Africa isn’t one music market: it’s a collection of them. And most of them aren’t that well understood by the music industry elsewhere in the world. That’s why the day-long Midem African Forum is such an interesting strand at this year’s Midem conference in Cannes.

Music Ally sat in on some of the main sessions today to find out more. It started with an exploration of “connectivity, access and music distribution” across Africa, including a heavy focus on mobile-first listening.

Speakers included Dayo Olopade, who handles content partnerships for YouTube in Africa; Ben Oldfield, VP of France, Benelux and West Africa for distributor The Orchard; Akotchayé Okio, international development officer for Africa at collecting society Sacem; Martin Nielsen, CEO of Kenya-headquartered music service Mdundo; and Yoel Kenan, CEO of distributor Africori. The moderator was Alain Bidjeck, CEO of consultancy firm Bejika.

“We used to say that Africa has huge potential,” said Bidjeck, while noting that this potential is swiftly being realised: for example, with more than 420 million mobile users in the region.

“The potential is definitely there. Besides the potential, today we’re seeing the market mature to a level that we’ve been expecting for quite a long time,” added Kenan. “Of course the potential is amazing. This is a continent of over one billion people.”

Nielsen said that these trends have helped Mdundo grow to a user base of two million active users, and he warned that flexibility remains key in creating digital music services in the region.

“One thing that is very significant, and that is very important when you work with this continent, is to see it as a very fragmented market. Within every market you have many groups of devices and types of consumers,” he said. “The right way to try to size that opportunity is to deliver a solution that is very flexible, and which can optimise the needs and the potential revenue for each of those groups.”

Oldfield agreed, and noted that despite the differences between countries, some positive trends encompass them all. “Obviously there is a different amount of levels of wealth between Mali and Nigeria, between Mozambique and Ivory Coast… but you still feel that there is, in all of these countries, a young, dynamic, upwardly-mobile, digitally-savvy group of young people,” he said.

“They want to have music. The question now is how to bring that closer to a reality… We really are seeing progress happening across the continent. I’m really positive about how things are changing.”

YouTube is proving to be as important a platform for music in Africa as it is elsewhere in the world, with Olopade stressing that some similar trends are at work in people’s behaviour.

“Technology means that you are no longer being broadcast to. You are not part of a monologue. You now have the capacity to be part of a dialogue. And technology means you are no longer at the periphery. You can be at the centre of your own story. That’s the story of what technology is doing in general in Africa,” she said.

“When it comes to music, and visual storytelling… it also reflects the fact that there is a dialogue ongoing. What we see on our platform is actually not just people in the continent consuming music, but people all over the world consuming African music.”

Olopade noted that in the last two weekends, African artists have played sold-out stadium shows in the UK, not because their music is necessarily being played on the radio there, but because people have been listening to and watching it on YouTube. She also pointed to the importance of user-generated content: fan-made dance videos based on their favourite songs, which are proving popular too.

It’s not all good news. Okio provided a collecting society’s perspective on a group of markets where there can still be headaches around rights and monetisation.

“The market is progressively growing. There is more and more traction, but legally there is a lot to address. The legal frameworks are still lacking in most of the African countries, and we even have to go back to the basics. The stakeholders: musicians, artists, creators, the professional environment, are not aware of authors’ rights in the digital field,” he said.

“They are obsessed with the master rights when it comes to monetisation… and they don’t know that their works are generating authors’ rights in the digital world. So we need to explain that to them, to let them know how it works. and to also make sure that the platforms are playing fairly. We have noticed a lot of legal disputes between creators and telcos in Nigeria and Cameroon, for example. That means there is still a lot to achieve, to structure the market.”

On the positive side, Kenan noted that “we’ve got so much more data than we had a few years ago” thanks to platforms including YouTube, although he also delivered a warning to anyone looking at the large numbers – population size, mobile users etc – and expecting instant big wins.

“One thing you have to have in Africa is resilience. If you think things are going to happen in the next three or six months, you are a fool!” he said, adding that while streaming seems to be a positive path forward, the number of people who can afford $5-$7 a month for a subscription remains limited.

“In Africa the model is to unlock the three to four hundred million people by taking a few cents: by trying to monetise that interaction, because there’s so much consumption of music in Africa… I believe in the next 24 months we’re going to see maybe another three or four hundred million [people] unlocking.”

Oldfield drew attention to the comparison between Africa and Latin America, which had a similar problem of struggling to turn widespread access to music into actual revenues.

