Music, across several intersections, has formed an integral part of Cape Town’s identity. For decades, and even during apartheid, the CBD and its surrounds bustled with live performances. However, that has steadily begun to wane.
Live musicians undeniably have it tough in the Mother City, but to say there isn’t a strong music culture would be a lie. There is a strong DJ scene, with parties such as Uppercut and venues such as the Waiting Room, Fiction and District, among others, all thriving.
There is always a DJ to fill a slot on an evening, and musician Thor Rixon says that this is great for business.
“DJs often get booked over a live act if the promoter wants to make more money from a show. It’s up to the promoters to push for an interesting and captivating entertainment scene, instead of trying to make more money,” he says.
Albany Lore, cofounder of Platform, believes adaptation is key for musicians to survive and thrive. “DJing is more accessible, but that doesn’t detract at all from the art of being a good DJ,” he says.
“The way they consider their sets in order to create a particular mood is something I think live musicians could be doing much better.”
Promoters and event organisers are looking to make as much money as possible, spend as little as possible and cram as many people into a venue as possible. A big factor that contributes to the actualisation of these desires is space.
“DJ-based events have more venue options available than [those involving] live artists in the CBD because they take up less space. A lot of venues are small, so it’s easy for even a small cafe to host a DJ event,” says Alvhin Adendorff, an organiser for Uppercut.
Some have tried, but few have succeeded recently in creating live music spaces. Leasing or renting property in the city is for people with serious bucks, with property prices often aimed at foreigners.
This requires artists to be more adaptable.
Nkululeko Zungu, a freelance composer schooled at the University of Cape Town, stresses that access — to space, technology, knowledge, equipment and instruments – has shaped how many aspiring musicians build a future. “Producing music has become more accessible,” he says. “No longer do we have to book out a studio — the studio is now in your home.
“Programmes like GarageBand allow you to enter the role of ‘producer’ instantly. It’s easier to own a tablet, phone or laptop than it is to buy a digital audio workstation to create your art.”
Perhaps everyone in Cape Town is not necessarily a DJ then, but rather an aspiring producer. However, there is a big difference between playing Kaytranada’s Boiler Room set at a party and watching people have a good time, and getting behind the decks and playing something you created yourself.
For a city that hosts a booming international jazz festival that pulls in foreign headliners, the ability to nurture local talent is sorely lacking.
Aimee George, a local jazz singer who performed at the 2017 Cape Town International Jazz Festival, believes there are several reasons why live acts find it so tough in the city.
“One of the most important reasons is that people aren’t willing to pay to watch live music. We’re constantly requested but always underpaid,” she says.
After factoring in equipment, gear, instruments, transport and other potential costs, it is not easy to be a professional musician. But George maintains that people who go looking for live music in Cape Town will find it.
Lakheni Songca and Jared January, who perform as the hip-hop duo Platinum Posse, say the biggest hindrance to their careers flourishing is access to venues. With one of them focusing more on beat-making and the other on rhymes, their overheads are very low. But they struggle to find regular gigs in the CBD.
“We’ve performed at The Loft in Wetton quite a few times,” says Songca. “We performed at the CornerStore in Woodstock earlier in the year and, before it closed down, we also performed some gigs at the Great Wizoo in Rondebosch.”
That the city’s hip-hop talent cannot get a foothold in the CBD speaks volumes about what kind of music the patrons of city venues prefer, how much they are willing to spend (why pay R50 to hear music performed by people you have not encountered before when a DJ can play chart-toppers?) and nepotism.
In a city as “small” as Cape Town, who you know is a huge factor in getting ahead — and getting heard. The live music scene, especially for young people, has shrunk considerably, which means if performers want the stage at venues crowded on Friday and Saturday nights, they need to know who is organising gigs.
Aaron Peters of the Black Major music agency, who represent artists such as K-$, Beatenberg, DJ Lag and Christian Tiger School, contends that the entire live music scene needs a makeover. “There are a few venues in Cape Town for live music but there’s no longer a circuit. If there were amazing new venues for live music, bands are going to be forming, practising and polishing. It will be something for them to aspire to,” says Peters.
“Cape Town is itching for fun nights out watching bands and live artists again. It’s happening, but it’s a small scene. It needs a refresh that caters to everyone.”
In New York, Madison Square Gardens is the epitome of a live venue. Cassper Nyovest filled up the Dome in Joburg. The O2 is an iconic venue in London. But where do Capetonians go?