This is an article about making small differences. Whether you are a casual reader or are actually in the local industry I hope some of the lessons and actions I learned can add value to your own life. At the very least I hope you will find some of the stories I share entertaining.
It was 2015, I was walking through the corridors at a local brewery on my way home when I heard, “Hey Talumba.” As I passed an office. It was the Brands Manager for non-alcoholic beverages. I answered, “wassup?” and stuck my head into her office leaning against the door frame. She responded, “I have been given a budget by Coca-Cola to spend on a campaign for students and I need ideas for something different, something exciting.”
I responded without hesitation, “that’s easy, take all the university students from every institution in every region and bring them onto one campus to play sports against each other and watch a music concert. People attending the concert would have to buy a Can of Coke as an entrance fee at the gate. You will kill two birds with one stone, a huge exciting activation and thousands of units of product sold at the event simultaneously.” She loved it. Just like that I had landed a new job for the office. I had no idea I had just birthed one of the most unique activation campaigns ever done by a local company for students nor the value it would bring.
You must always be ready to pitch ideas to create opportunities. Offer solutions, do not sit and wait for a brief to come to you. Initiate, don’t expect clients to have good ideas or to understand what people will think is cool or not.
So the following week I was back at her office with King a.k.a Pro-Gain, from a sister agency, to discuss the budget and execution of the ideas… I came ready.
I quickly discovered an element of jealousy from people at agencies. They were resistant to paying DJs fair sums even if client was willing to pay whatever we would set as a market rate.
Over the two years that I had been working at the agency I had made several observations about how Malawian bosses run things and how creative talent got treated by organizers. I was determined to be different and to run a campaign that got all the important things right.
I had been managing a radio show at Power101 FM with DJ Sleam for Airtel some months prior and I learned that when a sponsor secured a program they were entitled to pay the DJ whatever they wanted (this payment is on top of their normal salary). This is a normal sponsorship right of course, but I quickly discovered an element of jealousy from people at agencies. They were resistant to paying DJs fair sums even if client was willing to pay whatever we would set as a market rate. Some people would argue why should the DJ get paid at all or why I felt DJ Sleam should get a perk from the Network for doing the show (a new smart phone), it’s the radio station that owns the show. I would argue that the popularity of the show was always the result of the presenter and their taste in the content they curated or generated, therefore they deserved to gain as much as they could from a property they were handling.
For example, I would want to set the DJ sponsorship rate to be at K10,000 to K15,000 per episode. Which means that in a month the DJ would make an additional K40,000 to K60,000 on top of their normal salary. Agency people would want to set it at K5,000 to K6,000 per show. Which is K20,000 to K24,000 a month. What I quickly realized was that people did not like the idea of the DJ being able to make money that could actually advance their lives (K180,000 a quarter, K720,000 a year. Which plus their salaries and money from additional gigs could be over K2.5million a year for some DJs). It was almost as if some people (bosses and fellow employees) prefer that the only way you should be able to afford a living in this country should be if you have a regular office job like them. God forbid if you should find a way to earn more than them when it is they who are determining your salary. So when a dancer or artist is charging amounts that will allow them to live a life at the same level as office workers they have a deep seated resistance towards it. This is very sad. Our attitude should actually be to create as many viable options as possible for making a living in Malawi and the Continent as a whole. It shouldn’t matter what the profession or service being provided is, let us pay people as much as we can. Not as little as we can. It would be great if more people could earn whatever they wanted by doing whatever valuable job they can.
Furthermore, in order for presenters to get this money they had to claim it from the station and since they were just employees with no power they often never saw this money and could not appeal to anyone for help. I later observed a similar kind of abuse happen to the malawi-music.com guys who would invoice a client, the client would pay, but the agency would hold onto their money or use it for something else. There is a game of Kukhaulitsana and holding on to money that isn’t yours and it is played brutally across industries in Malawi. It is unethical, unprofessional and bad business. When someone renders a service pay them promptly. In the case of one big local radio station that I shall leave unnamed, they actually have a policy against sponsors paying their DJs extra. And when I say they have a policy, I mean on occasions when the team added DJ fees as a feature in contracts they would actively lobby clients to have those sections of the agreement removed, even though additional DJ fees didn’t affect their bottom line in any way and clients were more than happy to pay.
A candle loses nothing from lighting another candle. It simply makes the room brighter and life that much simpler for everyone else.
So here was my work around, contracts we made for radio or event performance had a clause that required the performer to collect their cheques directly from client. This way radio stations, agencies and any other intermediaries could not intercept the payment. I simply asked client to tell my boss that it was their wish (people may dismiss an employee’s idea, but they definitely prefer not to upset the hand that adds flour to their nsima). This meant all payments to parties involved at my event would be timely and unencumbered. More importantly because, companies tend to recycle agreements they have already used in the past, these clauses I helped draft are still present in some contracts they use till this day. Easing the burden of many people to come.
