Idols SA will reach the end of its 15th season this evening. Phumlani S Langa speaks to a few of the previous winners of this much-loved talent show to find out how the music industry has treated them since their victories, and whether or not there was any point in going through the whole thing in the first place.
Since 2002, South Africans have huddled around their televisions every year to watch Idols SA, a singing contest that aims to unearth the next big thing in music. The show tours major cities and hosts auditions. Those who have potential advance to the next round and those without are compiled into episodes of wooden mic delights that are particularly enjoyed by audiences – whether or not some of these people have been planted by producers, as has sometimes been claimed.
Weeks of competition whittle down the contestants to 20, then 10 and finally just two remain. These two look to win the hearts of the viewers, who ultimately vote for the winner.
A few big names, such as Amanda Black and Shekhinah, have emerged from this competition, even though they weren’t winners.
So what is the point? Granted, a television show is made for entertainment, but this one also has a very real premise – the winners get a career. However, is their success about the prizes they win or does it hinge on what they are able to do with the opportunity?
Genre: Afrikaans pop and gospel
Winning year: Season 1, 2002
Albums released: Seven, plus two live DVDs
Albums sold: 200 000 copies
Highest accolades and milestones: Placed fourth in the World Idol competition, has SA Music Awards (Sama) nominations and earned a double platinum for his debut single Once in a Lifetime
The original Idol scooped the title when the show was on M-Net, not Mzansi Magic – a telling switch. Winckler explains that the industry has been struggling and sales are not that great, so he focuses on live performances.
“It was quite tough in the beginning. I was naive and learnt the hard way that you can’t trust everybody, but I learnt to build a business,” he said.
He got a record deal as part of his prize, as well as an advance of R150 000 and another R150 000 from Nu Metro for advertising work, which he had to work off.
“The main thing was the record deal. It was the first season, so they didn’t have the big prizes they do now. There was no straight-up cash prize that needed to be worked off, as in later seasons,” he said. “I probably could’ve found a way into the industry, but Idols SA fast-tracked things. A big challenge is to become well known. I tell people who ask me for advice that you need to get three things in the public’s mind: link your name with your face and your face with your song.”
Keeping the passion alive despite the challenges is the hardest experience. “You are dependent on bookings, which are dependent on radio play of songs, and getting airplay relies on writing great songs. Producing them well is expensive and you hope that you are the flavour of the month for the programmers at the radio station.
“There are more people than ever trying to make it in the music industry and the pie everyone is trying to get [a slice of] is smaller. Being unique ... is becoming more challenging.”
Winkler learnt more from producers than the vocal coaches, but admits his time with them was short: “The benefit is that you get publicity ... paying for it with time and putting yourself out there, which is a risk, but the return is big and if you see it as a business transaction, it’s better. The point was to make music for a living.”
Winning year: Season 13, 2017
Albums released: One
Highest accolades and milestones: Her single Angifuni has more than 2 million views on YouTube
This year, she received two Sama nominations – best pop album and newcomer of the year.
The music industry has been a learning experience for one of the most gifted Idols we have. Fielies has taken a strong liking to travelling the world and sharing creativity with the musicians she meets. She was equipped with the new-age winner’s pack: the car, the cash, the clothes and the gadgets.
She says: “I haven’t really faced any challenges, however, the business side of the music industry has been quite challenging. It’s all about who you know; affiliation is everything.”
The experts on Idols SA provided her with wisdom that she still refers to: “After the win, I continued to build on that foundation and I am still building towards my goals. The competition definitely helps you grow and discover new things about yourself as an individual and as a performer. After the competition, it’s up to you to decide how you utilise the platform the competition has given you and all the doors it opens for you.”
Fielies views her Idols win as a string foundation upon which to build a career that so many of us will be watching keenly.
“After the win, I continued to build on that foundation and I am still building towards my goals,” Fielies says.
While she hasn’t been in the trenches of local music for a long time, it has become apparent to the young pop star that the going will get tough. Fielies is also under the impression that she would have kept looking for a way to break into the music industry had she not won. Funnily enough, she mentions going at it independently, which a lot of local talent talk about, but rarely do as most artists are not fortunate enough to start their careers in such a lavish fashion.
“The music industry has been a learning experience for me. I have met many amazing people who share my passion,” she says.
