Difficult Country: 7 Actions Ugandan Mainstream Musicians Should Take

Herbert Ssensamba (Left), Elijah Kitaka (Right)

The music business in Uganda is going to get harder than anywhere else. The industry is heavily misunderstood, and now increasingly politicized. This is why there is no goodwill to create an environment in which this industry can thrive. Success is possible but against such great odds.

The summary of my advice is that you have to seriously work on getting access to regional or international customers. You either reach them online, relocate to where they are, or pursue both. I’m doing the same thing, not as a musician but as a music industry entrepreneur. If you’re a mainstream musician, here are 7 actions you should implement.

1. Be Present Internationally
Get your catalog onto all major, legitimate, regional/international platforms. They may pay little but they aid international discovery. You may exit them later, if and when your online presence generates better numbers than these platforms. Distribution is largely commoditized so it’s quite cheap and quick to get your music on to these platforms today.

2. Stop Free Download Websites
Get your music off as many free-download / free-streaming websites as possible. By free I mean any online service that distributes your music for commercial gain without compensating you. Some services like YouTube, Mdundo are free to users but still compensate musicians through an ad-supported revenue model. These are ok. Maintain these but go after the ones that don’t respect your art enough to pay you. Get a lawyer friend or a lawyer fan and get your music off these websites. This is now an existential threat to you so take it seriously.

3. Educate Your Fans
International platforms are increasingly launching subscription plans here at home and across Africa. Spotify recently launched a UGX 10,000 monthly subscription plan. Airtel has launched an Airtel Money Mastercard. This means a large number of your followers can now access your music legitimately, and affordably, without piracy. They can use a mobile money-based virtual card to pay for these subscription plans and stream your music. Educate your followers about these options. Show them how easy it is to legitimately consume your art so you can continue to deliver great work.

4. Create Your Own Website / Online Store
Setup a transaction-ready website with your content. This way, you will control your pricing and earn better margins. Your true fans will prefer to buy directly from you because they are fully aware of the math. This is why sales for merch and CDs were higher at your shows than in a store. Your fans want opportunities to support you directly. The website might cost a little but the margins will be so much better. You will also have the ability to create do special offers e.g. order my next release and get 50% off your performance booking e.t.c. These offers are difficult to do if you don’t have your own website.

5. Pitch Telcos for Streaming Bundles
While international platforms like Spotify are launching local subscription plans, data is still expensive. The good news is that today telcos are quite open to creating special data bundles. Pitch these telcos for a cheap streaming bundle. I have it on very good authority that they will listen. Use LinkedIn to search for telco employees that have the word “Digital” in their title. Get in touch with them, point them to your website, tell them you’re a great musician, ask to do a call, pitch them for a discounted streaming bundle. If 20 of you do this, they will launch the bundle quicker than you imagine. This is important because home consumption drives diaspora discovery which in turn drives prolification into international audiences.  

6. Think Beyond Borders
Start being deliberate about targeting other countries for your next song. This might require you to do a different language from our domestic ones. You might need to find a regional writer or composer. You might need to work with a regional producer. You might need to collaborate with a regional musician. They don’t have to be the biggest in their country. What you want is to open doors to new countries. All this is possible online, without travel.

7. Visit or Relocate Elsewhere
Open up your YouTube analytics dashboard, open up your Facebook analytics dashboard, see where your fans are based outside of Uganda. Using this information, list the top 3 countries as potential bases. Look through your personal network to see if you have friends, or if you know any of your top fans in these countries. Get in touch with them and explain that you need a base to work on a new project. Start with 3 to 6 months. Make sure you’ve mastered semi-live / acoustic performance so that you can do small intimate gigs in the new base with 1 or 2 local gigmen there. Building teams on foreign land is slow, difficult, and expensive. Getting one or two gig partners is doable.

It sounds bad but it might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Perhaps this is what it takes to shake us out of our little comfort zone. Good luck, and let me know how it goes if you decide to take action.

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About Elijah Kitaka

Ugandan tech executive and music entrepreneur with over 20 years track record. Spent 5 years at Google in Strategic Partnerships and Developer / Startup Ecosystem teams covering Sub-Saharan Africa. Ex-Head of Technology at Uganda’s National Social Security Fund, and held several roles at Global Trust Bank and Barclays Bank. Founded Ugandan’s first mobile value-added services and payments aggregation company, True African (197), back in the early 2000s.

As a music industry entrepreneur; Cofounded SongBoost – an analytics mobile app-based service providing radio airplay tracking and placement across 8 countries in Africa, and FEZAH – a platform at the forefront of monetising Ugandan live music internationally.

Finally, a hobby guitarist, host of Uganda’s longest-running Jazz show on Radio One FM 90 – 16 years and counting, and a true believer in African unity and Africa’s tech and music talent.