The Business of Music in Africa

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Written by Kuel Lual

As far back as we can remember, music has and will always be an integral part of the African culture. Music compliments our ceremonies and religious functions. There is need for music at birth, death, marriage, engagement, birthday, formal parties and even during praise and worship. South Sudan has many different cultures that have always brought their unique traditions and sounds to the table.

Worldwide, the music business has changed drastically in the last decade and a half. Technology paved paths never before imagined in the music business. The internet opened new mediums for people to access music and album sales declined, creating a panic in the old order of doing things, at least the Western world’s music business was panicking. Africa, not at all. The music studios or few Record Labels that were operating didn’t have the ‘luxury’ of having their albums bought as much and there was no proper system in place for people to buy albums. Or people just didn’t buy albums.

All the way from the 60?s through to the mid 90?s, the only acceptable music was mainly traditional sounds: Rumba, Lingala and Zouk among others. Urban music (music perceived to be from the West) was viewed as unnecessary and a nuisance. Rumba, Lingala and Zouk were hugely successful within the African community (and somewhat continue to be but with a more updated sound, i.e, Fally Ipupa) but much of their popularity started to wane off by the early 2000?s due to the younger generation wanting to identify with a more global urban sound, mainly hip-hop. With the emergence of this new sound, the industry as a whole had its mind on competing with what came in from the West. Unfortunately the ‘revolution’ came in at a time when the West was losing a grip on it’s sales of albums due to the emergence of the internet and the old model of doing business was beginning to change, yet Africa had just started out. The hype seemed to be dying, as it was now being viewed as a losing game globally.


Fast forward to 2006: the hype isn’t just hype any more, it is now a reality. A number of formidable entertainment power houses spring up all the way from the coasts of Cape Town, South Africa, through the streets of Nairobi, Kenya, up to the oil rich country of Nigeria, in the streets of Lagos. The Nigerian movie industry was (and still is) releasing a crazy amount of movies a year to rival the famous Hollywood and Bollywood film industries and even looks to surpass them. And the Nigerian movie industry wasn’t the only industry that looked to explode. Its music industry also started releasing new acts with ear catching tunes at an unstoppable rate, a trend that still continues well into 2013 and has shown no signs of losing momentum. Big budget videos from artists such as D’banj ‘The Kokomaster’, 2Face Idiba and P-Square and many others started to hit the airwaves, a move that was now giving a number of entertainment power houses – mainly South African – a run for their money. Up until that point, the South African entertainment groups undoubtedly had a lion’s share of the entertainment industry, thanks to their music television channels such as Channel O. In the midst of all this, a number of African countries could not just resist the urge to play a part. A number of African countries had already been players but this new system asked for a bit more than just sound. There was the introduction of a new type of fresh. Having ‘the hit’ then targeting radio and thinking that was it just didn’t cut it any more. One had to be business savvy, or at least align with the people that understood this was a whole new ball game.

The night life was bubbling EVERYWHERE in Africa as compared to the 90?s and this gave a major boost to the music industry as they work hand in hand. New night clubs, new promoters (many of whom had travelled the world and brought home fresh ideas), new entertainment companies and a whole bunch of new artists all sprung up throughout the continent. This all played a part in the promotion of artists as shows / concerts were now being done by African artists as opposed to the 90?s when it was strictly International acts. Night clubs were now playing music from African artists as opposed to when it was only Western artists you heard bursting through the speakers. Everything seemed to be going on smoothly, everyone seemed happy but there was a major problem. A majority of them were hardly making any money. This forced many African artists to consider making a name for themselves out of the continent where promises of profits made sense. Some worked hard and managed to get deals that signed them to American owned labels. Some managed to get deals that would guarantee their success in Europe. Some were not so lucky and their lights dimmed. Some didn’t mind working harder on the continent and they, too, got lucky.