Winning year: Season 11, 2015
Albums released: Two
Albums sold: 10 000
Highest accolades and milestones: He worked with Disney on the soundtrack for The Lion Guard on Disney Junior and participated in the Tropika Island of Treasure reality show
Mogane won Season 11 and promptly began crafting his body to look more like a sultry R&B guy with the six-pack. As is a common response, he claims the industry has been tough on him.
The friendly crooner declares: “It has been quite hectic. I’ve learnt a lot. I’ve also made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve grown from that. I believe I’m in a better place now as I understand more; just taking it one day at a time to get ahead in this music game.”
The prizes he got included a car, fashion vouchers, cash and a few prizes from Telkom, all of which he received in good time.
“I can’t say for sure if I would’ve been able to find myself a path into recording music without Idols SA. I do believe that, because of the passion I have, something was going to come up. Our come-ups are not the same; everybody has a different way of making it in. I think that someday, somebody would’ve noticed me,” he says.
Dealing with people and building relationships and keeping these intact has been a taxing task.
“I gained a lot of wisdom as there are things that you don’t know when you win the competition. You’ve got people who are experts and work in the field, so if you listen, you can learn a lot. If not, you can find yourself walking out as confidently as you walked in.
“There is a lot to benefit from in the competition, but it is also about what you do once the competition is over. For me, it was finding people who you can work with,” he says, adding that hard work was the driving factor.
Winning year: Season 14, 2018
Albums released: One
Highest accolades and milestones: Her hit single Scars has more than 600 000 streams
The 18-year-old R&B-turned-gospel singer swooped in for an impressive win and is poised to keep things moving, although she is perhaps still in the honeymoon phase of her career.
“The industry has been good to me so far. My music has been received very nicely and people have been so supportive,” she says.
Her Idols SA prizes included R1 million, which she hasn’t received yet, as well as a Ford Fiesta, vouchers from Truworths, gadgets from Telkom and a voucher from Yamaha.
She explains how her time on the show was valuable: “I gained a lot of knowledge during Idols SA, especially from the vocal coaches regarding the importance of warming up. There was criticism from the judges, especially in terms of dressing because I didn’t worry about what I wore. I just wanted to worry about what to sing.”
She is slowly getting the hang of dealing with different personalities. She also recalls learning a lot from the producers, coaches and staff.
The edgy singer has developed an exciting aesthetic despite this not being her wheelhouse. Sobetwa says she barely slept a wink the night before her album was launched.
“I still watch Idols. I would for sure say my favourite was Xola Toto. I know her personally and she has such an amazing personality and has an amazing voice, but, unfortunately, she left during the top 16 round.”
Much like Fielies, who she shares management with, Sobetwa has found it hard to pick a frontrunner since as the level has been so high this season.
Aside from the high number of streams she has amassed, the songstress says: “My best career moment was when I realised my album was available at all Musica stores and digital platforms.”
Genre: Afrikaans pop
Winning year: Season 6, 2010
Albums released: Seven – three platinum albums (30 000 copies) and two gold (20 000 copies)
Highest accolades and milestones: Playing in front of 95 000 people as the opener for Bon Jovi and winning four Samas
As far as stats go, this brother doesn’t play. In all fairness, his genre is not one most of us go in for, but stats are stats and four Samas is momentous.
Blue says: “It’s as tough as everyone says, but when I speak to my friends who are accountants and business owners, I realise all industries are tough and you are very lucky if you can do something that you actually love.”
Blue was no stranger to making music before the show and is certain he would’ve pushed to make it in the industry.
“I probably could’ve; I tried very hard. Before I entered Idols SA, I actually recorded five studio albums, but they weren’t commercially successful. I guess in today’s fast-paced, on-demand media world, you need a bit more than music to be seen and heard,” he says.
The challenges of balancing the long periods of travel and his family life have proved to be tough going for this idol.
He feels as though he didn’t gain much in the way of insights from the vocal coaches and producers, “but I think having people judging you always puts you out of your comfort zone, and maybe that was always the plan, because that’s good for you, whether you like it or not”.
As a winner, he is of the notion that the success is key to maximising this springboard and this is totally up to the artist.
He adds that “even the guy who loses can benefit”.
The bigger picture is this: Idols SA pulls in viewers, but it is also the reason ProVerb stopped rapping right. The statistics also don’t speak wonders. Some of the winners last put out albums years ago. Others have vanished completely. However, the testimonies of the former Idols who have made it do make it abundantly clear that winning alone is not enough – and that’s exactly how the show is sold.