Digital transparency has revealed dimensions to African music beyond Western received ideas. But how to market it sympathetically, asks Brian Shimkovitz
I started Awesome Tapes From Africa (ATFA) as a way to make artefacts available from the cassette based music economy I have encountered around Africa. Something that began quite innocently as a means of filling the wide gaps in international music distribution – nearly every musician and producer I’ve met in West Africa wants to find a way to get their music beyond their borders – has become a spark in the often fiery debates surrounding suspected post-colonial tendencies of the Western music industry vis-à-vis the developing world.
My fascination with tape culture in West Africa led to the rather ironic activity of spreading analogue recordings via digital technology. It’s a pursuit that adds to outsiders’ appreciation of the breadth of musical subcultures in myriad African regions, many of which have been passed over by the otherwise excellent labels which have released music from the continent.
Cassette technology has made a massive impact on music distribution in Africa since its introduction in the early 1980s. The movement has been characterised by a difficult duality from the start. The popularity of tapes coincided with an explosion of piracy, which helped bring an end to vinyl LP manufacturing across the continent – it was no longer commercially viable for international record labels like Decca and Philips. At the same time, it created a situation where recorded music of all kinds – not limited to local movements – became available to anyone through the ubiquitous stereos found in markets, shops and vehicles. The portability and durability of the medium contributed a large part of this transformation.
However, the aftertaste of the historically exploitative roles of Westerners in African music industries is still palpable. In evolving ATFA from a blog into a commercial record label over the last year, there have been risks. The artists featured on my site, whose music has been freely downloadable, have gained pockets of fans outside Africa. A crucial thing for me has always been finding a way to promote the music among people who would not normally have access to it. ATFA has thus far been efficient in achieving this goal.
Digitization can be liberating for African musicians. It has given rise to numerous fascinating and vital new music movements within Africa – bongo flava, hiplife, kuduro, coupé-decalé, etc – and has helped African music reach further into clubs, living rooms and festivals around the world. The influx of non-African music into the ears of African youth has been a catalyst for change among musicians there, and shaken the core of what Westerners expect African music to sound like. Giving away free music by African artists has helped create a fanbase that was not previously there for an untold number of creators.
How to take my enterprise to the commercial level and provide some of the artists with career-enhancing opportunities through selling the music, while maintaining a free-for-all approach to the under-distributed sounds still yet to appear on the blog? Would people pay for what they’ve already grown accustomed to grabbing for free? This part brings up many issues. Is the enterprise merely a post-colonial thievery corporation hiding behind the thin veil of millennial digital exploration? I know my mission comes from a place of wanting to provide a global promotional window to listeners who yearn for more flavours.
In the same way that young artists from Bristol to Brooklyn to Brisbane are making their music available for free as a means of injecting spurts of visibility in an over-saturated marketplace, I see African artists making major headway with their localised approach to using the web and digitized media. Not only are young people in Africa making beats in their bedrooms and posting them on Facebook and Soundcloud. Not only are elder statesmen of African music finding new revenue streams via CD and MP3 reissues and digital-only recataloguing of their songs. Not only are African urbanites even more connected to the world’s music scenes through the internet, thereby continuing the circle of influence and inspiration that has been critical to music’s evolution since humans began singing songs. Not only are nomadic peoples trading tracks on mobile phones via Bluetooth technology (see Chris Kirkley’s magnificent Music For Saharan Cellphones series). I view the overall digitization of African music as a facet of globalisation, a process from which I now believe it is completely unfair and quasi-racist to shield African art and music.
The difficulty of most African regional musics in making it to neighbouring countries (let alone a record shop in Nebraska) has as much to do with the stunted system of physical distribution as it does with differences in language and creative sensibilities among varying culture groups. Bola, a musician from northern Ghana whose record just came out on ATFA, has had to take the bus down-country eight hours or more to singlehandedly distribute his music to shops that might consider carrying music sung in a language of a faraway region. Even if language wasn’t a stumbling block, there is no real national music distribution company in Ghana to handle such pursuits. It is done piecemeal for the most part, by individual musicians and their colleagues.
Regardless of whether it’s heard outside Africa, wonderful recordings are being made every day across the continent. Digitized music is already breaking down geographical barriers that once made regional music forms so damn… regional. Which, of course, is good and bad. In any event, Nigerians are rocking to Ghanaian music. Ghanaians are even more conscious of what’s happening in Côte D’Ivoire than ever before. And the connection between Congolese rappers and the latest sounds from Paris is tightening. One could go on and on.
I want to find a way to give a nominal fee to each artist whose tracks have been downloaded on ATFA. Anyone who has been to Africa knows this is nearly, if not entirely, impossible. In the meantime, should we, due to post-colonial guilt, not include African music in the global process of discovery taking place on screens and MP3 players around the world? Those who have never travelled to Africa feel rightly concerned about technology-fuelled (un)fairness. It’s something I think about daily. However, the marginal push to make sure music gets paid for has not done anything to stop digital sharing. And the people who see the issue as black and white often wear a damaging paternalist badge on their sleeves, as if we (the non-Africans) have a responsibility to protect the ‘helpless’ musicians. Rather, musicians growing up in Africa are aware of what is happening and deserve to be a part of it. As ATFA grows into something larger, I grapple with the future of marketing the current and back catalogue of sublime sounds in a fair way, without losing the power within that physical piece of vinyl or plastic cassette.