A New Dawn for African Metal in 2018

Metal Dawn

Please bear in mind that this is an opinion piece written by myself as longtime observer of and participant in local Metal. My thoughts here are not Law, and I don’t expect anybody to abide by any suggestions I might put forward. Read it. Give it some thought. Then make up your own mind.

In March metal4africa shared news about the impending closure of Gandalf’s and ROAR in Cape Town. One a nightclub since 2000, the other a live music venue since 2006. Collectively, the two represent an institution of alternative nightlife in the city and are now gone.

The phenomenon of vanishing venues is not unique to Cape Town. Wolmer Bush Lounge in Pretoria North hosted its final shows in 2017. In 2015 the home to our own event series, SummerFest and WinterFest, of nine years burned down and has not been rebuilt. Five or six years ago Boksburg said goodbye to The Black Dahlia. Further back, Gauteng also said goodbye to Tempos on Malibongwe Drive. Zeplins in Pretoria. Burn in Durban. Red Door in Pietermaritzburg. Every city has its own history of dreams and glorious memory gone to dust.

Getting down to Business

In social conversations we often exclude that venues are first and foremost a business. We tend to think more of iconic status, like as if a national monument funded by the State.

Gandalf's ROAR
Ian McKellan posing at 299 Lower Main Road in 2010. Photographer: unknown
Like any businesses, venues are subject to certain microscopic and macroscopic factors in the environment they occupy; the microscopic tending to be things like management, staff, suppliers, pricing or even plumbing – things which the business owner can control; where macroscopic includes factors such as Sin Tax, smoking laws, petrol prices, crime and even urban degradation/revitalization – where the owner has no control at all. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg; there are so many factors whereby a business can thrive or dive.

Day-to-day business needs to make sense and business owners are required to think longer term. As patrons, we enjoy the luxury of greater choice and commit only to extremely short term decisions as suits ourselves. As bands, we think a little further ahead, but not much more. In the microscopic context; if we can’t help business owners to float their boats with our regular patronage, then sooner or later they will sink. In the macroscopic sense; even when business continues as normal, mounting pressures of a rapidly changing environment means that what was once thought of as “good trade” might eventually just not be enough.

Each business is unique

Considering all of the micro and macroscopic factors at play, this is a complex topic to discuss because each venue is unique. The same applies to bands and promoters, or any kind of “entity” in operation which otherwise enriches the vitality of our scene. There is no one-size-fits-all method to ensure survival. There is no such thing as “this place would make shit loads of money if… (insert arbitrary uninformed suggestion here)”. We hear these kinds of opinions flaunted about often. But we don’t get too tense when we hear these ideas. After all, its fun to entertain dreams and make conversation.

At metal4africa, our approach to thinking about things is also very much over the longer term. We know that bands come and go. Patrons tend to grow out of the nightlife phase. Venues are not forever. Somehow things need to be kept fresh and attractive to new generations.

So here is why the closure of a venue is not always the sign of universal doom and gloom.

Convenience sets a climate for Complacency

Let’s talk about ‘three C’s’. Convenience sets a climate for Complacency, and Complacently stifles Creativity. The problem resulting here is stagnation.

Now let’s look at the thing differently: the death of Convenience forces the rebirth of Creativity. Can you see a pattern emerging? There is a cycle here.

I’m sure that we can all agree on this point: the closure of venues creates a great inconvenience to us.

I’m not saying that I’m pleased about the closure of any venue. But I’d like to bring attention to the failure in creativity. The movers and shakers in the scene have always been the guys or gals who came in with new ideas and were able to follow through with a savvy execution of those ideas. The problem comes in when, because of experience and establishment, it becomes easy to do; not only for the pioneers, but also for anybody with not a creative bone in their body. The urgent need for creativity which existed before dissolves and after a time everything starts feeling very ordinary. Even boring. And whilst the older patrons move along with their lives, the younger generation fails to feel inspired because what they find has not evolved at the same pace as the world their lives are unfolding into.

We need to maintain energetic creativity. Don’t think of a time like this as a death to come to terms with; rather think of it as an opportunity for a hard reset on how we do things.

Klein Libertas Fire, before and after
Klein Libertas Theatre, stage area before and after fire

A time for despair, or a time for opportunity?

Opportunity is everywhere. The question is whether or not we have the vision and willpower to seek it out.

We’ve had a few close encounters with death ourselves. Luckily, we’ve discovered opportunity in these so far.

