The rise of Botswana’s music recording and publishing industry

By Problem Masau

BOTSWANAS music industry employs an estimated 30,000 people directly and indirectly. This is a fairly big number considering that the country has a population of only 2 million people. Musicians rely mainly on performances, as piracy and technology have taken a toll on record sales.

This text provides an overview of Botswana’s recording and publishing industry, specifically its history as well as leading recording studios and record labels.

Background

The history of Botswana’s recording industry dates back to the 1960s when Radio Botswana, the only broadcaster at the time, was involved in all recordings until the 1990s when private stations came onto the scene. Musicians largely depended on Radio Botswana for the station’s recording facilities.

However, being the sole recording and publishing entity at the time, Radio Botswana lost a chunk of its business to South Africa through an arrangement that saw its neighbour’s national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), recording Botswana’s traditional music, which was to be part of Ubuntu Music Collection. In 1968, the director of broadcasting at Radio Botswana, Bryan Edgner, gave permission to the SABC to record traditional music throughout Botswana.

This was the start of an ambitious national project to record traditional music from every culture in the country. The work was carried out in two one-year phases and yielded what would become the country’s largest and most comprehensive collection of traditional music. Later, when the project was concluded and a collection of traditional music was amassed, the SABC severed ties with Radio Botswana. The managers of the two organisations agreed to copy the Botswana collection on vinyl and the original recordings were kept at the SABC headquarters in Johannesburg.

However, there was a lot of distortion from the original sound when the tapes were being copied. Ironically, what was being distorted were the dubbed copies and tragically, when the exercise was complete, the SABC kept the original tapes and gave Radio Botswana the distorted duplicates.

The Centre for Scientific Research, Indigenous Knowledge and Innovation at the University of Botswana is working towards reclaiming the recordings.

Independent record labels

There are no major record labels, such as Warner Music or Sony, in Botswana, mainly due to the fact that the country has a small population and by extension a small music market. Rather, home-grown and privately owned labels define the Botswana music landscape. Nosey Road Studios is arguably the oldest independent recording stable in the country. The studio was established in the 1970s by the Sbrana family, which is credited for pioneering rock music in Botswana through their band Nosey Road Band. Nosey Road Studios has managed to stand the test of time partly because it records artists from all genres.

However, the biggest recording stable in Botswana at the moment is Virgin Brew, which in 2017 signed well-known local musician Vee on a deal worth 500,000 Botswana pula ($50,000). This deal gave Virgin Brew exclusive digital distribution rights for Vee’s music in Botswana. Between April 2016 and February 2017, the recording stable has awarded local artistes royalties of about 400,000 pula.

Several other recording labels/studios have flourished over the years, such as Mud Hut Studios, Ramco Records and Lekoko Entertainment.

Challenges

The many backyard studios that have mushroomed in Botswana have driven radio presenters to complain that the music they produce is sub-standard. DJ Boipelo Seleke once told the media that she had lost count of the many local recordings that failed to make the radio station’s playlist because the recordings were of such bad quality that the station’s state-of-the-art broadcasting equipment couldn’t stand them.

Other pundits argue that the proliferation of makeshift/bedroom/backyard studios comes at a price for the country’s fledgling music industry. Of late, the industry has been dealing with issues of quality control, especially given the fact that competitive markets, such as South Africa, are opening up to local works.

In a bid to combat low-standard recordings, Cabinet pronounced in 2016 that local musicians should be assisted by the government to record their albums free of charge using Radio Botswana studios. The presidential directive also wanted local musicians assisted to penetrate international markets. This arrangement, it said, would continue until artists were able to sustain themselves. The directive, however, had not been implemented by August 2017.

Digital sales

Botswana, like many other African countries, is still struggling to sell its music online, and there are no readily available statistics on digital publishing. Many musicians in Botswana have resorted to selling their music on the streets of Gaborone and Francistown.

Nonetheless, a number of musicians have been selling their music online, which has led to local and international consumers purchasing their music. Motswako rapper Touch Motswako is one of the few artists who have attempted to sell their music online.

A music online distribution platform, Naomi Music, was established in 2015. This saw a number of upcoming and established artists add their music for sale on the platform. Naomi Music has already signed agreements with a number of local musicians, including ATI, Scar and Lizibo, among others. The online music library gives users unlimited music, catalogued libraries, Naomi Shuffle, and personalised music at a monthly subscription fee for 49.99 pula. However, Naomi Music also provides statistics on the number of visits to the site, and the numbers are well below par compared to similar services across Arica.

Despite the blame being placed on the general public for enjoying free downloads, veteran musician and producer BK Proctor believes that the use of the Internet to purchase music in Botswana is still at a stage of infancy. He says consumers have yet to learn much about how to use online platforms to buy music. Many consumers in the country have also pointed fingers at network providers, saying data bundles are too expensive.

Digitally, musicians in Botswana have made far more money through the sale of ringtones, much like in other African markets. – Music In Africa

August 2017
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