We Did Not Support Elani Where it Mattered Most

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By Mukurima and Silas

When Elani dropped the club-banger Jana Usiku, the vast majority, even those without a musical ear, could not help but snap their fingers, hum along the well-arranged beats, and come to the logical conclusion that new and fresh voices had broken into Kenyan scene

As Jana Usiku kept  sending men (and women to the dance floor, Elani, behind the scenes, worked on the idea of bigger hits. And they did.  It was therefore not strange that when Koo koo was released, even the adults crooned and fell in love with the song. A few more singles out, and Elani became a household name-with their music, arguably, the most played by local media, night clubs, matatus, and salons. Everywhere. It was Elani’s year.

If Kenya had functional music awards, it is not a stretch to say that Elani would have scooped a number in the year 2014. They say numbers speak. Relative to Elani, nothing confirms Kenyans love for Elani than their YouTube numbers. In Kenya, any song that gets over 100,000 views can be said to be doing well. The combined YouTube views of all Elani songs are well in millions (Koo Koo, alone, has over 1 million views).

When I watched Elani talk about their music journey which has so far has left them in debt, I paused for a moment. It is heart breaking that with all the airplay that Elani received for the year under consideration, the check writer from MSCK could only extend to them a royalty-check worth Ksh 31,000. If this is not preposterous, then we can safely say it is presumptuous. While Kenyans notoriously love freebies, and regrettably never buys music, Elani deserved a tidy sum from MCSK.

As the spotlight turns to MCSK, and as the parties to the conflict go to mediation, arbitration, negotiation, or litigation (for the first three options the group can contact Mukurima), the rest of the country should pause for a moment and ask the existential question, the elephant in the room that was indirectly brought to the fore by Elani, about the state of Kenyan contemporary music:

Can/do Kenyan musicians earn from their music?”

The obvious answer is YES. This affirmation, however, is qualified by a number of factors. For example, the genre of music influences what an artiste earns.  Benga musicians and a number of contemporary gospel artists do make a living out their music. Why?

Gospel artists, Benga musicians, and the Mike Ruas, have long discovered the secret to make a killing-downtown Nairobi has the numbers. Alternatively, pricing the music affordably will work the magic. There are three things that can be said to be certain about Kenya-death, corruption, and the ‘kadogo’ economy.

Kenya operates on a “kadogo” economy. At the end of the day, no matter how great your music is, one has to remember that buying the music, for the average Kenyan, is a pocketbook issue. If Kenyan musicians want to make money they need to employ a strategy that has worked for Safaricom (success of Bamba 20!), and Equity Bank (even the ordinary folk in a forgotten corner of the country is a member). Journalist Peter Thatiah tried it with President Uhuru’s ‘biography,’ and it worked before disappeared into thin air! It is simple, the money is on the lower part(s) of Moi Avenue. Kenya’s economy is driven by lower middle-class; the folks who toil in the stalls along Tom Mboya Street, River Road and the crowded Downtown.

Very few Kenyans are going to buy an album priced at Ksh 700 when the alternative is to download the same music, online, free of charge (may be at the cost of data bundles!) What we have learnt from those pirated movie shops in Nairobi is that Kenyans are willing to spend Ksh 50 on their favorite movies. However, these stores are not allowed to distribute any Kenyan material, yet they are the best bet when it comes to distribution of the pirated movies and music. This is the most underutilized platform that the sooner parties involved realized, the bigger the smiles they will wear as they check their account balance(s).

Again I ponder, why is Elani in debt?

Going by the You Tube numbers, there is a feeling that a big presence on social media does not automatically translate to revenue. Let us assume that an Elani album goes for Ksh 700. The group has about 21,000 subscribers on their You Tube channel. Arithmetic shows that if each of the subscriber supported the group where it matters most-buying an album, that’s roughly Ksh 15 million. Alternatively, the song Koo Koo has been viewed over 1 million times on You Tube. After smoothing out for repeated views, let us assume that there are 700,000 unique views. If Elani sold the single Koo Koo at Ksh 5 (kadogo economy), that would generate a cool Ksh 3.5 million. Did we really support Elani?

In Kenya, it is the elite, upmarket artists who in an ironic twist, are not doing so well in terms of generating enough revenue.  Their music is of the best quality. Their music videos are invariably shot in exotic destinations with a lifestyle only few can imagine. But that is where it ends. Most musicians hardly sell any singles, or even albums for those who have released one or two. In addition, their performances across the country within a year are countable.

There is an elitist approach by most musicians when it comes to performing to fans. Most musicians shy away from going to the vast Eastlands to perform, often citing security or some other reason. If they can, and soil their hands, they should perform in Nairobi’s estates, Embakasi, Umoja, Dohnholm, Githurahi, Buruburu, Ngong, etc, and make more money. Imagine in each place selling 300 albums. They can add value by autographing the albums, selling other merchandise, and posing with fans (which would relatively increase the hashtags on Instagram) and other PR gimmicks that have worked elsewhere.

It should be safe to conclude that the upmarket people hardly buy Kenyan music. If you are going to rely on a non-existent middle-class, you are in for rude shock. Perhaps about 1,000 people may buy your album from Nakumatt, but 1,000 people buying your album at sh 700 only gives you Ksh 700,000. A musician like John De’Matthew will price his album at Ksh. 150 and because he has built a pool of loyal fans, more than 60,000 fans will buy his music.  Do the math.

Pricing has always been a big problem for Kenyans. Due to taxation, overestimating the potential of Kenya’s spending power, and sheer greed, Kenyan goods can be a tad expensive. Very few Kenyans have the luxury to dispense with Ksh 700. Very few Kenyans can access the upmarket outlets where some of these Kenyan music is often distributed.

Going by the number of people who buy ‘pirated’ movies, if Kenyan music is distributed though such platforms and marketed aggressively, Kenyans are not so averse to buying as not to buy.

Musicians also need to have functional websites where they can put their materials and promote and sell their music. They need to have a sense of ownership of their material. Selling of ringtones, a lucrative business, should not be outsourced to third parties. They can kick out the meddlesome third-parties and brokers with their attendant itchy fingers

Bottom line, musicians need to take their music to fans, and make their music affordable, learn to deliver memorable performances-drop the playback nonsense- and learn to merchandise their products.

Relying on MCSK’s royalties is a sure way to poverty. Own your stuff.

Finally, MCSK should get its act together.

Oh, to walk the talk, I just bought the Koo Koo single through Itunes. I will walk the talk. Don’t just retweet and Hashtag. Do what you need to do..