South Africa’s music landscape has historically been controlled by four major labels these being SONY, Universal, Gallo and Warner Music. It is only from the late 2000s and onwards where small independent labels have emerged. The Recording Industry of South Africa (RiSA) estimates that there are approximately 1 400 independent labels that currently exist (although not all are active). More importantly, there has been an increase of Black-owned record labels owned by producers, artists, or industry insiders. Because of the hegemony that the four major labels hold over airplay as well as in the TV and digital media ecosystem, it has been historically difficult for independent artists and labels to gain traction.
However, that is about to change. It is within the last three to four years where independent artists have been able not only to carve out their careers without a recording deal but also managing to become international superstars in the process. The most recent and visible examples include Master KG, Elaine, Sho Madjozi, Yugen Blakrok, and Muzi amongst others. These artists have used various platforms such as Soundcloud, Tik Tok, Switch, Instagram as well as streaming services like Apple, Spotify and Deezer. But none of these have had more impact than YouTube. YouTube has become one of the primary destinations for artists to get exposure for their music. Small independent record labels and musicians have had to be creative in their visual representation of the music to capture the attention of the South African consumer. The simplicity of placing content on YouTube provides an easy avenue for music distribution that artists and independent labels didn’t have access to before. This means that artists can operate outside of the machine and generate a higher percentage of revenues.
“I think ownership is so important, especially as a young Black creative in South Africa. My work is kind of my legacy. It’s my wealth; it’s everything that I am,” said Moozlie. The “S’funukwazi” rapper was signed to Cash Time records before separating from the label in 2016. After leaving, she formed her own record label called Nomuzi Mabena Music. Owning the rights to the music also means that artists have control over distribution rights. According to a survey done by Midia Research, the number of artist’s publishing their own music grew by 31 percent between January 2019 and September 2020. “Distribution has changed a lot [in the last 10 years]. Technology has always been an integral part of the industry but now we’re seeing an appetite for more digital music and it’s not expensive,” shared Neil Naidoo, New Business and Brand Partnerships at Africori. “The digital realm has given artists more options that work in their favour”.
Africori is one of the many boutiques in the country that negotiates royalties, distribution and licensing rights on behalf of African independent labels and rights-holders. They represent artists such as FAKA, FKA Mash, Gigi LaMayne, Kid Fonque, and MX Blouse to name a few. Yoel Kenan, CEO of Africori has worked in the music business for over 20 years in regions like London and France and vehemently believes that independent African musicians have more power and control over their artistry than anywhere else in the world.
The creatives on this continent have so much freedom and that’s why you see so many interesting trends here. They are not limiting themselves. And there’s energy in the continent which is incomparable to anywhere else. I have travelled a lot and I’ve said to people the best place in the world [in terms of music] is Johannesburg.
And that creativity and freedom means that artists create outside the box and make music on their own terms which helps push the culture forward.
[Being independent] has actually made me find who I really am as a person and as an artist. Most of the songs I record now are 100 percent who Fifi Cooper really is. I don’t have anyone directing my music. I don’t have anyone forcing me to work with whomever – it’s literally what I want to do. And I am now free to do my best and give my fans 100 percent,
Shared Fifi Cooper, popular South African rapper who left Ambitiouz Records in early 2017 and formed her own record label, Mo Cooper Records. She continues, “I think a lot of artists have realised it is possible to make it and be big as an independent artist. We are now comfortable learning the business side of things and not just being behind the mic.”
But being an independent artist isn’t all moonlight and roses. It does come with a lot of work and even more responsibility. “It’s hard as sh*t!” exclaims Moozlie, continuing:
I think a lot of the time, people glamourise being independent but at the same time, it is difficult. It’s very difficult, but it’s working out. At the end of the day, I’m the boss. All the cheques come straight to me, I ain’t gotta ask nobody. It’s very empowering.