“That actually happened five years ago, and you can go back and look at what broke that down, which was a deal set in place between a telco and a streaming platform… and once the people had understood there was that possibility of accessing music, it became a norm. It became something that everybody wanted… The fact that this has happened in one place in that way, means I’m very optimistic about how it can happen in the African continent.”

Kenan said that Africori is seeing its revenues grow by between 10% and 15% every month (“not year-on-year: month-on-month!”) even given some of the current challenges around the costs of mobile data. But that was a topic that Olopade described as “the elephant in the room” and her biggest challenge in her role working on partnerships for YouTube.

“Generally speaking, the price of data in South Africa is 4.4x the price of data in the US. In Nigeria, 3.9 times. And this is a base of population where the income is lower… It’s clear the demand is there, it’s clear that music is one of the core use cases for the internet in societies of all kinds where music has always been fundamental. So the question is in the short run – because in the long run I believe the telcos will start to see a high-volume low-margin business as important to them – in the short run, how can people meet their interest in consuming music with new digital tools?”

Okio brought the conversation back to authors’ rights, and Sacem’s campaign to ensure that music creators are getting a “fair share” of the digital royalties from streams and downloads of their songs across Africa.

“We need to make sure that right now, what is available is already making money and providing a living to our creators. That’s why we already signed some deals with the likes of YouTube and Facebook, which are key platforms on the continent,” he said.

“Even if for the moment the money is still low, we are already anticipating, and already setting up to make sure that tomorrow, when the market will be bigger and more attractive copyright-wise, everything is already set up. Right now, African creators must get their fair share back: it’s very very important.”

Nielsen returned to the need for flexibility. “We all know that the infrastructure is not what we would like it to be. But putting those systems in place is not going to be done for us. In my view a big difference in this market is you need to be the one, as a private entity, to initiate what should the standards be?” he said.

“What is the right model to structure in to get a solution that satisfies all the different stakeholders? Because the market is as fragmented as it is, it’s hard to have a particular model or look at best practice and say ‘this is how it ought to be done’… That’s the biggest mistake that can be made at this moment. It’s important to say that there can be several solutions.”

Olopade talked up YouTube’s Content ID system’s potential to drive revenues for African artists, and stressed the need for legal music services to be easier and more attractive than piracy. “If you make it easy, and you make it fun and you make it discoverable, it starts to be much more appealing,” she said.

Part of that is making it easier to pay for music, for example streaming subscriptions. Oldfield warned that if streaming services in Africa only focus on Visa cards as their payment method, they’ll leave out a huge audience of people. “This is where the telcos come in,” he said, of mobile payments technology. “Our job is to help structure that, and to help artists create wealth within that so we can all carry on building this business.”

Nielsen, meanwhile, said that catalogue is the biggest challenge. “It is such a fragmented licensing structure, it’s a fragmented environment as a whole,” he said, referring to the competition with piracy. “In most case, the legal services cannot just take whatever track they want and put it online. So they’re always a step behind, especially if they’re in an area where there are very big catalogue owners who we can license the catalogue from.”

Still, the overall sentiment was positive and forward-looking, with Kenan providing a snappy summary of moods within the African music industries. “We’re trying to build, trying to leap forward, and not having to follow the European and American model. We can build our own model,” he said. “The best music in the world is coming from Africa at the moment, and that’s why we’re excited.”

Another panel this morning focused on independence and artist development in Africa, exploring how a DIY culture is helping some artists on the continent to reach fans and build their businesses.

The panel included Toya Delazy, a South African artist, UNICEF Africa ambassador and founder of independent label Delazy Entertainment; Georges Williams, the manager at label Kingstone Records; and Congolese producer Maya Muesa Moanda (aka ‘Philo’) who also founded independent label Bomaye Musik. Alain Bidjeck was the moderator again.

Philo talked about his story of building a label, Bomayé Musik, “Today in France, it’s digital that helped me to develop my label. Social media too. We started with Twitter, and after iTunes and the streaming services,” he said, on a label focusing on urban music by African artists, which is finding an audience in France and elsewhere across the African diaspora.

“I worked with majors, and after I finally chose to be independent, to be closer with the artists, and to use digital to help artists to be spread all over the world.”

Williams talked about the challenges for independent artists in Africa. “The main problem is not the production [of music]… the main problem for local artists are distribution. Even with digital, they have difficulties to get their song uploaded, because internet connections are very slow… Only to upload one song sometimes can take one day!” he said.

Delazy praised major labels, if an artist gets a good deal and a good team around them, but added reservations about how they work with artists in Africa. “I don’t see the investment going into the local acts, I see it going into international acts more than local, and local feels like it’s more just to keep the ship floating. I don’t like that aspect to it,” she said. “It’s good, but it’s not for everyone. And supporting independence will lead to more diverse sounds coming from Africa.”

