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Piracy is an old song, best dumped

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I read Sunny Bindra’s column this Sunday in the Sunday Nation and I was hit by the – I suppose – requisite repentance and I could totally feel what he was saying. Piracy was bad. It was robbing these artists of their livelihoods because I would buy cheaper or get free versions of their music instead of paying a thousand shillings for a CD. I am as much a criminal in this regard as Sunny confesses and as we all are.

As I write this, the nostalgic music by Maroon Commandoes has just been admonishing me to “Amka kumekucha” – taking me back to those primary school mornings when I would hug the sheets ever closer, not wanting to wake up, go to school and build the nation.

But as Simba Wa Nyika remind me that Shillingi ya Ua tena Maua – The shilling kills and it’s a flower. As the song says, in the days of Adam and Eve, things were good. Those were the days when to buy an original tape or CD was feasible. But is it now? I now wake up to the realization that Sunny is describing an ideal that is wonderful to discuss, very moral and utopian but in today’s world its simply old hag.

When the electronic companies perfected recording of tapes and gave us two deck cassette players specifically for that purpose, we would go to a friend’s and find a tape that we liked and ask, “si you dub that tape for me?” and so long as I have a blank tape, it would be done while we catch up. Of course, in those days you couldn’t really have a really wide distribution of contraband music and stuff so it was ok.

Today, we have gone past the days when having a CD writer was prohibitive and the web consisted of links like “about us, contact us, our portfolio etc”. Everyone who has a clone generally has a CD writer and what we are just preening and showing off is having a DVD writer.

Why have we, the creative people who come up with works of art such as music and books, been deluding ourselves that the inherent human character that will lean towards getting stuff for less or free would ever change? Now that the average windows media player comes with a CD ripper that will pull music off a CD into a computer hard disk and bandwidth has gotten so good that we are sharing mpegs and mp3s at will? Now that we have free software online to compress music any which way we want?

Why lie to ourself that we truly will change our propensity of sharing what we have? Lets face it: Now that you know I have the old Daudi Kabaka, Maroon Commandoes, Simba wa Nyika songs that you grew up on on mp3 format in my laptop, you want to tell me, “si you dub for me?”

We need to wake up to this: information and data is free in the new world. For you to have something that cannot be copied or shared immediately, you need to have greatly secure and very wide distribution systems and even then only until someone sharp learns how to bypass your security and copy and share!

The issue is not even cost. It’s just that the basic propensity of latter day homo sapiens wants things as close as possible to free as possible. And they will get it.

As Comrade Bob, the clearly senile autocrat in Zimbabwe continued to rape and wreck havoc upon the economy of Z

imbabwe, it became so that citizens could not afford a newspaper in the face of 1000 plus per cent inflation. The supermarket racks were filled with toilet paper because people cannot find basic food necessities like salt and sugar and even when they can, they are hard pressed to afford it.

The Daily News paper turned out to be the citizen’s paper and over 100,000,000 people read it, according to a survey, but they did not all buy it. What people did is split the cost of the paper, buy it, read it and share it around. As a friend of mine told me recently, a newspaper did not get misused in Harare. It was read by more than 20 people over the course of several days.

Information data has to be free in the current world. Sales is not where the money is and those that realized it among Kenyan musicians – the likes of Nameless, Nonini , necessary noize and others – focused instead on gigs across the country and they raked in the shillings.

So it is ludicrous, counterproductive and in my view, downright lazy of newspapers like the Standard and the Nation to make their magazines like pulse and Business week premium content for subscription at a few dollars a year. It makes no sense. What I would have them do, is make the information freely available and advertise on those pages – if they focused on sales of ads, by Toutatis, they would make more shillings.

But I digress. I am not saying that we the artists should not produce CDs to make sales. Rather I am saying lets change the model a bit. Have you taken a gander at the movies coming out of Nollywood (Nigeria’s movie industry)? They focus on content and not packaging, allowing us to buy the movies at extremely low prices. That industry is a Billion dollar industry with distribution across Africa.

Its happening in Kenya too. The gospel musicians and some of the more traditional artists – mugithi and all – focused on distribution and cost. They “pirate” their own music. What they do down river road is that they produce many CDs and tapes at low cost and then make sure they are where the people are. The fact is, the people don’t go to Junction’s Media store except for special occasions, they go to mwas’s in dagoretti corner or the tu-shops next to Munyiri’s. They buy their entertainment downtown on Tom Mboya street going on River road – the eight-in-one DVDs, the 1000 mp3 CDs, and yes, the original music and stuff that they will find at their price.

Unfortunately, even though Wyre’s music is hugely popular in Nairobi, you are unlikely to find his music over there. Certainly you will not find it at below Kshs 800. You cannot blame the entrepreneurial spirit of Edu, the university student who invests the Kshs 800 goes back to his Mamlaka road dorm room copies 200 CDs of the music, scans and prints low cost CD covers like the one Wyre did (sure not the best quality) and sells them each at Kshs 200 – thereby raking a whopping Kshs 40,000 all in the space of a week?

Yes, I dare call it entrepreneurship. Not theft. If I was Wyre, and I wanted to compete with Edu or Omosh in Umoja, then I would compete at that level too. Then focus on Gigs and ads and associated publicity.

Not nice and all that – but hey, its reality.

Sunny and the rest of us cannot pontificate piously about piracy while money is made elsewhere.

PS.: I just remembered something that Binyawanga Wainaina said of artsists recently. He remarked that it is interesting how artists generally complain of being marginalized and ignored by the media but the day they get their 2 minutes of fame infront of a TV camera, they don’t sell themselves – they invariably advocate that we should stop piracy and, and…

I am a writer first and foremost. I am passionate about social entrepreneurship, which I define by finding ways to innovate the world’s processes to make life better for people – whether in business or in the non-profit sector. I am professionally involved at the Open Institute, Thellesi Co and various agricultural ventures.

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