Sometimes the form power you wield takes may be barely noticeable even to you, but if you use it properly you will quickly realize even small acts of influence can make a big difference. Enriching others and curbing corruption here and there just because, of a short paragraph or some minute detail you had taken into account that someone else would not have. The lesson here is very simple; a candle loses nothing from lighting another candle. It simply makes the room brighter and life that much simpler for everyone else.
Kusaziwa (Not Knowing) Monetary Value
In Malawi, for some reason, when you are doing a job for a company and they find out you are young or single they try to undercut you. There is no justifiable reason why two people doing the same job producing the same results should be paid differently only because, one person is older or married and the other is younger or unmarried. There is no correlation between age/marital status and quality of output. If anything single people have more time on their hands and are willing to do more overtime so should be paid more.
With that in mind when I put together the budget for performance I set the minimum amount as K65,000.00 to K75,000.00 for entry level artists. This was roughly double the accepted performance fee at the time and I was willing to go as high as necessary per act. I also did not change this price even if you were a one hit wonder and you only came to perform one song for five minutes, you still got paid properly. Your one hit wonder could be the very reason many people have come to the event, I valued your contribution. I was more concerned with giving the fans a memorable experience when I was putting together the lineup than the exact costs per artist. As long as the overall cost was within the budget client approved it didn’t matter. The most I paid was half a million to a certain rapper who drives a BMW. Who because, he drives his own car to places I had to pay an extra K100,000 for his travel and accommodation to Blantyre if I recall correctly. Other people did not negotiate so well.
Here is something interesting I learned when artists came through to set terms and sign contracts. They were desperate and were going to take whatever we were going to offer. Many had no standard fee, so I had to set one for them. Very few asked about travel or accommodation, I had to prompt them to volunteer that information. Had I been a different promoter I would have just kept quiet to reduce my expenses or even registered the travel expenses and simply pocketed them from client. Artists would never know, since they didn’t ask or care how they got to the gig as long as they got to perform.
Some artist’s fees fell well below my minimum and I had to raise their fees for them. They would say, “ah olo ka 40 grand is fine with me chief.” And I would respond with, “this is a big brand event my guy, I will not pay you less than K65,000. I want all of you when you hear of this event happening every year to be excited because, participating makes your market value go up. This way when someone else wants to hire you after, you are able to quote our minimum price as a reference for your worth and give them my phone number so I can confirm it.” That was my way of protecting artists and the local industry.
At this point others so used to katangale (tit for tat) would say, “look men I want this gig, you know what needs to be charged and you can tell me how much you want in return, I will give you a cut. If you right down K100,000, I could give you K20,000. Whatever you want.” Nearly all of them were vulnerable to exploitation. I refused to take their cash, I was hired by my client and employer to manage the event. Recruiting and paying artists was just part of the assignment, I did not feel I deserved more just for signing up an artist. They owed me nothing and vice versa. Any cuts I got were from service providers I was already affiliated with and from my friends e.g. Home Grown African who I was managing and one or two DJs. Gate Keeping has this inherent quality, when you are the one who decides who gets in and who doesn’t, people feel the pressure to appease you. You can also start to forget you have a bigger responsibility towards people’s overall experience on the project and to society at large. Even on something as simple as organizing a poetry recital. Who you choose, why you choose them, who you pay, who you don’t and how much you pay matters. Be fair.
I remember how the guys from a certain traditional singing trio just looked at the contract before I figured they couldn’t read and without making them feel uneducated, I politely insisted on translating what they were about to sign verbally in Chichewa out of courtesy.
The way I saw it, if people don’t know openly ahead of time that there will be a commission or toll fee, you are doing something unethical. A friend of mine who was working at a local bank once pulled this stunt on me and I didn’t appreciate it. He had hired some performers and we had quoted the Bank a fee which they approved. Come performance day when we came to collect what we had already negotiated he had inflated the price on the receipt and basically put me in a situation where if I didn’t sign I would not get the K100,000 I had negotiated for the guys. However, by signing I would now be party to his fraud. He had written down K120,000 and no doubt pocketed the additional K20,000 for himself. I couldn’t protest on principal because, these performers were from a disadvantaged background and really needed the money. He was my friend and I also didn’t want to get him in trouble without having given him a warning first. The power dynamics were against us, after all we were still going to get our 100k. It made me feel sick to my stomach and I didn’t appreciate being used like a pawn in someone’s game.
Don’t get me wrong there is nothing illegal about commissions, its standard practice in media and marketing, but this particular type of power move is extortion. No different from telling a model she won’t get her shoot pictures or an appointment unless she grants you a sexual favor.
Anyways back to our story. I remember how the guys from a certain traditional singing trio just looked at the contract before I figured they couldn’t read and without making them feel uneducated, I politely insisted on translating what they were about to sign verbally in Chichewa out of courtesy. They were very grateful and felt like they had been respected and treated like human beings despite their rural background.
