In the developed world, the sun is setting on internet freedom. The die-hard pirates of the P2P file-sharing community have been domesticated by Spotify and Netflix. YouTube and SoundCloud now vaporise any unauthorised uploads before they ever see the light of day. It appears that the “digital navy” has finally vanquished piracy once and for all. Even the infamous Pirate Bay founders have stepped down and taken the royal pardon.
Cross over to the southern hemisphere and the sun is only just rising on the Golden Age of music piracy. Mobile websites emerge daily offering illegal downloads of both local and international music. BlueTooth and Infrared allow South Africans to then distribute their downloaded plunder. They swop and trade their latest downloads like social currency.
For the record label executives, Y2K really was the end of the world. Napster swooped in and offered music fans limitless amounts of free music, and they didn’t even have to leave their bedrooms. It was the golden ticket to the chocolate factory, and the perfect way for counter-culture teens to say, ”f*ck you” to the man.
Apple, the silver saviours, launched iTunes in 2002 – an online store where listeners can legally purchase mp3s. Music piracy continued to ride rampant, but at least there was a legal alternative for the good samaritans to buy music online. Streaming followed in 2006 led by Spotify; a different model that allows music to be “rented” for the outrageously cheap fee of $10 per month. The affordability and convenience of streaming led to a rapid decline of music piracy.
“Africa wasn’t really seen as a viable market. We needed to look at creating services with content that is geared towards Africans,” explains Tecla Ciolfi, editor for Deezer – a growing streaming service in South Africa albeit of French origins.
They overlooked Africa. They assumed that ‘the Dark Continent’ were not ready for the digital age. For over a decade, 1.1 billion Africans did not have access to a full-scale, legitimate digital music retailer. When iTunes launched in South Africa in 2012, the media framed it as a blessing. At last South Africans had the privilege of purchasing their music from the iOverlords. But the resourceful people of South Africa had moved on. File sharing was cheaper, faster, and better-suited to the infrastructure of SA. Millions of South Africans had already raised the black flag. The revolution was underway.
According to statistics gathered by Digital Sales Data, the current #1 single on iTunes in South Africa has sold 19 units in the past 24 hours. A simple calculation estimates that a chart-topping artist in South Africa earns less than R150 in sales per day.
Just one illegal download site, KasiMP3, delivered over 1.2 million downloads at its peak in 2012. These numbers supersede their legal counterparts tenfold, and KasiMP3 was not alone. Others domains like WapTrick, MP3Skull and Mzansi-Music shared similar success. Sites such as these appear and vanish, only to be replaced by dozens more. The RISA Anti-Piracy Unit, which is made up of South African Police officials, simply do not have the resources to tackle intellectual property violations online.
“9 minutes and give or take 40mb of data, that’s how long it took me to set up an iTunes account and purchase the new AKA ‘Congratulate’ single,” recounts IDM Mag’s Tendai Luwo of his first encounter with iTunes.
Combining South Africa’s exorbitant cellular rates with the price of the track, it cost Luwo R29 to download a single track. Less than 20% of this pie goes to AKA, the artist.
The mass appeal of piracy in South Africa is not necessarily because South Africans lack the money to support artists. Much like the peg-legged pirates of the Caribbean, they do it because the greedy dominant powers do not serve their interests. To access iTunes, you need a smartphone, a bank account, internet access and know-how. The gateway to entry is just too damn high. Music piracy in South Africa is not a free lunch, it is a counter-culture movement.
Avid music collector, Colin Young , describes the role music piracy played, “There were these circles at school where you could get music. Pass around hard drives or cellphones or whatever. It was all about who had the best new music.”
Despite what the record labels say, this movement did not cripple our creative economy. In fact, South African artists are currently experiencing some their greatest success and fastest growth to date. Mafikeng hip-hop don, Cassper Nyovest recently sold 40’000 tickets for his headline show at the CocaCola Dome in Johannesburg. Modern folk troubadour, Jeremy Loops, has sold out theatres in New York, Los Angeles, London and more. Experimental songwriter, Petite Noir, was recently dubbed “the future of pop music” by Pitchfork – arguably the most prestigious tastemaker in the global music industry. These are just a handful of popular South African artists that are thriving despite the crumbling infrastructure that surrounds them.
The musical talent pool in Africa is way deeper than you can possibly imagine. The artists are wildly creative, innovative and unique. The global financial markets dismiss Africa as underdeveloped, chaotic and disorderly, but our artists are carving out their own path, using unorthodox means to build successful and dynamic careers.
Music piracy is not a curse, and it is not killing the industry in South Africa. It has given birth to a generation of youths that are passionate about music. This passion flourishes with their ability to freely consume. The “open access” model of music piracy breaks down the boundaries of wealth or status. It allows the youth to discover their identity and their place not only in the culture of South Africa, but in global pop culture.
The music-loving generation that piracy has cultivated for the past 15 years is finally ripe. In 2017 it is expected that live music income will surpass record sales, and will make up 57% of the total music revenue in South Africa. It will continue to grow from there. When this breakthrough happens, our artists will be free from the need to write albums that sell. When you take away the need for artists to conform in order to earn a living, you set their creative spirit free. You allow them to break the rules, and further human culture.