SA’s ringtone revolutionaries

2014-05-18 15:00

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Young, black, gifted and reaping the rewards of kwaito 20 years later. Dance music DJs and producers today control an estimated 70% of what used to be a white-dominated local music industry. Lloyd Gedye investigates what cellphones had to do with it

“I was corporatised at an early age,” says DJ Cleo nonchalantly as he picks at his Napoletana pasta at the Blackheath Primi Piatti, northwestern Joburg.

He’s dressed in a blue Sundowns jersey, black track pants and football boots because he’s just come from a training session with the Bidvest Wits reserves.

The 34-year-old DJ and House music producer is aiming to secure a professional contract with the club as a goalkeeper. Football has always been his first love.

But it is on the radio airwaves, dance floors and, most importantly, the cellphone networks that Cleo has created a national brand. This is a producer whose tracks have won the bestselling download award at the SA Music Awards (Samas) five years running.

Cleo has always been identified by his peers as an industry pioneer. He was the first of a generation to use the new digital revenue streams that emerged in the technologically disrupted music industry.

He took control of his own business affairs through a company called Will of Steel Productions. In the process, his generation has created a major headache for the historically exploitative, mostly foreign-owned, major record labels in South Africa.


The revenue streams were generated chiefly from the sale of ringtones, ringback tones and full-track downloads on cellular networks.

From 2009 to 2012, as much as 95% of the country’s total music download market was generated by us paying R5 to download a popular track to use as our mobile ringback tone or ringtone.

Those were the golden years of the ringtone.

The artist-owned label takes 40%-50% of every download sale and the rest is divided between the cell networks and the content aggregator, which signs up tracks and sells them to the networks.

But according to independent music producers, there’s been a drop in these downloads since last year.

As smartphones penetrate the market, there has been a move to buying full tracks. But full tracks have only increased 5%-10% off a low base, while ringtones dropped 15%-20% off a high base.

But with the extra cash from these downloads, the man contemplating his pasta opposite me has succeeded in taking control of his music rights and business affairs. He has expanded on a corporatised blueprint initiated by Oskido, Glen Lewis, DJ Fresh and the like.

This new business model was adopted by Black Coffee (Soulistic Music), DJ Tira (Afrotainment), Liquideep (Mentalwave), Zakes Bantwini (Mayonie Productions), DJ Kent (88 Productions) and many others.

In the past three or four years, black-owned independent labels have grown from producing about 5% of top-100 airplays in South Africa to more than 25%. They now control an estimated 70% of the local music market, striking a blow for economic transformation.

In fact, this generation in the music industry has driven one of the largest shifts of black equity in any local sector. It has not been BEE. Rather, it was pop savvy, hard work and smart business sense.

The ringtone, the ringback and the download played a major part in liberating House and kwaito producers. A hit song could pay out as much as R130?000 a month. If a label had three or four artists with hit songs at the same time, these independent production houses could have been pulling in as much as R520?000 a month.

Money flowed in. Stories of cars and houses paid for with cash filtered through the grapevine.

To get the lowdown on exactly how this happened, #Trending spent the past month cornering the movers and shakers of the scene.


“It’s like apartheid vanished in 1994 but the music struggle only began then?…?[The major labels] controlled the artists and the music,” says Cleo.

“It was a case of ‘it’s my way or the highway’, which is the reason a lot of our musicians died as paupers. Artists didn’t own the rights to monetise their creations.”

But digital technology, in production and distribution, allowed black musicians to take control.

“Suddenly, people were saying: ‘We don’t need your huge budgets any more.’ Artists woke up to the reality that instead of spending R90?000 on recording an album, they could spend R90?000 on a studio and record 10 albums.”

Cleo was an “early adopter” but says he can’t take the credit for setting up Will of Steel in 2002. He was “coerced” into the move by two of his mentors, DJ Fresh and Graeme Gilfillan, a copyright law and business affairs expert at a company called Nisa.

“Will of Steel was started as a corporate structure so that I could pay myself a salary,” he says. “A structure that could pay VAT, invoice and be invoiced.?When I signed my first recording deal, it was with my own record company.”


Linda Maseko is another young music industry professional at the forefront of the revolution.

Mentalwave is the production house that handles Liquideep and Maseko is the duo’s business partner.

“The majors still have one or two big artists, but who wins the Samas? Mostly independent artists,” he says. “A lot of our older artists, from the 80s and 90s, had no financial understanding. So whatever money came their way, they celebrated it, they didn’t ask questions.

“When they read in the paper that they had sold 8?million records, they never questioned why they had only received R150?000.”

