The money of Music in Uganda

Jackie Akello

by Acaye Kerunen

In Uganda, the business side of music is propagated mostly through informal, forced volunteerism as well as some meaningful collaborations.” Akello Jackie says, in answer to my question.

She flashes her perfectly white teeth in a deep smile which shows off her dimples and goes on to explain that Nkola-Linya Mode (work-for-visibility and booking apprenticeships) is a period of unpaid service that hopefully leads to a break through booking or performance slot.

For a long time, Akello, a multilingual Musician from Pader did back-up singing and voicing for Kerunen Suzan, T-shila and Micheal Ouma before asserting her own brand of music as Jackie Akello. After performing at DOADOA last year, she got her first direct booking to Sauti Za Busara earlier this year. She reminisces on her earlier days as a musician finding her way.

There was little or no pay during this time. But we were happy to be singing and on stage before people.” She reaches for her drink on the stained plastic table that inhabits one of the container shops at the national theater parking lot. This scenario is similar to most artists starting out.

Getting by

Although musicians and entertainers alike have greatly benefited from being on demand playlist at radio stations, they are mostly looking at this airplay as advertisement for their live performance.

Other musicians have to get a side gig or hassle to make ends meet as a musician. Sandra Nankoma, a jazz musician and song writer has a T-shirt line branded Kadugala Dont Crack as her merchandising avenue; besides her music performances. Jackie Akello sells coffee under the brand VillageBelle, and Wake, the performance poet and musician, manages a fresh juice making company in partnership with his other friends.

Others marry or partner with moneyed spouses or ‘white-sponsors’ as they are referred to amongst artists within the Ugandan context. To clarify; the artist/musician gets into a relationship of convenience for financial facilitation reasons in an attempt to meet their creative dreams. The other aim is usually to get a visa to facilitate their artistic and creative mobility to Europe or America where racism still inhibits free travel across borders. Or, patronage in return for sexual gratification and relationship validation. In this regards, many artists are in such cross racial and interracial relationships.

After playing with Qwela band and friends at Bayimba International Festival of the Arts, at Doadoa, at Feza and at Sauti Za Busara, where else are you to play without being saturated in Uganda?” Akello reflects in between answering calls for the delivery of her coffee brand VillageBelle.

Recording music

There is a popular prevailing assumption that when you make a hit song, you break through and achieve lots of success. The reality is very sobering. Every artist must have a side hassle or alternative streams of income other than recording and performing music. For if, good singles where the sole standard for success, a lot of musicians like Kerunen Suzan, Jackie Akello, Apio Moro and Kiyingi would presently be filthy rich already.

Suzan Kerunen (photo Design Hub Kampala)

In his 2017 blog post Kaz Kasozi shares a personal glimpse into the context of doing music as a business in Uganda.

A day before the gig we were at a burial yet again…The hospital had bled me dry and there was still one patient to look after. I talked to the band and negotiated with service providers to push back payments a couple of weeks.” Kaz writes.

Herbert Ssensamba becomes the exception in this scenario as he charges a minimum of 400,000 (four hundred thousand Uganda shillings) per gig for a two hour session of acoustic performances of song covers. This singer, song writer and guitarist has been genuinely employed this way for the past three to four years for at least four days a week.

Doing acoustic covers is a niche that many musicians disdain as a selling of their souls. Yet it is abundant with financial provision. There will be a time for me to release and promote my original songs. That time is not now. My market is not mentally or psychologically ready to pay for my music – why make deliberate losses?!” saysSsensamba.

Ssensamba has had to give away some of his gigs to his fellow musician Benjamin Kasule aka Benji, because he is over booked. Benji is a guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer. Jacinta Kayegi is another such musician who is doing it like Ssensamba and Benji and minting a decent income off her weekly gigs under the name Jacinta & Friends.

In a dimly lit basement room at the national theatre basement, paper egg trays and thin sponge lining make up the basic sound proofing of the Little Penny studios of Jude Mugerwa. Sometimes, the entrance is flooded with sewerage from a nearby drainage passage. Musician clients who include Sammy Kasule, Suzan Kerunen, Kiyingi Kremmer, Anne Kansiime and other industry movers jump over the mess, seemingly unaware of it.

They humbly remove their shoes at the doorway and step into the dim front room to wait their turn. Snatches of music, voice and percussion fill the area which competes with shelves of footage from as far back as 1962 when the national theater was built.

The future of recorded music sits as precariously as the fate of the Uganda National theater building which is under constant threat of demolition to favor some modern concrete monster. The danger to recorded music is fueled partially by music piracy, and mostly by the emergence of digital downloads.

