What It Means to Be a Recording and Performing Artist in 2017

*Goabaone ‘Zeus’ Bantsi

Maybe before I share my views on this, I must start by reflecting on my journey as a professional recording and performing artist. I have lived by a quote I once heard in my younger days, that “artists are the soul of a nation.” The quote taught me that our personal art is, or should be, a reflection of our collective conscience. The better that collaboration, the more the public understands and relates to that particular art, be it fine, classical or pop. So what has that taught me as an artist now, in 2017, with a freshly signed record deal with an international major recording company?
Recently I was asked if I am an active musician after my last release came in the end of 2013 and I have not put out any material since then. I can appreciate the sincerity of the question but it showed me just how people (including music audiences sometimes) do not understand how the real game is played, not just here but globally. In the years that I was away I have managed to grow my life experience, diversify my portfolio the way I see the best in business as well as record several projects and secure a deal with SONY Africa. If that is an inactive artist then I clearly do not know what I am doing. What I have come to learn is that the world thrives on ideas of prosperity but does not seek to understand the true foundations of it. This is why I feel compelled to wake up every day with one goal in mind –to change the game.
The idea that one can write and/or record, perform and release songs and albums for a living, is one that many are still not familiar with, such as most people I come across in Botswana. Despite having over a century of profitable activity in more mature markets like America’s entertainment industry, music and its socioeconomic value is still mostly disregarded in Botswana’s society. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that an artist’s role in our history was mainly reduced to that of a praise poet or royal propaganda mouth piece who was lucky to be offered scraps from the king or queens table if they stick to the script. Every so often our history has been forced to accept artist personas that are bigger than the small role attributed to the stereotype of what being an artist in Botswana means. I can imagine a folk rebel like Ratsie Setlhako or soul/funk maestro like John Selolwane looking at Botswana’s landscape back then and wondering where they belong. What was their contribution to this nation building process around them?
Back to the day to day activities of a contemporary recording and performing artist, it is a profession both like and unlike any other. If that seems rather contradictory it is because that is the space a musician somewhat operates in, a world of contrasts; a world where property is intellectual and feelings/ideas/thoughts are turned into products. Seasons are key in this space and drastically alter what types of activities you engage in day to day. As an upcoming act you are on the hunt for opportunities and if you are smart you will be actively creating your own. This includes looking for popular open mic or new talent radio slots in your area that can help you to start building a name. (Note the importance of such platforms and the entire value chain which I will speak more about in this series of articles).
Every artist needs a lucky break but it is not all up to God, the stars, magic fairy dust or whatever you choose to believe in. My definition of luck is when preparation meets opportunity as I once heard a focused individual put it. You need to be doing your part and God meets you halfway. This is where you recording demos, practicing your recording and performance craft (be it with a band, DJ, dancers etc.) and building your communication strategy comes in. Good artists learn early in their careers to always be the first to invest in their own development prior to any label, sponsor or private investor even notices them. Part of the reason they get noticed is the work they put into their own development.
During this development process, some key relationships and collaborations can be built which will serve all involved well going forward. This is where the artist begins to build their team that will include producers, managers, fellow artists, live instrumentalists, video directors, band members, dancers and more who can grow alongside the artist as they exchange mutually beneficial value until they can eventually transact in hard cash with each other and others after building reputations. Remember that at this point the artist is still far from reaching the status of being a professional, they are amateur or semi-professional at best. What qualifies a professional? Consistent standards, income and business growth are important indicators for me. What is the point of carrying the title if it does not translate into due reward? A body of other professionals who can certify them is another way, academic institutions geared towards developing people in a specific field a third.
We cannot still be stuck on consuming foreign and failing to build our own stars, products and platforms. This series just like my own young adult life, starts with my experiences as a recording and performing artist but as you will see, it leads to so many more wonderful destinations that I would love to bring Batswana along with for an eye opening and economy transforming experience.
In closing for those who wonder ‘what happened to Zeus the artist?’, my response is simple: He grew. I grew to understand that above the line media presence is not always necessary for every stage of your career. I grew to understand that at times you need to walk away from the spotlight to evolve and develop yourself as well as your art, not because anything is broken but you are building for the next era and not the current one. The hiatus is as much a part of the artistic process as the release. Anyone who follows ‘music industry greats’ knows this. It also allows for the spotlight to shine on new talent which is exciting to see, as it allows for a richer and more diverse musical landscape. A wise Setswana proverb translates loosely as follows “a child is not born in public view”.
Through these writings I hope I can demystify the music industry and other related areas, as I have experienced both locally and internationally, with the hope that my peers and stakeholders can share learnings and truly diversify our economy to create the youth jobs we so desperately seek in both Botswana and Africa.