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Monday, February 11, 2008

BBC Collective - Questions to Tom Jenkinson (aka Squarepusher)

Here is a great set of questions and some great, intelligent, articulate, thought-provoking answers. I'm so happy to read interviews like this because it reaffirms the way I think about what I do and what I am doing, and dispels the myth of the sprezzatura rockstar.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Now, a dose of real cynicism. South African rock music and the pie in the sky.

Right, so I'm not commenting on the David Byrne article. Interesting as it is, it is obvious that the South African markets are rather different from the ones Mr. Byrne is involved in. Which brings me to a particular point. Being South African is a strange thing and I get the impression that we're always looking outwards and upwards, instead of a more practical homeward and grounded view. If you have access to Facebook, have a look at this group: "Save Radio 2000 - On the verge of commercialising". If you don't have access, or can't be bothered to look, the gist of the situation is this: the management of Radio 2000 (a public broadcaster) has intentions of changing its standing to that of a commercial broadcaster. The differences between these two are not made clear in the group at all, but essentially the difference would be that the station would start focussing on selling advertising slots. Radio 2000 broadcasts predominantly in English, and has an incredibly broad cross-genre playlist. The concern in the 1,200-strong Facebook group is that, should the station become a commercial station, they'll play far less rock music. And they're probably right. The appeal is to unite, petition, write, and so forth in protest of this potential change. Fair enough, stand up and have your say. There are strong letters from all sorts of people, fans, musicians and industry types pleading and demanding that nothing changes, making appeal to ideas such as fairness, equality, representation, support of local artists, etc.

Well, I'm listening to Radio 2000 (via a very low quality stream) and they're playing Pearl Jam's "Daughter". I can't remember hearing that on the radio...ever. It's a great song, I've always loved it and it's a great surprise to hear it. But, I do own the album ("Vs." - it's superb) and can listen to it when I please. I don't want to rain on the parade of the protesters, but I want to make a point about the rock industry and perceptions of it in general. I can't understand where anyone really believes, with any bit of reason, that the rock-listening population of South Africa can hold any weight in the South African industry at all, and I'll tell you quite simply why: it's too small. (The Pearl Jam's over, now they're playing reggae...) I went to Statistics South Africa to get some proper figures of the South African demographic. The last national census was in 2001, and these are the numbers I'm looking at. Here come some (I think reasonable) generalisations. (Oh, reggae over, some wishy-washy jam-band muzak that sounds like my band rehearsals when I was 18 now...)

Let's assume that rock music is listened to by white people, and I'll look at the largest reasonable age group. So, it's white males and females between the ages of 10 and 50. In 2001 that number was at 1 313 599. Of the 44 819 778 total population, that's just under 3% of the population. (Do you see where I'm headed with this?) I think that age group is far too broad, let's look at a population group that is most likely to be buying new music and going to shows, say 15 - 35? Right, that drops the number to 244 481. Now, what proportion of this group actually listens to rock music? This is some of the dodgiest number work, I know, but we're just speculating, right? Let's consider the other national radio station (a commercial one) which is English: 5fm. As a commercial radio station they'll be looking to appeal to the best demographic to maximize sale of adverts. Highveld Stereo is a local radio station, based in Johannesburg, and appeals to a similar demographic as 5fm, but probably to an audience a little older. How often do they play rock music? HARDLY EVER. I'll start paying attention, but I'd be surprised if 1 out of every 4 tracks played is a rock song; for the most part you're presented with Top 40 material, which is mostly hip-hop and pop songs, which is also an accurate reflection of the current trends. But let's be generous and say that half of our white population likes rock music... 122 240. Let's say that half of that lot are prepared to buy their music and not copy it (ha!)... 61 120. Let's say that half of those are prepared to drive to shows, pay the R20/30/40 and hear new acts (ha!)... 30 560. Now, let's consider the various types of rock music prominent in South Africa: metal, hard-rock, "screamo", MOR (middle of the road - Parlotones, that's you), punk. There are 5 easy-peasy genres. Let's again be generous and say that these genres are not mutually exclusive, and a person might go for 3 of the 5 (60%). You're looking at a nationwide fan-base potential of 18 336 people. And you think Radio 2000 is going to keep the rock industry alive?

I'm sorry...but it's not. Bear in mind that I've tried to be generous with all these numbers... shall we consider how these 18 336 people might support a number of bands? I've known popular bands who walk away from gigs with R50 for each member. Hell, I've played in bands that have had the same thing happen. I've done these numbers before in a similarly ad hoc way, and always come out with a much lower number. I'd be surprised if the South African rock industry has 20 000 supporters in total, across all genres throughout the country. Your band's slice of that pie will never keep you going, and, I'm afraid to say, that's all the pie there is.