Our biggest threat was when the Klein Libertas Theatre burned down only six weeks before metal4africa‘s annual WinterFest party in 2015. Our initial impulse was despair. In our case, however, defeat was not an option. We’d already invested too much. It may sound ironic to say so, but a fire three months before the WinterFest’15 date would more certainly have derailed the show because we would’ve faced a greater opportunity to bring the whole thing to an orderly halt. Without preparations in full swing already, we’d probably have opted to play the ‘wait-and-see’ game. We’d still be waiting for the Klein Libertas Theatre to be rebuilt even now; SummerFest and WinterFest a distant and dying memory.

But that didn’t happen. Our bi-annual events are better in 2018 than ever before! We had willpower, and we’ve learned so much from this.

M4A SummerFest'18 by Keets Design & Photography
Bigger stage, sound & light in the new venue: image by Keets Design & Photography

Do we really understand what we need?

Do we as a community possess this same willpower today? If ‘yes’, then we will endure. In fact, I’m confident we’ll come out stronger. All we need is to think forward about what we want to fill the void with; and commit creativity. Sure, we might be faced with a reduction in conventional venues, but we’ve already seen a rise in the use of unconventional venues. Perhaps some day the conventional gig will be a thing of the past. What will it be replaced with?

In the case of our tragedy, we found ourselves rudely whipped out of complacency and immediately got to work. No; our festival would never be a carbon copy of what was before; but we understood the essence of our needs and were able to find another kind of venue which opened up new possibilities. Nowadays we enjoy a stage production which would never have been achievable before. We enjoy the company of new metalheads – and I’m recognizing in particular the impressive Cape Flats contingent which has emerged – that we didn’t before because of inaccessibility at the old location. In facing hardship, we came together and pooled resources which allowed elements within the festival to thrive which we just hadn’t considered before. We evolved. Simply put: we have a better festival today because something shitty had to happen first.

M4A SummerFest'18: Image courtesy of Christopher Tatzreither

Where to from here?

As mentioned in my opening paragraph – whatever I share in this writing is merely my opinion based on observation and experience. I’m only sharing it in a public space because so many people have been asking my opinion in recent months. If the topic interests you as much as it does me, then study what facts you can find and make up your own mind. I have good enough reason to believe I’m right. Perhaps you have good enough reason to believe I’m wrong.

So, where to from here?

Whichever answer you choose to believe for that question, just understand that it won’t be easy. Such times as these require vision, resource and commitment. A lot of false heroes are likely to rise on empty promises, and if you’re a proactive person with big ideas then I hope that neither you nor I end up being one of those!

We’ll probably see some casualties anyway. Bands may become discouraged without regular (and as easy) access to performance opportunities. Fans might find that alternative options for entertainment and social engagement become too far away or costly to attend. But here is the crux of thing: what are our priorities? The world around us is changing fast. Where nightlife used to be a regular cheap thing, it is becoming more of a periodic highlight. It seems that people are spending more, but less often; and people are putting (as our roads grow increasingly dangerous) safety first. This is a great sign for the creatives among us. It is a time to explore new ways of doing things.

But not without caution!

However, I would caution that people with creative ideas should choose their partners very carefully. Try to study the integrity (track record) of people you want to work with or who want to work with you. Are they talking pie-in-the-sky grandeur, or are they talking good sense? If what they’re saying sounds easy, then regard that as your early warning system blaring alarm signals. When such people don’t have a credible track record, then frankly, I’d say: do not engage further.

If you have ideas, do you see them having long term potential? Like, really? Long term usually implies some kind of financial viability. A lot of people come forward with great sounding ideas, but they’re usually just black holes for sucking in money, time, effort, and ultimately your enthusiasm.

Willpower, focus, discipline

Times as these call for strong-willed, level-headed and disciplined people to step forward. If you are this then your scene needs you now.

If you are not, then our prospects as a community are probably better off if you just keep supporting those who can deliver the best work, consistently, and rather focus your own energies on just having fun. After all, that’s why we all got into this in the first place, right?

And with that being said, I think there are great memories still to be made for lovers of Metal music and culture. We live in a universe of infinite possibility. You just need to keep your mind and heart open to what can be. Yes, we’re seeing rapid and scary changes around us; but look at the doors opening up too. We’re connecting with the world at an incredible rate. SA bands are abroad a dime a dozen these days, and internationals are no strange sight here. Even speaking just of Africa, things are happening at an accelerated pace. Watch closely (by the way, this tour to Cape Town by Botswana’s Remuda and Mozambique’s Norbormide is not to be missed) in the months and years to come. Interesting things are happening North of our borders. Exciting things.

On that note, metal4africa is hard at work. Fancy a local-only Rock & Metal online radio station? How about a Metal weekend getaway in the Spring? Maybe even think about joining the True Believers and gain VIP access to WinterFest’18 coming up on 28 July. If you want to know more – or be part of the research – please sign up to our soon-to-be-launched newsletter below.

Chins up! Horn high \m/

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