7 January 2018

Zimbabwe: Is the Digital Platform Robbing Musicians?

I am standing in a long queue at the enquiries desk at one of the local banks. I have a problem with sending money to someone through online banking. I have asked for RTGS forms and they tell me that those are no longer in use because the bank is now paperless (whatever that means).

Six months ago, I could count at least 20 workers in the same bank with seven to eight tellers serving the public.

Today, there are only 3 workers that I can see in the whole bank. Because the bank has become paperless, this worker is teaching clients to use the iPad that will one day replace her. When it's my turn, I ask her: "How about people with no cell-phones or computers? How do they deal with online banking? Think of gogo who needs to receive money in the rural areas. How does she deal with this problem?" She offers no reply.

It's an awkward phenomenon that now pervades a growing cross-section of industries, a type of techno-solutionism that's unbearable because it insistently capitalises on quick fixes for problems that didn't exist to begin with.

It's also a disadvantageous mutation of principles that marketers have historically leveraged to make us feel bad about ourselves so that we'll buy more stuff we don't need. It is all of these things, and it is also becoming the operating motive of the music industry. Gogo in the rural areas wants to buy her favourite John Chibadura record.

She must have a cellphone or an iPad and know how to operate it in order to pay for and download the music. Ridiculous, but this is what the digital age is all about.

The music world continues to be exceedingly vulnerable, and there are looming questions that desperately need to be addressed. Most important: Seeing that record shops don't exist anymore, how can artists distribute and sell their work in a digital economy beholden to ruthlessly commercial and centralised interests?

Last year, Pearson Pfavayi , a Zimbabwean entrepreneur of Oyo's music entered into a partnership with Star F.M. and signed up many artistes with a view to digitally distributing their music through online platforms. Artistes signed on include Tammy Moyo, Sandra Ndebele, Pastor G, Tocky Vybes, Guspy Warrior, Killer T, Shinsoman, Ngoni Kambarami, Michel Mahendere, Ex Q, Tatenda Mahachi, Diana Samkange, Janet Manyowa, Kinnah, Suluman Chimbetu, Somandla Ndebele, Mathias Mhere, the late Andy Brown, Thomas Mapfumo, Seh Calaz and Freeman, to mention only a few.

Before that, another organisation, Jive Zimbabwe founded by Benjamin Nyandoro, had also created an online platform for music distribution. Its artistes included Soul Jah Love, Extra Large , Jah Prayzah and many others.

The platforms these players created in the Zimbabwe music industry are meant to combat piracy and make musicians benefit from their own products. But are these platforms they created easily accessible to their fans and customers? If they were, Pfavayi and Nyandoro would be millionnaires by now because the bottom line behind this creation is to make profitable business.

These platforms have manipulated the vast majority of music industry "players" into regarding it as a saving grace. I am yet to get figures from them on the amount of royalties paid to individual artistes in order to verify if their businesses are doing well. Gone are the days when Gramma Records and Zimbabwe Music Corporation would distribute sums of money which would buy up-coming musicians houses within a year. Music fans would simply walk into a record shop and buy a record of their choice. There were no mobile phones or digital platforms which required consumers to pay for and download their chosen songs. It was easy. I am not sure why the record shops have disappeared.

To give you an example, at Christmas, I wanted to give a friend his favourite CD, UB40's Labour Of Love as a present. I drove all the way to Borrowdale Market. It was not available. I then drove to Avondale Market where Paddle Sparks Ndlovu (ex-Lovemore Majaivana's keyboardist) runs a record market stall. Again, this was not available. I gave up as going to the pirates on street corners is against my principle.

The Zimbabwean online platforms are not alone in this game. As far back as ten years ago, Apple 's iTunes and Amazon were already exploiting the mobile platforms internationally.

For Apple Music, the bottom line is selling iPhones, laptops, iPads, and other hardware created by the same company. Streaming music makes those products more valuable. One cannot download the music without these gadgets. Billions of dollars are made this way. For Amazon Music, the motive is similar; they aim to sell Alexa devices and Amazon Prime subscriptions.

Enter Spotify. As of September 2017, Spotify which also distributes music on line, has been valued at $16 billion by venture capitalists who see it as the next Netflix, and who have perhaps fooled themselves into trusting that this exploitative model will "save the music industry." Spotify's endgame, for now, is to go public. The company could be worth $20 billion by the end of this year, when it will likely be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. According to Reuters, Spotify plans to file its intention of a public offering with U.S. regulators before the end of January this month and to go public in the first or second quarter of 2018. Bloomberg reports that it recently hired Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, and Allen & Co. to "assess its options."

Yet, despite its conventional market viability, there are key differences between Spotify and its rivals, Apple Music and Amazon Music, which both have the luxury of capitalising on fun-sized plastic and metal surveillance machines. But Spotify's worth is more ephemeral. Its value - what makes it addictive for listeners, a necessity for artistes, and a worthwhile investment for venture capitalists - lies in its algorithmic music discovery "products" and its ability to make the entire music industry conform to the new standards it sets. This means one thing: playlists are king, and particularly the ones curated by Spotify itself. An unprecedented amount of data ("skip rates" and "completion rates" determine whether a song survives) and "human-machine technology" are deployed to quantify your tastes. This is what lies behind the "magic" of Spotify.

I have no qualms with this kind of marketing. My only bone of contention is how the musician will benefit from all this. These companies have presented themselves as hip, huge, harmless and out to help musicians gain lost ground, but like all businesses, they are hungry for profit . They're shark-like. They just eat up everything by taking all of the world's creations, digitise them and offer them back to humanity either for free or for an incredibly low price. Some of them massively underpay the creators, and just kick back and put their feet up, knowing that if Rocky doesn't like it, well that's fine, because there are a million other people lined up behind Rocky who are perfectly happy to volunteer their music to exactly such a scheme in hopes of doing something greater than being a vendor their whole life.

I want to believe that it's not too late to beat the greedy sharks. To give you an example of how music makes money, earlier this year Spotify signed a lease for fourteen floors at Four World Trade Center in New York. The company has gone on to hire an additional one thousand employees. The new lease costs $2,77 million in monthly rentals. And it lasts until 2034.

Zimbabwe could also look at how to enhance the marketing of its music products. Furniture outlets such as Coloursel whose principals are already in the music business could add music outlets to their brand and make music shopping easier for would-be consumers. The campaign is "Bring Back The Good Old Record Bars!"


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