Maverick Life


Creatives are sick and tired of being digitally screwed – it’s time for us to get entrepreneurial


Spha Mdlalose is a musician and composer. She holds an MBA from Henley Business School.

Digitalisation has wrought both good and bad outcomes for art forms and artists. Can artists equip themselves with the skills and business savvy to understand and navigate this new terrain more strategically?

Far from our shores, the ongoing writers’ strike in Hollywood has cast a spotlight on the seismic changes in the global entertainment industry – in which many South African creatives are jockeying for a stake.

The strike called by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) – supported by international guilds, including the Writers Guild of South Africa – has highlighted the double-edged sword of the digitalisation of films and television.

On the one hand, it has allowed streaming services like Netflix to go global, serving as a masterclass in globalised digitalisation, reaching new audiences and offering new, often-minority talent opportunities access to that audience.

On the other hand, the business model has come under increasing scrutiny as streamers, according to reports, record big losses despite generating vast volumes of “content”, prompting acclaimed Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh to suggest that it’s “absolutely conceivable that the streaming subscription model is the crypto of the entertainment business”.

At the same time, the advent of streamers has heralded a nosedive in incomes for writers and creators of even hit shows. To attend the Writers Guild of America Awards, where he was named as a winner, writer Alex O’Keefe reportedly had to ask friends and family to buy him a suit. He bought a bowtie on credit.

Bringing it home to South Africa

The situation is not too dissimilar in South Africa. Economically speaking, the South African cultural and creative industries (CCI) are nothing to be sneezed at. Valued at around R161-billion, in 2020 they contributed just under 3% to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), either well above or on par with many manufacturing industries, according to the 2021 South African Cultural Observatory Mapping Study. The CCI sector also generates some 6% – or just over one million jobs – of all jobs in South Africa.

Yet stories abound of South African actors and musicians living, and dying, as paupers. This prompted at least one commentator to suggest that many artists lack the necessary financial literacy, and should begin to reposition themselves as “talent-preneurs” if they want to avoid a similar fate. 

There is some merit to that argument. We live and work in a sector that, like many others, throws many curveballs at us, of which the advent of the digital age is just the most recent. This requires us to think strategically and to be agile – more like entrepreneurs than artists. And yet, too many artists resist the label of entrepreneur because they worry that it may cheapen their art. 

As a musician and songwriter in the jazz genre, who also works in the management of creatives in the industry, I have first-hand experiences of this ambivalence. When I could no longer sell CDs, I had to make my music available on streaming services and I realised that I had to get more business savvy.

I wanted to see how prevalent this feeling was among my fellow artists. One question particularly intrigued me: are we as cultural entrepreneurs – broadly defined as those who seek to make a living in the CCI – making the most of the opportunities it offers?

I was fortunate to be able to try to answer this question while doing my MBA at Henley Business School. Part of the requirements of the degree is to complete a research project within your own sphere of work, so I undertook to look more closely and critically at my own peers.

The good, the bad and a bit of ugly

I talked to 20 visual artists and musicians – the bulk of whom work in Gauteng, a province that alone accounts for nearly half of the gross value added (GVA) in the country’s CCIs. We have all, it turned out, enjoyed both upsides and downsides of digitalisation.

Social media, for instance, has given us more independence, levelling the playing fields and allowing us to market our shows and productions cheaply by ourselves and giving our work greater reach. On the flip side, it has eroded many of our traditional income streams such as CD sales and live performances.

For some, digitalisation proved to be a blessing, the driving force behind their careers. If before they couldn’t afford to study art formally, for example, their computers put the powers of creation at their fingertips.

“I can’t draw, I can’t paint, I can’t use my hands in that way,” said one female digital collage artist. “I don’t think I would have been an artist if it had not been for tech, had it not been for digitalisation.” 

Others spoke of a newly saturated market, of the challenges of the “visibility culture” engendered by social media, and of the reduced incomes because of streaming.

“Before, at least I knew that, when I sold an album, I was guaranteed R150,” said one singer/songwriter. “Now, four streams means I make one American cent which the aggregator takes a cut of,” she said.

A mind shift is needed

Despite the pains of digitalisation, I was surprised by how many of my interviewees didn’t view themselves as “cultural entrepreneurs” and didn’t want to think of the business sides of their art.

“I wouldn’t want to position myself as a salesperson,” said one respondent. “I don’t necessarily think of myself as an entrepreneur. Personally, I would like to be identified as an artist first,” noted another.

But many of the other artists I spoke to also recognised how flipping that mindset could help them gain the autonomy over their work that is needed to thrive in the digital age. They also acknowledged that they often don’t have a grasp of the business and regulatory sides of the industry.

When I asked them what kinds of recommendations they would make to policymakers, most listed entrepreneurial education and the establishment of knowledge centres and incubators as priority areas.

They also raised three key issues of concern: the protection of IP and copyright; the regulation and formalisation of the CCI; and – a biggie – the regulation of streaming sites. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, these are also the issues at the heart of the WGA strike in the US, and ostensibly at the heart of the South African Copyright Amendment Bill and the Performers’ Protection Amendment Bill, which have for some time been doing the rounds.

Both of these bills have been designed to bring “South African copyright law into the digital age”. Debate still rages over whether they actually do that to the benefit of creators and performers. Going by their submissions, streamers like Netflix are uncomfortable with some of the proposed protections. 

Cultural entrepreneurs – if we choose to embrace the designation and upskill and empower ourselves by understanding what’s at stake – could be a powerful force in influencing the direction that the industry takes at this point and positioning ourselves to do well in the digital age. 

The princely salaries and bonuses being pocketed by streaming CEOs and executives – put on hold for now by the ongoing WGA strike – seem to suggest that there is indeed money to be made through the digital arts.

Perhaps it’s time that we as artists embrace our inner entrepreneur and figure out a way to do likewise. DM


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