A letter received from Free State musician Brendon Shields raises a long-running but still apprently relevant issue around performance conditions in SA.
My name is Brendon Shields and I am a writer and singer from Bethlehem.
I recently set out on a mini tour with a fellow musician to Cape Town to see for ourselves how this game of live performance works. We used the services of a good booking agent to set up shows and made sure we used all social networking platforms to get the word out that two nobodies were going to play a few tunes in various venues.
The first show was an opening gig for a well-known idols contestant; a fun night and a pleasurable performance in a good, caring environment with a handy sound engineer. I played this show for free as the "exposure" I would get from being associated with the idols singer is probably worth more than a case of beer.
Here's the problem: I have often thought that live music must have been declared the work of the devil during Apartheid, as the majority of clubs inevitably will have: a) a skull, or a very bad picture of one hanging above the bar ; b) walls that have been painted weeks before Cinema last performed there and c) toilets that smell of Guinness-puke.
They are staffed by very friendly barmen with lots of tattoos, and in most cases this friendly bloke will have a long dirty beard. In short – the bars I get to perform in are in most cases not the type of places I will frequent for a glass of wine with the missus. They are dodgy.
There are many exceptions – and ethical venues - I am sure, and one of my biggest motivations right now is to get famous enough so I can play these mythical spaces. But for the most part, small live music venues in SA are tough to enjoy.
Look, I am sure it's the same elsewhere in the world, and dodgy clubs in themselves are not the true thrust of my complaint. Hell, what would the world be without a late night Jolly Roger session when all presumably civilised joints are closed?
The issue I want to raise is the perception that certain bars and clubs book musicians while taking no risk whatsoever. These venues expect the band to spend a hundred hours a day on Facebook getting every school mate and his girlfriend to come and drink so that the venue can make money, of which only a small percentage is shared with the band.
The band in turn spends money driving to and from rehearsals all week, and more driving to and from the venue to perform on the night, and buying their own food and drinks on top of that, taking all the risk while working hard every day to produce something original just so that the world's soul will not die. (After all, we write our songs we do so either to get laid or to change the world. Ugly idiots like me are left only with the latter option.)
The point is: it feels like we as musicians take all the risk, and these types of venues take none. Secondly, on nights where there is a good crowd enjoying our music, the bar makes a packet but doesn't share fairly with us, and they don't use the money to upgrade their sound/acoustics either.
It would make a world of difference if these clubs can meet us halfway and at least pay a basic fee of say R500 to cover fuel (or for the bands who are financed by their folks, to buy some beer) and a few essentials, then we can rehearse and perform without stressing that we might not make it home that night. In a roundabout way, our art and our performance can grow and get better if the basics are looked after.
You cannot say you support music if you are willing to bum-shag artists every weekend by offering them a door percentage knowing full well there is a rugby match at a nearby school that day (who hired Steve Hofmeyer for a sokkie event in a tent after the game), leaving us to play to empty clubs.
Ok, I did say I was from the Free State, so maybe this kind of thing does not happen in Fourways. But the point remains: If you as a venue know full well that you do not have feet on any given night, don't get a band in to bring their mates to come and drink there and then use the bands fan's money to pay the band. Its low. It's by definition called 'exploitation' which is just not cool.
PS: Admittedly, there is a good chance that my music and live performance is just kak and that I deserve this treatment, but maybe other artists feel the same?