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Music has always been in Maya Spector’s blood, her love of it shaped by her childhood and led her to a career as a singer/songwriter. But when COVID-19 cut her off from performing and her livelihood, she took the opportunity to sign up for some business studies at Henley Business School Africa, which has brought new perspectives to her professional career.

Maya Spector was destined for a life in music coming as she does from a long line of women musicians. Her mother – Ruth Jacobs Spector – was a University of Cape Town-educated opera singer who pivoted into music education. Maya’s grandmother was, likewise, a music teacher. As was her grandmother’s mother.

“I like to say that I fell into the family business,” jokes Spector.

But she, quite literally, took the scenic route getting there. That’s primarily as a result of her father’s job. Dad – J Brooks Spector – an American cultural attaché who met her mother in 1976 while stationed in Johannesburg, took the family around the globe – starting in Indonesia then Japan, where Maya was born in 1983. There were further postings in the US and Swaziland (where her parents had married, something that as a white American and coloured South African they couldn’t do in South Africa), later back to Tokyo, and then to South Africa again in the 1990s. 

The return home proved to be something of a culture shock for a young Spector, weaned on a fluid and globalised idea of identity that was not always in keeping with a country often obsessed with narrow identities. Her accent, cultivated in a procession of international schools catering to diverse classes, also defies easy pigeonholing. But in South Africa, she found, people seemed to be more invested in their racial and cultural identities. As such, they were determined to pin her identity down as well, trying to attach specific labels to her, she says. 

“When we first moved to South Africa in the 90s, I was quite confused by what was going on and seeing myself categorised by my peers,” Spector says. “It was hard for me to understand how categories work.” 

The family returned once more, and finally, to South Africa in 2001, just as Spector finished school. Four years later she felt ready for university, attending the University of KwaZulu-Natal on the advice of a family friend – jazz musician and music educator Darius Brubeck, who was director of the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music there.

Forging a career and creatively surviving a global pandemic

After completing her degree in jazz voice and music education, Spector set about a career as performer, gaining fame for her “big” stage personality. In addition to her solo career as a jazz vocalist, she’s also appeared in a host of musicals, has been back-up singer with numerous groups, and has performed and recorded with countless and leading South African artists. She also starting teaching music performance, when not singing in commercial jingles or forming part of art installations. In 2020 she released her first EP, featuring eight songs.

As a creative and a singer, you have to be continuously busy in order to eat,” she says.

But, like many performers, the sting of the pandemic lockdowns of 2020 interrupted her busy creative schedule. A survey by the South African Cultural Observatory (SACO) early into COVID-19 found that only 12% of ‘face-to-face operators’ – who made up 69% of those surveyed – said that they could continue with half or more of their normal business activities. Almost 95% of respondents had work postponed or cancelled. Nearly half could not continue their normal business activities.

Despite these hardships, Spector thinks that creatives are accustomed to living in a survivalist mode. Short-term work or one-off jobs are a staple of the cultural and creative industry, and creatives learned to adapt to the hardships of the lockdown. “As creatives we have a knack for surviving – being retrenched wasn’t unusual for us as we’re always being retrenched.”

Business acumen is good for show business

As a creative, how you respond to the situation is everything. SACO’s follow-up survey in 2021 showed that many in the industry used this period as an opportunity to upskill. Spector, spurred on by family and friends, registered for a postgraduate diploma in management practice at Henley Business School Africa. Initially unsure how she was going to pay for it, her application essay took care of that hurdle, earning her a scholarship  as part of Henley’s drive to support the creative industries in Africa.

Her time at Henley prompted a “huge shift” in how she looks at her career, says Spector. For one thing, she soon adapted to the ‘language’ of business and the love of acronyms among her more corporate-versed classmates. She has learned how to sharpen her grant- and proposal-writing. And she’s grown a lot wiser about separating her business from her personal finance. 

“I wouldn’t call myself a creative who was totally ignorant that business skills are important – I could see the benefits and potential,” Spector says. “But Henley helped me realise how ‘the other’ speaks, and how to speak the ‘High Valyrian’ that business people want to hear so that they can better understand your goals and what you want to achieve with a project,” she adds, referencing the fictional language spoken by some nobles in the ‘Game of Thrones’ books. 

In class, Spector often felt like a square peg in a round hole. But since finishing the programme in 2021 she’s discovered other creatives who like her have done some managerial or business studies to complement their work in the creative sector. Many have, like her, done so at Henley. She envisions a growing community of business-savvy creatives, ready to support their peers and elevate the industry as a whole.

“I think it’s important for us creatives to think, for the sake of our survival, about the business side of our business. We need to advocate for greater business acumen among creatives.”

Spector herself is looking to continue her business studies, and is even considering an MBA sometime in the near future. She’s learned to think more broadly about her industry, but also to be more “streamlined” and focused when pitching a concept or an idea, she says. Clients, as the ones footing the bill, are more interested in knowing how their money is going to be spent than they possibly are in a creative’s ‘vision’ for a project.

“These are things I didn’t know before,” Spector says. “As a creative, I feel like my mind has been expanded.” DM

By Morgan Morris


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