The reality is, only a handful of artists are actually making a living off their music. Shows are hard to come by for the newer artists, the more established artists have the advantage because they guarantee sold out shows. Nobody is buying albums (by the late 90?s that had already started failing in the West even with a perfect system in place) and piracy is rampant. Governments are doing nothing to fight piracy, even the laws some countries have put in place do not help, mainly because they are not enforced. Artists complain about piracy but the reality is, IT WILL NOT STOP. Access to music is extremely easy, with the internet and ease in exchange of mp3 audios in portable devices and portable music players, people will continue burning CD’s at any chance they get. Why buy ‘XXXX’s’ album when I can just get it from a friend soon as the album is downloaded? A question most potential buyers seem to ask when asked if they will purchase an album, weather the artist is African or International doesn’t matter.
Music streaming services like Spotify, Rhapsody, Yala Music and Pandora have been hugely popular with the Western market but still haven’t managed to have a major impact in Africa. One popular music service company, iTunes launched on December 2012 in South Africa. South Africans are now able to purchase music and music videos in local currency from Apple’s iTunes store, and use the popular Match service. iTunes Match allows Apple to scan users’ music libraries and match songs for playback from its servers. The service costs R199.99/year / or $ 11/year. Music not in the iTunes Store can be uploaded for playback and download to supported devices. Apple’s launch of a local music store came on the heels of Microsoft’s announcing plans to launch Xbox Music in South Africa. French streaming service Deezer, Germany’s Simfy in partnership with Primedia’s eXactmobile and Rara, a UK-based service have all launched in South Africa with plans of launching all over Africa in the next few years. Nokia’s music streaming service, Nokia Music + has already launched in South Africa too. Informa, a London based research company estimates that ‘70 percent of the African music business consists of local repertoire, with international artists, who dominate elsewhere, representing only a minority of what people are listening to‘. This should is a good thing for the African market as it suggests there is a market for the artists on the continent.

Mobile music services are on the rise as the market is starting to realize it is a profit making service – a huge profit making service. For example, in Kenya, the largest mobile service operator, Safaricom has three different music portals, each geared toward a different type of service. Skiza is the most profitable which offers ‘caller ringback tones’ (i.e the music that is heard by the caller). The service costs Ksh 5 per song per week and with close to 4 million subscribers, this service could as well gross around $10 million per year. South Sudan’s mobile operators are not being left out of the game either, two of the most successful mobile operators, Vivacell and MTN also offer the services but they have been too slow to catch up because of no virtually no system in place to work with local artists, no proper research has been done to provide customers with their preferred songs (ex. making Lil Wayne songs instead of local artists) and lack of marketing.

Digital music services such as Deezer have made agreements with mobile service networks such as Orange with countries in West Africa in an effort to expand.
The most notable is the rise of Nigerian iROKO Partners, an online media distribution company focused on the Nigerian Entertainment Industry. The company was established in September 2010 and is headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria with a branch in London, United Kingdom. IROKO Partners launched IROKING in December 2011, a free music streaming service offering streaming of selected music from a range of African labels and artists. Music can be browsed by direct searches, artist, album and playlists. iROKING has also launched mobile applications for its music services. The iROKING mobile application’s features include:
– Favorite selected songs
– Create playlists and share them via Twitter or Facebook
– Integrated ‘offline’ functionality (users can listen to favorite tunes offline)
iRoking in most situations stands in as an artist’s record label, representing them and signing digital deals on their behalf due to many musicians uploading their music to the internet and getting no returns. iRoko Partners attracted an $8 million investment from Tiger Global Management.