As Samy Kasule narrates:

I cannot say that I earned money from my hit song ‘Ekitoobero’ due to piracy and unregulated music copying. However, that song became my Badge of identity. I played a lot of paid, live gigs with Ziwuna Band because of it.” (Samy Kasule)

The money in music is in live performances.” Joe Kahirimbanyi believes though, regardless. Joe is the creative lead of Qwela band and also practising musician. “But, I believe there is more money to be made in merchandising, edutainment and teaching of music,” Joe adds.

Kasule however believes that the future of financial enterprise for the musicians and artists alike should be pursued from a minimum wage standard.

“…..Otherwise, the devils of an unregulated economy will continue to plague us with peanut pay. Especially live artists who are not necessarily popular requests on radio stations,” Kasule concludes.

Kasule is presently compiling and recording an album of songs with Jude Mugerwa.

Digital migration

As Fezah, we make the number of listens meaningful to the musicians through media monitoring,” Elizah Kitaka explained to me during the 2019 DOADOA activity.

As part of his welcome speech on the second evening of the three day event, he gave a vote of thanks to the fruitful collaborating partners that they have become with Bayimba International Festival through DOADOA. In that, all the four artists they programmed got booked for Sauti Za Busara.

In 2016 Elijah Kitaka quit his job at Google to cofound a music performance booking app titled FEZAH. FEZAH is presently the only app in wider East Africa that is concentrated on booking local artists whose music struggles to make popular music radio airplay.

We are yet to start making a profit from music bookings. But, we are not making losses either.” (Elijah Kitaka).

To manage the dynamics of staying afloat, Fezah is also providing other types of multimedia services like radio monitoring content for its clients.

The technological exceptions

Until his promotion by Nyege Nyege, Otim Alpha was just another Acholi Musician with great Acholi music, amplified by cheap software. Now, he has been on tour to more countries internationally than he cares to remember, touring internationally since 2016.

Kampire Bahana, a deejay of note had this to say on her Facebook fans page about Otim on July 3rd 2019:

Mad excited to be back in London town next month for two shows in one night! First up joining at Café OTO and then for the after party joining Esa Williams for his residency at Phonox!” (Kampire Bahana)

According to their website, Nyege Nyege is a Kampala based arts collective that included two labels, the festival, an artist’s residency and artist management agency as well as a party crew.

Kanye West who visited Uganda in 2018, used a relatively small live-streaming app called WAV to broadcast the release party for his album Ye. Not to worry though, there is the plethora of other recording apps like Fruity Loops that are accessible even on a simple smart phone, from the palm of your hand. But did it make money for Kanye through album sales or monetized downloads of Ye? This move however catapulted WAV to the top of the Music charts in the iOS App Store.

Back home, Kansiime Anne, a world acclaimed comedian and self-made creative entrepreneur released a song on the 11th July 2019 to immediate viewership of up to 2950 views in the 12 hours within which it was released.

Humura. A song by Kansiime. (source: Kansimme Anne YouTube channel)

But this lack of direct earning is not necessarily bad news for artists. The viewership that the internet has made possible for her is allowing her to reach millions of listeners.

There is no money to be made online through streaming or mass viewership yet. Google is yet to pay any popular artist from Uganda and present on U-tube a sum of $1000 or more for likes or views. Not even Kansiime has earned that yet!” (Elijah Kitake)

And, she is smoothly bypassing the musical gatekeepers of this constrictive industry. Will this viewership translate into ticket sales, or is she just happy to release music?!

Nyege Nyege had 25 artists on fully booked international tours by May 2019 for the third year running. Nyege Nyege Tapes has so far released 14 albums under its label since 2016 to acclaim. Through DJ sets and the right technology, played by a formidable tribe of realized deejays from Uganda like Kampire Bahana, they are able to put up amazing shows without necessarily breaking the bank to set up one. Their claim to enterprise on these streets are an unapologetic exploration of African music and syncopation that directly engages contemporary explorations of metallic sound.

Our first tour actually came via a friend through an email from Norway. It was self-funded but we got there and set the place on fire. We thrive on meaningful collaborations to get by. Our success is derived from many parents like SN Brussels Airlines.” (Derek Debru, cofounder Nyege Nyege festival)

Nyege Nyege tapes poster

Geert Lemmen, the Country Manager Uganda/ Africa at Brussels Airlines smiles earnestly at the reference during the French-Uganda Friendship week activity at Ndere Center when I spoke with him.

