Africa’s Music Industry: Building With Cassettes & MP3s In An Underdeveloped Terrain

Kiwanja-handsets

The African music industry is fascinating less for the sectors that appear similar to U.S. or European sectors of the industry and more for what is unique about emerging African nations. The widespread adoption of basic cellphones for communication and media consumption just doesn’t look the same as one experiences in the States. And though South Africa may host an industry more similar in organization, countries such as Nigeria offer a context in which most Western artists would stumble and fall.

I’ve been keeping up superficially with Africa’s emerging music industry for the past decade. That’s not really a long time for an industry that’s perpetually emerging but it has clued me in to the fact that most of what’s happening there you can’t see here except for fragments that surface in the media from time to time. Here’s a collection of some of the meatier bits and pieces that have surfaced of late.

Digital Startups, Developing Market Establishing New African Music Industry

To some degree Africa’s music industry is always “developing” and “emerging.” Writers for Billboard.biz recently invoked that perpetual narrative with a focus on the two largest business centers for African music, Western Africa (especially Nigeria) and South Africa. It’s a good look at the kind of development that interests major labels and big corporations with a nod to the difficulties local artists and business people face.

Living the Hiplife: Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music

Jesse Weaver Shipley’s “Living the Hiplife” is a recently released academic work focused on the music and business of Hiplife, a musical genre from Ghana that combines hip hop and highlife. It follows the earlier release of the documentary “Living The HipLife” and paints a rich portrait of an industry and an aesthetic landscape in which both cassettes and low-end cellphones are primary technologies.

Africa High-Tech

Christopher Kirkley went to Africa looking for the kinds of musical traditions Westerners like to put on a pedestal for preservation and was confronted by the widespread sharing of MP3s on cellphones via Bluetooth. Once he got over his elitist attitude, he started to realize he’d found an emergent music scene.

It’s a fascinating tale of someone who truly loves African music and you can keep up with Kirkley through his blog sahelsounds.

You Think Hollywood Is Rough? Welcome to the Chaos, Excitement and Danger of Nollywood

Before closing I should note that Sarah Lacy’s earlier writing about Nollywood, Nigeria’s unique movie industry, also gives one a strong quick take on how different doing business in Africa can be from what we take for granted Stateside. It’s fascinating yet it also helps clarify why Western business coverage will almost always focus on how major corporations can siphon off funds rather than how local business people can thrive in what appears to be an impossibly chaotic environment.

The Future of Africa’s Music Industry

Africa’s music industry may be set for major changes ahead but, except for a few acts, not because of interest from business people in Northern nations or periodic uses of African popular dances or visually appealing microcultures in Western music videos.

Sure, Western labels will find growing markets in Africa, South African acts will benefit from an infrastructure originally built on Apartheid and certain acts will enjoy touring opportunities and occasional exploitation by artists such as Paul Simon and Beyonce, but the long term health of Africa’s music industry will come down to the realities of daily life in Africa.

Look for such shifts as increasingly affordable smartphones and the growth of African mobile startups to lead to a healthier regional music industry.


--