Industry Profile: Carel Hoffman
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Carel Hoffman, owner, Hilltop Live/Oppikoppi Productions.
South Africaís Carel Hoffman loves music, and he loves a good time.
The business card of this charismatic owner of the Pretoria-based holding company Hilltop Live, and music events company Oppikoppi Productions, brazenly reads: ďPRESIDENT FOR LIFE AND VERY PRIMED MINISTER.Ē
Hoffman oversees the annual Oppikoppi festival in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, near the mining town of Northam. Oppikoppi is a colloquial abbreviation of the Afrikaansí phrase "op die koppieĒ meaning "on the hill.Ē
Annually, thousands of people flock to a rural South African farm in the bush and enjoy three hectic days of camping and performances on seven stages. The festival features South African and those big-name international acts brave enough to make the trek.
Oppikoppi started in 1994 with a handful of acts and with 300 people attending. It gradually grew until there were 100 acts in 2010 with 16,000 people attending.
This yearís festivalówhich ran Aug. 9-11óattracted the festivalís biggest audience to date -- 20,000 fans, to see over 130 acts covering such musical genres as rock, hip hop, hardcore, punk, ska, folk, blues, drum Ďn bass, big beat, funk, kwaito, jazz, traditional, and world music.
Oppikoppiís camping area is at the foot of a hill, on top of which is a bar and a stage that features hip hop and dance acts, while the main stages below feature all other acts.
This yearsí Oppikoppi offered fans who couldnít make it to the event the chance to experience the atmosphere, and connect directly with performing musicians via the internet.
Prior to the event, fans were able to tune in for ďHangouts on AirĒ with many of the festivalís featured artists. During the festival itself, fans anywhere in the world were able to tune in daily for ďHangoutĒ shows, and watch 20 hours of live-streamed programming from Oppikoppiís two main stages. As well, dedicated film crews at the event produced daily uploads viewed on Oppikoppi's YouTube channel.
In the midst of Oppikoppiís success, and after more than a decade following the end of apartheid, there is the emergence of South Africa's music scene that may open the possibility of creating a tidal wave for South Africa talent in the international marketplace.
It may be led by such musical forces as the Parlotones, and Kongos; urban acts Hip Hop Pantsula (or HHP), aKING, Khuli Chana, and Towdee Mac, Mo'Molemi; Afro-pop 7-piece band Freshlyground; Afrikaans pop stars Dozi & Nianell; Afro-soul vocalist Lira; Johannesburg-based hip hop duo, Jozi; or the Durban-based kwaito artist, Professor.
Meanwhile, South Africaís irresistible zef group Die Antwoord recently released a controversial video ďFatty Boom BoomĒ poking fun at Lady Gaga that is now drawing international attention. Gaga is portrayed as a bored tourist being driven through Johannesburg in a run-down van.
In true stereotypical South African fashion, Gaga's taxi is hijacked.
If youíve been to South Africa, youíd get it.
How successful was Oppikoppi 2012?
This was our biggest festival ever, with 20,000 people attending. We have never cracked 20,000 people before. This was the first year that has happened. In South Africa, thereís nothing bigger. In South Africa, 20,000 people camping is an achievement. So Iím quite happy with that.
We didnít start the festival as a business decision. It is very nice that itís successful now but itís a passion for us. We view ourselves as artists and business people. We really like to play with the festival and provide experiences for all of the fans and also for the bands. Itís important to us. I think that is why it is working. We are just having fun. This is our passion.
Oppikoppi is almost like a religion. Itís a cult following and escapism. Itís three days of complete freedom.
This year we had seven official stages but we also programmed a lot of entertainment in the campsites, with performers walking amongst people. Oppikoppi is not only music shows. There are all kinds of performances. Anything crazy that we can think of we try to fit it into the weekend. We even had naked running. Many of the performances are on the official stages where there are musicians and DJs. We had, I think, about 150 acts but that doesnít include the 20 or so non-music performers of various descriptions.
When do you start booking acts for Oppikoppi 2013?
