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Music Business Corner: Why SA artists die poor?


Four (4) reasons why SA artists seldom escape the poverty trap

By Vusi Thembekwayo

So please explain this to me: Freddie Mercury died at the age of 45. He was worth an estimated $100 million. The legendary Mahlathini – who in my view was a talent equal to that of Freddie Mercury – died at the age of 61. There are no reliable sources of information for his net worth, but it is commonly understood that it was not much.

Vusi Thembekwayo

South Africans are as talented as anyone else from any nation in my view. So why then do our artists die poor?Are they lazy? Are the financially illiterate? Are they too dependent on someone else to make a living? Or do they just have a fresh batch of bad luck;

I have pondered on this question, and here are my 4 reasons why SA artists seldom escape the poverty trap: 

#1 You are a Business-man.

SA artists need to understand that they are not just artists or creative beings. They are talent-preneurs. They make their living through their talents. They must concern themselves with all aspects of their business, sales, marketing, logistics and even financials.
#2 Numbers are not only for accountants

Getting well versed with the numbers of your business and knowing the difference between mark-up & gross margin, net cash & accounts receivables or payment terms & working capital are not boring concepts only for the accountant. They are logical pieces of information that tell you how much you are creating, if at all.

#3 Marriage is for lovers, not professional colleagues

No one was born and bred to ensure that you are successful. No one! You do that for yourself. I have seen countless talent-preneurs (singers, actors, idols judges, dancers and even speakers) sign away their business to someone else. They sign with an agent who earns 25% of their money (off the top) for facilitating a transaction. So for merely picking up the phone, taking a booking, sending a contract and getting the often non-complex logistics in order, talent-preneurs will pay 25c of every rand they earn to someone else. That’s ridiculous. Imagine Standard Bank giving away 25% of everything they earn to someone else… just nje!

Often these agencies expect the talent to sign an “exclusivity agreement” with them but they never sign an “exclusivity” with the talent. Which means they represent as many artists as they wish & have no vested interest any particular artist being successful.


#4 A TV show does not a brand make.

Many talent-preneurs need to understand that personal branding is not marketing. Just because you are on TV, radio or any other media does not mean you have a “compelling value proposition” that customers can only access through you. This is often why for many of our talent-preneurs, radio or TV is a necessity. Without it, they cannot make a real living. So why is JayZ amongst the best selling hip-hop artists in the world & unlike LL Cool J and the like, he does not now nor have he ever had a TV show? Why did Michael Jackson set world record music sales even though he didn’t have a reality TV show on Bravo? Why did Lebo Mathosa leave an incredible trail of commercial success as an artist even though she did not have a show on Vuzu?

The answer is easy: Each of these talent-preneurs were so well versed in their trade and I would argue understood the levers upon which their commercial success rested that they didn’t need the platform. They ran their business like a business. They were in charge. They took their own bookings or managed the office the does. They built an extraordinary brand around consumer experience. That’s why Afro-Jack has his plane, and tour bus and booking agency.They run it like a business.

So some recommendations to our talent-preneurs: (1) Tear the exclusivity agreement. It’s your life, your business. Take ownership and drive it. (2) Know your numbers. Know how many inquiries you are getting, from whom, for what. If they don’t book you ask them why. That’s how you gather market intelligence. Is someone else hotter at that time, better, more affordable? The list is endless. The trick is to find out. (3) Invest in your brand beyond an acting role, a radio show or TV presenter gig. Actually market yourself.

Vusi Thembekwayo is a Global Business Speaker, a Listed Companies Director and a Private Equity Partner. Read more of his articles on www.vusithembekwayo.com