Many services are making their way into the continent, mainly from Asia but the most notable would be Samsung’s partnership with USA’s Universal Music Group (the largest music corporation in the world) to form The Kleek. The website covered the new partnership:
A new mobile music streaming service called The Kleek will debut in Africa as the result of a partnership between Samsung and Universal Music Group. The two companies are working with African and international record labels on the platform. The Kleek will be free and available exclusively on Samsung smartphones for the first two years, THR reports. The service was first announced at the Samsung Africa Forum in Cape Town, South Africa. Samsung recognizes that the African market is very different to that of its European, Asian and American counterparts,” said Thabiet Allie, head of content and services at Samsung Electronics Africa. “We are thus, through our Built for Africa initiatives, focused on building services and partnering with the best local and international content owners, and this partnership is testament to that


Max Hole, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group International had this to add,
By investing in the Kleek we’re providing a platform for the very best of African talent to reach a wider audience. With the explosion of smartphones and other mobile devices, the Kleek has the potential to attract tens of millions of music fans across Africa.
Randall Abrahams, managing director, Universal Music South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, said the service aims to become a platform for emerging artists as well as international stars. Seeing that services such as Spotify, one of the world’s most used music streaming services is not yet available in Africa, African artists might as well use this platform to the maximum.

The New York Times too covered the partnership:
The music business recently celebrated a milestone in the form of its first annual revenue growth since 1999, but one region, Africa, was unable to join the party. Digital music, responsible for the improvement in the industry’s brighter overall outlook, has failed to catch on across much of Africa. But that may be about to change, as new local and international digital music services open or expand, suggesting that industry executives and investors see potential for profit.
In one of the highest-profile moves so far, Universal Music Group and Samsung announced this month the creation of The Kleek, a Pan-African digital music service. It features music from Universal’s international catalog and from local artists like the Power Boyz in Angola, DJ Vetkuk in South Africa and W4 in Nigeria

It’s easy to turn on digital services in new markets,” said Francis Keeling, the London-based global head of the digital business at Universal. “The difference is, are they going to have local content, editorial teams and realistic pricing, along with active marketing. We looked at the market for a long time and decided that Africa needed its own service, aimed at African consumers.

Companies are now seeking ways to gain exclusive access to content by getting into production and event management. Safaricom, in Kenya, has started sponsoring concerts, most notable the, ‘Niko Na Safaricom Live Concert‘ that features artists such as the hugely popular groups Sauti Sol and Camp Mulla among other artists. The main aim here is to position their presence strongly in the music mobile service arena. And as most have witnessed, they are doing it right.

Cedric Muhammad served as General Manger of the multi-platinum Hip-Hop music act from the United States, Wu-Tang Clan, negotiating its tour with Rage Against the Machine in 1997, and endorsement deal with Pepsi Co. That same year, he established an inner city consulting firm advising McDonald’s Corporation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, among others. He wrote an article on the popular Hip-Hop site,, titled, ‘Africa: The Next Throne of Hip-Hop‘ dated May 18th 2010 where he analyzed the music industry.

The question now is, as a new nation on the African continent, how does this relate to South Sudan and are we ready to compete with big power houses or do we still need time to learn the ropes in order to catch up with our companions? And because the music industry is an arena with many players, not only comprised of artists, what business models can be adapted to ensure successes for our producers, our DJ’s, our promoters, our investors. What part can the Corporate world play in this? How do we take full advantage of technology to ensure we are up to par with international industry standards? And with a number of African governments starting to realize the potential that the entertainment industry has especially on the economy, some even setting aside budgets to ensure its livelihood, how can the entertainment industry work with the Government hand in hand?

While the questions are debatable and everyone will have their own opinion on the matter, the reality is, the world won’t wait for us to catch up. Neither will Africa. We will either have to be quick on our feet or be forced to use the resources we have, while this will of course have it’s own mistakes, it will, with no doubt polish our entertainment industry. The main advantage we have on our side, is not having to go in completely blind. We have been able to watch major players commit mistakes, mistakes we can learn from and work upon.
One thing is for sure though, it will be exciting to see South Sudan be a major player in the African music industry. Who knows maybe we will give a few global players a run for their money. We already have Emmanuel Jal to show, don’t we, why not send a few more?

keul lual deng
Kuel Lual Deng is the CEO of Illusion Management, a Nairobi, Kenya-based music promotions and marketing company. He currently resides in Juba, South Sudan. He can be contacted via email at or on Twitter: @BigKuelfadelic

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