Weíve begun now. While we were busy with Oppikoppi this year, we began planning for next year. All of the staff were keeping notes, and we did a debriefing virtually immediately following the festival. We try to get everybodyís ideas while they are fresh. Whether there were problems. Whether there are new ideas or new content. So much of it we look at immediately.
The big international acts, we are in negotiations with already; to try to get us into their touring plans next year. Some of the smaller artists, we will keep working on right up until the festival. More and more, we are seeking any kind of crazy bits of entertainment that we can stick in. There are all kinds of crazy things that we try to weave into the festival experience. We started looking at bookings right after the festival.
How will Oppikoppi 2013 be different?
Each year, we book a theme. This year it was ďSweet Thing.Ē More and more, we try to bring in more art, more creativity. The thing is we almost see ourselves not as a festival but as a media company. We are busy creating content. The festival is part of the whole thing.
Wasnít your mother-in-law Tess Bornmann the promoter of the first Oppikoppi?
Yes. Also the smaller shows that went before that. She prefers to stay out of the limelight though.
How did your involvement with Oppikoppi develop?
When I was in university [graduating in electrical engineering from the University of Pretoria in 1993] I loved to watch live music. Later on, I was an engineer working right next to Oppikoppi at Amplats (since renamed Anglo American Platinum). That was our local hangout. Tess had bought this farm, Oppikoppi, and had a few bungalows on the property (operating) as a bed-and breakfast. (My wife) Rethaís parents are rock and roll parents. I donít know if you know what voŽlvry movement was (directly translated it means bird free but, in fact, means outlaw). It was the Afrikaans movement against the previous government. It was like a mini-rebellion by the white youth community.
They invited one or two of these (voŽlvry) artists to the farm. I invited my entire circle of friends up. We then started having what we called band weekends. I would say the first one, we had roughly 300 people. We invited a band for all weekend, and they performed a couple of times over the weekend. Fantastic. Crazy. About 72 hours of rock and roll. Bands played till they fell over, and carried on when they got up again. In between, we ramped trucks and cars. And caused all kinds of mayhem. We had quite a few of those.
We then thought, ďWhy donít we try and do a festival?Ē That was in 1995. We booked every single artist in South Africa who played their own original material. Not cover bands. We had 27 acts that year, and about 2,000 people.
Oppikoppi started in í94, but the first festival was in í95. We got going immediately when the new government took over. Before, it was just way too restrictive. There were all kinds of rules. It would never have flown. What we are doing at Oppikoppi now would have never flown under the previous government. At that point, the live music industry (in South Africa) was a bit of a shadow. It wasnít anything to speak about.
From there, Oppikoppi sort of grew. Each year we added a few more artists. Itís grown organically since that first year. About five or eight years ago, it kind of leveled off at 12,000 to 13,000 people attending. However, over the past three or four years, it has completely shifted to a growth phase. Itís really growing now.
A lot of this is, we think, has to do with the caliber of artists that we book but also the Oppikoppi story. The different angles that we take on the festival. Itís just not music anymore. Itís become this cult scene. People come here from everywhere in South Africa, and from all over the world. In South Africa, itís a phenomenon. Thereís nothing like it in South Africa.
Fans travel by train from Cape Town to Oppikoppi and people travel there from all over the country.
From all over the country; all over the world. As soon as we start offering tickets, people start buying tickets from all over the world. And buying airplane tickets. Itís a very South African thing. If you are South African, you would have been at Oppikoppi some time. People travel to Oppikoppi from everywhere. They travel from the UK, Australia, and Canada. People sign up for that weekend. Itís nice the way itís going. The things that we do are a little bit different. Also, weíre 18 or 19 years old, so a lot of it (what we do as promoters) is just maintenance maintaining the activities and putting the passion into the project. Itís fantastic to see it from the sidelines. We donít spend a lot of time looking at the project from the outside. But itís nice to see where it has gone.
Performing at Oppikoppi is daunting for an international act. South Africa's positioning makes it a stretch for most touring acts who usually only stop over on the way to Australia for a maximum two or three shows.
Obviously, one attraction Oppikoppi offers international artists is the exoticness of being in rural South Africa near safari reserves.
