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Business of Music with Spencer Martin and Sundowners

Business of Music with Spencer Martin:

I wanted to get some perspective on the business of music in South Africa and how South Africa’s music scene is doing, touch the heart beat a bit.

I spoke to one of the most experienced people in the industry right now: Spencer Martin, the owner of Johannesburg Metal club, and local music staple: Sundowners.

Business of Music Spencer Martin Sundowners

Lowery and Martin:

Devan Lowery [DL]: Hey Spencer, so firstly being a studied musician where did that choice come from as apposed to spending that time and money studying something in a “safer” industry? What were the challenges and choices you had to make to justify your decision? And in retrospect would you value your degree in music over a degree in something like business management.

Spencer Martin [SM]: From the age of 12 I thought about wanting to be a musician. I always knew that I could sing but it wasn’t until I got my first guitar at 15 that I became absolutely sure that music was what I wanted to pursue. The thought of something safer did not really occur to me as an option because I think at that age we all believe we can make anything work as a career. In retrospect I would not change what I have studied, the network I have built has allowed me to operate my business and is likely the most valuable asset in operating a live venue. The rest I learnt through trial and error. Mostly error…

DL: At any point did you lose drive or ambition in music, and if so what were some of the factors that helped you stay motivated and keep pushing.

SM: All the time and on a regular basis. I would say from experience that most people working in an artistic field go through dips of motivation and lack drive from time to time. Getting out of those ruts can be very difficult. It takes some patience and a bit of self reflection to get fired up. I tend to look at how far I’ve come personally and professionally to get re-inspired. For me, nothing gets me more motivated than progress.

DL: After college did you have a “day job” and what was it? what got you back on track and gave you a chance to monetize the music industry?

SM: After College, I ran a branch of my father’s business selling firewood and furniture. It had nothing to do with music but I kept performing part time. It was then that I became aware of my local venue being up for sale. I didn’t know how I was going to do it but I was completely adamant that I would do what I had to in order to get Sundowners.

Studying for the Music Industry:

DL: If you had to sit with someone looking to get into the industry what questions would you have them ask themselves, and what subjects would you suggest them studying wether it be an instrument, production or even something like marketing?

SM: The modern musician or producer has to be a jack of all trades as opposed to only being a good player or songwriter. With the industry the way it is now you now have to be able to do most of the work yourself or at least have minimal knowledge of all aspects including performing, booking, writing, producing, marketing and being good at social media.

To get ahead now you need to have a firm grasp on the afore mentioned aspects with perhaps the exception of PR still being a specialist field.

DL: Having bought Sundowners as a young musician with little business experience, what were the biggest initial challenges and what lessons did you have to learn quick?

SM: I had no clue about running a profitable business when I took over Sundowners. I had a basic understanding of artist booking and a bit of knowledge of what type of entertainment my particular market was interested in. so initially, I ran with that. Having live music shows was and still is the venues staple flow of business.

Other aspects of the business that were initially a challenge included man management, conflict resolution, stock management and gaining an understanding of proper financing and budgeting enabling me to do long term planning.

There are major problems with live music in South Africa…

DL: Having bought a business that harnesses the music industry, how did that change the way you saw your music, other venues and your general outlook on the scene, and did that change you into a capitalist or keep you an artist, or can you be both?

SM: I’d like to think I am able to do both. I have however had my view of the music industry drastically changed and I suppose I do look at things from a more capitalist frame of mind. I think that will be a natural progression for anyone who runs their own business and starts crunching the numbers.

Your perception of a successful event will change from not just about being a good time but to about how many feet through the gate and what the per head spend is. Sustainability relies on that information and how you interpret it. Sundowners is essentially my “school fees” period. The knowledge I’ve gained from that pub will be applied to everything I do from here. It is essentially my “Business Training Wheels”.

The Future of Music in South Africa:

DL: In your view what Industry changes would you like to see to give artists a better chance?

SM: There are major problems with live music in South Africa at the moment on both sides of the industry. Those sides being the performers and the attendees. The attractiveness of club/pub shows to high profile artists has become way less than in the past.

Artists have prioritized Festivals and corporate bookings over them to the point where certain artists that I won’t mention, don’t even consider accepting those types of bookings anymore leaving a serious “quality” gap in the pub/club scene.

As for attendees, There appears to be a serious lack of interest in attending shows and supporting what acts are still performing club shows. Either because they’re taste isn’t being catered to or if we’re completely honest with ourselves. The acts we want to go out and see just aren’t being booked often enough or at all.

Perhaps the experience isn’t the same anymore or perhaps the amount of kids getting into rock or live music just isn’t what it used to be. Whatever the cause may be, there has definitely been more active and busier periods for live entertainment in the country. As quality and attendance dips we will start to see what few venues we have left close their doors.

Setting up a circuit of quality venues with gear of industry standards would go a long way in helping bands perform more often in different parts of the country and help grow both the interest and talent pool would be a great start. That in turn would make it more attractive for the bigger artists to start focusing on club shows again. This however would require an enormous cash injection to set up. Never mind just fixing one venue, we’re talking a circuit of venues.

Sadly it seems having a venue catering to only live music isn’t profitable or sustainable without great difficulty. If I could change things I would have all artists really value the experience of playing small club/pub shows again and I would also remove the small time promoters who either book acts who aren’t ready to perform or book acts that are sadly not worth putting on stage (subjective argument I know but there are sadly bands out there that shouldn’t be put on stage.) purely for their own financial gain or their cut of the door. Allowing this to continue diminishes the quality of shows out there and is partly responsible for the loss of interest in live music.

DL: Being the vocalist for Newtown Knife Gang, where do you and your bandmates find you spend the most energy to grow your band be it practice, marketing, networking etc.

SM: For us I would say it is a 50/50 on rehearsal time and writing music. Being completely independent I can say we are not the strongest when it comes to marketing ourselves due to our own personal time constraints. Our most notable development and improvement stem from writing music and continually rehearsing.

There are many aspects we could do better at but those are the two we try to focus on when we are active which sadly is becoming less and less at the moment while we all focus on our professional lives.

Don’t Be Ignored By Organisers:

DL: Scenario: You’re a young musician with very little disposable income, what are the best ways to market yourself and how would you approach organisers, Venues and festivals without being ignored in an inbox?

SM: Becoming viral on social media is probably the best bet for a young talent to get noticed. Something quirky and creative can get you out there very quickly if you have genuine talent.

Doing some interesting covers can get you attention quickly along with being active across the social media platforms. All of the above combined with working hard and playing as many shows early on in your career as possible will give you the opportunity to get out there.

Generally when it comes to getting the bookings you want i.e. Festivals and big shows. They will call you. Not the other way round. That will frustrate most but like I said. If you genuinely have the talent, they will come to you. It’s their job to recognize your selling potential. It can be very demorsalizing and sometimes feel very unrewarding but if you have the talent and patience it will pay off.

Write, rehearse, release, perform and repeat. Over and over… And over again. Along with being on top of the social media demands, it will get you noticed and things will snowball from there.

DL: We are going to post one punt for you, so if you had to promote one upcoming show what would it be? One from your band or business, tough choices!

SM: I would go with the business and that show would be Krank’d Up 2017. We’re going to announce the 2nd headliner very soon and it’s a goodie!

Business of Music Spencer Martin Sundowners

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Written by Devan Lowery


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