This article presents an ethnographic analysis of the popular economy of informal musical production in the Venda region of South Africa. It focuses on the activities surrounding the Burnin' Shak Studio, a recording house that specializes in reggae music. Reliant on second-hand computers, pirated software, borrowed instruments, networks of trust and cycles of debt, musicians and producers in the Burnin' Shak occupy a distinctly peripheral position in South Africa's music industry. Unlike artists in the formal sphere of musical production, who sign deals with specific record labels, musicians in the informal sector seek out sponsors – usually young local businessmen – to fund their recordings with local producers. Marketing and distribution is the sole responsibility of the artist and the sponsor, who often develop a ‘patron–client’ relationship. And yet whilst the artists' entrepreneurial activity often earns them significant airplay on local radio stations, and associated cultural capital, the financial benefits are slim. In order to convert their cultural capital into cash, musicians in the informal sector must compete in the market for performances at government-sponsored shows. These shows are well funded by lucrative tenders, but they present musicians with a double-edged sword. To secure a contract with tender holders – or to entertain hopes of regular paid performances – musicians must ensure that these performances do not express critical political sentiment. As purveyors of a genre renowned for its critical social commentary, reggae musicians are particularly affected by this expectation of self-censorship. Informal musical production in the post-apartheid era thus affords musicians little artistic freedom. Rather, whilst the products of this culture industry may appear to be part of a ‘secondary’ economy, removed from the spheres of formalized production and control, they are in fact regulated and standardized through the process of tender allocation.