For the international artists, we try to work with them to see a piece of the country. We donít think that being here is like anywhere else. We have game on the farm. People camp and game walk amongst them. We tend to build on that. We arenít trying to be something that we arenít. Thereís so much texture in South Africa that we see that as a booking asset. Of course, agents push for, ďItís a money dealĒ and thatís it.
(Welsh heavy metal band) Bullet For My Valentine told us that it was one of the best tours of their lives; one of their best experiences. And we see that kind of attitude going back over the years. We see the videos of these guys (at Oppikoppi). Again, thereís the diversity of being in South Africa, and also having the safari experience as well as playing in the townships. We try and set up other gigs to enable them to see the real Africa. Often those are the highlights. This year there was a small show for 100 kids in township with the French ska/swing band Babylon Circus. They told us that was their highlight.
Do you provide accommodations for international acts locally?
Some artists stay in Sun City. Thatís a nice fall back situation for us. Many acts sleep out at the game resorts. We are (located) in the middle of the safari business. All around us are really nice safari lodges. Itís really a life experience.
To fully experience of Oppikoppi, artists should stay on site for the weekend.
Certainly. We recommend staying on site. Many international artists are still scared of Oppikoppi. Now many of the people are starting to insist on staying at the festival because thatís where the buzz is. Itís like a living organism. We offer for people to stay on site, but not everybody does. Not everybody sees it that way. Also sometimes these guys are on the road for weeks on end, and they just want to sleep.
You arrange for international acts to play in other cities prior to Oppikoppi. This year that included added shows for Seether, Bullet For My Valentine, and others.
Definitely. We figured that out over the years. It just doesnít make sense to fly 10,000 kilometers and just play one gig. So there are a few periods in the year that we can develop these mini-touring circuits, around Oppikoppi as well. So if you are an international act you can do three and sometimes four gigs. It might be five acts that we book. Itís worthwhile.
What personnel do you work with?
We have in our various businesses roughly 50 people working. Maybe a little bit more on a full-time basis. For the festival, we employ 1,500 to 2,000 people. Itís quite an undertaking. For the festival itself, we have launched quite a few new initiatives. We do most of our own security, and virtually all the bar staff, production staff, and lately the event banking staff. We trained our teams. But there is a core team that has stuck with us as well.
This year we ran out of our hands just on personnel. The festival is just getting so intense, and there are just so many different layers that we actually ran out of personnel. But certainly most of the things that what we think make it memorable worked for me personally.
A big part of Oppikoppi is taking money back into the local community. Those kind of (training) programs go a long way. Many of those guys end up doing other security work elsewhere. So thatís quite nice.
You operate your our own bank?
We started a new company doing banking. Hilltop Live Cashless Events. We are working on a bigger plan. We want to see where we can take it. Crucially, the big thing in the past three years is that we see ourselves as a media content company. So the way that we roll up content has changed quite a bit, and itís going to change again. It is just becoming more and more important. We are offering content and everything else.
For next year we are planning a full broadcast center with satellite connections. We brought in additional satellite link ups, but could not stay ahead. There is a new plan for 2013 as the content distribution aspects of the festival just becomes bigger and bigger.
How do you handle ticketing?
We own our own ticketing company, Ticketbreak.Co.ZA. What happened is that we developed the technology to sell ticketing rights. In South Africa, it is really difficult to do the big shows without sponsorship. So we developed technology that people can buy the ticketing rights from us. We drum up ticketing sales through our banking partner. If you buy a ticket through them, they supplement the ticket price for the fan with 150 Rand. That has worked really well. With the bigger (retail) community you draw on the tools available. Ticketing, we can channel through almost anything including with clothing stores, banks. Some of the other tools we use are fan databases.
[Tickets for Oppikoppi 2012 could only be purchased via the Standard Bank student achiever portal, the Oppikoppi Facebook page or Ticketbreak. Tickets cost R700 from the Oppikoppi Facebook page, R750 at Ticketbreak.Co.Za and R600 when purchased through the Standard Bank youth portal.]
How long has Standard Bank been your banking partner?