Williams praised Philo and Bomayé Musik, for helping African artists reach a significant fanbase in France. “Artists may be impressed by a major because they don’t have an alternative, but now in Congo the alternative is Bomayé Musik,” said Philo.

“I created the label in eight months, and my employees are local. And I work with employees which have mastered all the problematics of the country. My main criticism towards the majors is that they don’t take time to know the local realities. They work with their French realities, or European realities,” he continued.

“I can use finance from my French label to reinvest in Africa… I know it can take time to invest in Africa, but I know that with time, I will obtain returns. My strategy today is to professionalise artists and help them to create structures [around them, with which to make money from their music]”

Delazy said that she has managed to broker international partnerships to help her art reach a wider audience: for example her work with UNICEF, and a deal with Cartoon Network to voice one of the characters in its animated shows.

When the conversation came back to the African industry, Philo said that the structures and services must be locally brewed. “We have to find new models, we cannot adapt the French models to Africa. It’s not the same environment,” he said.

Williams said that the positive impact of this could be immense, well beyond the music itself. “Today, the music business can save lives in Africa. We have very good artists who have heir song getting played everywhere, but who will get malaria and die because of the lack of a few dollars,” he said.

He went on to note that some of the biggest African hits from past decades remain unavailable on any digital service, depriving their creators of potential royalties. “You have to make sure that the people who know how the music industry works go back to Africa and find some business opportunities there,” he said.

Here, too, the conclusion was positive. “Young Africans, we are part of a born-free generation: we don’t mind investing in ourselves and trying to do things,” said Delazy. And Williams provided one last piece of advice: to have an eye on the worldwide interest in and opportunities for African music. “African artists must see themselves as global,” he said.

One of the companies eagerly eyeing the African markets is Chinese tech giant Tencent. The chief commercial officer for music at Tencent Africa, Thabiet Allie, was interviewed by Mobilium Global’s Ralph Simon about what Tencent is up to with its Joox music-streaming service in Africa.

Joox was launched about four years ago in south-east Asia, and Africa has been its first expansion outside Asia a year ago, available as an Android and iOS app. “We don’t want to be the ones leading anything or trying to be bigger than the artists. It’s about supporting the artists,” he said.

Joox has a catalogue of music from international artists through deals with all three major labels, but it has also worked hard to license music from African labels and artists. Tencent Africa is a combination of Tencent from China and African media group Naspers – the latter bought a significant stake in Tencent for $32m in 2001, which is now worth more than $100bn.

“The bulk of music consumed around the world is done so illegally, but what’s interesting is, in many cases people don’t think about the fact that it’s illegal consumption,” he said: if they can access a site that has music, they assume it must be licensed and thus paying artists.

Joox has thus put some of its marketing budget in Africa into education campaigns. “We’re not trying to fight for the small space where people are already spending money: we’re not trying to get people to move from Spotify or Deezer or Apple to us. The intention is to build a new space with a new audience,” added Thabiet.

“We’re trying to invest in a positive user-behaviour change. How do we drive changes in user consumption that will tomorrow reap rewards?” he said. Giveaways of mobile data, and partnerships with labels are both part of this.

Allie talked about the dominance of mobile operators across Africa, in terms of the mechanisms of paying for content and services, and said that “streaming services tend to be something accessed by a younger audience on a mobile phone that’s capable of streaming, and by someone who is comfortable using data… In South Africa, more than 50% of mobile phones are smartphones, but the general number across Africa is just north of 20%.”

Allie talked about other interesting markets in Africa beyond South Africa: Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana were the three he cited as potential expansions for Joox, while noting that “Rwanda is becoming interesting as well”.

Allie also talked about the streaming dynamics in South Africa. “Apple has been very successful… and they’ve done amazingly well, they really have. But really focused on the top end of the market. Deezer’s tried to broaden that audience, and has had some success. And Spotify is now three months in, and has done quite a bit to drive the idea of streaming,” he said. “Everyone’s spending money, investing in building artists, and investing in trying to change the narrative of music consumption from illegal music to legal music.”

What genres are doing well on Tencent’s service? “Joox has certainly seen urban music as an overarching category being hugely successful,” he confirmed. “And then Afrikaans music in South Africa: hyper-localised linguistic groups accessing music specific to them.”

Allie also stressed that technology isn’t the answer to everything. “We have a responsibility to drive economic motives, but also instead of just studying STEM at school, STEAM should maybe be the thing we’re looking at our kids studying, so that the arts are something that’s considered,” he said (so the extra A is ‘Arts’).

