Ringtones and Mobile Phone Downloads are Generating Income for Local Musicians in Africa PDF Print E-mail

African musicians hoping to support themselves through their recordings have always had to contend with the added burden of poor copyright control over their work.

While musicians in the West are supported by a highly regulated regime of copyright protection – ensuring some to become the richest people in their respective countries – most African musicians have had to stand back and watch their work being copied, sold and exchanged with little chance of seeing any royalties. Global audiences know of the success of artists like Fela Kuti, Youssou N’Dour, Manu Dibango and Miriam Makeba, but most African musicians can look forward to scant earnings from recording their music.

Anyone who has walked through the markets of Africa will know there are plenty of pirated CDs for sale, yet it is of no use to a musician who never sees the money. Poverty is endemic amongst African musicians as a result of this loss of income. While music is a global business worth US $40 billion according to the Recording Industry Association of America, pirated music in Africa is rampant – some estimates by theRecording Industry of South Africa put it at over 80 percent of available music. How much money is being lost can be judged from the estimated daily income of a pirate music vendor in Africa, ranging between Euro 762 and Euro 2,744.

But a solution to this problem is being pioneered in Botswana in southern Africa. A partnership between mobile phone provider Orange Botswana and Small House Records/Mud Hut Studios, ensures musicians get a slice of the profit pie. Managing director Solomon Monyame of Small House Records has signed a contract with Orange to share the profits from ring tone and song downloads to mobile phone subscribers. With more than 76.8 million people currently subscribing to mobile phone services in Africa, and the number growing by about 58 percent each year for the last five years, the potential royalties market for African musicians is vast if this initiative is replicated across the continent.

In the paper “Development Goes Wireless” to be published in the spring 2007 issue of the journal of theInstitute of Economic Affairs, lead researcher Karol Boudreaux of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center and Enterprise Africa!, discovered mobile phones and mobile phone companies can give artists a new way to control royalties for their work. She found that in the absence of effective copyright control mechanisms – as is the case in many African countries – the mobile phone company can step in to save the day.

“When you walk through the markets there you see so much music available on the street, but there is little intellectual property rights protection,” she said.

“In other countries, like the UK, you have strong intellectual property rights protection, but this just isn’t the case in much of Africa. The mobile phones are a very good way to get around this problem as long as cell phone providers are willing to make the contracts. Botswana is very lucky in that they have a very good contract environment, but this isn’t necessarily the case in other countries. It is a win-win for music providers and mobile companies.”

The NetTel@Africa project started by USAID and the Center to Bridge the Digital Divide, in partnership with many African and US universities, is also championing copyright protection strategies.

How important creative industries are becoming to economic development is slowly being recognized. It is now seen as an important component of modern post-industrial, knowledge-based economies, but equally also a way for economically underdeveloped countries to generate wealth. Not only are they thought to account for higher than average growth and job creation, they are also vehicles of cultural identity and play an important role in fostering cultural diversity. Initiatives like UNESCO’s Global Alliance for Cultural Diversityattempt to document this phenomenon and back it up with hard numbers.

UNESCO also has a project to establish musicians’ cooperatives across Africa. As such, the musicians are able to pool their production resources, which are individually insufficient to ensure the economic viability of a small or medium-sized business. In Burkina Faso, a co-operative is working with the International Labour Organisation.

Festivals like Mali’s annual Festival in the Desert in the oasis of Essakane, 65 kilometers from Timbuktu, is an example of how African musicians are finding their own way to reach audiences. Targeted above all to promote African and Malian Music inside the continent, the Festival has also boosted international tourism to the region and almost 10 percent of last year’s 6,000 visitors came from outside of Africa.

Another initiative for African musicians is the DigiArts Africa network. It was founded by UNESCO and aims to increase communication between artists, industries and educators, make musicians self-sustainable, use the ICT industries to support and contribute to cultural activities, and better promote African musicians within and outside Africa.

Well-known Senegalese musician Thione Seck is blunt about the economic effect of piracy on his income.

“Were there no piracy, I could have bought an island, seeing the number of songs that I composed in more than 30 years of my career”, he told a local newspaper.

According to Abdoul Aziz Dieng, president of the Senegal Music Works Association (AMS) and Chairman of the Board of the Senegalese Copyright Office (BSDA), out of 10 Senegalese artists’ CDs available on the local market, “only two are legal”. For audio cassettes, the ratio is three pirate copies out of every five sold.

Opportunities to combat piracy and generate income are also not limited to just musicians. Filmmakers in Africa are starting to learn how to exploit the opportunities thrown up by the fast-expanding mobile phone networks on the continent. Already a phenomenon in South Africa, director Aryan Kaganof is in the process of releasing SMS Sugar Man, a feature length movie shot entirely with mobile devices. The movie will be beamed to cell phones in three-minute clips over 30 days.

What are the effects of Piracy?

  • Artist
    No royalty payments, no money to live
  • Record companies
    No return on investments. Staff retrenchments
  • Retailers
    Cannot compete with low prices. Staff retrenchments
  • Consumers
    Many copies are of inferior quality. If tracks are missing or the sound quality is poor, no exchange or refunds. May be contributing to “organized crime” syndicates which are heavily involved in international music piracy
  • Source: Recording Industry of South Africa

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