For the past two years, we have had Standard Bank. We signed up for three years. That has worked really well. We get the fee technology that we roll back on all of the phones now. In South Africa, we were the first festival with a cashless technology system that is just being rolled up elsewhere in the world. The technology that we use here is being used in quite a few sporting events as well.
[Oppikoppiís festival card functions as a debit card. To buy anything at Oppikoppi, you have to load money on to the card with a once-off fee of R10 per festival banking card issued. 2011 was the first year this type of technology was implemented at Oppikoppi.]
A cashless festival cuts down on a lot of problems.
It does. And it makes sales quicker, and we have control of all of our vendors. A lot of benefits come out of it. We were the first to start doing that. Weíve learned its strength over the past few years. It wasnít faultless. But it is now really slick, and itís being picked up by other people. Itís fantastic. It makes the festival a whole lot cleaner. Thereís no cash or coinage.
In 2010, South Africa had over 6.8 million people being able to use the internet. It is estimated that internet use will grow to 15 million people in South Africa by 2015. Are you starting to feel the impact?
Definitely. Keep in mind that a lot of people are accessing the internet over their phones. It doesnít necessary have to be a smart phone. Some of the feature phones do that. Many of the phones are internet accessible. Thatís why a lot of what we do is now dealing with that social community. Each year of the festival is much bigger. There are 20,000 people attending, and we have thousands of people following us on Facebook and on social media. Internet penetration has been becoming cheaper. We are very expensive in this country, but there are a lot of tech firms making it cheaper and cheaper.
[The arrival of the Seacom undersea cable along the eastern and southern coasts of Africa in mid-2009 was the turning point in creating a significant generation of digital users in South Africa. Recently, Vodacom inaugurated the country's first LTE commercial service, initially accessible via only around 70 Vodacom base stations in Johannesburg. Vodacom plans to roll out LTE at 500 of its 9,000 base stations by the end of 2012.]
Certainly one of the reasons that Oppikoppi has been successful in the past few years has been because of the reach of the internet but also we have worked on boosting our social media. We can tell the story the way we want to tell it. In years gone by, we had to go through your media partners. It was a story told by a music station or a TV station. It is just not the same anymore. Social media is a tremendous tool in our toolbox.
You can control the message.
Exactly. We control the conversation. We see a festival like Oppikoppi as a massive content engine. On one end, certainly all of the talent is on the stage and all of that; but there is also the user experience. Every single fan of Oppikoppi is a content generator. Heís got his phone. Heís taking photos. Heís making videos. We work very hard to keep the experience at the festival as unique as possible. We are not trying to be an European festival or an American festival. We are in the middle/fields of the African savanna (rolling grassland scattered with shrubs and isolated trees). People get it now, and thatís the message that goes out.
In isolation, South Africa has been able develop a unique domestic music scene.
Certainly, but there are different aspects of South Africa. South Africa has 11 official languages. Out of the nearly 50 million people, there are six million Zulus. Thatís the biggest chunk (of population), and the rest are in pockets. There are very successful artists just in the Zulu language; artists who make a successful living. South Africa from one side to the other is what 2 1/2 thousand kilometers? Itís very big but itís not gigantic like the U.S. or Russia. It is quite split up with 50 million people scattered throughout.
Many of those artists in those pockets donít receive radio airplay. Are there stations that would play Afrikaans artists?
Yes. There are quite a few Afrikaans language stations. The biggest radio station in Africa is a Zulu station in South Africa is Ukhozi FM. There are also big African music stations. English is a common language here. There is our national (state-owned) broadcasting station South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) as well. Itís a bit of a jumble, but it is supposedly well-funded. Thereís a lot of support for South African acts on that channel.
[Ukhozi FM in KwaZulu Natal, Durban is one of the biggest radio stations in Africa with a listenership over six million. Ukhozi FM broadcasts mainly in IsiZulu.]
The Moshito Music Conference in Johannesburg is now in its 9th year. Are we, perhaps, seeing the foundation of a contemporary South African live music industry being built now?
