Kenyan musicians embrace technology to combat piracy

By Rajab Ramah in Nairobi

December 14, 2012

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For Emmy Kosgei, a gospel artist who sings in the Kalenjin dialect, music piracy has ruined Kenya's entertainment industry.

Music piracy in Kenya is so prevalent that some artists are struggling to make a living from the work they produce. But a new scratch card, sold by the artists themselves, hopes to change all that and revolutionise the country's music industry. [AFPTV report] Play Video
  • Kenyan musicians Octopizzo and Amina Abdi on set recording a video. Both use the new scratch card service mdundo to sell their music and avoid piracy. [AFP]

    Kenyan musicians Octopizzo and Amina Abdi on set recording a video. Both use the new scratch card service mdundo to sell their music and avoid piracy. [AFP]

  • Kenyan musicians sell their music through mdundo, a service that allows users to download tracks to their phones using pre-paid scratch cards. [File/Sabahi]

    Kenyan musicians sell their music through mdundo, a service that allows users to download tracks to their phones using pre-paid scratch cards. [File/Sabahi]

Kosgei, who produces her music independently, said she first felt piracy's pinch early last year when she went to Eldoret to officially launch her album "Ololo". When she arrived at the venue, to her surprise, most people already had unauthorised copies of her album.

"I felt my efforts had all gone to waste," she told Sabahi.

Pirated copies of her album flooded the market and her original CD failed to turn a profit, forcing her to use her personal savings to finance subsequent productions.

The pirates had recorded video rehearsals and performances of the album and had compiled video clips of all the songs, she said. Producers of the unauthorised videos were caught, but released without police filing charges against them.

"[Piracy] has driven a lot of musicians to bankruptcy, while those whom we depend on to protect us from these fraudsters seem unmoved," she said.

Pirate market

Peter Mungai, 25, has been selling illegal music CDs along Kirinyaga road in downtown Nairobi for over seven years.

Sunday is the best day of the week for the sellers because most officers are off duty, he said. "I know it is illegal, but we know how to get around [police] and avoid being caught," he told Sabahi.

By his own account, every month he produces and sells over 2,000 pirated CDs that have an average of 12 music tracks each. An authentic music album can cost from 300 to 500 shillings ($3.50-$5.80), depending on the artist, but Mungai said he sells his counterfeited disks for less than 20 shillings ($.23) each, as his customers cannot afford the high cost of authentic CDs.

But Herbert Nakitare, popularly known as "Nonini", said counterfeited music actually makes it harder for the prices of authentic music to come down.

He expressed frustration that the Kenya Copyright Board (KCB) is doing little to protect artists from piracy, a problem he blames on corruption. "Those who pirate our music use their deep pockets to shield themselves from being held to account for their illegal activities," he said.

Edward Sigei, head of KCB's enforcement unit, said the agency is doing everything possible to stop piracy. He said apart from robbing artists of their hard-earned cash, piracy also impedes innovation in the music industry.

Nonetheless, he encouraged artists to be active partners in the fight. "We cannot be blamed for this … our main role is to facilitate and act on complaints," Sigei said, faulting those who own music copyrights for failing to lodge complaints about infringements.

"Even when offenders are arrested, [artists] fail to come out and give evidence in court to assist in the successful prosecution of the case," he said.

"It is time they approached music as a professional business rather than a hobby," he said, calling on the artists to learn copyright laws to safeguard their intellectual property.

Sigei called on musicians to pool resources to set up a single online music-vending platform, saying selling their music over the internet will curb piracy and allow them to reap profits from their productions.

Artists embrace technology

Nonini said he is turning to digital music through online platforms such as mdundo, a service that allows users to download music on their phones using pre-paid scratch cards.

He said the new technology, available only via subscription, has helped him beat the piracy menace by providing music at a manageable cost. Expected proceeds from the sale of his music via mdundo look promising, he said.

Reggae musician Major Khadija, known as "Mejja", said artists who sign up for the service are given scratch cards they can sell to their fans. "We sell them using our music stores, or during our live concerts," he told Sabahi.

Mdundo makes purchasing music more affordable for fans, he said. A 100-shilling ($1.16) scratch card enables fans to download five songs. After scratching the cards to reveal a secret pin, customers can log on via the internet and enter the pin to download their music.

Nonetheless, despite piracy's negative status among established musicians, Mejja said piracy offers struggling new artists a platform to showcase their talent and enter the market.

"It is a disadvantage for big names in the industry, but a plus for up-and-coming artists who might not get airplay on local radio stations for their music," Mejja said. "Piracy is the only distribution network that can distribute their music to the public at low cost and easily."

He said musicians should stop complaining about piracy and adopt better distribution models. For example, performers could sell their products during their live concerts and collect payment at the event itself, he said.

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Reader's Comments

  • Carlos Mwangi
    July 10, 2014 @ 06:17:26AM

    Thanks for this article coz it educates us and brings dirty piracy to the light...

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