Who needs a record deal when you've got WhatsApp

How the likes of Durban's DJ Lag are bypassing traditional music publishers

14 July 2017 - 00:34 By Sandiso Ngubane
Fans of DJ Lag can get his new EP on WhatsApp by signing up to his website.
Fans of DJ Lag can get his new EP on WhatsApp by signing up to his website.
Image: Supplied

DJ Lag, the Durban artist and producer revered by many as a pioneer of the Gqom electronic subgenre, has released his latest EP via WhatsApp.

Fans signed up on the DJ's website with the promise that an exclusive EP would be delivered to them via the mobile messaging app free of charge this morning.

While this method may seem novel to some, it is one of the many ways in which Gqom has been distributed by unsigned artists, even before international observers caught onto the sound, popularised it in Europe and so making it cool for South Africans, too (how fickle we are).

This informal method is one of many that exists today at a time when the digital landscape has disrupted the music distribution model previously monopolised by what are known as the "big five" - Sony, Warner, Universal, EMI and BMG.

Today only three - Sony, Universal and Warner - are still regarded as majors in an ever- changing industry.

With the advent of online tools like Soundcloud, Bandcamp and others, virtually anyone who makes music can simply upload their tunes to the internet and start selling records at the click of a button.

Owing to this democratisation of the industry by digital technology, artists are increasingly reluctant to sign with recording labels.

DJ Lag is one such artist, preferring instead to collaborate with Black Major, the agency that manages his music career, to see through this WhatsApp roll-out.

Says Black Major representative Kalo Canterbury: "Lag is an unsigned artist. In terms of this release, this idea came from in-house, so we will be handling the process internally."

Canterbury adds that Black Major is looking at forming a recording label in future and this serves as a great trial run.

This progression from management to recording label is perhaps not such a bad idea, as Sipho Sithole, the owner of Native Rhythm Productions, has previously pointed out.

Sithole, whose artists have included the likes of Siphokazi and, currently, The Soil, Malambule, Zakwe and others, states: "Artists often think they can manage their own affairs, get their own bookings and do all the other things that a label traditionally does, but they soon learn that it takes capacity."

Sithole adds that the breakdown of the relationship between his label and Siphokazi, for example, was a direct result of this.

"As an artist managing yourself you have to set up an office, pay staff, and do a lot that will eventually cost you a lot more than the 20% you are probably paying a manager."

His conclusion is that the future of talent management has to cover everything from the recording of albums, distribution, bookings and the like in order for both the artists and their managers, or record labels, to benefit.

While this may be so, it will still require the kind of innovative approach like the one explored here by DJ Lag and Black Major for the recording industry to keep up with the unrelenting pace of change that the industry is going through, and will most likely continue to go through for the foreseeable future.

This article was originally published in The Times.