Al Kags

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…

7 thoughts on “Piracy is an old song, best dumped”

  1. A very poignant post. Due to the pay to read status of the Nation I didnt read the article.
    When it comes to music I used to have a pirate international music policy and I still do. I try to buy local music when I can but out here you can hardly get hold of it at all.So what to do?
    Much as the big corporations moan about piracy in the third world, they asked for it by pricing their good far beyond people’s buying power. If they could build factories in India to capture that market why not do the same in East and Central Africa?
    As for Kenyan artistes, I think it is possible for the kapuka and genge artistes to learn a thing or two from the River Road dons.

  2. hey Al,

    I listened to this article, very helpful that mp3. and you have a nice voice. i just have to say hearing that music in the back ground did things to me. I haven’t been home in so long…

    On piracy, i think you are right. But you know, most of the artists at home lack the knowledge (business) to think like that. Maybe someone can train them on business thinking?

    My word, I want to come home…

  3. “Content is King” – we must never forget that. The truth about just how much is spent on the actual content of our local music as compared to the market price is so shocking that nobody has so far made these figures public. How is it that Tanzanian musicians are able to make real money from music sales while our Kenyan artists must “prostitute” their art to make a buck? It is all about proper proper marketing. The typical Kenyan musician shall release a string of singles over a period of several months then disappear for a few months to produce a couple of songs before compiling the old overplayed songs and the couple of new ones into what he or she shall have the nerve to call a BRAND NEW album! This album, which is to be listened to mostly by a demographic that is either in high school or college is then launched at Carnivore where the entrance fee is a couple weeks’ allowance – not forgetting the fact that a large part of the real target audience is not even allowed admission into Carnivore.

    Everyting is wrong here – timing, exposure, perceived target audience, pricing, packaging.

    Am I the only one seeing this?

    Marketers have failed Kenyan music.

  4. Music, Music, Music ….

    Where do I start, first and foremost interesting blog as always! This piece essentially as you may have known, I would be keen on commenting. For starters let me clearly put my background which is limited to certain time frames, basically because I am generation Y which means my views and opinions may be slightly biased to that demographic and age group. The beauty about being generation Y is that you have somewhat an understanding of Generation X and the upcoming Internet Generation or what they call Silent Generation.

    The reason I mention this is quite simple, essentially because we (my generation) have been fortunate to have lived through the era where we watched our parents buy all the music from the local record store (Music Land and the likes) and each one of our parents owned Vinyl or Audio cassettes of original works from African recording artists as well as international artists. I believe there existed a variety of record labels in East Africa too during that time the Motowns, MCA’s and Universals. However I strongly believe that that era was somewhat economically OK!, meaning that most parents seemed to be able to afford some cash on buying music. Most parents seem to have owned phonograph, most parents seemed to enjoy listening to audio cassettes at home. As much as I hate to admit it I think the economy played a major part for the few people who lived in Nairobi, Mombasa and the likes or urban living in that ERA.

    With time came the Stereo with dual players, to allow simultaneous recording of audio cassettes or what they called compact cassettes. The reason I think this time frame is important to note is because that era marked the first change in piracy and ultimately what we call P2P Networks today that major Record labels overlooked and majority of the Government bodies overlooked. I believe the internet and other related technologies in essence played a part in decimating information but not entirely compared to a system that was already failing in a country that cared less about music as part of their economy.

    Sure enough pricing does play a major part; I mean how do you expect to sell a CD for over 500Ksh to an individual who can’t afford bread? Pricing is one of the factors that make the music industry flourish in Tanzania over any other country. Tanzanians embrace audio cassettes they recognize that technology exists with regards to CD’s but they would rather purchase audio cassettes which are sold at a mere 100 Ksh or less (in comparison to TZS). Again in Tanzania where the Government could have played a better role, the people who control the music industry played a role, where you have only 3 to 4 major distributors who are all Indians (Wahindi Waswahili au Waraabu – Faraji, Kibonge and the likes, these are their real names FYI) who manage and ensure their products are not pirated. So in essence it only leaves them to pirate their own product (pretty smart business if you ask me – meaning they can over produce an album and state that they produced less copies or sold less copies) every vendor or retailer buys music from these 3 distributors, all major copy cats are often shut down, burnt up or reported to the police who do the same.

