SABC’s local music move: Is it good or bad?

Local Music is put in the spotlight. (Images: Album covers)
Local Music is put in the spotlight. (Images: Album covers)

Cape Town – Following the recent announcement by the SABC that all its 18 radio stations are now required to play 90% local music, the question on everyone’s lips is: is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Since the announcement many musicians and public figures have voiced their opinions and rumours even circulated that this quota won’t affect the SABC’s commercial stations, MetroFM and 5FM. This however is not the case. 

In a statement on the SABC’s website on Thursday morning, the broadcaster said their decision won't affect its commercial stations such as 5FM and Metro FM. It was however followed by this quote from SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago: "We are not changing the formats of the radio stations. The type of music will still be the same type of music but it will be by local artists. Because if you got RNB and we've got local artists playing RNB, if you've got hip-hop, we've got local artists playing hip-hop. Therefore the format doesn't change, the station will still sound the same, but it will be using local music to do that."

What this means in a nutshell is that the radio stations will still play exactly the same music that they used to play, for example pop, hip hop, rock etc, but this will just be replaced by 90% local music. So the international music will just be replaced by local music of the same genre. Make sense?

5FM spokesperson Gilda van Schalkwyk told Channel24 that the only thing that will be affected by the SABC decision is 5FM's Top 40. "5FM will continue to have their Top 40 chart show on a Saturday - just not in the traditional sense. They will be reformatting the show to ensure they meet the 90% local music quota," said van Schalkwyk.

We asked a few musos and public figures in the industry to weigh in on two very important questions.

Is this decision good or bad?

For former 5FM presenter Catherine Grenfell this is a seriously drastic move and she says that music royalties are an important factor. "I would have liked to see a hike in quota and then to see how much music there is and then subsequently there could be a bigger increase. It will also be interesting to see how people feel about listening to 90% local music. I still think that international music is important and people like to hear international music a lot as well. It will also be interesting to see if it affects Internationals coming to SA. Will they come if they aren't played on local radio? I hope that musicians will get the money from royalties, because that to me is just as important as airplay. But only time will actually tell, if anything this is an interesting experiment in terms of radio," says Grenfell.

According to journalist, music scene commentator and former radio presenter, Anton Marshall, whether the decision is good or bad will depend on who you represent. He also agrees with Grenfell on the royalties factor, saying "we definitely need to start channelling money by way of airplay and songwriter royalties back into the local ecosystem.

"But a far more important aspect for me is that we need to start submerging ourselves in our own musical culture. We talk a lot about how we need to talk to each other. What better way than to be listening to each other?" says Marshall.

"There are a lot of people saying that it’s a bad thing for some or other reason. Honestly, I think the only people it is bad for is those who make inordinate amounts of money from exploiting their access to a limited media channel. People who say 'we can’t play this music because it’s not good enough and advertisers will leave us.' Really? Not good enough for whom?

'I also really love the argument that there isn’t enough 'good' South African music to fill a radio station playlist. Last time I looked at a commercial radio station playlist, there were barely fifty songs on it in medium to high rotation. Are there seriously not forty good South African songs in ANY genre to play at any given time on a radio station? Really?" adds Marshall.

For former Blues Broers member and guitar maestro Albert Frost, it’s a positive thing. "It’s going to be interesting to see how it gets divided between the different styles in South Africa," says Frost. "I mean 10 years ago they did 25%, so what they did was, the stuff that they were supposed to play they played between 02:00 and 04:00 in the morning, if I remember correctly. And then it ticks off on the system that they’ve made up their quota. 

"What can also happen, is that’s it’s a record industry thing, because the only way for those guys to get return on their investment, because no one buys CD’s anymore, is to get their money back off radio. But that’s not a good thing, even though they say 90%, it may mean that they play less people, because they’re only playing the major label artists. So it’s a bit like something smells funny to me, I mean it doesn’t make sense, I still want to hear a Beatles song every now and then you know…" adds Frost.

Local guitarist and solo artist Loki Rothman says it will be a surprise for him to actually see a change. "Especially people that attend the shows who go, ‘ah I heard your tune on the radio’, I don’t think that’s going to be the case, though I suppose we must wait and see," says  Rothman.

For Rothman it’s all about the quality of music and fairness. This brings us to our second question.

Will it bring quality of music down or empower more people to make better local music? 

"Up until now SABC not playlisting 90% has maybe pushed me as an artist and I think every other artist as well to put out top quality recorded music. If you listen to radio you won't know who's a local and who's international. Back in the day there use to be an excuse. So people would say 'for a local band this is quite good.' That doesn't exist anymore which is a good a thing, and not talking about sound or style here. Maybe this has also scared SA artists to create their own sound and do their own thing. It's a very tough one to crack," says Rothman.

He continues: "All I want is that every song gets a fair chance international or local. If the song is good, then it's good. I support the 90% decision, but don't think a song should get playlisted to make up the 90%. I think the problem for an artist starting out is that station music managers don't have time to listen to everything that goes past their desk. I understand there are millions of songs they need to check out. Again there are some stations that have given me great feedback, and reason why a song didn't get play listed. Then I go back to the lab and improve the tracks. If I don't get any feedback what does it help. All we want is a response and reason why a song doesn't get play listed. Never doubt the next track."

Grenfell says she hopes radio stations won’t have to lower their standard in terms of quality to meet quota. "I think the difficulty in getting music playlisted on radio in the first place with the quota at 35%, would have pushed people to actually make better music, as they were competing with an international standard. So that was what was happening already. I want to hear good quality local music on radio. Not just local music," says Grenfell. 

Marshall says "it’s a false flag to say 'quality of music' in the first place. The quality of music, artistically speaking, is about relevance to its audience. The quality of commercial exploitation is another issue."

He continues: "So no, I do not think that the ‘quality of music’ will suffer any more than it has for the last 30 years. The ‘quality of music’ has suffered from marketing meetings, playlists by committee, and uncurated tastemaking by vacuous, colour-by-numbers, celeb-driven radio pulp.

"Here’s a bottom line: If we’re not generating awareness or demand for a product in the market, how can we complain that there’s no awareness or demand for a product in the market?"