Kenyan Labels: We have come a long way but not there yet

Kenyan Labels: We have come a long way but not there yet

Date: 13 May 2017 12:06

For most artistes, signing a record deal is the ultimate dream, a turning point in their career. It is the day they make it to the big leagues. In Kenya, however, that signature is often not even worth the ink it is signed on.

In an industry where anything goes and players struggle to make ends meet, record labels are not all that they are hyped up to be. Although some daring entrepreneurs are taking brave moves in the industry and giving hope to creatives, we are still a long way to go.

In other countries, signing a record deal literally means getting an investor to bankroll your dream - concentrate on writing, rehearsing, recording and performing music. This is not free money, these advances are recoupable against future royalties from album, streaming and concert sales.

Once the advance is sorted, the label then moves on other costs, music recording, video production, tours, marketing and PR... the whole nine yards.

In Kenya however, there are many studios and management companies that look like record labels but are not their yet there yet.  Filah Tuju is a Maisha Superstar finalist, a voice coach, a music entrepreneur, founder and CEO of RedFourth Music Academy.

He says: “The honest truth is that we don’t have record labels in Kenya. We don’t have people who have invested enough into the sector to make it commercially viable. What we have is people who own studios and think that qualifies them as a record label.”

Like any other product, music requires investors to put in cash, entrepreneurs to take risks and professionals to manage the whole process. It takes systems, structures and a complex supply chain to take any product to market.

In Kenya however, most investors lack either the knowledge or the desire to gamble with a bunch of creatives. The few that have dared to dabble into the sector have beaten a hasty retreat after unwise investments went south.

“We have had many ill advised investments into the sector that has affected investor confidence,” Tuju admits. “It’s a business decision at the end of the day, but many have invested based on their personal preferences. Just because you like an artistes doesn’t mean everyone else does; before you pour your cash into an artiste first find out if they are a good investment.” 

Though he confesses his own outfit does not merit the title of a record label, he is not giving up. He hopes to continue working hard to grow talents and with time attract the capital he needs to build a solid label.

“In Kenya it’s unfortunate that no one believes in music, even the musician himself. There’s money to be made but you need a music professional to guide the process to guarantee a return on investment,” he adds.

Kaka Empire has made an indelible mark in the Kenyan showbiz industry. They have managed to secure consistent bookings for their artistes, scored endorsement deals and even organised events for their headliners. Though the CEO and founder Rabbit aka King Kaka, admits they are more of a management company than a record label, he still celebrates the strides they have made.

“I drew the logo when I was in form two and started using Kaka Empire even before I knew what it was,” he reminisces. “We were the first one to sign a Tanzanian act but when Wasafi came looking for Rich Mavoko and we sold them the contract.”

Despite their success, King Kaka admits the industry still has a long way to go. He laments a lack of integration faulting the general system for promoting foreign products at the expense of local music.   

“Our industry is still small we may not have the capacity of Virgin or Def Jam so we work within our limits. We do not have the structures that would help an artiste remain relevant without a hit song on radio. That is why we have many people who are famous but broke,” he adds.

Calif Records, the small recording studio that grew from a shack to a major music force securing itself into the annals of Kenyan music history. Legendary producer and Calif records co-owner, Clement Rapudo popularly known as Clemo, was instrumental in shaping the local show business. Together with a team of dedicated workers, Clemo put together distribution and marketing structures that ensured the success of Calif artistes.

He says: “Record labels can’t work in Kenya because artistes don’t want to share the revenue. It takes a lot to build an artiste, you need producers, marketers, sales people, managers, promoters and a whole team of people. That entire chain has to be fed and some money still has to go the record company.”

Having worked with regional record labels that represent several Tanzanian, Nigerian and South African superstars Clemo faults our local stars for a lack of teamwork. This, in the end, leaves the artistes vulnerable to manipulation from promoters who take full advantage of them. Working solo also leaves artistes unprepared for the inevitable down turn when fame and fortune fades. 

“Kenyan artistes would rather keep 100 per cent of Sh100,000 than get 30 per cent of Sh20 million. That is why Diamond will be paid Sh4 million for the same gig that a local artiste will be paid Sh100,000. When you work alone you can only go so far in life.”

Grim as it may look today, there were days when things actually worked. Days when major international record labels had offices in Nairobi in the mid 60’s and 70’s. Colombia, previously called CBS, which is today owned by Sony music, had its regional headquarters in Nairobi before moving to South Africa. In the golden days, they signed up local acts together with international bigwig Polygram, a Dutch-German entertainment company which later merged with Universal Music and later acquired Motown and Def Jam in 1994.   

“It was piracy that drove the major labels out of town,” legendary radio presenter Fred Obachi Machoka explains. “The government failed to regulate the industry and allowed hawkers to take over. Artistes will never make money from their music as long as hawkers are selling their music 10 times cheaper than the market price.” 


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