Music platforms: The puzzle of who will succeed in a crowded field

There are well over 100 runners in the race to succeed as Africa’s best and biggest online and mobile music platform. Even now there are new entrants waiting in the wings. Russell Southwood looks at why the race to the top is so hard to call.

Only a few weeks ago a Malawian music platform called Mvelani (meaning “listen” in Chichewa) developed by Dumisani Kapanga launched to distribute and sell music from southern Africa. It has around 1,000 tracks from over 80 artists. It’s relatively easy to set up a music platform but actually finding a business model is much tougher. Kapanga had not yet worked out he would charge for tracks but doubtless he will. He’s also not living in Malawi but working in an international bank in Scotland.

“I am surprised the idea hasn’t been tried already but I am delighted with its success so far. The site already hosts the biggest concentration of Malawi music in the same place online and interest from artists wishing to add their tracks is growing.

“It’s my dream to cultivate the site into the largest music catalogue of its type and to have every song recorded or produced from southern African artists available for download or streaming online and on mobile,” added Kapanga. He’s clearly a “fanboy” and knows his music.

On the other end of the starting line is a mobile operator in Nigeria who is working with an international content aggregator to launch its own music service. It has the advantage of already having a large subscriber base but probably doesn’t yet have local music expertise required for a demanding market like Nigeria. Money will fix some of that content expertise shortfall but will it be enough?

The sheer number of online music platforms has come about because of two things. Firstly, in order to launch a music platform in a country, you actually need to know the artists and their current and back catalogue. Few mobile operators have that kind of expertise on call. Even the managers of those who provide music services to mobile operators do not know many of the names of the artists in their catalogue: they leave that to those who they employ locally who are often better informed.

Secondly, musicians have found themselves losing income: whatever piracy managed to do, the steady decline of CDs on sale is finishing. Young Africans download and exchange movies and music on USB sticks. So musicians were much more willing to participate when the new music platforms came knocking.

So at this stage it is as the Dadaists used to say:”Everyone their own football.” Each country is seeing the launch of its own platforms with francophone and lusophone African countries trailing slightly behind the trend. However, both the local and the bigger music platforms are looking to start operating in more than one country. Sune Mushendwa’s started last year with the ambition of reaching a million users. When he told me that figure, I thought “Oh yeah, let’s see where you are in a year’s time.”

Well, not quite a year later he hasn’t hit the million but he reached a quite respectable 280,911 unique visitors in December 2014, with 5 months still to go. Recently he announced that he would roll-out the platform to other African countries, concentrating on local music in each case but adding a certain amount of catalogue from elsewhere in each case: the balance is currently 90% from Tanzania and 10% from Kenya.

As a company with its headquarters in Singapore, Spice operates as a VAS aggregator and digital content company with a particular specialism in music. It launched its music service Mziiki last July targeting East Africa:”We’ve got quite a strong repertoire of content from that region and hence the focus on that region to begin with”.

It has 1,500 artists signed up, 800 of whom are exclusive to Mziiki. In Tanzania, Diamond Platinumz is a brand partner:”We also have Lady JD and a lot of gospel singers from Tanzania.” It’s now in the process of rolling out across Africa, starting with Southern Africa.

Unusually, it will also soon go into offering video alongside music, something that not many of these new platforms have done. One exception is Jason Njoku’s iROKO TV which has its own music platform iRKONG alongside its film and TV offering.

There’s really only two business models: advertising or user pays. A lot of services start free and get a lot of traffic but the major advertisers – with the exception of the mobile operators who can see it might be in their own interest – have been slow to come to the party. It’s a shame because effectively paying for young Africans to be able to listen to music (and listen to your advertisements) would be an effective way of building brand loyalty and market share.

Payment is tough because the mobile operators have yet to realize that tomorrow’s world will require a frictionless payment channel for which they will get only a small part of the income but more data revenue.

As an acknowledgement that device ownership has not moved as far as necessary to smartphones and feature phones, several of the mobile platforms have focused just on using SMS. South Africa’s 37618 Store (powered by Bozza) is run by musician Slikour and is entirely SMS based. Mkito has added SMS to the ways in which potential users can get tracks.

So where are the international platforms? Deezer is being offered “white label” with Tigo and Vodacom. iTunes is in South Africa and has not yet done spectacular business. The rumours that Spotify will arrive shortly are legion. And there are others but no-one has yet said that they will go into the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. The music industry is fragmented and respect for copyright is low or non-existence. Musicians survive on live concert sales and sponsorship. This may be putting off many of the internationals. It’s a hard race to call….

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