Maseko says that in 2009, as Liquideep’s popularity was on the rise, the duo was still selling a compilation titled Kasi Deep from the boots of their cars. But as the group began to get more bookings for bashes, they realised they needed to set up a company.

“So in 2010, Mentalwave was formed purely as a management company.”

In 2011, Liquideep walked away from their record deal with Universal and Mentalwave became a fully fledged independent record label.

Maseko says he saw that labels like Soulistic, Afrotainment and Will of Steel were pulling in major digital revenue.

“If you had a good track, on a bad month you could walk away with R70?000.”


A fortnight before, #Trending sat down with Black Coffee, South Africa’s premier House DJ, at Uncle Tom’s Community Centre in Kliptown, Soweto. He had just given an inspirational chat to a group of social entrepreneurs from the first Red Bull Amaphiko Academy.

Black Coffee started his company Soulistic Music in 2005. “We have a unique situation in South Africa. The big labels don’t run the industry?…?Almost all the big artists are from independent labels. We are on the streets, we understand what the people want.”

Amaru Da Costa runs Soulistic for Black Coffee. We meet him at the company’s office in Greymont. He’s 26 and proud of it. “I just woke up to the potential earlier than everyone else,” he says with a smile. “When I started with Soulistic, the only competitor around was Will of Steel.” He moved the company from being a publishing house to a full record label.

“Every artist on the label has his own company, which has a business relationship with us.”

When Soulistic signed a 17-year-old Culoe De Song in 2008, they set up a company for him, De Song Music. Da Costa says they then taught him how to handle that company. De Song has one year left on his contract with Soulistic and it’s up to him if he wants to renew.

“If he doesn’t, at least he is prepared to take control of his own business interests,” says Da Costa.

Black Coffee says the new business practice is vital and the best time for new artists to learn it is before they see too much money.

Da Costa agrees, saying that all too often, young producers come from a poor background and all they are interested in is cars, girls and money.

Black Coffee says he never understood the money coming in was not all his. He does not want younger artists to make the same

mistakes. “I mean look at Heavy K, he is earning big money, it’s going to drive anyone crazy,” he says, talking about one of the breakthrough acts of last year. “It’s so important for these artists to have a business structure behind them.”


Heavy K was discovered by Oskido, the legend of the scene, co-founder and leader of South Africa’s biggest black independent label, Kalawa Jazmee Records. “It is my personal passion to find talent and watch them grow,” Oskido tells #Trending.

He must have felt like a proud uncle when Heavy K’s track, Wena, took the country by storm. It also saw him walk off with a Metro Award for best dance album.

“The industry changes all the time and you cannot be stuck in your old ways,” says Oskido, “it is important to respect and to help other people wherever you can.”

He must have been equally proud to watch Mafikizolo walk away with the award for the biggest download at the Samas this year?– along with a bunch of other statues. The group started at Kalawa as a kwaito unit before going House and then settling into an Afro-pop sound. Two decades later, they’re still on top of the game.

Nomndeni Mdakhi, the director at Edits Communications, works with Oskido to market Kalawa artists and is fast earning a reputation among her peers.

“I think people like myself and Amaru Da Costa represent a generation that didn’t have the burden of the struggle,” she says.

“We didn’t have to fight the major labels like Kalawa had to. So when we come with our ideas, we believe anything is possible.”

Mdakhi tells a story about Kalawa putting a percentage of kwaito artist Thebe’s money aside without telling him.

Then one day, Oskido called him up to say: “Listen, I have been putting this money aside and there is enough now to buy a house.”

She says they recently did the same thing for Professor.

Oskido confirms the story, saying: “We kept Thebe’s royalties and did the same with Winnie Khumalo and Professor. We are currently helping DJ Zinhle build her house, sharing insight on how to invest in property.”


DJ Zinhle is another new-generation producer on the rise. She is the face of clothing retailer Legit, is launching a watch brand and runs a DJ school for women, Fuse Academy. Her track My Name Is was an international hit.

“Besides my brother and I hunting for information on the internet, Oskido was the one guy who was prepared to share with me how the industry works,” says Zinhle in her office at Fuse.

She set up Zinhle Productions in 2007.

She says the DJ academy is her way of giving back, playing the role that Oskido played for her.

“I am bored with being one of only a handful of female DJs,” she says.

And so the turntable spins.

The knowledge and business acumen is being passed down from one generation to another, ensuring South Africa’s music industry will never be the same again. Considering the exploitative past of the industry, this is something that needs to be celebrated.

» Want to see music videos of SA’s most downloaded songs? Click here.

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