RAMfest 2016: The death or birth of an era?

Infanteria live at RAMfest 2014
Infanteria @ RAMfest CT 2014: photograph by J-H Bartlett

Social media has been inundated since Monday with public outcry over the fact that one of the South African nation’s beloved music festivals, RAMfest (Real Alternative Music Festival), will be taking place as a single day event in both cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg in 2016. What is interesting is how many suggested “facts” are assumed by the public and being almost weaponized against the festival in order to express disappointment.

At www.metal4africa.com, we had begun to enjoy a good relationship with the festival as it grew, and especially since 2010. Via the merit of our own live events with our annual SummerFest and WinterFest, it was in that year where we had been approached by the festival and contracted in those more fortunate years to operate the “2nd” or “Metal” stages at some of the events. This was on a project by project basis and varied from year to year. Therefore, we do not express ourselves now with any authority over the RAMfest events, nor do we publish this article with any endorsement from RAM Touring or Hilltop Live (event stakeholders), since we are in no way connected to any of those except by contract from time to time. This contract arrangement does not include 2016.

However, being involved in the realm of news, public opinion, live entertainment, and of course that of our most beloved Heavy Metal “officially” since 2006, we do have some insights to share on what factors the public are not considering in reaching their assessment on the current format of the festival and the abuse of ‘facts’ which are actually mostly just hearsay and assumptions. We present this article now in the interest of a future which still contains a flourishing annual RAMfest event, and one which remains a strong ally to the full compliment of alternative music genres in South Africa.

Please be advised that this article, whilst based on actual fact, it also includes elements of personal opinion by the author, Patrick Davidson. Such sections which can be described as *personal opinion* are marked as opening with a * symbol, and closing with another * symbol.

The Economy: 2012 – 2016

CashIt is important to note that any event concept dealing in international entertainment is tied directly to the economy and, more specifically, the exchange rate. In 2012, the exchange rate was roughly R8.00 in ZAR to $1.00 in USD. In fact, the first quarter of 2012 (when most people were buying RAMfest tickets), the average was actually just below the R8.00 mark.

RAMfest, traditionally being a weekend festival in Cape Town only, had formatted itself to a one day event in it’s home city after poor performance in some other South African cities with their attempt at bringing the festival enjoyment to more South African’s in the previous year (2011). This was a necessity because of the matter of available capital (not many corporate sources will invest money towards a music festival – much less one which calls itself “Real Alternative Music Festival” – and funds are usually sourced privately). Despite widely voiced disappointment from Cape Town fans, RAMfest did well in 2012, and especially up in Gauteng where fans had no such compunctions towards the one-day event. With the cutting of costs in the single-day format and excellent support in 2012, RAMfest was able to come back very strong in 2013. Did the naysayers of 2012 return to support the festival in 2013? Many didn’t. Those who did choose to return spoke only the highest of praise.

Metal braaiNot only did Cape Town return to a full weekend in 2013, but it also increased what it offered to the public in terms of value for money. Yes, it was a little more expensive, but the proof was in the pudding. Fans got much more for their money as well. Cape Town got a bigger and better equipped Metal Stage than in previous years and more facilities in the camping area, and in 2013, Gauteng also expanded to include a limited camping component for the very first time and a second stage. It was widely reported by the public that 2013 was probably the best RAMfest experience enjoyed yet.

However, keep in mind that the economy had already begun a slide since even before the Marikana Incident (see documentary here) in August of 2012 which only exacerbated and cemented a downward trend. Every ticket bought for the 2013 festival was paid for during a period when the ZAR had already lost at least 25% of it’s value to the USD. Whilst the festival was adored by thousands of fans, the RAM Touring company did not enjoy the same measure of financial success they did in 2012. Weekend camping in two cities had made the festival very top-heavy on the finances – something which would have been okay if the same numbers had supported in 2013, and if the increase in ticket prices actually translated into increased revenue for the festival. It did not.

Nonetheless, RAM Touring stuck to their guns. *In what I can only point out as my own opinion, they went against what should have probably been better judgement* and proceeded to roll out their most mammoth festival plan yet in 2014. They finally sought to realize their vision of duplicating the festival in both cities, *achieving what Oppikoppi – which is to my knowledge at the time of publishing, the only other South African festival to ever try this – failed at achieving in 2000 with their Trek 2000 installation.* RAMfest offered more international bands, more metal, more camping, more stages…. and suffered more financial dire straits, and especially considering the natural disaster which afflicted the Northern festival in Gauteng. *In fact, it’s a miracle of sheer force of will from organizers and staff that Gauteng actually took place at all*, considering the circumstances of weather and unprecedented rainfall. An astronomical amount of money was lost that would never be recovered. Meanwhile, the economy kept steady in it’s decline, and other factors came into play which will be expounded upon in the following two points.

