Raphael Benza. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips

The state of the South African music industry has been a hot topic since the recent falling out at Ambitiouz Entertainment. The contentious nature of the Metro FM Awards this past Saturday, and the subsequent drama surrounding the ANC-affiliated label, Mabala Noise, has fanned the flames of uncertainty over alleged corruption and mismanagement at these emerging big-money labels.

Vth Season, the label behind AKA, Berita, Tresor and BigStar, has steered clear of the controversy and forged a path of their own. It has shunned public attention in its six years of business, and apart from the small logo we often see on AKA’s work, very little is known of Vth Season and its role.

I spent some time with Raphael Benza, the label’s founder and chief opportunity creator, during the recent Metro FM Awards weekend and learntabout their workings and outlook on the music business. For starters, they don’t necessarily see themselves as a label but rather as part of an artist’s value chain. Vth Season embodies three elements: audio and visual creation, talent management and marketing and experiential events – elements which essentially incorporate marketing of the artist’s music, brand and talent.

Through its model, Vth Season has provided an interesting case study on how an independent label can be self-sustainable and successful over a period of time in the South African music industry. “We didn’t go into music thinking how many millions we’re gonna make or how much publicity we’re gonna get,” Benza said. “We got into the game because we discovered a talent that needed to be brought out into the world.”

He recognised the talent of AKA, whose solo career Benza launched in 2011, and subsequently built Vth Season around in its early stages. Benza hasn’t done it alone. For seven years, he has worked with Ninel Musson, who has a more internally-focused role linked to business operations, marketing and investment. Musson explained the label's philosophy and the work it does. “The Vth Season is about great music,” she said. “Great music that we feel should be shared with the world. Acknowledgement from the fans and industry is really important to the artists and our work, as a test of what’s working. There are a lot of signs of that acknowledgement, and awards are part of that.”

Sales, media attention and airplay are additional indicators. “For us, the ultimate indication that we did a good job with a song is the crowd reaction,” said Benza. “Maybe it starts with the artist introducing the song to a smaller group of fans, to the point where it gets to 10 000 people in the audience and they’re all singing the song, that’s our biggest award.”

Despite a cloud over the recent Metro FM Awards, Vth Season believe that awards are still relevant and have a role to play in acknowledging artists’ work. But the label also believes that governance needs to be looked at more closely, and that organisers should consider making the auditing process more transparent. “If we look at an example from sports, say the Olympics,” said Musson, “they’re absolutely transparent because you see the candidate running the race – everybody in the stadium and everybody on TV – and if there is a dispute on a close-photo finish, there’s some kind of technology that verifies it.”

Recently, there has been uncertainty about AKA’s affiliation with Vth Season, since he tweeted late last year that he was no longer working with them. Irrespective, the label has released three chart-topping singles – 10 Fingers, The World Is Yours and Caiphus Song. And there’s more to come from AKA and the other artists in its stable. “We’re excited to announce six projects that’ll be coming out from our artists this year,” said Benza. “We’re gonna put out at least 70 great songs this year."

It also aims to sign several new artists this year, including the winner of the soon-to-air second season of hip hop talent competition Vuzu Hustle, as the label did last year with BigStar. Having initially focused primarily on hip hop, Vth Season included talents in other genres such as afro-soul and pop over the past few years, and it will possibly diversify even more this year by bringing in a house music producer and an afro-beat artist.

It’ll be interesting to see how the year unfolds for Vth Season. Even with the uncertainty at other labels, it seems confident that it is on the right path. And if the past six years are anything to go by, they have every reason to be.