    The beauty about the Tanzanian distributors is that they pay well, in comparison, a good album will go through A&R (Same Muhindi in essence) who listens to the music and comments on whether it will be a hit or not, and then he breaks of the artist a large sum amount. For instance Mr. Nice – one of Tanzanians top selling artists collects cash amounts of up to 20 Million (about 1.3 Mil Ksh, about 13,000 USD – All are estimates I didn’t take a calculator here…) So what the Tanzanian music industry has created is a system that sorta works for them, what Mr. Nice understands is that the more albums he puts out the more money he has to collect, of course the more shows he does which is his own money but ideally if he wants to buy that new car, he often spends time in the studio.

    In Uganda the same thing happens where the distributors are 2 main Ugandan kahoons… they operate the distribution business like the mafia basically they are the same people who actually pirate your music, so often in Uganda what the artists do is they negotiate with these two business men to agree on a price, a one flat fee rate for the entire album. These two have been responsible for helping people like Chameleon buy Hummers and houses bigger than you can imagine, simply because they play the role of the government which is in protecting their own interests.

    Now that said and done you must be asking yourselves what’s wrong with Kenya??? Well a couple of things really, for starters the generation gap and culture gap in Kenya brings a whole new psyche in understanding music consumption in Kenya. Quite frankly I think the problem with Kenya is that Kenyans are not proud of their Shadiness. Basically we run away from the disease called culture or ruralism. So much that we are the only country that adapt to technology faster than any of the other countries in the region. With that in mind, also comes the urban age culture, we quickly embrace western style of music without generally knowing what it means to make a good hit record, artists in Kenya have short lived careers because they make music that resembles Western Music and culture, as opposed to their own culture. This I think creates a gap in the listener ship and separates the older generation from the younger generation, leaving the spending capacity at an all time low. You figure that college student, high school student who has to balance between his pocket money and buying Noninis CD, not forgetting the fact that his parents hate that Nonini fellow who keeps singing about what he will do to their daughters. Ideally this seems like a poor analogy but if you look at the long term effect then you will understand where I was going with that.

    I believe technology plays a role but not entirely because you figure we haven’t even gotten to the age where the internet drives our daily consumption as such. What then, will we cry foul to other P2P networks? I think the Kenya Government needs to play a role in assisting the music industry, I think the artists also need to start working towards being artists and release albums at all costs, however they can only do that if the supply and distribution makes sense, so it goes without saying that Kenya needs a mafia style distributor to come and take over. However keep in mind that he will not succeed so long as Kenyans believe that CD’s are the only way to go (and not cassettes), unless he sells CD’s for 200 Ksh then we might be talking…. Lastly also the Kenyan artists need to understand what makes artists like Chameleon popular, Juma Nature…. It is their grasp on their roots, their grasp on where they are from and who they are talking to. Chameleon makes feel good, easy to dance to music which crosses the 3 borders on all age groups. I mean you will always have the Noninis and Namelesses but in Kenya the number of Nonini’s, Jimwat artist’s vs Achieng Abura’s or Mercy Myra’s is way unbalanced. I believe Kenyan artists don’t make music that crosses the borders and hence can’t have the shelve life needed to ensure mass sales. Am not sure if this makes sense but this is just how I see it….

  5. It almost sounds like anarchy but i guess its the use of the word mafia “kenya needs a mafia like distributor to come and take over”

    But the thing is, generally kenyan artsists are a bit psycho about having distributors like that because they believe that they will be exploited.

    Plus, kenya is real showbiz… lots of show, little substance…

  6. It wont change, would you rather sit on your song at home for years or have a guy who feeds you little money but makes a lot more from it…

    Kagz have you ever looked at the internet lately. have you looked at youtube, metacafe, videogoogle, … the internet has gone TV wild.. and there is no way to stop that shit…. excuse my french. Basically we thought that the audio madness was over or was in check, take another look, All Vitimbi episodes are online, all Kenyan Music videos are online, I mean what are we crying about as Kenyan artists.. what foul play… and we only sell 2000 copies.. What …??

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