The lesson here is don’t take advantage of people, don’t eat the first marshmallow and never sell your soul for a single meal. Build trust with people, be transparent, be shrewd but don’t be greedy and don’t do anything which if people later find out you will not be able to defend.
It is very worrying how many of these artists did not understand they were bringing value to this event and we needed them, they all acted like we were doing them a favour. Though this was a mutually beneficial exchange between client and artisans.
How you charge at the very least must reflect three things:
- The costs that go into you producing your performance (music, practice & preparations)
This is the minimum amount of money you need to make to break even or to recover the value of the effort you have put in. You can calculate this by taking the number of days you worked to prepare and multiplying with the total sum of the daily costs of the venue (you practice at) + cost of travel (to and from venue) + cost of labour (for each individual involved). If what you are charging is below this figure you must know that you are not running a viable business and you will never be able to reinvest in yourself or grow. Do not worry about coming across as expensive, simply indicate and explain your operational costs to your client. All good business people will understand you need to recover your costs at the very least. If they don’t understand they are not good clients, walk away. If your performance involves a DJ or other featured artists properly factor that in your costs and negotiate it properly with your fellow artists.
This requires that you must have your pricing already prepared for different types of Clients. You must also determine for every endeavor what figure you will never work for because, it’s too low and it just isn’t worth it. Even when you do a gig for free for a friend try and at least get them to give you gas or cab money, do not allow yourself to be associated with low status when you are providing a quality service.
- Market value
Sometimes you are worth more than what a market is willing to pay and you must put your pride aside to break into an industry and properly distinguish yourself, so you can get paid right later. Other times the market is willing to pay more than you expected or thought you were worth. Never be so sure of what you wanted to gain from a negotiation that you are unable to walk away with more than what you had intended if the situation allows. Value is relative and it changes with time and circumstance, so be flexible.
- Personal Value
This is based on how you feel about yourself and your art. Whether you feel you are just as good or better than so and so, or whether you feel what you represent requires a certain figure or payment method. This is about what you ideally want to be paid in order to be happy or what you feel reflects the real value of your brand. This figure is completely up to you. It will surprise you who I paid more than who simply because, they negotiated better. Even if they were not necessarily better artists. Understand your own unique value and what sets your brand apart and know exactly what you will bring differently to the event that no one else will.
Your Performance Fee = (Practice/Prep Fee/Labour Cost) + (Personal Value of Your Brand).
This can also be said to be your market value if it is what clients are willing to pay for you or for a chance to tap into your fan base.
Witchcraft therefore, was an attempt at control, an attempt to influence the flow of life and its possible outcomes. Because, since mwayi or avenues are limited if someone gains 2x it means now opportunities have decreased by -2x for me.
Knowledge is power and you must do your homework. Be humble enough to ask other artists or managers how much to charge or how much a specific client is usually willing to pay (you do not have to charge the same for every client). There is no weakness in seeking the right answers before you respond to a client. Most importantly because, artists and managers would want to protect their own market value they may not be willing to reveal to you how much or how little they get paid. So ask for a range of price to charge not an exact figure (e.g. how much for new unknown local artist vs someone big like Tay Grin or Lucius Banda), this will produce less resistance as they don’t have to disclose where in that range they personally fall.
As I end this first part of two articles. Here is a final thought.
This experience reminded me of something a white gentleman who had spent seventeen years in rural Malawi said to me about witchcraft. He said he had come to find that there is a deep seated belief in Malawi that life is supposed to be harsh and opportunities are limited. It seemed to him that witchcraft revolved around trying to improve your “luck” (or mwayi) or possibly appealing to unseen forces in order to diminish someone else’s luck. Witchcraft therefore, was an attempt at control, an attempt to influence the flow of life and its possible outcomes. Because, since mwayi or avenues are limited if someone gains 2x it means now opportunities have decreased by -2x for me. What’s even more sinister, is that witchcraft comes with a preloaded belief that only people that are related to you can bewitch you. Meaning in order to improve your luck you have to generally try and thwart the luck of someone you know. Breeding a disturbing kind of jealousy, suspicion and mistrust within close circles.
He wondered how differently Malawians would treat themselves, if they started from a psychological place of abundance. That the universe was not against them and that opportunities were not finite. If they realized instead that with a little imagination and collaboration opportunities available to all actually multiply. Especially when the end goal isn’t just to save yourself, but to create value and to enrich others as well as yourself. It is precisely this unspoken belief (pervasive at different layers of our society) that makes people feel like they cannot succeed just from their own ingenuity or hard work, but that they must appeal to something (a higher power) or someone (a connection) in order to improve their lives or the likelihood of attaining success.
I don’t know how much of what he said you would agree with, but considering the experience I have had in my field these past few years. I dare say, he was definitely on to something.
Next on Culture of Kupondelezana Part 2. I talk about being undercut by bosses, how I had to fight for Martse and two other artists to participate when some account executives didn’t want them on the project, as well as how I almost got fired for trying to get Sonyezo his 120k back from my employer.
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