Kahn Morbee went back to university last week - to finally, well officially, learn about the business side of the music industry.
He’s been in the game for the past two decades: the Parlotones, which he started with mates from Roodepoort’s West Ridge High School, turns 21 this year. He launched his solo career five years ago, as the eponymous KAHN, as well as finding time to successfully coach two winners of the reality TV singing competition, "The Voice SA".
It’s been a career that’s seen some incredible highs; the Parlotones were the first South African band to headline a show at Johannesburg’s Dome, they played the Fifa 2010 kick-off concert televised globally to billions and they’ve won numerous SA Music Awards gongs, but also experienced some real lows, like developing polyps on his vocal cords and having to undergo surgery, as well as a bruising and bloody legal battle with former management.
Now though, that’s behind them; the band is still together; it released its impressive double album "China" nine months ago and has a busy gigging schedule planned for the year. But Morbee is getting used to going to lectures and attending study groups.
"I write songs for a living," he says, "now I’ll just be writing assignments."
Music has always been his first love, but he had been intending to study something related to ensure the longevity of his career.
"I was looking to do something in design or project management, but synchronicity in the form of Jon Foster-Pedley cropped up, offering me the music and creative industries scholarship to study for my MBA."
It’s a prospect that excites him given the disruption that has occurred in the music industry and the continued need to stay in a business that first saw him go full-time after working in tele-sales at Mweb, and managing only a term as a teacher at Johannesburg’s Jeppe Boys’ High once he had graduated with a BA in communication from then Rand Afrikaans University (today the University of Johannesburg).
"I’d read a book by Sting, who wrote how he had taught during term to earn a salary and used the holidays to promote his music before becoming the star that he is, but I couldn’t. Teaching was taking up so much of my time, I have so much respect for teachers, but I found I had less time to focus on my music than when I actually had a nine-to-five job.”
From Jeppe, he went into financial services and from full-time into music.
"My journey in music has always been approached from a business point of view. I’ve had some wobbles and maybe I’ve done things back to front. I’m hoping that through this academic journey to understand the business of music I’ll develop a better model, especially in a day and age where nothing exists any more. But I think that’s true of most other businesses.
"Everything seems to have been disrupted but, in the same breath, it’s allowed us a freedom through an access to technology that we never had before. The music business is no longer the domain of major labels where the old model was to sign you, throw money at the marketing and the recording in the form of a horrific loan that you would then take years to pay back."
Morbee speaks from experience, he and the band had a legal battle with a previous manager (and label) which resolved in the band agreeing to buy its back catalogue of music.
"Kinda like blood money I guess. I hope I’ll discover that I’ve been doing business type things by default but that I’ve meandered to get to the right place eventually.
“We did a lot of things wrong, but we also did a lot of things right."
Foster-Pedley said the business school had received a number of great applications for the scholarship but Morbee had stood out because of his grit and resilience.
"We were looking for someone who not only had shown commitment to their own career but was reaching that point where they can go beyond performance and help set up the industry beyond personal gain.
"Kahn has really paid his dues and he’s come out strong on the other side with a sense of purpose, he’s a perfect candidate for what we are trying to achieve here."
As for Morbee, the music won’t take a back seat while he’s hitting the books.
"We’re still gigging, I’ll have to juggle things, but my solo career will have to take a back seat as I complete this chapter."