Can Mobile Digital Music Help African Musicians?

Digital Content

In the recent past, most African musicians had limited ways to distribute their music. If not through the sales of their CDs, it was through airplay, which was hard to come by. But now with the internet revolution, budding artists are finding new ways to reach their audiences.

Juliani, a renowned Kenyan urban artist, stresses that digital music has offered a new avenue for musicians. Speaking at the Aitec Broadcast, Film and Music Africa (BFMA) conference in Nairobi, Juliani said, “Online media is another stream to distribute music but the basics is how to get people to listen to my music and consume my products.”

The mobile phone means a lot across Africa. Termed as the “iPod” of the continent, most multimedia content can be consumed on these devices. And with mobile broadband becoming a norm, more services are set to make the small screen their first home.

For musicians this has seen music distributed more easily through various avenues, and the outlets have grown in great leaps and bounds. Now digital music distribution could be the one way that upcoming urban musicians are able to earn more revenue streams from their craft.

It is evident from advertisements on Kenyan television stations that digital music, delivered to phones as ringtones and ringback tones, is a popular use of music in the marketplace. Companies such as MTech a mobile technology company, have signed numerous African artists and distribute their music in form of ringtones.

The seriousness of the mobile distribution systems in Kenya came to the fore with the legal dispute between Safaricom, Kenya’s leading mobile telecommunication company and John Boniface Maina. The musician sued the company for using his music as ringtones in various promotions and was awarded an out of court settlement totaling Kshs 15 million (US$ 170,000). Safaricom agreed to settle the dispute in early May this year.

Mdundo is a new entrant in the online music business and showcases Kenyan music. The name “mdundo” is derived from a Swahili word meaning “beats”. Martin Nielsen, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, confirms that he has specifically structured his business to appeal to mobile users.

“Mdundo is a mobile music download service. Musicians sign up and upload music at Mdundo.com and fans can download a few songs from each artist for free. To get access to the total library users pay $3 to download unlimited songs for one month. Payment can be done through mobile money, airtime or credit card,” Nielsen told IDG Connect.

Currently the service has over 100K users. The majority are in Kenya but it also has traction in neighboring countries such as Uganda and Tanzania. “We are growing our users with 15-25% every month,” he said.

The service has attracted the major players in the Kenyan music industry. Nielsen said that Mdundo receives over 40,000 downloads every single month and pays royalties for all the music that is downloaded.

“I think it's extremely positive,” Nielsen added. “Africans consume music in a much more aggressive way than the western world and with new innovative initiatives every month, I'm very confident that the future is very bright.”

All this interaction shows that Africans are taking digital music seriously. Music streaming services such as Iroking, Dezeer and Kleek from Universal are all launching services across the continent and have attracted thousands of users. Iroking, based in Nigeria, has achieved overwhelming support and numerous streaming hours

For Africori, one of the major music distribution and licensing companies in Africa, the future looks rosy. Yoel Kenan the CEO, has seen digital opportunities in Africa since 2005:

“[Now] Africori is basing its whole development around technology not just about distribution but also for the reporting and being able to unlock value in music content in Africa,” Kenan explained.

Africori deals with the B2B distribution of music and platforms to enable other companies to easily license and sell music within the continent. The company is working with big names in digital music in Africa including, iTunes, Nokia, Amazon, Rhapsody, even Mdundo among many others.

Kenan said that mobile in Africa is at the core of their business because it is one of the major ways music is being consumed in Africa.

The digital music revolution has two phases he continued. The first phase is the use of ringback tones, ringtones and the use of short codes to access music. The second phase, which has not hit Africa yet, involves the use of the web to access music from sites like iTunes.

According to Kenan the first cycle is unlikely to dip anytime soon in Africa. “[This is] because the feature phone is [still] important in Africa [so] access to music is mainly through ringtones and ringback tones.”

But even with these developments, mobile music distribution does not come without challenges. “The revenue share with the operators and the players make it difficult for music companies and artists to survive,” Kenan told us. “The lion share goes towards the operators’ side. The second thing is about the robustness of the platform we are dealing with. Sometimes it’s hard to get analytics and reports.”

As the landscape develops however, the revenue share is gradually moving towards the music companies and this is a precisely how Africori is navigating the challenges of operators.

Kenan believes that things are changing quickly, as a range of services are currently being launched. “We are big advocates and we are growing the market. We are an enabler, we come from the music industry and we understand the artists and the labels.”

However, Juliani warns that musicians should take keen interest in which platforms will benefit their music. Not all digital platforms would work for them, he said.

Speaking at the Aitec BFMA conference, Trenton Birch Africa director for Bridges for Music, said that the high broadband costs still hinder various industries in Africa including the online music industry:

“The challenge is on the local level because the internet penetration is still not at its peak and bandwidth is expensive. For online business to grow, online data providers must cut their costs,” Birch said.

With the increased access to broadband even in rural areas in Africa, content consumption is about to change for the “mobile-only” continent. But only time will tell what this will really mean for the artists themselves.