Meeting with Giants #MEX22

by Sheldon Rocha Leal, Medium

On the 12th of November 2022 I got the opportunity to attend Music Exchange 2022 (#MEX22). I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and after two years of lockdown, I’ve become a bit of a recluse, not really wanting to attend anything. But I put on my big boy pants and headed off to Auckland Park to attend the music conference and see what I could learn, contribute and assimilate from the list of gathered luminaries. Additionally, I wanted to support some of my friends and mentors who were speaking at #Mex22.

The conference, in its 12th year, was hosted in Johannesburg for the first time (usual location Cape Town). Music Exchange or MEX is the brain child of Martin Myers, a former record executive, who decided that the industry should get together and exchange ideas. The conference, from my estimation, aims to bring the new generation of music maker and leader into contact with established music industry practitioners. In this way the “OGs” can impart their wisdom and experiences to the newbies, assisting them to make decisions that will result in sustainable music careers. For 12 years Martin has hustled and networked, securing some of the world’s greatest music industry leaders who have presented at MEX. This has made the conference one of the most anticipated events on the South African music business calendar.

George Hattingh snr (top left), Nick Matzukis (top right), Timothy Kraft (middle left) where the three visionaries who started Academy of Sound Engineering where industry and academic mingle.

The venue for the Johannesburg leg of the conference was the Academy of Sound Engineering, one of the premier institutions of audio higher learning in South Africa. The institution was started 15 years ago by three visionaries: Nick Matzukis (lawyer) George Hattingh snr. (sound engineer) and Timothy Kraft (producer, mixing engineer and musician). It offers full-time and part-time courses in music business and a vast array of audio and sound engineering areas of specialisation, including video editing, audio technology, live sound, motion graphics. The facilities are immaculate and students get to interact directly with the industry, as some of the studios are housed in the adjacent SABC (the epicentre of entertainment in South Africa), where MEX was hosted. Furthermore, because most of the faculty are professional music practitioners, the institution is a melting pot of interactions between industry and academia.

Standing around waiting for proceedings to commence I got to meet one of South Africa’s, and world’s, greatest score composers, Trevor Jones. The composer has written music for movies such as “The Last of the Mohicans”, “In The Name of the Father”, “Notting Hill”, “I. Robot” and “Mississippi Burning”. The movies for which he has scored music have generated over $4billion worldwide. I have written about this icon before, but never imagined I would get the opportunity to meet him in person. Meeting Dr Jones face to face was validating and reminded me of why I do what I do. People often say, don’t meet your idols, they will disappoint you. That was certainly not the case in this instance. Trevor Jones is engaging, charismatic and has many valuable pearls of wisdom to impart.

MEX 22 promotional poster.

One of my take aways from my personal interaction with Dr Trevor Jones was mentorship. He spoke about his mentor, former Univeristy of Cape Town vice-chancellor Dr JP Duminy, who identified his talent at a young age and organised for him to study music at the Royal Academy of Music in the UK. After leaving for London in the 1960s (aged 17), he never returned to South Africa, making Britain his permanent home. He added that whenever Dr Duminy visited the UK he would always make a point of meeting with him to enquire about his progress. Dr Jones conveyed the importance of mentorship, and how one needs to give back if one has been blessed with good mentors. This is something close to my heart and, therefore, the message resonated with me.

In my life I have had, and still have, various mentors and guides with whom I consult on a plethora of topics. These are people I respect and look up to and include Adv. Nick Matzukis, Prof. Caroline Van Niekerk, David Alexander, Dr Boudina McConnachie, Graeme Currie, Dio Dos Santos, and the late great Marianne Feenstra. Whenever I need to bounce things off people or an objective perspective, these are the people from whom I seek counsel. A career can be a long, lonely and arduous journey and sometimes one just needs the assistance of someone who knows better to point one in the right direction. As I have been blessed with so many great people, I hope I have offered others the same level of guidance and counsel.

Dr Trevor Jones and myself before the beginning of the conference.

A few minutes after meeting Dr Jones, I got the opportunity to meet another legend from the music industry, Marc Marot, former Managing Director of Island Records and Island Music. He started his career at the company as the general manager of Blue Mountain Music, the publishing division of the famous recording label in 1984, and got to work closely with Island founder, Chris Blackwell. Blackwell is a legend in the music business, who discovered Bob Marley, made him a star and inadvertently introduced the world to Reggae.

