United Colours of Africa
Sevi Spanoudi interview
It is a great business. I love what I am doing and I am so inspired, but it is also hard work and a hard industry to have stability in and do well financially out of. It is a growing business and it depends on how you position itself. If we were to do only artist management the risk is quite a lot because basically you are putting in all your time and energy and investment in to something you can't fully control. You are putting energy into an artist and you don't know if they are going to be able to make music in the next 5 years. There are a lot of variables that are beyond control. The artist management is part of the business but the rest of the services we provide as Black Major are equally important as the artist management. A lot of the work we have been getting over the last year has been on the back of Black Major the brand rather than the artist we represent. It is a growing business on the Black Major services side of things. On the artists it fluctuates. We spent 6 months working really hard on getting Ray Phiri's show together, new musical director, new band members, looking at the media, doing photo shoots creating film content and then Ray suddenly passed away in July and we had a lot of commitments booked for him for the next year. All the time and energy we put into that became something we couldn't benefit from.
We provide PR work, for example Abdullah Ibrahim at the Artscape Threatre. We provide programing for events so Sunday Edition is an event we just started at the Biscuit Mill. We put the line-ups together for that event. We provide film content work when it has a music angle. We are busy with a documentary called Global Base and we are busy with lots of artists short film content. And booking for artists that are not on our roster also has good traction. We will book for an event even if the artist is not on our roster. The event will come with the requirements and we will find what is suitable and book the artists.
We work with the labels on the artists that we represent. We are starting our own label Black Major and Aaron will be my partner. We are busy doing the paperwork with the distributers now and we are probably going to launch early next year. The reason is not so much to make money out of selling records but so that we can represent projects that we have an interest in more fully. There are artists that we are working with or want to work with that we know it will be difficult if they have a release with someone else. It would always be a hard pitch or they won't do the right work. So for us to put that out ourselves and provide the label services to get the project to the next level is the reason why we are doing the label. There are a whole a bunch of artists we are looking at ... DJ Spokko is one we have just done a recording. Moses Boyd from the UK with Nonko Phiri and Something Soweto. Christian Tiger School. DJ Lag we will put passed catalogue and for Felix La Band. We have got a list of possible projects. And we are not going to do 20 projects a year, it will be small maintainable and manageable boutique vibe. It is not attached to territory but attached to what we connect to and what we think we can do good work on.
We rae not really experiencing it as a change because we are just constantly not looking at what other people are doing and comparing where we are in relation to that. We don't experience it as change but just experience it as where things are at and what makes financial sense for the growth of the artist. We are not attaching ourselves to a model that would be fixed. EG DJ Lag we just did a release on Whatsapp. We set up a page online and people come in and put in their details and phone number and on a specific date we send the tracks to those phone numbers through Whatsapp. It wasn't something that anyone else had done and we weren't looking it as a pioneering thing. We looked at his audience – they all have cellphones, they don't buy CD's they don't go online to buy music.We wanted to be focused, international and happen at the same time. We wanted to be underground and immediate. That was relevant to DJ Lag and is not the same approach another project might use. DJ Lag is sitting on a database of over 1500 people who left their details on the website. And that is good information to have over and above the social media. It is powerful and it will go.
Electronic acts are more affordable. Audiences are very young. They are experimenting they are taking drugs and they are out there to party. Compared to Sakifo in Reunion where 8 / 10 are live and experience live music on another level. And the festival is to make live music desirable so the stages are run with proper soundchecks. People get presented as live musicians in the best possible light. RTD presents electronic musicians in the best possible light. It is not right or wrong it is just who their targets are. And the economics play a role. To bring out one DJ from the UK versus a 5 piece band, you look at the numbers and make the decisions based on numbers. So the one attracts the other.Which will attract a certain audience, which will be better attended.
A lot of our team are more electronic music inclined but at the same time our roster has always been about artists who are doing things in a different and authentic way. Even though it has mostly electronic acts, the acts who are not electronic are all doing things in a different way. The issue with our roster is that it doesn't have enough women.There are some new acts we are looking to take on.
We have run a lot of workshops and we are always invited to give talks and workshops to students but it is quite limited:Workshop Music Academy or concerts. For us it is something we are very passionate about and every time we have done it the response has been amazing and also for us to get the inspiration from the exchange. There is a lot of demand for it and a way to contribute directly to the industry growing.
We get 20 requests a week on average from people wanting us to get involved. But usually the acts we want to get on our roster are acts that have a bit of a buzz independently. Sibot and Beatenberg came to us. It has happened in the past where I would be pushing an act to come on board but people have been in disagreement. We are only able to deliver as a team if everyone is behind it and wants to see the project aside.
For Alice we don't do the management work we do the booking. We handle her bookings in Africa. And her manager is based in Berlin. We will be involved in the promotion of her album. In that specific case Alice is running the show and everyone feeds of her vision priorities and plan.
