All Famine No Fame


Kalk Bay: Popular busker, Mwalasha, sings for his supper.

A job posting on popular classifieds website, Gumtree, has triggered an outcry from local musicians.

The advert, titled ‘Resident drummer & bassist wanted’, was posted on 04 March. It solicits professional musicians to perform at a weekly open-mic event at the Brass Bell restaurant in Kalk Bay. The advert stated that successful applicants must provide their own instruments. Musicians were offered no remuneration but the venue could offer “a beverage on the house.” 

The concept of “playing for free” is a practice that has plagued the music industry for years. Greedy promoters and venue managers take advantage of musicians who aspire to “make it big” in the industry.

Brass Bell Manager, Gary Galvin, posted on Facebook, “The ad was NOT posted by the Brass Bell, nor did anyone have permission to make said offer [sic].”

He explained that this advert was posted by an official promoter without the consent of Brass Bell management. “Paying artists in drinks is not the way we work.” He did not elaborate on how the venue remunerates musicians.

“Play for no pay” is a problem faced by other musicians nationwide. In 2012 it was revealed that members of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) had not been paid wages for several months. According to The Star, a minimum amount of R2.2 million was owed to orchestra members in 2012.

In the past the JPO had secured funding from The National Lottery, Anglo American and the JD Group. Escalating debts and withdrawal of this funding resulted in the JPO being forced to enter a business rescue to avoid foreclosure.

Being a musician is a highly skilled profession and the cost of instruments and maintenance can range from tens to hundreds of thousands of rands. A four-year BMus degree at the University of Cape Town can cost well over a quarter of a million rand. A diploma qualification at the nearby Campus of Performing Arts can cost over R100 000.

Once musicians graduate there are very few opportunities for stable employment or income. Many work secondary jobs in order to earn a living. This results in little time for them to pursue their music careers.

Cape Tonian drummer, Adrian Fowler (24), says, ”I have spent years honing my talent and acquiring expensive gear. I offer a professional service, and I deserve to be paid a decent rate.”

SA musicians have no minimum wage or union to protect their working rights. Collection agencies such as SAMRO (South African Music Rights Organisation) hold large sums of unpaid composition royalties. According to an article in Business Day, many musicians will never receive these payments due to poor administration within the organisation.

“The plight of artists has been a problem. People are being ripped off every day,” said Department of Trade and Industry spokeswoman, Zodwa Ntuli, “They don’t have the power to negotiate.”

The cultural economy of South Africa is in need of new legislation and structures in order to support important artistic projects and musicians in general. The Department of Arts and Culture and the National Lottery Commission exist as potential avenues for funding, but offer little prospect for continuity as applications must be applied for on a yearly basis.

Until such time as our musicians can earn enough to put bread (and perhaps the occasional glass of wine) on the table, the cultural sphere in South Africa will remain stagnant and stifled. If talented South African musicians are forced to give up on their passions due to financial plight, our country and our culture will be a much poorer place.

Image available here.



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