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Africa: the power of music

I’ve been watching the African music scene very closely for many years – not because my family’s from Tanzania or because I think African artists need my help, I do it because the music market that’s developing over there has enormous potential for growth.

Africa’s sounds have long been audible on every continent – as sources of inspiration, in samples, and through collaborations. Now the artists themselves are making the leap so that they can take Europe and the rest of the world by storm with their songs.

The African music industry also offers incredible economic opportunities. It’s a source market for selling African music in Germany, Europe and the world, and a target market where increasing digitalisation, new business models like streaming, and an ever-expanding middle class, promise additional potential for sales. What’s more, as the home market of African artists, Africa is extremely attractive to African audiences. A healthy, vibrant domestic market is ultimately still the best environment for helping the stars of tomorrow to grow.

One of the most important factors for developing young talent in Africa (as elsewhere) is the live music scene. Especially at the start of their career, artists have to be able to try things out and play in front of audiences so that they can grow creatively. Unfortunately, the infrastructure needed for this, like venues and a solid network of promoters, can’t always keep up with the speed at which the industry is developing. That’s why Universal Music itself is increasingly getting involved in the concert and festival scene in countries like South Africa. It’s also now behind 11 live music venues in West African countries including Senegal, Cameroon, and Ivory Coast.

“The image of a place ravaged by famine and violence is being replaced by one of a continent filled with opportunities and looking to a prosperous future”

As the world leader in music-based entertainment, it’s in our own interests to actively further our artists’ home markets. Incidentally, my colleagues are doing this so successfully that many artists who aren’t part of the Universal Music world choose to collaborate with us for live shows. In South Africa alone, we booked over 600 artists for shows in 2017, and we’re on track to exceed that figure this year. It’s therefore no coincidence that U Live – a division of Universal Music South Africa – is the booking agent for The Voice of South Africa. U Live Africa also produces live concerts and festivals in Nigeria. These include Runway Jazz, Cocktails & Wine, and the first Nigerian concert by US music project Major Lazer.

Creative products like music are some of the most valuable and definitely the most sustainable resources that countries in Africa possess. We help our artists and local partners to develop and harness their own creative and economic power. We expand their reach and help them tap into their transcontinental potential. Above all, we work with our artists as equals because the success they have achieved in their home markets rightly makes them self-assured professionals who are secure in their own careers.

Concerts and festivals are the best places for us to see how much traction an artist has with the audience. In a way, it’s like we can watch new trends being born. We’re really excited to see the momentum that genres like hip-hop, gqom (a relatively new hit genre from Durban), and house have gained. Things are pretty much the same in the pop world. Africa might well be made up of many different countries that each have different traditions and music, but just like any other continent, stars come along who are universally awesome and work just as well in Cape Town as they do in Nairobi or Berlin. That’s the level we’re looking for, and we keep on finding it.

“Stars like Vanessa Mdee from Tanzania, and Mafikizolo and Nasty C from South Africa, are the new heroes of the continent”

International artists are also helping to develop Africa’s music industry. South Africa, for instance, has long been home to an excellent promoter scene, that in turn attracts other players.

Tanzania will be the fastest growing media and entertainment market in the world up to 2021. South Africa’s music market is expected to see constant growth in excess of 5% over the coming years. And Nigeria, which ranks number two in Africa, should even see ongoing double-digit growth. As well as making the eyes of dedicated A&R managers light up, that’s also music to accountants’ ears.

Yet music can do so much more than just business. African stars are creating a new face for their continent and changing the way people see it. The image of a place ravaged by famine and violence is being replaced by one of a continent filled with opportunities and looking to a prosperous future.

Stars like Vanessa Mdee from Tanzania, and Mafikizolo and Nasty C from South Africa, are the new heroes of the continent. Their power, their star appeal, and their presence, tell of a continent that wants more and is demanding a seat at the main table in the music industry. And for my colleagues in both Africa and Europe, it is a pleasure and an honour to support them on this journey.


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Tightening up venue security in South Africa

One dead and eight injured during a concert’ is not the kind of headline anyone would want to wake up to. “A man walked onstage and stopped a music performance at Hillbrow Theatre in Johannesburg, claiming that his phone was stolen. He then pulled out a gun and started firing at random,” the South African press reported.

Apparently, extra security was deployed on the night of the event, which the theatre’s management said was privately organised. How did additional security not eliminate the threat of violence, and how did the shooter get access to the stage in the presence of security guards?

On 22 May 2017 fans of the US pop sensation Ariana Grande attended a show in Manchester, England. The show ended in tragedy after a suicide bomber killed 22 people, most of them children. Then there was the Orlando shooting, the massacre at the Bataclan in Paris and the slaying of Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell. In Europe and the US, terrorism is a big concern, but in South Africa it’s violent crimes without an ideological basis, and often without evidence of major psychological disorders, that take many more lives.

But crime at concerts and performances works the other way around, too. South African kwaito star Makhendlas – the brother of Arthur Mafokate – shot and killed an ‘irritant’ fan in October 1998. The kwaito [a type of African dance music] musician killed himself the following day. This is an old story that highlights safety concerns at events in general. Why did he have a gun and who let him in the venue with a weapon?

The irony of the incident that took place at Hillbrow Theatre last week is that the perpetrator shot up the audience because someone had stolen his cellphone. It seems even criminals are tired of having their personal belongings stolen in public. Ask any concertgoer in South Arica and they will tell you that they’ve had a wallet, car keys or cellphone stolen. The South African media has written much about crime at concerts, but little has been done to ameliorate the situation. Because of this, parents are locking up their children at home come the weekend – and in the process depriving them of the arts. The latest incident will bring even more paranoia to this picture.

There needs to be a hardline policy where every concertgoer, and performer, is thoroughly checked before entering a venue

When people attend festivals they want to feel safe, and should worry only about having a good time. But the South African reality is quite different, and it seems that attending a public event like a concert or festival induces more anxiety than becoming an agoraphobic recluse. You have to get in a car (preferably one that hijackers don’t desire). You drive through the safer areas while ogling every four-way stop like a chameleon. You eventually get to the venue where a car guard tells you that if you don’t pay R70 (US$5) to have your car watched over you can expect a tyre slashing. The gamble comes in when you have to decide whether to leave your cellphone under the seat or take it with you into the venue. Either way, there’s a big chance you won’t see your phone again.

Many venues in South Africa have serious budgets to deal with crime, yet it’s sometimes impossible to control events completely, especially when there are too many people attending. And venue owners say that criminals are always one step ahead in getting loot out of a venue without detection.

Here’s another peculiar fact. According to the Firearms Control Act of 2000, in order to declare a venue a gun-free zone in South Africa, owners have to apply for a permit, which means that they have to own a safe where patrons can leave their guns before entering the venue. But most venue owners don’t go through this process because of red tape, so their venues, technically, are areas in which guns are allowed. This may be a technicality since most venues exercise the ‘right of admission’ policy, but making things official should make gun-bearers think twice. If you’ve been warned, then the repercussions are heftier.

South African venues need to take serious measures to prevent violent crimes from taking place on their premises. There needs to be a hardline policy where every concertgoer, and performer, is thoroughly checked before entering a venue. If live gigs have to begin resembling airports, so be it, but another incident like the one at Hillbrow Theatre should never be allowed to happen again.


This article first appeared on Music in Africa.