agenda of trying to create something for the purpose of radio play is toxic. Being both a musician as well as someone who works professionally in the music business I've come to understand the necessary tight-rope between art and business. Fundamentally, musicians should pull towards creativity and authenticity, while the music business pulls towards market share and profit. When the two find balance the best possible music reaches the widest possible audience.
If your music is being made to fit what you think is acceptable to a radio station and not because you think it's great, your music is more likely to suck. The result is bland, paint by numbers, forgettable music that won't survive the season it was released.
The music business is fickle and many musicians come and go. Spend your time rather trying to follow the strategies of those who have survived over time. The trick is to think differently about the trade-off.
Unfortunately, I've been hearing an increasing amount of submissions that seem to have taken this homogenous approach. More and more of the music is sounding the same, almost as if musicians are afraid to stick out for fear of being ignored. Young artists, desperate for relevance, are listening to and then copying the sounds of established artists under the pretence that it is what radio is looking for.
What these up and coming producers must realise is that the artists who are established are in that position because despite what was popular at a particular time, they spent years crafting and perfecting their sound and creating familiarity with their followings. They were unapologetic about their approach and their audience identified with that authenticity.
The road to establishing yourself as a unique artist is way harder, and I understand why it seems daunting. The music business is tough and people need to eat. A cheap, catchy, radio-friendly single can get you on air, give you shazams and put you on the map, but the faster you climb, the faster you'll fall.
The bigger picture to keep in mind is that audiences are not stupid and authenticity still matters. Artists need to change the way the view radio play. I would encourage anyone making music to see the radio as a fantastic way to get music that they believe is heard by a wider audience, instead of thinking that just having something that fits the mould is good enough. The reality is that that approach doesn't breed longevity and doesn't make you memorable. The music business is fickle and many musicians come and go. Spend your time rather trying to follow the strategies of those who have survived over time.
The trick is to think differently about the trade-off. Black Coffee is a great example of the benefits of allowing time for your sound to evolve instead of pandering to commercial trends. Coffee, and others like him, took years to perfect a sound that is now both familiar to, and respected by audiences in South Africa and abroad.
Ask yourself, would artists like Drake and Alicia Keys (who've collaborated with Coffee) want anything to do with someone who instead of being fresh and original sounded like something we've heard before and was just good enough? Make music to make good music, not to get it played on radio.