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‘I Speak As A Businesswoman In Music’

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It’s the inevitable cost of fame. Recounting one’s success story for the nth time and sounding like a scratched record.

Lira, born Lerato Molapo in Ekurhuleni in the East of Johannesburg in South Africa, has done it too, countless times, and relates it again – how she came to be a singer – in one breathless sentence. At 16, she was in the final year of high school in South Africa when she teamed with her best mate and two other friends from church for a singing competition. That night, they walked away with awards for best composition, best performance and best vocalist.

That night, a star was born.

In the present, Lira has performed all over the world, and has almost a million social media followers – that new measure of creative capital.

The accolades have come thick and fast: a Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards nomination as ‘Best International Artist’ in 2012; performances with the likes of A-listers Alicia Keys, Shakira, K’naan and John Legend at the FIFA World Cup opening in South Africa in 2010, a big role in an Italian feature file, The Italian Consul, and a performance, in a David Tlale-designed gown, at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ball in 2013 in the United States (US). It was not just Lira’s, but South Africa’s wow moment on a global stage.

“I was performing for all kinds of races and that bridged the race lines for me. It was the first time that I saw something that transcended all boundaries,” says Lira.

She launched her American album Rise Again in the US in 2014.

As an undergraduate student, Lira studied finance and used her skills to exchange for recording time at a local studio. It resulted in her first demo at the age of 18. Then she put her music career on hold, finished her degree, started working and saved all her money, almost every penny she made.

“No one gave me the idea that I could go into music. I was into finance – general finance and auditing. I turned 22 and decided I would take five years to get it out of my system. I cashed in on my pension and made sure I could survive for a year. Two weeks after I served my notice, I landed a deal. I was exceptionally lucky,” she says.

When she submitted her resignation, she created a five-year plan for her music career. In 2000, she was discovered by music producer Arthur Mafokate, who signed her to his record label, 999 Music. She released her debut album, All My Love, in 2003. Despite earning accolades at the Metro FM Awards, South African Music Awards (SAMA), Channel O Reel Music Awards and topping charts, it was “a disaster”. Her idea of how it would all play out was quickly shattered – and it broke her.

“My first deal was a disaster, they exploited me. It crushed my spirit so much that I slipped into depression. It took two years to get back on my feet. They just want to make money out of you, they want control over you.”

She left 999 Music; teamed up with keyboardist Victor Mngomezulu, bassist Tshepo Sekele, and producer Robin Kohl; and signed to Sony Music Africa and released Feel Good in 2006. A huge success, it led to multiple nominations and wins at SAMAs. The following year, the album was released in Italy, where its title track gained massive airplay.

In 2006, she started her own label Otarel Music in South Africa to house all her business interests. In 2011, she launched the label in the US. Otarel Music was responsible for the publishing of her musical works and her management company. The singer and songwriter outsourced her publicity and co-produced her own music.

“Mediocrity had become the norm but excellence is part of my brand value. I remember when I quit my job in the financial space, when friends would ask what I did, I would say I am a musician. No one would take us seriously. We have to be able to take ourselves seriously. I now do keynote speeches at high-level events, I speak as a businesswoman in the music industry. It is the one thing I am proud of, it is a model that I have built,” she says.

One of only two wholly black-owned labels in South Africa, she learned from other labels and modeled her business on them. With Lira as the sole attraction, she has built a brand around herself with a multi-million rand company which has consistently seen a 20% profit growth in the last six years.

“Every time we have a tour in the States, it is self-funded, it is completely my brand. It is incredibly difficult to build a brand for an artiste. Artistes have to see themselves as a business. I couldn’t baby another artiste, I mentor a lot of people and consult on that level. I recommend that artistes manage their own business,” she says.

She splurges on her business and her image. She’s adamant she has found the secret to the glamorous life without racking up debt. Her brand is centered around being innovative and creating an image she can export.

“The best thing is being able to control my career, as an artiste, you want to express your creativity. I’ve been able to imagine and fund the kind of live performances that I want. We were the first people to spend money on a big production. I was the first African artiste to produce a full HD production. We used a RED camera and we held the record for having the most RED cameras in any production in the world. The only other production that beat that was The Hobbit. That’s the kind of excellence you push for,” she says.

For many African artistes, gaining traction in the US is daunting. For Lira, who has a large following in Africa, growing her brand internationally is a slow process but since going solo, she aims high.

“My brand works beautifully because of the visual products I put out. My intention was always to produce products of a global standard. People take me seriously because they can see that. When people google Lira the quality of my work speaks for itself,” she says.

“For three years, I built my business up. Within a year, I doubled my income. This whole diva tactic doesn’t work for me. Stars that succeed know that without your customers you will not have business,” she says.

Her next project is a seven-part TV show, Dream Chaser, which traces her story and what goes into building a brand out of a musician. Based on years of footage of Lira’s performances, the series shows everything – Lira with warts and all. She has been dubbed one of South Africa’s biggest acts – and wealthiest. Her following ranges from grannies to young executives to CEOs.

