As a collection of music markets, Africa is a mystery to much of the western music industry. Even global body the IFPI only publishes detailed figures for one country, South Africa, in its annual report.
That means an environment where interesting digital music services don’t get the profile they deserve in the developed world. Spinlet is one example, but another is Mkito, a service focusing on East Africa.
It’s one of the ventures of Nadeem Juma, an entrepreneur who co-founded the first mobile banking platform in Tanzania, before launching digital agency AIM Group, where he is chairman. He gave Music Ally the lowdown on Mkito.
“Mkito in its current version is a web app launched in April 2014. It is a freemium platform, providing users 10 free downloads a month which are ad-supported, and the option to purchase ad-free songs,” said Juma.
The store has mainly grown organically with “very little” investment in marketing, but it has been finding an audience among music fans.
“Currently we have just about 700,000 registered users with about 35% of them 30-day active. This translates into just over half a million downloads a month currently with about 4-6% growth month on month,” said Juma.
What’s been driving that growth? Juma said it’s partly strong support from artists and managers in East Africa, who are relishing the ability to track their revenues and get paid out immediately through mobile-money transfers.
“We also work with bloggers and publishers as distribution platforms, providing them with embeddable widgets on their sites for access to a portion of download revenue,” said Juma.
“Mkito is seen more and more as a release platform for artists: a way for them to instantly distribute their new songs to a large user base with loyal users.”
He added that Mkito was deliberately designed to be web-first, despite the increase in smartphone ownership in Africa. “A majority of our market still use feature phones, hence we built a stripped down version of the platform just for feature phone users,” he said.
According to Juma, the key differences between East Africa and the big, developed western music markets come down to devices, internet connectivity and the ease of payments.
“Feature phones are still a big part of our market landscape although shrinking. On web we also need to optimise for a lot of users who use browsers like Opera which means you have to strip down functionality,” he said.
“Internet connectivity is national but ranges between EDGE and 4G depending on what part of the country you’re in and on which network. Mobile money is also a required integration to be able to drive payments. This is challenging for operators that don’t have open APIs.”
He added that in Tanzania, legislation is another obstacle for digital music services: not just poor IP regulation and copyright enforcement laws, but also “unclear and sometime draconian censorship laws”.
On the piracy front, he sees more work to be done by digital services in partnership with policymakers, following the pattern laid down in the west. In the meantime, he thinks that the music industry deserves credit for taking swift advantage of new technologies as they have emerged.
“Social media, social content, branded content and influencer marketing is being done incredibly well by the music industry and actually providing some significant returns,” he said.
“Artists have become more adept in how to use the internet to develop their brand to appeal to larger segments of people. Mass distribution by Instant messaging (such as WhatsApp) and platforms (such as Mkito) has also been adopted very quickly by the industry.”
However, Juma said there is still work to be done in turning these mass audiences into more money for musicians and the music industry.
“What tech is failing at providing is uniformity in standards and ways to consistently and continuously give users a reason to pay for music,” he said. “Access to music is seen as a social right rather than a product which means the proclivity for consumers to pay is low.”
One problem for the industry is that when people do pay for music in East Africa, often that money is not going to a licensed service.
“Typical user habits are still driven by ‘phygital’ – walking to corner kiosks which are essentially a computer manned by an individual with a vast database of music,” said Juma.
“This music is usually sourced through many platforms, typically pirated or ripped: many times downloaded from Mkito. A consumer would go to these kiosks, provide a flash disk (increasingly SD cards for mobile) and the equivalent of a couple dollars in exchange for anything between 10-50 songs.”
Juma adds that East Africa has seen a “huge spike in consumption of music via YouTube” although it is not yet rivalling downloads or offline distribution. YouTube’s growth is representative of streaming more generally in the region.
“We are in the process of releasing the beta of our Android app, likely early October, which will be streaming-only with the option of offline listens on-device. My forecast is that streaming will be biggest proportion of music listenership within 18-24 months,” said Juma.
He expects that there will be plenty of “consolidation and natural selection” in Africa over the next two years, with more than 150 music platforms on the continent at the time of writing.
“It is very likely that 90% of these platforms won’t exist in the next year,” he said. “There is also the entry of global players to contend with, the likes of Deezer, talks of Apple Music coming into our market and eventually Spotify.”
Juma noted that these global services tend to strike partnerships with mobile operators, in order to use their billing capabilities, which may in turn restrict their target market to just customers of that operator.
He added that Mkito is evolving from being purely a digital music platform into more of a well-rounded brand. “We have plans to deepen our role in the music industry through a number of initiatives, driving our brand equity and converting the identity as a download platform into a ‘everything music’ brand,” he said.
Juma also sees a big opportunity ahead for any digital music service that can establish itself as genuinely artist-friendly, providing new ways for them to increase their earnings, rather than simply reaching more listeners for free.
“I believe artists are naturally cutting-edge creatives or incredibly entrepreneurial – often times both – and this means they tend to be on the leading edge of understanding what consumers want and the direction the market is moving in,” he said.
“Artists are very positive towards digital content and the potential this opens up to broader audiences, more efficient distribution, greater share of revenues and increased monetisation.”
“While they recognise the need and opportunity I believe everyone is frustrated with diminishing returns from actual music sales/downloads/streams which means that royalties are not as large as artists would like.”