Building a Sustainable Music Industry in Kenya

The Kenyan music scene is at a crossroads. On one hand, we are witnessing a surge of creativity and talent. On the other hand, shifting market forces such as the rapid pace of technological proliferation and shifting consumer habits raise questions about its long-term sustainability. Now more than ever, we find it important to consider the future of the Kenyan music industry and the steps we can take to support its growth. In this article, we explore the current state of the Kenyan music industry, outlining some strategies we can employ in building a sustainable future for Kenyan music.

Where we are

When you ask a group of Kenyans what ails Kenya’s music industry you’ll most probably get a variation of the same responses. Kenyan artists don’t support each other. Fans don’t appreciate Kenyan music. Artists don’t act professionally. No unique sound. The Kenyan community in the diaspora is not supportive. Music production quality is wanting. An arrogant new generation of artists. Sheng’ cannot be sold internationally. Kenyan artists ask for too much money. Media support is wanting. Government support is nonexistent. Kenyan music lacks proper promotion abroad. These are the agreed-upon grievances Kenyans seem to have with their country’s music industry. There are varying degrees of truth to some of the responses. Others, however, are outright myths and lies.

Collaboration is on the rise. Stakeholder support from fans, artists, DJs, labels and publishers has been increasing as evidenced by the ballooning cultural organization space in the country. Kenya has not just one but several unique sounds including Taarab, Genge, Benga, Gengetone and folk music in over 40 languages. Sheng’ not being exportable is a moot point because we know many artists who have not had to compromise on their language of communication to succeed globally. Artists who value their art don’t need to be reminded about integrity. Artists have a right to ask for whatever value they wish. It’s the promoter’s onus to determine what they will or won’t accept.

Music production quality has been improving year after year. From the number of formidable recording studios currently active to the equipment used, there is a noticeable growth in the levels of production quality, creative innovation, professionalism and attention to detail employed by Kenyan music practitioners. This is not only evident in the content quality of the latest releases, but also in the process of creating the music itself. In an industry where singles used to be the norm, albums and EPs have become commonplace. Vibrant music videos with great cinematography, innovative dance styles and high quality production are now to be expected when a new hit song comes out.

Music artists today can work with one of many producers whose skills have been sharpened in the fire of experience and who now have a deep understanding of their craft and the market, allowing them to bring out the best in the artists they work with. As a result, the music coming out of Kenya is not only of higher quality than it’s ever been, it is also more diverse and representative of the country’s rich cultural heritage.

Lack of government support for the arts has been a recurrent problem since Kenya gained independence. This lack of support has had serious consequences for the development of arts in Kenya as many talented artists struggle to make a living off their art and are forced to turn to other forms of work to support themselves. Without funding, it is difficult for most artists of little means to afford the materials they need to create their work. Many who succeed in creating their art have to compromise on the quality of their work due to affordability and accessibility limitations. Long term success for the arts requires the government’s input but while we wait for the government to recognize the value of the arts and take steps to support the arts community in Kenya, we will chart our own paths forward. Watupate mbele.

It appears to me then, that the main solvable problem we face in the Kenyan music industry is inaction. We spend hours on social media and in meetings debating possible reasons for the lack of growth, but very little time on finding solutions and taking action. This cycle of discussion and inaction is holding us back and preventing us from getting the true value that can be gotten from our music industry. It is time for us to focus on things that will truly make a difference, such as building strong partnerships both in the country and internationally, investing in talent development, and finding new ways to reach and engage with Kenyan music audiences.

How we got here

The interplay between mass media, advertising, and consumption habits is a key factor in the growth of any music industry. In Kenya and around the world, mass media has a powerful influence on the music that is popular and the artists that rise to fame. The way that music is advertised and marketed also plays a role in its success. And of course, consumer habits and preferences are a major determinant of what music thrives and what falls by the wayside. All of these factors are interconnected and need to be taken into account when we are trying to grow the Kenyan music industry. We need to consider how we can use mass media and advertising effectively, and also how we can understand and respond to the changing tastes of Kenya’s music audience.

The psychology behind our preferences

To ensure they stay relevant, most mainstream media outlets focus on content that is more likely to inspire comments, likes or some other form of online validation metric. This content is determined by analyzing data collected from opinion polls, social media, conversations and from other news platforms. The people’s consumption decisions in turn, are influenced by what they consume on social media, in conversations with friends etc. With such a closed loop of information, new ideas are rare. This cycle where each one influences the other’s thoughts eventually leads to both media platforms and consumers regurgitating the same thoughts and ideas. It takes a bit of introspection and faith to break free from this cycle of influence; not just for consumers but also for media as well.