Yes. But we are 15 or 20 years behind Europe. What we saw happening in Europe some years ago; that is happening here. The festivals, conferences, and the venues being rolled up. The industry is definitely building itself. The foundations are being laid down. There is a lot more around than what there used to be. Itís not gigantic, South Africa is not a rich country. You have to take that into consideration. Definitely, it does feel like that we are in a growth phase.
Sometimes I get to Europe, and when I look around, it just seems to me that everything has been done. I donít see the scene growing that music. One guy grows, and another loses that market share. In South Africa, a lot of what we are doing is just creating market share. We are not taking it away from anyone. There was nothing and you build something and then you just carry on. To a large extent, we just need opportunity. We are really happy to grow up in this country. It still feels like thereís lots still happening, I just start thinking of the business that we started and itís still running. I honestly get the impression that itís much more competitive in other areas (of the world) just because itís (the scene) more saturated and more mature.
You attend international music and media conferences outside South Africa. What are your goals attending such events?
Number one, we want to learn. So we try to attend a few of those things at least once a year. We want to see what is going on in the world, and to also build our own network by accessing agents and managers. Oppikoppi started when there was practically no music industry to speak of in South Africa. To a large extent, we do feel a little bit responsible for being able to open a few doors for South Africans. Many of those trips are to see how we can help out getting to the world.
For many years we just think that South Africa was like nobody knows. So often on these trips we try to see other avenues to explore. We started an exchange with European festivals like Lowlands and Pukkelpop and those guys. We make offers and they make offers. We make the initial contact. We try to get any South African booked. They donít have to be with our agency. Just to get those doors open. Thatís worked really well. Recently, we founded our own non-profit trust with the aim of helping alternative, left-of centre music go international. No matter what that might involve.
Each time that I go to one of these I learn a few things. Our company, we try to be quite pro-active. We are pushing ourselves hard to get into a more technological direction with the ticketing, all of the cashless systems. We try to see whatís happening with all those kinds of things elsewhere.
How much interest in South Africa is there for international music?
People are connected. We watch YouTube and go on the internet like everybody else. So people know whatís going on. Itís just that we are a long way from Europe. Australia is another six hours (air) flight. And itís far and itís expensive to get there. Therefore not many people can afford it. Also our currency is quite weak. So coming here, itís not really worthwhile for many people, although people here are hungry for (international) artists.
From our side we just see growth. Every year we do more and more. Over the last 10 yearsóIím just speaking from my own experiencesóthe festival has grown every year. The same trends that you see in Europe, America and Canada, where a lot of the business has gone to live and away from the recording industry, the trend is in existence here.
The flip side of that story is what keeps international artists away is, of course, the stimulus for the South African artists. So thereís a great, strong, thriving local scene here; for African popular music. We do big concerts in the townships with 20,000 and 30,000 people. Itís a fantastic scene. That audience doesnít necessarily keep up with the big international scene. Itís world music and African jazz artists. There are benefits of being 10,000 kilometers away from everybody else.
Many people think South Africa music is Paul Simonís ďGraceland.Ē But the music scene is so diverse and includes rock, hip hop, hardcore, punk, ska, folk, blues, drum Ďn bass, big beats, funk, kwaito, jazz, traditional, world music and so on.
South Africa is a fantastic world in that regard. The thing is that itís where the first world meets the Third World. So you have all of that (diversity). Also within the country you have all of the different languages, which keeps it very interesting. From our part, the festival definitely has a rock and roll attitude. There are a lot of other things and other pop things. But the music virtually from the first edition we like all kinds of music. From the inception we were featuring Afrikaners jazz or traditional music. It is fantastic that the audience has come to expect that from us. It is one of the reasons the festival has achieved legitimacy over the years.
Thereís now a significant urban scene in South Africa with acts like Professor, and aKING, which comes from Cape Town's confrontational "Belville Sound" scene.
Definitely. It is fascinating to watch all of the movements. Similar to the rest of the world we have seen a big push in electronic music, and dance music. At our festival this is getting bigger and bigger each year. Certainly, in this country, we have all of the international influence, and many of these sub-African genres. You mentioned a few of them. The Afrikaans language thing certainly doesnít exist elsewhere.