“Yes, AI is the future and we all understand that. But I don’t think that AI is going to dictate what those new evolutions are. That’s still going to be driven by people.”

He also tackled the controversial issue of telcos in Africa, and the sluggishness with which they’re perceived to be bringing down their mobile-data costs.

“The operators have a massive monopoly… those monopolies exist. We are very close with the operators and will continue to partner with operators. But also intend to provide alternative payment solutions,” he said. “WeChat has also got content integrated into the chat platform. China’s been very successful with WeChat Pay… Digital payments have become pervasive, moving around you can click your cellphone and pay using that. We’ve certainly in Africa rolled out payment options. The telcos remain the easiest and best ways to engage the consumer, however, from a payment perspective… And it’s always good when they look at reducing their data prices!”

The culmination of the day saw South African artist, producer and DJ Black Coffee give a keynote interview, in which he also talked about his entrepreneurial moves: launching his own label Soulistic Music, investing in startups and running his own streaming service called Gongbox. He was interviewed by Stem CEO Milana Lewis.

She talked about a recent tweet by Black Coffee about ‘an African dream’. “We are in a place now where we don’t need certain kinds of handouts. But we are still sitting in a place of being disadvantaged,” he said.

“I was in another room earlier, and listening to the artists getting on stage saying ‘I’m here to present my music, but I’m also looking for money’. Which is true: there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s the way we were brought up. For us, it’s easier to ask for money than to see that we have money already, and we can take the money we generate from our gigs or whatever, and put it back into ourselves. Africa is ready today to create a new Africa where we create solutions that are for us, and by us. That is my African dream.”

He talked about the creation of Soulistic Music as a way to own the masters of his work, and Gongbox as a platform for African music. “For the longest time we’ve been plugging in to everything the world has been bringing to us. I wanted to create a platform for myself where I know I own 100% of the music. There have been so many terrible stories about South African artists who were the biggest stars, but died with nothing,” he said.

“I wanted to change that first for myself… And learning from building my own brand with my team, I saw a need for a platform like Gongbox. If you were to go online today and search for one of our greatest artists from South Africa, and wanted to buy the music, you wouldn’t find it anywhere.”

But Gongbox is also a platform for all the content he creates, from videos to social posts. “It connects to encouraging artists to create their own labels. That’s what we want with Gongbox: we want artists to stop signing contracts with other people. We want artists to own their own music. And here is the platform for you: if you decide to make a song tonight… tell your people. Because by the way: you have more followers than the label that has signed you!”

The conversation turned to how Black Coffee has been working with an American company that provides him with advice on his social activity, and also creates content for him to post.

“To me social media is me waking up saying ‘today’s going to be lit!’ or what I’m going to have for lunch. But these people specialise in creating and curating content for you that talks to your markets. One of the things they said which I disagreed with at the time is ‘you need to stop posting your tweets in the morning,” he said.

“‘For you to grow, start posting around six in the afternoon, because that’s when America is waking up, and they’re starting their day on social media’. [After taking the advice] A few months down the line when we checked the stats, they were totally different – almost doubled actually – because we had someone specialising on this thing. And this is one thing I’m bringing on to Gongbox: understanding every artist and what they’re trying to do, and creating a platform where we can assist you, whether we create content for you or curating your content… and growing your following.”

Black Coffee is also working on an Instagram-like social app with e-commerce features, where everything fans see, they’ll be able to buy instantly. And he’s also been investing in other startups: an ‘Uber for cleaning app’, for example. Just as he sees a space for Gongbox to thrive despite competition from giants like Apple Music, he sees potential for all kinds of African startups, even if they face wealthy western rivals.

“It’s hard to explain to the people how we Africans consume things,” he said, before criticising some of the patronising attitudes in the west towards African artists. “It’s bullshit! One of the things I’ve struggled with as an artist from there… next to my face on the poster [in the west] they’ll put the African mask and the bongoes and the congas,” he said.

“How do you put that flyer next to Kanye? Do you put chains and slaves next to him?! So we have developed so much, to a point where I look at the middle-class [in South Africa] compared to the middle-class of any country, and the people that I know, we are quite okay… I’m trying to change the narrative of the continent. How can we create things that work for us? How can we stop plugging in to things brought to us by other people.”

That includes Spotify, which recently launched in South Africa, and was hailed in some quarters as a saviour of the local music industry. “For how long do we need to be saved by other people? When are we going to start creating our own things? All the things that I get involved in are about changing the narrative… We need to make our own rules…”

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