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In depth: There’s no business like the music business

By Frankline Sunday | August 23rd 2017
By Frankline Sunday | August 23rd 2017

Nigeria artist Wizkid performs on stage during BBQ live in KICC on 22 July 2017.[Edward Kiplimo,Standard].

NAIROBI, KENYA: In his famous song Asili ya Mziki, the late Tanzanian musician Remmy Ongala sounds off a loving tribute to music.

The song has remained a timeless classic among many music lovers. From creating the right ambience at key events as diverse as parties and funerals to being at the centre of the radio and entertainment industry, Ongala’s song celebrates the importance of music, but also the dark side that only those who are in the industry get to see.

“You might see me singing and assume I’m happy, but on the inside I am really sad,” Ongala croons in the last line of the chorus, summing up an experience that many musicians are all too familiar with.

In Kenya, music, along with many other forms of art, is considered non-essential expenditure, which means the majority of Kenyans who have little disposable income are unlikely to purchase locally produced albums.

But this hasn’t stopped many young people from aspiring to make music. The allure of adoring fans and the chance to make money off YouTube videos and various apps has seen more and more artistes bet on living off of music.

However, Eugine Otieno, an Afro-pop and dancehall musician who goes by the stage name Black Sultan, says young musicians starting out on their careers without connections or deep pockets can find it daunting to carve out a niche for themselves.

“It is very difficult, and the many stereotypes on what the music business involves make it even harder to start out if you don’t have people to advise you,” he says.

Finding a sound

Eugine, who’s in his late 20s and based in Kisumu, started exploring his musical talent while still in primary school. It was, however, not until he got to Maseno University for an undergraduate degree in mass communication that he decided to hone his skill and find his sound.

“I used to go to class during the day, and then toy with sounds and beats in the evenings,” he says. “I started out doing dancehall, but I realised guys were having a hard time relating to my music, so I toned down the elements of dancehall a bit.”

Eugine is also a producer and runs his own record label, Bermuda Records. He stresses that it takes heavy research and long hours to establish a creative element that audiences will be drawn to and seek out repeatedly – something a good number of musicians overlook.

“You have to find your own sound to be taken seriously, otherwise you will be mimicking other artistes. And it takes a lot of time, practice and research to settle on a sound,” he adds.

Identifying one’s sound also entails finding out what audiences like and anticipating how these tastes and preferences will change over time.

“I identified around 50 deejays and spoke to all of them personally. I wanted to involve them because they have the ear and ability to tell what is a good song and what won’t cut it among listeners,” he says.

All this costs money, which means that musicians often have to hold part-time or full-time jobs to raise the income their music requires.

“A standard studio set-up will cost you at least Sh300,000, depending on what you want,” says Eugine. “I did several jobs to raise the money and also obtained a credit facility from a bank.”

His company produces audio and video content for artistes around Western and Nyanza regions, and also has a few artistes from Uganda.

Big break

Duncan Owinga goes by the stage name Sir Owi and has been a musician for more than 10 years, and although he has recorded more than 25 songs and has an 18-track album under his belt, he feels he is yet to get his big break.

“The industry is really tough to navigate by yourself, and I’ve had producers lose my songs when their computer crashes, or when you fall out. It takes a lot of perseverance to stay on track,” he says.

Duncan works part-time at a firm in Nairobi’s Industrial Area and records his music during his free time. He sells his album largely through Facebook, and always has a copy or two on him.

“Today, many artistes live off of YouTube videos, so you also have to ensure that your video is very professional and well done so that you can attract as many views as possible,” he adds.

You may have noticed that your favourite YouTube video come with ads either in the form of videos that you have to wait for a few seconds to click past, or little ad boxes at the bottom or top of the video.

Musicians get a percentage of ad revenue from these ads whenever we watch their videos. So the more views and engagement the clip is able to generate, the more money the artiste earns from it. Because of this, YouTube has become an indispensable platform for musicians, particularly those starting out. The only constraint, of course, is the money available to create a video that draws attention.

“You can get a music video done for as little as Sh10,000 and just as easily get a video for Sh100,000 – the difference between the two videos will be in the quality and features, so it really comes down to how much money you have to spare,” says Duncan.

Despite the falling cost of digital recording services and tools, and the availability of more outlets that provide visibility, Kenyan musicians still have a myriad of other challenges that threaten their livelihoods.

Preferential treatment

During a concert headlined by Nigerian singer Wizkid late last month, Kenyan musician Fena Gitu and the band, H_art the Band, were slotted to perform alongside him. However, they later took to social media, calling out the event organisers for giving the Nigerian star preferential treatment.

“We are in this industry together. That’s the joke. How are we going to make Kenya a world-class concert destination if we can’t even look out for our own?” Fena asked on a long post detailing her bad experience with the event organisers on her Instagram account.

Eugine’s experience with poor event organisers was at a show where he was offered Sh6,000 to perform, despite his having to travel across counties and spend a night in a hotel. This was also despite his having just released a new video featuring popular Kenyan rapper Kaligraph Jones.

“Technology and platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud have really helped early-career artistes get exposure for their work because radio stations are playing the same songs and interviewing the same artistes, shutting out newcomers,” Eugine says.

Currently working on a 12-track single EP (extended play) and two big video collaborations, Eugine is, however, optimistic that those who follow through with their drive to make music will eventually get their breakthrough.

“Do not spend so much time worrying about how it will happen; you just need to focus,” he says.

“At the same time, you do not have to work from Nairobi to make it since you can get good quality and affordable work done in other towns close to you.

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