5FM’s collaborative music project is raising pointed questions of a music industry in stasis The two-time South African music awards nomination of “Sleepwalker” by The Parlotones, Khuli Chana and Jon Savage has thrown the spotlight on the impact of the collaborative radio project, the 5FM MashLab. The song’s Best Collaboration and Best Music Video of the Year
5FM’s collaborative music project is raising pointed questions of a music industry in stasis
The two-time South African music awards nomination of “Sleepwalker” by The Parlotones, Khuli Chana and Jon Savage has thrown the spotlight on the impact of the collaborative radio project, the 5FM MashLab.
The song’s Best Collaboration and Best Music Video of the Year SAMA nominations came just a handful of days before the MashLab was additionally named as a contender for the Programme Innovation Award at the 2014 MTN Radio Awards, which take place mid-April. Alongside The Parlotones, Khuli Chana and Jon Savage, the MashLab has featured collaborations between the likes of Naaldekoker and Liquideep, CrashCarBurn and ShortStraw, Seether and Van Coke Kartel, iScream & the Chocolate Stix and Reason, and, most recently, Taxi Violence and Zakes Bantwini. But the double recognition of the project early in 2014 is now also seeing its creative founder, Jon Savage, speak out on the challenges he says the MashLab has faced since launching on Rob Vember’s show last year.
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“The SAMA nominations and Radio Award nominations are a real endorsement of the MashLab,” Savage tells Rolling Stone.
“I’m very proud of ‘Sleepwalker’ because I know that that collaboration would never, and could never, have happened if it wasn’t for 5FM’s audience voting Khuli Chana and The Parlotones into the MashLab. Like all the other MashLabs, it was so beautiful to see artists up to the challenge of pushing musical boundaries and delivering something outside of their musical comfort zone. From the start we wanted to showcase the songwriting process to 5FM’s audience in a different and fresh way by creating unique music content for Rob’s show – and the SAMA and Radio Awards nominations recognise that.”
The opportunity to “create great content” was also why 5FM took on the project.
“The MashLab is a concept that developed from an initial pitch by Jon Savage, (and) was sculpted and moulded to what it is today,” says the station’s Programme Manager, Tim Zunckel. “5FM saw it as a great opportunity to create unique content in a music space.”
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For Savage, the integration of music fans into the creative process was also a key element from the start. Across more than 10 MashLabs, fans have chosen the collaborators as well as the subject matter of several songs. Through an ongoing interaction with Savage and Vember, they have also taken a direct part in all the collaborations, either by designing the artwork for the release of each MashLab as a digital single or, in some cases, even performing on the recording.
But Savage contends that the success of the MashLab has come in spite of several of the country’s record labels, which he claims have actively obstructed the project.
“Without doubt, my biggest challenge has been dealing with the politics of the industry and, in particular, the local labels,” Savage says. “Most of the record labels were initially warm to the idea of the MashLab – before it started getting very big, very quickly. Then, with a few good-egg exceptions like Sheer and Warners, suddenly their whole attitude changed to ‘hang on hang on hang on, we want more control over this, we need to be more included, we are not happy about this’. I’ve spent six long months trying to untangle this web.”
Savage alleges that this has caused a disruption in one of his primary aims for the MashLab – which was for the project to be a vehicle for international artists to collaborate with local artists as a way of helping South African artists break through internationally.
“I spent four long, hard months putting together one of the biggest international artists in the world with one of South Africa’s most successful artists, getting the buy-in of all the artists involved, the international management and even the international record label, Red Bull Records. All I needed was for the local distributor to sign off on the deal.”
But Savage says that, instead, “the local distributor started telling the international labels one story and 5FM another story”.
“The next thing I knew, I had this explosive email from the head of the local distributor telling me I was a disgrace to the music industry and how dare I even contemplate speaking to the international record label without his permission. At the same time, Red Bull Records was getting concerned as they were getting mixed messages from South Africa (and the collaboration) all fell apart.”
Savage believes that these actions on this specific planned collaboration are a symptom of an industry caught in stasis, in a changing world.
“I think MashLab plays on the fears of the record companies who are trying very hard to navigate the current musical landscape and are determined to continue ‘business as usual’ and really don’t like it when something challenges their control over their artists or their dominance,” he says.
“It must be very scary to see each label getting swallowed by the next one. Of course, I understand that they are in a difficult position and they need to be proactive about moving forward. But the rule book has been thrown out the window, and there needs to be more visionaries at record labels taking risks and trying new things out.”
For its part, 5FM takes the view that the plans that labels have for their artists at times work against specific collaborations succeeding.
Says Zunckel: “5FM appreciates that the MashLab is not always consistent with the planning that labels have for their artists and to this end we have worked around the availability of artists as well as the unavailability of others. Labels are often invested on several levels, while the MashLab is a single project.”
Still, those artists who have taken part in the MashLab believe wholeheartedly in the role it is playing in bringing together artists from disparate genres.
“The MashLab was amazing,” says Reason, who created the track “Where The Party At?” with electro-rock band iScream & the Chocolate Stix.
“Working with artists outside of hip-hop music is really cool because you get to learn and share ideas. iScream & the Chocolate Stix were also a cool bunch of guys to create, delete and re-create work with. I really had a great time. As for Jon Savage… Well, what a leg!”
Taxi Violence’s Rian Zietsman comments that the MashLab “is one of those rare opportunities where artists can expose themselves to audiences that would not necessarily have known or cared about their own musical product on a national scale. (It) has taught me that no matter what the genres you are trying to gel together, there is always a way. Jon Savage is excellent at facilitating and overseeing something which could potentially result in a lot of conflict.”
Currently producing the 11th MashLab, Savage believes the S.A. industry is the poorer for what he calls the “active hijacking, led by certain labels, to try and take ownership of the MashLab and to put it under the control of the record labels”.
“This makes no sense at all to the greater S.A. music industry. (If this happened), the labels would choose collaborations that are logistically and politically simple as opposed to listening to what people actually want to hear. Because of (their attitude), the MashLab has become more about independent artists, to try and avoid the politics. The sad part is that we’d love to have more artists involved, and some of the biggest artists in the country call me daily to ask about being involved in the MashLab, but I have to constantly tell them that their own record labels won’t let it happen. Sometimes they think I’m joking so they phone their record labels. Then they call me back and say: ‘What the fuck?’ It made me very angry; now it just makes me really sad. MashLab is a perfect concept for a new landscape for South African music. But because a lot of record labels can’t see where it fits in on their paper roadmaps, they’d prefer for it not to exist.”
Approached for comment, Just Music, distributor of Red Bull Records, replied with a “no comment”.