Kenyan music artists seem to be making everything but money. During August 2019, the Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK) disbursed royalties to Kenyan musicians. This is the money that had been collected from licensing public music performance in the second quarter of 2019. It includes fees from places such as hotels, hospitals, entertainment places, public service vehicles, malls and even lifts.

It should have been great news for music artists in Kenya, save for the fact that each one of them received only $25.30! In fact, it was $25 plus the $0.30 to be spent on M-PESA withdrawal charges.

The uproar was huge.

Some called for the disbanding of the body, while others expressed a willingness to allow people use their music for free.

How can well-known names in the music industry make a paltry $25?

MCSK explained that they simply divided the money they collected among all their members, irrespective of airplay or popularity of the respective musician. While it is possible the low ranking musicians celebrated the move, the ‘lords’ of the industry cried foul, accusing MCSK of not being transparent in its operations.

Most of these musicians are on platforms such as Spotify and YouTube, and their videos have attracted millions of views.

How come they could only earn $25 from offline music licensing?

The predicament of monetizing music

Being a music artist in Kenya is hard. Being a successful one is even harder. Thousands of people pick up the microphone each year but quit when they realize that no one is interested in their music.

If you are successful, you will then realize that people want everything to do with your music, except paying for it.

Kenyans will gladly listen to your music on YouTube, download your songs from any illegal website that has it, and sometimes buy pirated copies of your music. This is the same case with movies where there is a thriving industry for pirated movies.

Where then can a musician make money online?

Spotify is neither popular nor readily available. Only YouTube remains as the ‘streaming’ platform where an artiste can make money. YouTube is a popular media in Kenya, with telecommunication companies giving packages that include free YouTube access (Safaricom and Airtel).

This has led to rapid growth in the number of views for Kenyan music videos since the beginning of 2019. An informal survey shows that some of the videos that had garnered about 1 million views in two years at the end of 2018 have now moved to almost three million views in the last 8 months. This is a welcome move, but there is a problem.

While the number of views on YouTube is increasing, the earnings remain low for Kenyan content. As noted by one user, the amount of money advertisers are willing to pay in Kenya is very low. This translates to lower earnings for the musicians.

In one video, one Kenyan vlogger reveals that she earned $700 for one video which had 1 million views on YouTube, which was almost two years old by then.

Where does this leave the music artists in Kenya?

It is no wonder that many consider a singing career a financial suicide. As one man said:

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain," - John Adams.

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