US-dollar-pyramidMeanwhile, ticket sales have just opened for 2016. The exchange rate sits currently at more than R14.00 for $1.00; our daily professional drudgery having devalued by at least 75% in little more than three years. Does anybody realize the true magnitude of this? It equates to almost double the rates from 2012 where we began with this analysis! Do we see RAMfest doubling ticket prices? No. We see them cutting back because they realize the futility of going into direct competition with other festivals which would force astronomically raised prices and unnecessary embellishments. *The economy is the number-one enemy here, and if RAM Touring chose to soldier forward with the same plan as previous years, then everybody loses. Everybody!*

More mouths to feed

Where the previous point was focused at the public understanding of the situation in general, this next point is directed more specifically towards my Metal companions. Please note that I am not choosing sides in this analysis. I’m expressing some facts relevant to the situation at hand.

Many people have not realized or even considered what a major impact the arrival of Witchdoctor Productions on the scene has had on RAMfest organizing. It is extremely far reaching. Witchdoctor Productions and their most immediate support base (which is largely also our readership) have a very big appetite for international entertainment and are eating from the same table, so to speak. RAMfest know this and they have to make very important decisions based on it. Turning Tricks Entertainment have also sat down at that table and also are hungry. Big Concerts impact us metallers to a much lesser extent in the greater scheme of things, but when they drop in for a bite, they are the most ravenous of all! In 2016 they are paying us such a visit. South African’s are being treated to international live entertainment at unprecedented levels. More people are having to pick and choose according to their financial priorities.

Then you have the likes of other regular annual players in the more localized industry, such as www.metal4africa.com with our SummerFest and WinterFest, plus our friends at Emalyth with Arts Expo up in Gauteng, and not to mention all the new arrivals such as Geraas Plaas, The Metalist, etc… and this crowd is all huddled underneath the table trying to clutch at any scraps that happen to fall down from the feast taking place above.

Whilst this is a truly delightful chapter for the live entertainment consumer where we get to pick and choose at our own leisure, *we are facing a chapter of great change in our local scene of Metal and it’s “alternative music” cousins*. Whilst some players (big and small) are addressing this shake up quite aggressively and stirring it even further to variable degrees of success and failure, RAM Touring have clearly acknowledged the shift and sought out a strategy to try and maintain their brand in some form. *The way I’m looking at it, the changes have been well-considered and are sensible in principle. As for the implementation… well, the kangaroo court of public opinion is not giving them much chance for us to see, are they?* Which introduces the third point.

See our previous article on this fan video

A public hellbent on killing our Geese which lay the Golden Eggs

We’ve all taken enjoyment from the festivals by various promoters we’ve attended in previous years, have we not? Perhaps it is only our fear of not receiving the exact same high dosage of enjoyment which sends us on a bit of a tangent each time the tree gets shaken. We, the public, when expressing such negative attitudes toward change can be viewed as committing an act of killing… when we try to use social media to sway other people’s view to share our own.

*I would not be surprised if the foreseeable future observes RAM Touring actually steering somewhat away from metal genres and other variables of the “alternative” family. Not whilst the powerful stance of Witchdoctor Productions (and I don’t mean this as outlining WDP as an “aggressor” towards RAMfest or anybody else – I’m using the term in purely a business and market related context) prevails, and the almost parallel rise of Turning Tricks Entertainment (considering that both brands emerged with vigor only since 2013). I predict that RAM Touring will probably rather be assessing and consolidating their strengths in 2016 and beyond.* In other words: in which market areas is the festival most desired?

In the case of both newer brands emerging (or in the case of Witchdoctor Productions, lets call it a “renewed” brand, considering their absence from the local scene since 2008 as their previous Witchdoctor Records guise until 2013, the brand has a rich history of international metal bands touring to South Africa between 1999-2008), both are carving out very strong niches from what was previously catered for in much smaller measures by RAMfest. The two newcomers have observed an opportunity where these “minorities” (as RAMfest obviously viewed them in the greater scheme of that festival’s concept) were turning out in not-so-small numbers. Witchdoctor Productions has begun catering for the more extreme metal genres and their closest cousins, with Turning Tricks Entertainment driving hard on the rising popularity particularly of progressive rock and metal styles. The two have capitalized on those opportunities by catering more directly, and thus more satisfactorily, to these minorities. And these examples are only looking from the more Metal perspective. On other fronts, RAMfest is also having to acknowledge the emergence and growth of other non-metal cousins in the alternative family which used to occupy almost solely their stable, such as the Dusty Rebels (perhaps not providing international entertainment just yet, but we’re watching this space with interest) and other off-shoots of alternative culture gaining rapid ground. The result we see is a more “elitist” culture which has surfaced in the arena of larger-scale live entertainment, almost emulating what has always been more or less the norm in the smaller, more localized inter-city circles. How does this translate to social media?

