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SA’s recovery: “There’s still a lot of blood on the floor”

Promoter Theresho Selesho from Matchbox Live tells IQ how South Africa's live market is reconfiguring after its gruelling lockdown

By Lisa Henderson on 08 Oct 2020

Theresho Selesho, CEO at Matchbox Live, South Africa

Theresho Selesho, CEO at Matchbox Live, South Africa

To say South Africa (SA) has had a tough time during the pandemic would be something of an understatement. The nation endured one of the earliest and strictest national lockdowns in the world, which saw a curfew enforced and the sale of alcohol and tobacco restricted.

Now though, things are looking up for SA. On the 20 September, the overnight curfew was reduced to 12–4 am and entertainment venues permitted to accommodate 50% capacity with limitations of 250 people indoors and 500 people outdoors – just in time for summer and, under normal circumstances, the live market’s busiest season.

As the market starts its recovery, IQ catches up with Theresho Selesho, CEO at Matchbox Live and the promoter behind some of SA’s most popular events and festivals including OppiKoppi (cap. 10,000), to discuss recovering, adapting and planning post-lockdown.

IQ: Lockdown must’ve been an incredibly tough time for businesses, how has Matchbox Live managed to survive?

TS: With the type of restrictions that we’ve had, it didn’t make any sense to do much. We couldn’t sell alcohol or tobacco up until the beginning of September, which is a crucial part of how most festivals generate income on sites and how they secure sponsorship.

It was more economical to just stay closed and just try to keep your business upright by cutting as many costs as possible. That was one way to survive this. There’s still a lot of blood on the floor. Some companies have closed down, some production companies have had to let a lot of people go.

What kind of support has the sector received from the government?

Only recently has our sector started organising itself to have real engagements with the arts and culture department. This required a lot of engagement amongst various players within the industry, which included venues, promoters, technical companies and the likes. There is a little bit of movement that is starting to happen but in terms of support and grants, that has started to slowly materialise. The administration behind this has been one of the biggest challenges for a sector that is not formally organised, as it should be.

Freelancers and musicians could apply for support but not the promoters who create those opportunities because there’s a very specific kind of support that is needed to make these things happen and keep the wheels turning. So that has also made this time very challenging. Promoters couldn’t rely on the government, they had to be gung-ho, have deep and frequent engagements with each other in order to better organise ourselves to make things happen, coming out of this thing.

“Promoters couldn’t rely on the government, they had to be gung-ho”

How have you adapted your events in line with the restrictions?

With the current restrictions it makes sense to do smaller, curated, daytime events. So with one of the venues that I co-own, in collaboration with another entertainment company, Homecoming Africa we came up with the concept for Fontein Brunches, where attendees can book tables of four or more, eat brunch, and listen to DJs and artists. We launched at the beginning of September, with events on both Saturdays and Sundays between 10 am and 6 pm. It’s a great day out.

Have you managed to make the events financially viable?

We have done all the Fontein Brunches on risk, without a sponsor, which is unheard of in our market. You rarely do an event without a brand partner here, it’s just not viable. But we believed in the concept enough to cost it so it made sense and now it’s starting to build traction and bear fruit. We’ve managed to sell out 80% of them.

“We’ve always had to be pretty self-sustainable so operating in these kinds of conditions is not really new”

Has the market got busier now restrictions have been eased?

Lots of daytime events and club shows have popped up now so we want to take ourselves out of the clutter of the people doing the same stuff in the city. We’re looking at other options. We just announced an event at Sun City Resort, which is like a mini city with multiple hotels and entertainment, for the end of November. People can book hotel packages and there’ll be pool parties, after-parties and live performances in different areas.

Is that business model of creating a ‘temporary venue’ and booking it up the way to go right now?

Definitely. We were looking at doing drive-in shows with the same model as Newcastle’s Virgin Money Unity Arena, where we set up a venue in a rugby or soccer field for two to four weeks in Johannesburg and then in Cape Town and get different promoters to do different shows. So I could bring an Alchemy [a festival series featuring international artists] experience, someone else can bring an electronic festival, and someone else could book a classic concert etc. That way everyone covers the same base costs and the suppliers know how to cost for that. It’s just a bit more viable for everybody, as well.

“It’s going to be a big rebuild. We’re going to have to all force ourselves to rebuild from whichever level that we started at”

Are you confident in the market’s ability to bounce back?

Being so removed in South Africa, we’ve always had to be pretty self-sustainable so operating in these kinds of conditions is not really new – aside from the obvious catastrophic health and economic factors. You can never just do a festival in South Africa and that’s all you do. We have very nimble and lean teams that we operate with, and everyone works on different things throughout the year.

Another bonus is our production costs which are a lot more manageable than Europe where you need a higher capacity for events to make financial sense. It’s 5-10 times cheaper to do the same production here than it is in the UK or in Europe as well. There are a lot more suppliers in the market now which speaks to the maturity and growth of the market. And we can negotiate a lot harder to make the event a lot more viable, as well.

“The confidence to bounce back also comes from the fans”

It’s still early days in SA’s recovery, are promoters cautious about booking for next year?

Yes, we have to be very calculated. Currently, we’re only planning per quarter. Many promoters haven’t committed to their typical dates for festivals next year. We need to look at the dynamics like how much money is in the market for people to go out to go to a big festival and big productions.

It’s going to be a big rebuild. I think we’re going to have to all force ourselves to rebuild from whichever level that we started at, so if it means we need to start with 500-capacity shows upwards, that’s what we’re going to do. Most of the big festivals happened this year; we also decided to take the OppiKoppi Festival online this year.

Are promoters confident about fans’ willingness to return to live events?

Yes, I would like to believe that there is a lot of confidence in the market. The confidence to bounce back also comes from the fans. People really, really want to go out and reconnect with other humans in good, safe spaces so that’s motivating. Regardless of sponsors, artists want to perform and the fans want to go out. It would have been a very different dynamic if people were very hesitant to go out because of financial constraints and health and safety issues.


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