We have interns all the time who learn a lot from being here. That is the advice I give young artists handle things on their own up until a point and then engage a manager or an agent a little bit further down the road. Unless it is someone like DJ Lag who is a talent and it is going to happen for him regardless of who takes him on. Someone should just take him on and bypass the five years of going alone to that point. Which he would have done on his own and with his friends and it would have taken him a lot longer. Artists can handle the first bit of their build up on their own. Right now we don't have capacity to build projects from scratch because we are not a record label working with budgets to invest in the artist to see a return in 5 years time. The way we earn is on a commission basis so the artist needs to be earning in order for us to work on him/her. A lot of our projects the investments need to have a return within two years otherwise we can't afford to work on it. Some projects don't take off. We have had artists that we have tried and turned it around and it doesn't take off. We had the music videos, the photo shoots, the radio pluggers, the PR people and it never translated. If you are the type of artist that is pitching to a commercial audience, radio play is a big part of the success.
Ray Phiri was a success from a legacy point of view. In terms of international performances Beatenberg was a success as we don't have many artists signed to an international major. On a touring perspective, DJ Lag within a year he is touring the world. From a commercial synch advertising point of view SIbot because he is constantly writing tracks for TV advertising. People are covering different pockets in the industry. DJ Lag and Christian Tiger School we have built from scratch. Bongeziwe we got in there during the early days, Beatenberg we got in early…
Someone like Beatenberg who can have a hit on a UK and US radio station because the writing is really good and the music has international appeal, I think signing them to a major is a good move. It varies. DJ Lag he wouldn't make sense signing him to a major because his audience is very underground and it is cool kids who doesn't want to see an artist like him essentially selling out to a major label.
In SA also there are not many majors, there are not many options. To do good work in SA with the majors you need to be working really …
The roster is one act of the business, but the other services are putting us in a unique position.
Aaron: We don't really operate as a traditional management and booking agency, because of the nature of the history of SA, there are so many things that come our way. People think we are label because of the brand we have developed. Most people know us through events and projects and collaborations. Other things that would exist outside of the norm. And that is the way that we adapt. We take everything that comes our way and excites us to get involved with.
Sevi: We are riding forward without looking left or right at what other people are doing. We supplied the most acts for RTD.
A: Our roster is so diverse we could have an artist on every stage. As an agency we are all into different styles of music and that definitely effects our roster. With a diverse roster there are more places for the music to sit.
S: There are not many management and event companies in CT.
A: Our artists are not necessarily mainstream so can't be booked for every single gig. We are as a manager with a pop act or a DJ that can suit all functions, they probably have more gigs.
S: Felix and Sibot felt right for what we were doing. We get requests from people all the time. If we said yes to every act that comes to us we would have a lot of acts on our roster. It needs to make sense on many levels for us to take an artist on. We have a bigger roster than many management agencies, but our roster is not massive.
A: I see as much music as possible. We do a lot of events and projects so it is good to know who is on the up. I try to keep my finger on the pulse. I studied jazz and played music but realised I was not so good at playing and should get into the business side. My grandfather had a jazz club called Scruples which was like a mixed race club in Wetton and some of the really big artists would come through after their shows in the city. Chick Corea came through at 4 or 5 in the morning and jammed until the early hours. They had a lot of house parties with these acts touring in the 70s and 80s. He used to play in a lot of jazz bands. He was my music mentor. I studied it not thinking that I would become a jazz artist but because I didn't know what else to do. Whilst studying jazz I met an artist who asked me to become their manager. We still work with them, ‘Batalier' a six piece experimental band. I saw how it worked and how people book shows and who is doing what. They were getting a lot of good response. A lot of the bands that I became friends with did not have management and a lot of bands were quitting because they did not have management: they were great at music but there was no strategy behind it.
The label will be a partnership between us:
At the moment there is a lot of exciting music coming out of Joburg and amazing music coming out of Durban. In terms of certain styles, Cape Town has always led the way in terms of experimental electronica.
S: We are in Joburg often. We are visible there and we want to do more events and have brand visibility. The only benefit for us to have people working for Black Major in JHB. It is something we need to do but we are not there yet.
We put a lot of work into the brand and the work comes straight into the brand. We are putting equal amount of energy into BM the brand and the events and everything that comes with that versus the artist.
A: Our colours, our style and our voice is not like a traditional management agency.
S: Uganda has just joined Igoda and there are requests from other countries. If you are a circuit and you have 10 acts on the road you need to be able to buy a show. We are not at that level yet that we could buy or 6 shows. We could buy one or two but not more than that because we don't have a festival.
The one thing we are looking at doing in partnership with Sakifo Productions the driving force of Igoda, we are looking at starting a booking agency that represents the whole of Africa, signing international artists for African shows. So being able to approach agency's like William Morris, ATC, Koda and say we want to represent your roster in Africa. And that is something that had the potential to be really massive. We can start it soon for Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean, but to do it for the whole continent we need to do a lot of homework.
A: In terms of nurturing talent, venues is a massive thing as there are not a lot of places for bands to play in. When I started off you had to be damn good to get a slot at Assembly because you had to play Purple Turtle to play Zula bar to get the opening slot at Assembly. After those places closed it became easy to get a gig at Assembly and now it is closed and there are hardly any music venues.
The artists that are doing well need to be packaged and put forward to play at bigger festivals. They are not at ground level having to earn their fans through they way it should be. Once that builds in CT and there is a good event circuit in the city and other cities in the country. IN JHB there is Good Luck Bar and Orbit. But in CT it is definitely a factor. If there is a great venue people will want to play there and you have to be good to play there.
We are doing interesting events in interesting places. There is a prophouse in the basement and we are getting our licences ready to start doing some really cool events. There is a hunger for something new.
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