knife_in_hand copyIt appears to have inadvertently triggered something of a division at grass-root level, which is what we see manifest on social media. Fans and supporters of both the bands and the festivals… and perhaps even more so, the bands and artists themselves, who have come up quite vehemently either in favour of or to crucify one or the other festival brand. There seems to have gown an illusion of battle lines being drawn and many people feel forced to pick a side. *This is actually quite disturbing, and I believe will serve to the detriment of all alternative musical sub-genres in the longer run if allowed to run rampant. Hence the “killing of the goose”. I would like to emphasize that my calling of “The Goose” actually pertains not only to RAMfest in this case, but encapsulates any tradition which becomes entrenched and beloved in our sub-culture. It is we, the public, who have the power to nurture growth or dictate death to such traditions, and on social media we each represent a sphere of influence to variable degrees.*

Now, I’m not writing all of this to speak in favour of one or the other or to try and push any pro-versus-con agenda, but the thought I am presenting here and at this time is focused specifically around the fact that a great deal of the public is voicing huge displeasure against RAMfest with their 2016 announcement. *I believe – based on the evidence at hand – much of the public voice is based on illogical conclusions and poor assumptions.* Although I doubt that even I will find myself buying a ticket for RAMfest this year, unless something of specific interest to my musical taste gets added to the line-up, I wish to speak out as pro-RAMfest (this does not insinuate that I am anti-any-other-fest, I speak only in the context of the recent outcry). *The way I have viewed this festival for a long time now is that it represents one of our Geese which lays the Golden Eggs*. Okay, so I might not support them with a ticket purchase this year – might not – but is this any reason to try and disassemble the festival for future dreams to come true that might otherwise occur in the following years? Whilst it is RAMfest coming under fire just presently, I have noticed this trend aimed towards other festival and event concepts too from time to time. Here I would very broadly like to illustrate why this kind of behaviour from the public can be damaging to the festivals they target.

*Why do I refer to RAMfest as one of our “Geese which lays the Golden Eggs”? Well, for one thing, they represent a music industry stimulant. I have always known RAMfest to pay their bills. In the live entertainment industry locally and abroad, there are many who shy away from their responsibilities when the going gets tough. I’ve been lucky enough to play at several RAMfest events, and even in the days of obscurity before my band had proven itself valuable to them; or myself proven to them that as a contractor (I was contracted to operate a stage at the festival in the years 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014), that I could bring a difference to their event; I never had to ask twice for payment. When I submitted my invoices, payment was made with immediate effect. They are a good business partner. Having operated four stages for them over a period of five years, I’ve also come to understand that they do not expect bands to play for free. Yes, budget is limited, and they are certainly no charity case, but from the years we’ve sat addressing line-ups, we’ve always gotten the sense that what a band’s market value was (ie: what are they likely to earn playing regular shows), in the vast majority of cases, at least matched what the festival was happy to pay them. Therefore, the industry as a whole has much to credit towards the continued existence of such an event tradition. The festival has also displayed over all of it’s years of existence, a rarely expressed pro-diversity agenda. If there is one way to “grow a scene” (which is what everybody wants, right?), then this is it. Whilst I as metalhead completely enjoy an event where my every musical whim is pandered to – as at Witchfest where my experiential enjoyment was simply unparalleled by any other, and I will do anything in my power to be able to return in 2016 – I still deeply believe that as an “elitist” culture, we metallers run the risk of eventually imploding upon ourselves. We metalheads need the likes of a RAMfest more than a festival like that needs us, because these are the kinds of events which bring fresh feet in front of Metal stages – even if just out of idle curiosity at first. I think it is unfortunate that our dedication to our genres and ideologies, and perhaps our lack of perspective, has already created a damage which will be hard – if possible at all – to reverse. The organizers of festivals are also users on facebook and other social media, and they are direct friends with many people in the scene. They have not been blind to the needless damages being hurled towards their festivals. If I were in RAM Touring‘s shoes, I would be struggling with the confidence of investing further into South African Metal. This is why I make my prediction that I have talked about here.*

RAMfest 2016: the death or birth of a new era?

*Well, probably a little bit of both if not one or the other. As a final thought, I’d like to offer this little analogy to my brothers and sisters in Metal, but also to any readers who stumble upon this because it’s definitely not only the Metal crowd voicing abuse towards the festival:

If you want a skilled man to do some work for you, then you wouldn’t go and break his leg, would you? Of course not! You’d respectfully wait for him to finish what he’s busy with – or even help him to get it done – and then politely ask if he were willing to do something for you too. If he remained too preoccupied with his own work, then you would go looking for somebody else, or learn to perform the work yourself.

At least, that is the way I was raised by my parents.

If you find yourself in agreement that what is described in this article holds any sense at all, then go and show the RAM Touring team some love on their page. You don’t need to buy a ticket. You don’t need to attend. But you certainly won’t hurt yourselves by wishing them well and showing a little solidarity for future years when the tides turn again in your favour.*

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