[Once maligned as the language of apartheid, Afrikaans has become the center of a thriving music scene that is speaking to a wider audience in South Africa. The Afrikaans language, derived primarily from 17th-century Dutch, is spoken by about 60% of South Africa's white population of 4.5 million. While there has long been a niche music scene in the language, Afrikaans acts, including Steve Hofmeyr, Lianie May, Elizma Theron, and Nicholis Louw, are increasingly crossing over to the English-speaking mainstream.]
At Oppikoppi, music fans can see an act singing in Afrikaans, and then thereís the crazy scene up in the hills with electronic music until 4 AM.
Thatís it. Thatís exactly it. We try to keep it as crazy as possible. In past editions we also brought in ballet and opera and the people absolutely lapped it up. So you can go from death metal to opera to African jazz in the space of 150 meters. There is an appreciation for the arts, which are South African. All of those developments, it took years and years to condition people to expect anything and respect everything. As an organizer, itís fantastic to be that far along. It is really rewarding to see that kind of thing happen.
Thereís been talk of developing a live music alliance between Australia and South Africa, which has been a stop-over for international acts going to Australia. Is there a synergy between the two countries?
Yeah. Thereís cricket and rugby. Thereís a lot of sports interaction. We are working on that. We are trying to build links with Australia. Definitely for international artists like Canada and Europe but also Australia for South African artists. We are talking with a few of the Australian promoters to build some of those circuits. Gradually, that is coming into existence. We see the link as you say as artists stop from Europe/South Africa/Australia but also around the Indian Ocean, India, Japan, Australia, and South Africa.
So there are a few movements (activities being planned). We will see those legs developing in the years to come. We are putting a lot of effort on the part of that. Oppikoppi does quite a few other events. We are trying to build the live music industry here for years to come.
You promote a festival-styled tour in mid-March each year.
Itís a more hardcore rock and roll. Itís called Ramfest and itíll feature Rise Against, Pendulum, As I Lay Dying and others. We will travel to five cities. Cape Town and Johannesburg for the big shows, and to Durban, Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth for the smaller shows. This is the fifth year for Ramfest. We will probably reach between 30,000 and 40,000 fans this year.
How many concerts do you put on annually?
I would say 20 to 50. But we have a ticketing company and a sponsorship and rights company. So we are involved in, maybe, 100 shows a year not counting the shows that our office plays. We are involved in almost every single major festival in South Africa. We will have some kind of role to play; whether itís ticketing or the production company or the sponsors. Often, we just sell the sponsorship rights. So we are quite involved. But we donít have to promote all of them. As I said, between 20 to 50.
Would the big concert promoter in South Africa be Cape Town-based Big Concerts?
Big Concerts is mainly big, international acts. There has never really been a festival industry here. I donít think it has interested them. Then, thereís smaller guys, people who own a single festival. Things are developing. More and more people are getting involved. Where the live industry is now compared to when we started is just incomprehensible. Now there are quite a few festivals around and there are quite a few new venues. At least some of us can make a living out of live music in this country. Not a lot but in the past it was just nobody. Nobody could make a living. Weíve come a long way.
Did having World Cup in 2010 help boost the infrastructure of South Africaís live music industry?
Certainly. The venues are bigger now. Soccer City (FNB Stadium in Johannesburg) is one of the biggest stadiums in the world now. However, of all of the stadiums that they have built, nine out of 10 of them are underutilized. One of the greatest benefits out of World Cup was the attention and also that so many people came and went and very little went wrong. It showed that an African country could pull off an event of that size. It was really successful. It was actually a huge amount of fun. Definitely just from kind of a stamp of approval perspective, that was the biggest benefit of all of this. But from our part, we are quite happy about the large stadiums being built.
[Hosting Africa's first FIFA World Cup in 2010 led to South Africaís multibillion-rand infrastructure developments including an upgrade of airports, roads and rail system and a sizable boost to tourism infrastructure.
As well, there were a host of new stadiums built in South Africa, including Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth (capacity: 48,000), Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit (44,000), Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane (45,000), the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban (70,000), and Cape Town Stadium (70,000 capacity).]
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book ďMusic From Far And Wide.Ē