Kenya’s Rock Scene Desperately Needs Record Labels

The local Kenyan scene has grown in leaps and bounds. Since it’s inception there have been nearly a hundred bands that have been formed with a majority of them performing live and putting out at least one single. However the ones that remain active are less than a dozen, with many of those that were touted for big success imploding and/or fading into obscurity. You can count on one hand the number of bands that have achieved a measure of relative success.

Why is this?

First I would like to begin by identifying what I mean by success.

A successful rock band would be one that checks the following boxes:

  1. A number of recognizable songs with at least an album to boot.
  2. A large and identifiable fanbase that allows them to host a show that sells tickets and brings the band revenue
  3. Some level of notoriety, fame and brand awareness among the general public
  4. Touring capacity beyond its borders.

While this list is not exhaustive, we can argue that these are pretty much the parameters you would look to in deciding whether a band has achieved some success or not. Achieving all this comes at a huge financial and personal cost.

Having said that I think it is pretty clear that success is probably not an adjective that you would associate with Kenyan rock bands. And the reason for that is largely due to the absence of a full service record label.

I’ll explain why?

First I will start by explaining what a record label does.

Typically record labels perform a number of functions. They invest heavily with the aim of marketing a ‘product’ that will turn a huge profit for the record label. Labels usually keep the lion’s share of the returns with the artists keeping about 10-20%. Sounds like such small return considering the artist is doing all the work. But do they?

The truth is that labels will sign up a number of bands and contract to do the following for them:

  • Give the band a signing on fee like a down-payment
  • Pay for and secure practice space for the band
  • Get the band a quality studio to record their music
  • Organize for mastering and production
  • Organize for quality music videos
  • Run the band’s PR including all social media platforms, marketing, promotion with a PR Agency, Interviews for major releases
  • Run the band’s management from start to finish
  • Organize for concerts and tours in conjunction with booking agencies
  • Organize for the band’s merchandise including album art
  • Publishing and distribution

Some labels will go as far as hooking up the band with all the gear that they require, clothing and even provide housing.

You can imagine that all this is done at a considerable expense to the label typically running into millions of shillings. Since the label commits to such high level of performance, the contract will then stipulate that the band signs on for a minimum of three years and that the label keeps a lion’s share of the proceeds.

In most cases signing up just one band may not guarantee revenue to keep the label afloat. So labels will rely on economies of scale and sign up a large number of bands ranging from star quality to talented and finally prospects. This is because in most cases only a handful of the bands the label sign will contribute to most of the label’s revenue. Richard Branson’s Virgin Records for a period relied on the sales from Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” to keep the label afloat.

For a band looking for success then getting signed is a dream come true. Why is this the case especially for a Kenyan band?

The answer is quite straight forward. Considering the things that local bands typically struggle with like practice space, a small fanbase and the almost insurmountable expenses associated with recording music, putting out music videos and getting airplay, it becomes clear that a record label would be able to sort some of these problems out.

Surprisingly there is no real local solution to this problem.

Why do I say that?

There have been record labels with the most notable ones being Andromeda Music, Shinigami Records, Kamata and Bin Khalid Sonic Pollution. But those outfits normally do the bare minimum of providing a recording studio together with production and mastering services. All the rest of the services that will help the band reach global or even local success are not on the table. There is no signing on fee and you still need to pay out of pocket for recording services, in most cases at a fee that is out of most musician’s reach.

Bin Khalid is the only label that is close to achieving these feats for bands and offers studio, practice space and all associated equipment including amplfiers, guitars, drum kit and housing with no attached expenses. However a lot of the services are still DIY and it is not clear whether they will turn out a profit. Notably there is no guarantee as to the quality of the songs produced but that’s a story for another day.

Photo shoots and Music Videos are still off the cards but these are easily achievable once the label adds it onto the terms of contract. However the work being done is quite commendable considering that the labels rely on little to no funding.

Some of the essentials like PR, Marketing and Distribution that are crucial in helping a label turn a profit are still not being pursued.

Other small time genre labels across the musical divide like in the hip hop and r n b scenes go the extra mile by providing services like photo shoots, music videos and social media campaigns. However most are still run informally with no system of accountability and a lot of them still fail to honor the terms of the recording contract.

Our bands will still have to look to foreign labels to achieve these often lofty goals or be creative in seeking to achieve them. For most this isn’t a realistic pursuit and most promising, talented and star quality bands will fall by the wayside. Those with the toughest skin and a semblance of strategy will wait out the turbulence of the music industry until they’ve racked up enough street cred to be noticed. The timelines for how long one should grind out results until something happens isn’t clear. Recently the regional black metal super-group Krummholz composed of Uganda’s Victor Rosewrath, Kenya’s Seeker and Ghana’s Noktal got signed to Naturmacht Productions but the terms of that contract are not public.

That being said all is not lost. Labels like any other business can run its operations with the use of a loan or grant. Virgin records was started with the combination of savings and a loan from Branson’s aunt. Entities like the Goethe Institute and Wacken Metal Foundation give out loans and grants to run such operations.

But even where funding hasn’t been secured things like music videos can be done without considerable expense. Powerslide’s Monsters and Men was shot on two iPhone cameras and edited in house. Photo shoots are also quite inexpensive and can be secured for as low as Kshs.2000. It all depends with whether one is willing to think outside the box.

While the local music industry has some distance to go, the signs are promising. Record labels may be doing the bare minimum but things like recording and practice space are now not the insurmountable hurdles that bands of yesteryear would complain about. Couple that with the resourcefulness and undying spirit of Kenyans, even a little can go a long way.

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