Corporatizing South Africa's Music Festivals
An (in)famous Standard Bank art gallery
A Confessional Catch-22
by Duncan Keith Park
Corporate sponsors for arts festivals in South Africa are nothing new. Indeed, Grahamstown's National Arts Festival, the biggest of its kind in South Africa, has been sponsored by Standard Bank since 1983. Hell, even the awards that artists win are generally preceded by the words "Standard Bank" (e.g.: the Standard Bank Young Artist Award).
A lot of people believe that corporate sponsorship is implicitly a bad thing, but if we can learn anything from Grahamstown's National Arts Festival, it's that corporate sponsorship can push your franchise from a small-time provincial arts fete to a 10 day long, multi-million rand (South African currency), internationally acclaimed affair. Similarly, one shudders to imagine what state South Africa's visual arts industry would be in without all the corporate sponsorship it receives. Could the arts flourish as they have in an environment with money only coming from the National Arts Council to pay for galleries, festivals and marketing, let alone the project funding for the materials required to create actual art objects? South African Music festivals, on the other hand, have only recently come to embrace conglomerate endorsement. OppiKoppi, now entering its 21st year as an established music festival has grown to become the biggest of its kind in South Africa. As its website proudly proclaims:Having started in the small bar to around four hundred people with Valiant [Swart] and Koos [Kombuis], no one realised that this was just the tip of the icebox. OppiKoppi now hosts 7 fixed stages (and a few roving pieces of craziness), roughly 150 sets of music and entertainment, 20 000 rabid fans and more bed nights in the hotels than all of Sun City (O yes and we have drones delivering our beers). (Trust in the tunes, they said. And it worked).Trusting in the tunes has most certainly worked for OppiKoppi, but to what extent exactly have "the tunes" themselves facilitated this most extraordinary growth? The list of sponsors at last year's OppiKoppi is almost endless: Samsung, Red Bull, Captain Morgan's, Ray-Ban, Hunters, Jagermeister, Olmeca, Cafe Enrista, Glass Of Wine, and the list goes on. Every year, it would appear that there are more and more companies staking their claim at OppiKoppi. One would hardly expect a music festival to be the time or the place for peddling your company's wares (alcohol excluded, but then there have always been bars for that) to intoxicated music fanatics (actually, I guess exploiting the intoxicated is an age-old tactic for making a quick buck).
Many festival goers seem to believe that the increasingly branded and corporate nature of music festivals is ruining the experience. As corporate sponsors hold more sway over the festival, you get exclusive VIP lounges which can only enter if you buy four Captain Morgan's and coke; you get sub-parties within the festival where everybody attending gets free Red Bull; you have your photo taken while wearing some Ray-Ban frames and your picture is immediately posted online; you are bombarded by hordes of "corporate-drones" trying to force a variety of unwanted products onto you; and you may even find you've won a competition you didn't enter ("Congratulations! You ALSO won a Samsung lanyard!"). No one can argue that having corporate sponsors at music festivals hasn't livened them up a bit. It's just that they've pushed aside what was initially the point of the music festival: the music.
Captain Morgan himself even makes onstage appearances with the likes of Jack Parrow (and his ridiculous hat) these days...
Increasingly, people are going to music festivals, not because of the performers, but because of "the party" or "the vibe". As a result, there are people who spend their entire time in VIP lounges and tents, sitting on Samsung branded couches, listening to pre-recorded music and taking full advantage of the "free" snacks while they get absolutely obliterated on Olmeca tequila (almost inevitably bought from scantily clad and overly sexualised "shooter girls"). A lot of people also just simply never leave the campsite, because everyone knows that the promoters will be venturing into the chaos of the campsites to sell you coffee, shooters, sunglasses, cellphones and whatever else you, the casual camper, may be looking for. All of this begs the question, has the music been compromised?
The answer, as some may be astounded to find out, is an irrevocable "no". As some of the more astute festival goers may have noticed, over the past ten or so years, the number of international artists appearing at our festivals has increased exponentially (admittedly not such a tricky accomplishment considering that there used to be a grand total of zero international artists at our music festivals – Cape Town Jazz Festival not included, of course). And in addition to this, we're not talking about the obvious international choices either. We're talking about truly unexpected artists who never even get radio airplay in South Africa. Last year's OppiKoppi brought, amongst others, Wolfmother, The Editors, Cat Power and Willy Mason. None of these artists have ever had a "hit" in South Africa, but all are considered to be the cream of the international crop by (frequently bearded) anti-commercial music gurus.
OppiKoppi's Red Bull Stage... Note the gigantic Red Bull logo as the stage's backdrop.
Between OppiKoppi, Rocking the Daisies and Ramfest, South Africa has been graced by the presence of some of the world's most renowned musicians, even though they may not be the biggest selling. So what exactly has facilitated this phenomenal and most welcome shift in South Africa's festival culture? Maybe the truckloads of cash that corporate sponsors are pumping into these festivals have something to do with it (just maybe...)? Surely the spectacular climb in quality that music festivals have undergone is something self-professed "real" or "true" music-fanatic-festival-hipsters should be welcoming in our festivals, even if this significant qualitative inclination has been deviously funded by faceless multinationals?
The gobsmacking quality of the musicians that South Africa's music festivals put up on their stages justifies every over-branded instrument of marketing excess you are subject to at today's festivals. If I have to fight my way through crowds of people scrambling for a free Red Bull in order to see The Deftones, or The Hives, or The Eagles of Death Metal, that's fine by me. To be honest, a hangover-stricken version of myself has, in fact, taken part in one of those bun fights for an energy drink. I've even made use of the couches in a Samsung-sponsored tent to rest my weary body after two days of total, unrelenting anarchy and 50 minutes of Bring Me the Horizon.
And y'know, every time I'm watching a band that comes from the other side of the ocean that I thought I'd never get to see, and every time I find myself taking advantage of the free facilities and giveaways that the corporate giants bestow unto us paltry festival patrons, I am secretly grateful for the turbulent ocean of branding and its clandestine benefits. For too long I have harboured this grave and haunting secret. I must confess... I truly am grateful for the corporatisation of South Africa's music festivals.
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