Kenyan music artists and other industry professionals who want to truly stand out and make a mark will need to be willing to challenge the status quo and think outside the proverbial box. They need to be willing to take risks and try new things, even if it means going against the grain. Only by breaking free from this cycle of conformity can we truly unleash the full potential of the Kenyan music industry.

This is not to say that all popular music is bad or that we should completely reject mainstream trends. There is certainly a place for music that appeals to the masses and resonates with a wide audience. However, it is important for the Kenyan music industry to also nurture and support diverse and alternative voices. By encouraging experimentation and creativity, we can foster a vibrant and dynamic music scene that reflects the unique culture and experiences of our country.

Where we need to be

If you ask many people outside Nigeria, they will tell you that the main reason Nigerian music has become so successful globally is their unique Afrobeat sound. While Afrobeat has contributed a great deal to the rise of Nigerian music popularity, another important part of the equation has been the promotion strategies employed to market Nigerian music. In recent years, players in the Nigerian music industry have focused on collaborating with international artists, performing at international music festivals, and utilizing social media to reach a wider audience. Additionally, record labels and music distribution companies have played a crucial role in promoting Nigerian music globally. By signing and promoting talented Nigerian artists, these companies have helped to introduce the world to the diverse and vibrant music scene that Nigeria has to offer.

How can we get there

Focus on building strong partnerships with international artists, DJs, galleries, festival and event organizers in the music industry, both within Kenya and abroad, is going to be an important determinant of how fast the Kenyan music industry grows. Kenyan music promoters should partner with DJs in strategic countries who can include their artists’ music in their mixes. These kinds of partnerships will provide valuable opportunities for Kenyan artists to showcase their talent and reach new audiences.

By collaborating with international artists, Kenyan artists can tap into the established fan bases of their collaborators, while also learning from and being exposed to new musical styles and techniques. Similarly, performing at international festivals and events will help to expose Kenyan music to a wider audience, while also allowing Kenyan artists to network and connect with industry professionals. Partnering with DJs, galleries and event organizers will help create more opportunities for Kenyan artists to perform and display their work, further increasing the visibility and reach of Kenyan music. This will in turn provide Kenyans in the diaspora with convenient opportunities to discover Kenyan music and stay up to date with what’s happening in the industry.

One important aspect that could make or break this partnership strategy is fair compensation for Kenyan artists. If the industry is to grow, negotiating mutually beneficial agreements with physical music stores, digital publishers, streaming platforms, festival organizers, and all music industry stakeholders will go a long way in smoothing the journey ahead. Making sure that artists receive a fair share of profits generated from their work and performances is nonnegotiable. By prioritizing the financial well-being of Kenyan artists, we can create a sustainable ecosystem for the growth and development of Kenyan music.

Copyright Issues

Kenyan music artists and DJs should find solutions to the copyright issues that arise every now and then. These issues can be a major hindrance to the success and growth of the music industry in Kenya not just because of potential legal battles and financial losses that could be incurred by both the artists and the DJs, but also because they can damage the reputation of the industry. If the public perceives that players in the Kenyan music industry can’t find a solution for simple matters, it can lead to a loss of trust and a decline in support for the industry as a whole. By finding effective solutions to copyright issues, Kenyan music artists and DJs can help to protect the reputation of the industry and ensure that it remains a thriving and respected part of the country’s cultural landscape. It is important for all parties involved to work together and find solutions that are fair and mutually beneficial, such as obtaining the necessary licenses and permissions for the use of copyrighted material. By addressing these issues proactively, Kenyan music artists and DJs can ensure that they are able to continue creating and sharing their art without encountering any unnecessary obstacles.

Kenyans in the Diaspora

Additionally, it is important to consider the needs and preferences of the Kenyan diaspora community, and to find ways to connect them with the music and cultural events that are relevant and meaningful to them. Kenyan music promoters and distributors need to up their game in this regard. They will need to make use of targeted marketing strategies and outreach efforts. Music promoters need to build strong relationships with Kenyan community organizations and cultural ambassadors within the diaspora.

I strongly believe that by continuing to work together, looking for solutions outside the box and supporting each other, we can create the vibrant and thriving Kenyan music scene that we all hope for.

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