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The Artist’s Way

The Artist’s Way

A little bit of self-cav requires me to admit that, when I was asked to give advice to young artists in an unprecedented time, I thought about myself navigating the murky waters of having to find myself… and the next paycheck in these difficult times. It was comedic! I genuinely laughed, primarily because the editor that came with the request has been an editor and publisher of some of the literature I write. It is important to mention I had never received compensation for any of the articles he published, but at the time both of us were building a media platform, and I wanted to be a writer of more than just inspired music. So, we’d help each other grow, I'm glad he remembered me at this time, where he had a budget to factor me into... I hope it (the paycheck) arrives on time, but he has not made any promises and so I can not hold it against him. And so, without being disgustingly motivational, I wish to say in real time… this is the sum of my life: the effort I put into things seems to find value over time. In that time, I’ve learnt creative ways of “waiting”. Simply understood as “doing”.

Lesson 1. Start something, preferably as young as you possibly can… which is today. This is the youngest you’ll ever be, going forward. If you are clear in your vision, you will find people who either believe in you or are themselves looking for a plan to plug into. Be honest with them, and pay them their dues. Take care of them, because you will never be able to do this alone. After 10 years as an artist, I still value studying group dynamics in sociology; how groups work or don't. I have had to learn how to be a solo artist again in this time. As a diversifying exercise, we decided to release solo projects and explore ways of augmenting the catalogue of music and artists under our publishing company since 2011. It’s good to get your taxes in order, keep your debt low, and understand you’re existing in a capitalist system. Like it or not, you’re going to need money for your ideas… or else they become useless.

Lesson 2. Learn some new skills. During the lockdown, I enrolled for a Google digital skills course. You should too, it's only 40 hours of your time followed by an exam at the end of it. You get an accredited certificate, which can create some freelance income should you wish. The Google course is designed to optimise businesses selling their product online using digital skills such as search engine optimization (SEO), social media marketing, email and content marketing. These are things you may already know, but did anyone ever teach you how to use these tools for selling your own products? Disclaimer: They are not paying me to say this, I kinda wish they were. Please check it out here… https://learndigital.withgoogle.com/digitalskill

Lesson 3. Success is the balancing of responsibility and happiness. I had been barely making it through with my financial commitments, because of a lockdown that banned gatherings… Please hear me out, I wasn't out gigging every weekend, before lockdown. To be totally honest, being at home was not an unfamiliar thing for most Mzansi musicians, there being very few gig opportunities generally even at the best of times. Live performances, whether corporate or social, are a big chunk of the money a musician can make and so without them, things become bleak. For me at least, holding a communications qualification has come to my rescue throughout my creative career, and I have worked as a journalist, reporter, copywriter for creative agencies. But I’ve also worked on construction sites, digging collecting samples for lab testing, at wedding venues and as a bartender for various entities. I’ve been a wedding singer and an ensemble organiser. All of this, at one stage or another, because both need and opportunity were there. Work has always led to independence on my side. I love various things and I love to have control of my time, because I love to create art for art’s sake… and for that you need time. I have acknowledged my responsibilities and I dare say desires, and I act accordingly as circumstances dictate.

I don’t have the answers, no one does. The social media I had studied as Web 2.0 applications has now morphed into communication highways with super sellers, elusive algorithms, and all sorts of globalising everythings, including ideologies… I found myself almost dizzy from participation over the years, and I had to find other ways to communicate with my audience. To (re)focus who I was primarily there for… I decreased my time on social media, and continue to till this day. I treat social media only as broadcast channels that mainly function as static billboards. But I now understand social media, and how I can use it without it necessarily using me. I opted for a premium plan for my WordPress blog, “Working class celebrity” in order to convert it from a mere blog into a portfolio website of sorts. I had to learn how users experience design, and apply that to websites. I would recommend you do so as well. No, you don’t need to know how to code yet, maybe not even ever. As a starter, just check out Google sites. You can create your own website fairly easily, again just go to YouTube and search “how to create an easy website on google sites’’. Please check out Brown Band Archive, a simple Google site I’m building as an archive for South African bands in the 21st century, to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

Time is not enough.

In March 2021, I hadn't imagined that I would be in a position where my partner's sisters were in my mother’s garage, peeling and preparing food for my mother’s funeral. This has been a common story, the inevitability of grief, amidst this pandemic. There was no time; it seemed to stand still, and started again in May. I had earlier in the year surrendered myself to asking for financial help from my mother… The first time in a long time, but she was glad to assist as she had sometimes hinted that I needn’t suffer in silence should the need arise. I had never been forced into a situation where I couldn’t make a plan to convince someone to give me money somehow, and money is made outside; you have to plug yourself into the motion. But we were not allowed outside. It had all grinded to a halt with the response to Covid-19.

An interesting thing happened in the week of my mother’s passing. I received a royalty payment for songs I had written 10 years ago. Now, I regularly receive royalty payments of varying amounts from both the record label that licensed the first The Muffinz album to, and other administrators of performance rights such as Samro, but this was a sizeable payment. And a timeous one too, considering the expenses that come with a funeral. The arrival of this royalty money got me thinking about cumulative advantage, and how principles of capitalism can be utilised by the people to benefit from the fruits of their own labour power over time, and what this means for the artist. I don’t particularly like ‘hard work’ as the industrialists have framed it, although I think there are those who do, and everyone has their place. What I do like is a sense of independence and self-sustainability and to achieve that… there is some work to be done.

I had listened to an intuition to enroll my child in school when she turns 5, which would be 2020. I had a plan; I would have some time to record some new music and find a nice advertising job. So, in 2019, I started looking for a local school and a full-time job that understands the fact I’m an artist, musician, skilled, and curious. I will deliver the work, but I’m used to my freedom. I applied for a full-time job with one of the agencies I was doing freelance work with. Worked a few months, then the lockdown hit and that was that. I had gained a few months’ worth of market-related advertising money, for which I was really grateful. At the time, I had been rehearsing with a new band, new music, been writing over the years, and planning a solo show at a theatre. That performance never happened. During the forced self-reflection, I realised that as a musician I hadn’t been productive with being an artist. An artist makes art, that’s what artists do. Artists don’t look a particular way or live a particular life; an artist produces art, end of story. What art is, what it means for society and my place in it… these were all questions I had grappled with before.

October 2020 came and I stuck to the plan. I am a new artist, productive. I released a 3-track EP titled Tin-foil Hats and Amulets independently; through a company we own with some of my fellow band members from The Muffinz. The idea was to understand first-hand how streaming works, and what other revenue could result from using audio products/personality in this new digital space. The experiment is going well. We’ve released 2 EPs, 5 singles, and some video content. This was not necessarily an income-generating exercise, but a digital scoping to find out if all these systems work, and which one works best for artists such as myself. I am adamant about what I want and can achieve. Converting our publishing company into a boutique record label was a long-term goal, an attempt at collective independence. I think South African live music, the kind that my colleagues and I make, would be a good export for Mzansi culture. We’ve seen it before; we are part of the wonders that South African artists can infuse into the world at large. So start something new, start today, and understand it won’t be new for long. And in everything, be resilient.

Copyright: Cav’ Platform / Goethe-Institut Südafrika

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Sfiso Atomza

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Start something, preferably as young as you possibly can… which is today. This is the youngest you’ll ever be, going forward. If you are clear in your vision, you will find people who either believe in you or are themselves looking for a plan to plug into.

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