“We pride ourselves in being the go to airline for efficient, affordable and sometimes, free flights to artists. We have especially loved collaborating with NyegeNyege these past years. They are doing great work.” (Geert Lemmen)

Derek shrugs his shoulders in humility when I relay this remark to him from Geert.

It is the least we can do. I wish we could do more for the great music and musicians out of this region.” he says.

Amidst the din of cultural drums at Ndere Center, Geert concludes our conversation with the remark;

Artists, need collaborating friends in places,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes. I mean, where would the world be without Art?” (Geert Lemmen)

International Mobility

My sustenance is through international gigs,” Giovanni Kremer Kiyingi says. “When I travel, I am at least guaranteed a professional fee. The Ugandan market is yet to appreciate our work, effort and talent as live musicians. Until then, I will be traveling as much as I can.”

Giovanni Kremer Kiyingi (photo by Kibuuka Photography)

Sammy Kasule on the other hand recalls traveling to Nairobi to record his songs like Ekitobero in the sixties.

That song took Kampala radio play and audio cassette purchases by storm by storm without my knowledge.” Kasule falls into a short silence as he is transported to his earlier life.

Kasule later migrated to Sweden where his music flourished. Kiyingi is presently on a one year tour in the United States, organised through friends and informal networks.

Samy Kasule agrees with this sentiment. So does Jackie Akello who is currently, planning a United States tour of her music starting in August through another informal network in the person of Herbert Kinobe.

After releasing his maiden album and touring with SoulBeat band for a while, Kinobe migrated to the United States with his family and organizes most of his tours from there.

You don’t have to be a genius to realize that this is a hard hassle to tame into a thriving career that is also financially rewarding. Jude does side gigs as a sound man to make ends meet whilst making the time once a year to propagate promising musicians for the world stage through the Pearl Rythmn Stage Coach Program, Giovanni Kremer Kiyingi is one of those artists so far.

I have a great producer who understands my musicality and commits the time to make hits which cross over and are welcomed internationally.” Giovanni says of his producer Jude Mugerwa.

The Risk Of Signing To A Label

Vinka, whose real names are Veronica Luggya, is the second Ugandan artiste to enter into a contract with Sony Records, after female rapper, Keko in 2012. Vinka is the KetchUp hit maker who is managed by Swangz Avenue, @swangzavenue_official.

Signing onto a label is not a guarantee to success.” Alex Aheebwa, a finance enthusiast and creative producer attached to Bayimba Productions comments:

They have to pay back all the costs the label expends on their behalf. There is no free lunch anywhere. Show me where it is and I will go have it.” (Alex Aheebwa)

Once upon a time, Keko was a rising musical force on the Uganda and Africa scene in 2012. Then, she signed on to Sony Records Africa and we stopped hearing about her or receiving any more new hits from her end. Word is that she was given a lump sum payment with legalities to march which, apparently were aimed at killing her popularity in Africa. Needless to say, it worked. It remains to be seen, how signing on to Sony Records is going to financially transform and propel Vinka’s career.

Music Education

More private schools, especially international schools, expose their students to Western Classical music education curricula as compared to local schools in Uganda. The music programme at KISU is an adaptation of the Uganda National Curriculum, integrating Western classical music with indigenous African music studies. The International School of Uganda (ISU) follows an American system of music education and Aga Khan both run accessible international and local curricula. In most cases international schools adapt the curriculum to integrate cultural studies of Uganda as the host country (Kigozi, 2015).

According to Fred Musoke, the director of Kampala Music School since 2012, at least 85% of their earnings are from education services. He posits that KMS has trained between 60 and 100 music teachers through bursaries including himself. Of these, 24 of them are staff at KMS while the rest are dispersed within international schools like: Kampala International School, Uganda (KISU) and Rainbow International School, Uganda (RISU), Ambrosoli, Aga Khan and GEMS.

Concert by Kampala Music School (KMS)

Other music institutions opening up in Uganda are based on the model of the KMS. These include Esom School (established 2006) and Kiwatule Music School (established 2012), as well as Africa Institute of Music (AIM) among others. Although some schools offer music as a classroom subject, music is still not examined in Ugandan Primary Schools.

Pamela Acaye Kerunen

Acaye is a writer, creative doer and seer based in Uganda. As a writer/communication consultant, she is committed to gathering, designing and sharing information, to propel creative industry growth and transformation. Her writing includes plays, poetry, journalism, copy writing, short stories and event scripts.

To follow more of her thoughts about creativity and business, you can find her on Twitter and Instagram @AcayeKerunen, #AcayeSpeaking and/or sign up for my newsletter Kenduzine.