Industry Spotlight: Henco Harmse

We had the sheer delight recently of speaking with Henco Harmse. He’s a promo powerhouse, based in Johannesburg, where he serves as Label Manager at Universal Music South Africa.  Harmse caught us up on all things promo, and the interests that capture his attention outside the world of music.

“I was in the international department for about ten years and I’ve recently moved over to the Afrikaans department. The Afrikaans department is a local language division. Instead of working with the artists from overseas, I’m basically working with the artists on the ground in South Africa now.”

Harmse got his start in the giant world of the record industry like many a self-respecting teenager: at a record store. “I did that for about three years. It was a little bit like Empire Records, to be honest. Maybe not that wild, but it was fun. And then my big break in the music industry was I worked for a small, independent record company and I was a sales rep going from store to store selling CD’s. Started at the bottom and now I’m somewhere in the middle.”  (Modest, for sure).

“It’s kind of strange that my time in the CD store was definitely the time when I learned the most about music, when you’re on the front line. I didn’t know anything about different genres of music, to be honest, and then when you’re doing on the front line you’re experiencing what people want. You’re figuring out what works, what doesn’t work. Even today, I still think about my time in the CD store when I’m thinking about marketing plans or strategies or anything like that.”

Harmse reflected on his notion of his future as an adolescent, invoking relatable memories that would make Holden Caulfield proud.  “… I never really had a dream of working in the music industry. It’s almost like the music industry picked me. It’s sort of the other way around. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I was a kid. Working at the CD store was just a part time job and from there, it grew. As a kid, I was pretty obsessed with music. I came from a pretty small town and I didn’t really feel like I related to a lot of the people in the town and in the community and bunch of friends and myself, we started listening to punk and metal music and it became this whole thing where it’s like, ‘You don’t understand us and you don’t understand our music.’ It became a way of finding an identity or whatever. So music has always been important to me, but it was never a dream of mine to work in the music industry. I count myself very lucky, now that I am in it, but just sort of picked me, I guess.”

All those who relate, raise your hands.  OK, attendance taken.  We reflect, too, on the fact that our teenaged brains are wired to emblazon memories indelibly. Henco shares “There’s gangster rap songs that I can still recite off by heart. And today I can’t even remember that the song was called that I listened to five minutes ago.”

More a music fan than a musician, Henco said his discovery was largely self-realized. “Growing up, my parents weren’t that into music. They would listen to the radio or things like that, but we weren’t a very musical family at all. Which is very, people find that sort of strange and when I tell people I work in the music industry, people go, ‘Oh, you must be really good at music.’  I’m terrible at music. I used to own a bass guitar and I can’t say that I played it, but I owned it.”  It was later in life that Henco was really bitten by the bug– and he remembers the precise moment. ‘I remember being about 12 years old and I listened to an awful track by 2 Unlimited, ‘No Limits.’ And I remember that was the first song where I was like, ‘Whoa. I can feel something.’ That was the first time where a song actually made me feel something. I very rapidly moved away from European techno, luckily, but I was only about 12 or 13 the first time I actually feeling passionate about music.”

That passion brings us to today, and Henco’s role at Universal, and to Play MPE. “The reason I’m helping out in South Africa is genuinely because it’s such a fantastic product. It’s really, from a marketing and promotion side, it’s been a great tool. I started using it years ago when it was introduced to Universal Music and just loved it from that point on. It can sometimes be a struggle to get the media to try it because people are so in their ways and people are quite scared of change, in general. But every person that I’ve gotten to use Play MPE has stuck with it. They always go, “this is easy, and it makes everything so much better and easier. I think I’ll use this from now on. The whole reason why I’m trying to build it in South Africa and then later on, hopefully, across Africa is just because it’s easier. It’s easier and better for everyone; for the record companies that are using it, for the media guys who are ingesting the music. And the more people we get to use it, the more record companies that we get to use it, the better it’ll be for everyone. Sort of trying to make an industry standard across the board.”

Harmse is quick to share a fave among current projects on the docket. “We’ve got one project at the moment that I’m really excited about. It’s a rapper from Port Elizabeth called Early B. He raps in the Afrikaans language, but I always say he’s not an Afrikaans rapper; he’s a rapper in Afrikaans. He’s got some of the best lyrics I’ve ever heard of any rapper. He’s just so good, he so quick and if you know the Afrikaans language, his usage of words and metaphors is just incredible.”

As for Harmse’s regular day-to-day, when he’s eagerly pursuing outside passions and interests in history and archaeology, and when he’s not busy fighting the good Play MPE and Universal fights, or in the studio with artists (whew!) …well, there’s really no typical day. “Every day is different, which is great. I’ve been with Universal for ten years now and I don’t really ever get bored because every day is different, and I face different challenges every day. But there is the red tape, the grind, the minutia. I think that’s the one thing that people don’t realize about the music industry, is there’s a lot of admin. There’s a lot of nitty-gritty Excel sheets that you need to fill in. There’s budgets. So, it’s not just fun and roses all the time; there’s a lot of hard work that goes unseen sometimes…Basically, what I used to do was just promote and market and think of interesting and innovative ways of pushing international artists. Now, on the Afrikaans side, on the local side, I’m having to learn and relearn a bunch of new things, which has been a great learning curve that I’ve had to get through and I’m obviously still learning, but I’m really enjoying it.”

All one could aim for, in this crazy thing we call the music business, right?

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