What The New York Times forgot to tell you about the Explosion of Digital Music in Africa

This morning I started my week reading the following on the New York Times’ website: “Digital music, responsible for the improvement in the industry’s brighter overall outlook, has failed to catch on across much of Africa.” To be more accurate, the first words I read were “Serraval, France”, the location of the writer. Ironically, Serraval’s city hall website starts with the following: “Today, children use the internet much like our generation played marbles.” Well it seems that despite Serraval’s noted efforts to encourage the use of the internet, Eric Pfanner, the great mind behind this piece of in-depth NYT journalism, may have lost his marbles.

Just for comedic effect, let’s continue fact checking for a minute. Pfanner talks about high profile moves, then mentions three artists to back up the significance of the claim: Power Boyz from Angola, DJ Vetkuk from South Africa, and W4 from Nigeria (not even a facebook page for him, all I found was this). Now don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Tchuna Baby, and wish that song were a global hit. But it’s not, and Power Boyz are at best a second tier band. Same goes for W4 or DJ Vetkuk, who may also be talented, but for the sake of this article, are completely irrelevant. No mention of D’BanjP-Square, or any other proper pan-African heavy hitters.

Maybe they don’t chop money in Serraval…

No mention of Spinlet either, a Nigerian company backed by serious investment money for over a year now. While it is clear Pfanner is green about digital music in Africa, he did however do his homework among Western players attempting to jump on the African bandwagon. But that’s exactly the problem: he relies on PR information obtained from corporations, who rely on consulting firms to do their market research. And those firms rely on information obtained from offices in London, Paris, or at best Johannesburg. Even when they do have some kind of ground office, it is exactly that: an office.

If you want to understand how digital music is evolving in Africa, you first have to step out of the office, and go where digital music lives: in the devices of teenagers. You have to witness how music listening and consuming habits have changed. You have to see how hits blow up strictly from bluetooth swapping. You have to go to concerts, and watch crowds chant in unison to songs which never play on the radio or on TV.

To think that the number of paid downloads is a testimony to the advancement of digital music in Africa is like looking at champagne sales as an indicator of overall growth in Africa. When people live on a buck or two a day, it is slightly unlikely they will spend a buck on a song. But that does not mean they are not living and breathing digital music. That does not mean digital music does not make or break artists, who then go on to get endorsement deals, and a properly lucrative career. Digital is not only the cornerstone of how music lives in Africa today, it is also fundamental in the business of music.

The problem with this New York Times article is nothing new: the general consensus about reporting in Africa seems to be: nobody knows, nobody cares, so let’s just put the smallest amount of effort into it. Let’s rely on the same reporter who writes about Moscato wine and French tax schemes, he’s smart enough, he’ll get it right. And even if he doesn’t, who cares?

Well the irony in this case is: specifically because digital media (and music) is exploding in Africa, a lot of us notice, and a lot of us care.

I have to add one last bit: the main reason for Pfanner’s article is Samsung and Universal’s launch of The Kleek, a music service aimed at African markets. Pfanner tells us digital music is non-existent in Africa, and tells us Universal is jumping in. So that would make Universal a bold, courageous pioneer. Now THAT is good humor.

* Ghana-based Benjamin Lebrave runs Akwaaba Music, a platform promoting and distributing urban and electronic music from all over Africa. He also reports about musical discoveries for Fader magazine and This Is Africa.

Benjamin Lebrave

Benjamin Lebrave is an entrepreneur, DJ and journalist based in Accra Ghana, where he runs Akwaaba Music, and contributes to Fader, Thump and other online publications.

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