Floating to the top

by Matthew van der Want: Opinion | Source: http://mg.co.za/article/1998-04-09-floating-to-the-top

Just Jinger, who supported U2 in Cape Town, recently spent some time in from Canada and New York, where they showcased their talent to some major label A&R people. South African DJs, journalists and label managers alike brim with national pride as they enthuse over the imminent discovery of a local rock act by the international community.

Sour grapes!

That’s the response I’ve always received whenever I’ve mentioned my belief that Just Jinger should be one of the last bands to introduce local white-boy rock to the world.

Matthew van der WantSure, I admit to a pang of jealousy when I think of Art Matthews presenting their songs to a court of influential A&R hotshots. But the real reason for my desire to see Just Jinger laughed out of court in Canada and New York is that I think they’re an uninteresting, uninspiring band who have relied on every rock clich in the book to win over their audiences here. Surely the overseas label managers won’t be similarly conned? That hackneyed drum solo thing they do at every show has to be the turning point in any informed judgment of whether or not this band has the potential for international success.

It could well be argued that generally people don’t listen to music to be challenged; rather it’s a kind of anaesthetising gel to be liberally applied after a hard day at the office. The tried and tested formula used by bands like Just Jinger is a source of comfort rather than of irritation.

At the risk of sounding patronising, this attitude stems from the fact that people simply don’t know any better. Having had tepid, formula, wallpaper music piped through every shopping mall and every time they switch on a radio, they have yet to discover that music can serve as an escape from mediocrity rather than something which entrenches it. The handful of local artists who have endeavoured to provide an alternative have largely been ignored by major record companies and thus battled to acquire a sizeable following.

When I was 17, I was introduced to the music of Shifty Records. The music of artists like Andre Letoit, Jennifer Ferguson, Johannes Kerkorrel and James Phillips was characterised by a mindset unique in the history of local music. This ethos consisted of a strong belief in their heritage coupled with an often satirical dissatisfaction with the establishment. And they shared a belief in the importance of writing good songs. Their lyrics were challenging and the fact that most of them had had at least some musical training was evident in their songwriting.

Apart from making me feel that being South African was maybe not such a bad thing, they also taught me about honesty. The theory went something like this: if you write intelligently about things you feel strongly about, your integrity will be clear to anyone who hears you (and no fake American accents either).

In 1993 I learned that Lloyd Ross wanted to hear some of the songs I had been playing in bars around Johannesburg. I remember excitedly flipping through my record collection and seeing he had produced more than half the records I owned and loved. Recording my debut album, Turn on You, well, its hard not to get sentimental and start talking about dreams coming true. But after its release any fantasy I may have had about a meteoric rise to stardom was quickly nipped in the bud.

What I had never considered was whether Shifty’s artists were achieving any commercial success. At 18 I just assumed that Koos Kombuis’s seminal Niemandsland was as popular in South Africa as the latest Springsteen. It was my favourite album, so why shouldn’t it have been everyone’s? The late 1980s Voelvry tour received a lot of coverage; surely it was only natural this would translate into sales. The reality was, of course, quite different. The year after its release, Niemandsland sold around 1 500 copies.

I saw no reason why Turn on You or Urban Creep’s second album, Tightroper, should not achieve success overseas, in the same league as other progressive rock albums. Turn on You has sold about 1 000 units; about as uninspiring as Tightroper’s sales. Both were “shopped” to major labels in the hope of an international deal, but there were no takers. We both got some national radio coverage and performed extensively on the local circuit. But sales remained dismal.

Arrogant as it may sound, it’s said that shit tends to float and that’s how I’ve rationalised Turn on You’s commercial failure. But being on the moral high ground is not enough for me. Urban Creep’s Chris Letcher and I recently completed a new album and polite refusals are flowing in. Once again, an album I believe has the capacity to move a lot of people is destined to end up on very few CD racks.

I think much of the problem lies with the major-label A&R people, who show a vast lack of imagination when deciding who has commercial potential and who doesn’t. Internationally, artists like Beck, Pavement and Bjork are achieving substantial commercial success despite their unusual sounds. Until the South African majors are prepared to invest in unusual and thought-provoking local music, mediocre, unchallenging bands will continue to be regarded as the best we have to offer.