Marc Marot was eventually made the managing director of Island Records and in his tenure signed and promoted the likes of U2, Pulp, PJ Harvey, PM Dawn, The Cranberries, Stereo MC’s, Massive Attack, NWA and De La Soul…that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Once again, Marc was a humble and jovial guy, who just wanted to share his story and help. I’d only been at the conference for a few minutes and in that time had met two big players from the industry, both of whom were amazing individuals, with good intentions and a willingness to help.

Some of the movie for which Dr Trevor Jones composed score music.

Martin Myers officially started proceedings…and off we went. Nothing could have prepared me for the profound experience and journey I was about to undertake. Listening to the words of icons like Trevor, Marc, Nick Matzukis and “Stream Queen” Gillian Ezra, was a career affirming experience. All of this happened in an SABC basement recording studio. One couldn’t have asked for a better location. Listening to legends of music in a venue steeped and marinated in South African music history.

Marc Marot, former Managing Director of Island Records signed and worked with the above artists: NWA (top left), Massive Attack (middle left), The Cranberries (bottom left), U2 (bottom middle), Pulp (bottom right).

The first talk was chaired by my dear friend, recording artist and Metro FM award winner, RJ (Roy) Benjamin, one of the country’s most talented songwriters, producers and musicians. Roy hosted an informative discussion with Dr Trevor Jones, in which the score composer travelled down memory lane and shared some inside music business stories. He imparted a lot of sagely advice, but one of the things that stuck with me was the topic of music snobbery, which is sadly something I have encountered on one too many occasions in my personal music career.

In South Africa Classically trained musicians love classifying anything released post 1910 (I’m being histrionic) as “light music”, considering this sort of contribution inferior. The Jazz aficionados look down on the Pop music makers and the Pop musicians don’t care if they are not taken seriously because they are the ones making money. It is all very unnecessary as we, in the music industry, should stick together to unify and strengthen the business, instead of tearing each other down. The consolation is that the issue is not exclusive to South Africa but rather a worldwide phenomenon.

Trevor Jones made another valid point and that was about treating music as a career. He articulated that musicians can sometimes be precious about the work they produce, but the reality is that one just needs to get the job done and not overthink things (give the client what they want). “In order to stay in the game you need to be in the game”, if one is not creating content there is nothing to promote. Whilst this is true of someone in his space, where score composers are often commissioned to create music, it may be different for recording artists.

Trevor Jones and Roy Benjamin speaking at MEX 22.

That being said, there are many recording artists that barely release content because they don’t feel their end product is good enough or they just need to tweak this or that. As Gillian Ezra elaborated in a side bar conversation, the new music dispensation rewards recording artists based on the regularity of content releases. The algorithms have been designed to promote artists and give them preferential play listing based on the consistency of their output. Therefore, if one waits too long between releases the platforms will forget the artist and they will lose their preferential placement.

The second speaker was music executive, Marc Marot. Marc was a very confident, eloquent and lively orator, who did not need anyone to guide his talk. He captured the audiences attention from the outset and sprinkled his presentation with many humorous and interesting music industry anecdotes. One of the take aways from his speech was the topic of professionalism. The general public often has a perception that Rock stars are irreverent, drug abusing, prima-donnas who only work under ideal circumstances. The thing is that “Rock Stars” could never attain the fame, fortune, accolades and respect they have if that were the case. This made sense to me.

Anecdotes about David Bowie (top left), Chris Blackwell (top right), The Rolling Stones and The Verve littered Marc Marot’s talk.

Marc articulated that in all his years in the business he never experienced an artist who was high in a recording session (outside a session is another story). He illustrated his point by conveying a story about David Bowie, who one would think would be the biggest aggressor in this regard. He stated that the Rock Star would always be at a session at least two hours before the time, doing the requisite checks and balances and that one could time him by the hand of a clock as to when the session would start. Always on time and professional. I guess what differentiates real stars from “flashes in the pan” is professionalism. Those that do the work are the ones who ultimately obtain and retain super star status. The Rolling Stones, for example, would’ve never lasted in the industry for 60 years if they didn’t put in the work.