“The truth is I could retire. I don’t know what my net worth is but I have been debt-free for nine years. Well I guess my company turns over R7 million ($522,411) and I’m the only artiste. If I was in the US, I would probably be in the league of Beyoncé,” she says.

Lira may be one of South Africa’s highest-earning female artistes but she struggles to balance fame, wealth and her image in South Africa. For Lira, South Africa’s legacy doesn’t allow her to be ostentatious.

“We all love the underdog. As soon as you are successful, nobody likes it, they want to pull you down. It’s just the nature of us as South Africans. We cannot be happy for you if you rise too quickly – we’re not happy, we reject it. We just don’t like to celebrate each other’s success. It’s okay for you to know that I’m successful but not how.

“You will never know what car I drive, you will never know where I stay, you will never know what shoe I buy. I’ll never show off these little things because I still need to be close to the people. Your maid will come to my show, your mom who is struggling – those are the people who draw inspiration from what I do,” she says.

“In this country that’s what we’re like as a people. If people found out, that’s it, I must just go find another place to go make a living somewhere else,” she says.

She’s managed to secure her wealth and has built up a large following for her business model and investment knowledge. She sees money, wealth and self-respect as inextricably linked. Her views on money read like a self-help book. She’s clued up on making her wealth grow.

“I am successful because I work hard and I am very good with money, I’m very good with it. People don’t know how to deal with money. We don’t think we deserve, so when you have it, you will squander it. You will buy things that you think will fill what’s missing in your core person. You start using it to patch those spaces, that won’t last of course. You fill in what’s missing instead of dealing with who you are, when you deal with yourself, you will recognize how you use money to correct what is wrong with your person. As soon as you change that, you are awake.

“Everybody takes their cut and the last person you will honor is yourself – if at all. That’s how much we dislike ourselves. People think they are not linked. I will probably do a lot more with my little seven million than people who earn 20, 30 or 40 million because of my relationship with myself and how I use my money.”

Each concert is carefully orchestrated to deliver a deliberate punch of music. From conceptualizing to the actual stage performance, attention is paid to every detail and making sure her audiences experiences the wow factor. She has spent R700,000 ($52,240) producing a show at South Africa’s Carnival City as a local artiste with a two-hour performance. She’s got a 12-man team from stylists, makeup artists to light and sound technicians. Her show had a built stage and screens set up but Lira says her efforts go largely unnoticed and that there isn’t money available for African artistes. It’s a sentiment shared by many. Her commitment to delivering value for money is to make sure that the show will be top-notch.

“Chris Brown comes in, it’s just him and a DJ. I, with all that money cannot charge R500 ($37) which would make sense for me. For Chris Brown, the minimum ticket is R650 ($48) – he’s drunk, he’s swearing, he’s high, he performs for 45 minutes and South Africans will pay for it. That is the truth of my reality. I am done with entitlement. I realized I’m working so hard to reshape a certain consciousness. It took me time to get South Africans to trust me with their R200 ($14) to see just me. My returns are ridiculous so I do it for the love, for the brand-building,” she says.

“People are struggling to put food on their tables. But you’ll find more cellphones in Africa than people so we foolishly spend on showy kinds of things. We’re very twisted in that way,” she says.

Lira admits to being a dollar millionaire, but doesn’t foresee the billionaire pop star emerging out of Africa any time soon. Equivalent in status but the differing contexts of the US and South Africa translate into different ticket prices. She envies the returns of international artistes.

Her best experience was in Brooklyn, New York, at Beyoncé’s concert where patrons paid R11,000 ($820) for VIP tickets. Lira’s reality sits in direct contrast. R975 ($72) was Lira’s most expensive concert which included a VIP package. Lira has earned the trust of her South African audience – and it’s paid off. A concert ticket would cost R200 ($14), and R300 ($22) for the golden circle. But in order to do well, she estimates she would have to charge R500 ($37) for every ticket in order to keep her own label.

“It is very limited here. You get tired of scraping by because you always work so hard. You invest in your career but the returns are tricky. When I see my balance sheet at the end of the year, it almost feels like a miracle that you did so well but it is a worthwhile pursuit.”

A collaboration with Pharrell Williams would cost $250,000; John Legend is $100,000. There aren’t any collaborations on the cards – she doesn’t think it’s worth it yet. For now, she wants to be a household name all on her own.

Aside from her property which boasts a fully organic food garden, a filtered water system and a view to die for, Lira’s biggest splurge has been shoes.

“I have dropped some ridiculous amounts on shoes. I will never do that again. I do spoil myself on holidays, amazing holidays. I was in Paris with my husband and I did splurge on shoes. I spoil myself plenty on stuff that I really want,” she says.

“My fans are predominantly female and I have built myself as a wholesome brand. It would be out of character for me to be showing off my wealth. It’s not taken positively,” she says.

With Lira, it’s about brand management and investing for the present and the future. It is rare for an artiste to display financial wizardry and musical flair. And master both.

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