Which brings me to my next take away from the Marc Marot presentation, “Bittersweet Symphony” and the ensuing court case drama between the iconic band, their publisher (Allen Klein) and The Verve. I’m not going to go into the specifics, because I think Marc should add that to his biography, but my take away from the whole story was how Mick Jagger and Keith Richards eventually gave away their rights in the song to The Verve. This was after many years of fighting in the courts and an unreasonable publisher. Keith and Mick didn’t need to give away the rights, to which they were lawfully entitled, but I guess they felt that they had attained enough success in their careers and that someone else should be given a break. This was sportsmanly behaviour which is seldomly reported in the media.

Marc Marot presenting at MEX 22.

Marc ended his talk by making an observation about South African music education, which I felt was profound considering he doesn’t have working knowledge of our industry. He stated that we should invest in a proper music education infrastructure in South Africa, that aims to train not only the future musicians of the country, but also the music industry leaders. He went on to ventilate that in the UK there are various qualifications that prospective music business leaders can pursue, which prepare them for a career. This articulates into graduates who are adequately prepared to lead the industry. He added that since the implementation of these programmes the music business, in the UK, has experienced a reversal of fortunes. I mean…he is preaching to the converted as I’ve been attempting to proselytise this gospel for the longest time.

After Marc spoke it was the turn of Nick Matzukis, businessman, educationalist and music rights activist/advocate. I have looked up to Nick for many years. He is one of the most ethical and principled individuals I’ve ever met and has helped many people in the South African music industry in his journey. His talk was about revenue streams in the music industry and artist/music creator’s rights, which I found very informative and validating as this was the focal area of my PhD. My take away from the whole talk was the need for the consolidation of the South African music industry. I find the functioning of the industry unnecessarily complicated and it can be a minefield for someone who has not properly informed themselves. Even those who do know what’s going on struggle at times. That’s how complicated it is.

Nick Matzukis speaking at MEX 22.

There are various bodies to which a songwriter/musician/composer/content creators can belong, who collect different types of monies for their members. It is noteworthy to observe that some of these bodies are linked to each other, yet they will not necessarily convey these links to creatives applying at their organisations. I believe that in order to streamline processes in the South African music industry a central point should be established to help creators/artists determine what to do with their intellectual property. At this central point an artist can establish to which bodies they should belong and complete the relevant paperwork, which will be submitted to the associated bodies. This will demystify the industry for the creative and prevent them from falling through the cracks. It could function like a brokerage or consultancy, which will either do the administration for the artist or advise and point them in the right direction or both.

I was unable to attend the second day, but the information I walked away with from my exposure to MEX 22 was not only invaluable, it was validating and inspiring. What further impressed me were the number of “heavy weights” from the South African music industry in attendance, listening and magnanimously exchanging ideas (the premise of the conference). People like Mark Rosin (SAMRO CEO and SA music business royalty), Lance Stehr (iconic SA record executive), Siphokazi Jonas (poet) and Malie Kelly (SA celebrity and vocal coach). Not to mention the presenters: Dr Trevor Jones, Marc Marot, Nick Matzukis, RJ Benjamin and Gillian Ezra.

Martin Myers (left), Siphokazi Jonas (middle) and Me (right), before the commencement of MEX 22.

The idea of sharing ideas and being in the presence of such greatness is an opportunity that does not come around often. Speaking to these industry giants and oracles, on this platform, is an experience that should be embraced by anyone wanting to pursue a career in music. The concept behind MEX is refreshing, inspirational, empowering and liberating. It’s a space where everyone is on an equal footing, respectfully exchanging and learning from each other. It reminded me of the “We Are The World” recording session in 1985. When Quincy Jones was confronted with the prospect of having to facilitate a session with some of the world’s greatest stars and foreseeing that people might bring their egos to the room, he wrote a sign which was placed at the entrance to the recording studio which read “check your egos at the door”.

That is exactly what MEX 22 was. Although the room was filled with some of the greatest music industry practitioners the world has birthed, people were able to share, speak and exchange with no egos in the room or judgement. From my estimation MEX 22 achieved what it set out to achieve, which was to bring the young and established parts of the industry together to exchange ideas. Moreover, 12 years into the conference it seems it acquired new momentum with its foray into a new city and new thinking, evolving to its new iteration. Hopefully this is not the end of the innovations and amazing work done in the name of the conference and industry and hopefully there’ll be many more MEXs to come. Until we meet again…

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