Opportunities for musicians in Kenya

By Bob Koigi

Kenya’s $112 million music recording industry has been on a meteoric rise over the years in the growth genres, appeal and international acclaim. Attracting a constituency of loyal and international fan base, the industry has gone ahead to create a pool of world class respected icons. 

Ruth Matete (centre)Winner of Tusker Project Fame in 2012. Photo:www.africanmuzikmag.com
Ruth Matete (centre)Winner of Tusker Project Fame in 2012. Photo:www.africanmuzikmag.com

But its growth has also been characterized by cut throat competition as artists try to outdo each other. It has been a tough sell for budding musicians who, in the wake of the heightened competition, find it tough to get airplay, distribution channels for their music and income. But just as the pool of talented musicians is growing, so are new platforms that are sure bets for newbies in the industry to pursue and earn from.

Talent searches and competitions

Kenya has been host to local and regional talent searches and competitions which have been great launch pads for majority of the budding musicians. The competitions allow the musicians to showcase their forte and get rewarded for them. A bulk of these events are free, eliminating one of the musician’s greatest concern: finance. Among these events was Tusker Project Fame that brought together aspiring youth aged above 21 years from East Africa since 2001 but after five editions the talent search came to an end.

Coke Studio is yet another music show that brings artists from different genres, eras and regions together to create a modern and authentic African sound through musical fusion.  It takes the non-competitive approach. Now in its third season, Coke Studio brought together 52 artists from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria and Mozambique. Set to start airing in October 2015 on one of Kenya’s leading TV station Citizen, the collaborating artists produced 26 mash ups that will be broadcasted. For its third season also five selected artists from the participating countries had a chance to collaborate with American R&B Singer Shaffer Chimere Smith (aka NE-YO). The artists will debut their Peace Anthem song on 21 September in Rwanda.

Airtel Trace Music Star Competition, is a pan African singing competition where talented youth record themselves singing on phone by calling an Interactive Voice Respond System. After a thorough screening of the recordings, the judges narrow down to five finalists who battle it out in the grand finale. Grand prizes include a recording deal, mentorship and promotion campaigns worth over $500,000[i].  The competition ran across various countries including Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, Burkina Faso, Congo, Gabon, Madagascar, DRC, Chad and Nigeria. In the inaugural event in Kenya the finals were held in March 2015 with Benjamin Webi emerging the country’s winner. 

Get Spotted, another talent search, works with upcoming artists across Kenya’s 47 counties. The brain child of Candy Clear Channel Media, Get Spotted has introduced a platform for talented upcoming musicians struggling to showcase their prowess. Interested artists call the recording label to be entered into the artists list. To make it easier for more artists to participate, the company has scrapped off registration fees for anyone interested. So far the talent search has seen over 100 artists registered. Winners receive Ksh.100, 000 ($1000) and media publicity to assist the artist launch their career[ii].

With Kenya enjoying a rich cultural and music diversity, the Spotlight on Kenyan Music has been key in fusing this diversity into musical masterpieces while creating world class artists. Launched some fifteen years ago by Alliance Francaise de Nairobi, the competition goes to the grassroots, identifying talent geared towards local musical traditions.

Artists benefit from professional rehearsals, exposure to local and international audiences and recording labels, live performances and capacity building. Over 1500 budding musicians have participated in the initiative. Auditions are announced every now and then and interested artists are advised to be on the lookout[iii].

Online platforms

A burgeoning youth population, a robust economy and impressive Internet penetration are set to drive spending on digital music with digital sales poised to reach $10.6 million in 2017 according to a study by Pricewaterhouse Coopers. Upcoming artists can therefore tap into online platforms that offer cheaper and hassle free distribution channels to reach their intended markets.

Candy Clear Channel is one such platform introduced by music recording label Candy Records[iv]. The channel allows underground talent to register with the company, before creating their profiles, uploading their music and videos while getting mentorship by being linked to established artists. The channel is betting on the growing internet penetration in the country to help artists reach as many audience as they can. All an artist needs to do is log on to the channel’s site and create an account which will then allow them to be uploading their music and video content[v].

Mobile Sawa, a Kenyan mobile solutions powerhouse, specializes in mobile entertainment, bulk SMS and marketing has also created a musical platform for artists struggling with publicity and airplay.  The company uses the artists’ songs and videos on mainstream media in Kenya further exposing them to more publicity. Budding musicians can also learn the ropes of the industry working as Mobile Sawa taps some of the artists for TV music adverts that run on the short code 31010[vi].

Government funding

Under the ambitious Youth Fund[vii] meant to tap into the potential of the young people in Kenya, the government has been setting aside a kitty that it loans to upcoming artists who are struggling with finances to turn their dreams into thriving business ventures. In 2013 when the initiative was rolled out, the government set aside Ksh.600 million ($ 6 million) that would be loaned to Kenyan youth involved in music, film and entertainment industry. Artists however have to pay back the loans with below market rate repayment terms.

Vijana Film Fund another initiative by the Youth Fund is also meant to assist young people in media production including filming of music videos. Interested upcoming artists only need to download and fill application forms for consideration[viii].

Jingle market

Kenya’s advertising industry has grown in leaps and bounds with companies increasing their advertising spend as they position and endear their brands to customers. Advertising agencies are always hunting for talents to do advertorial jingles. Jingles are the songs that accompanies a radio or TV advert. Kenyan artist Kanjii Mbugua, who also owns Kijiji Records, is well known for having perfected the art of jingles. He has done some of the most admired and lucrative adverts in Kenya notably Safaricom’s ‘Relax you have got M-Pesa’[ix]. According to Kanji, the jingle market in Kenya is at an upward trajectory and offers a ripe chance for serious upcoming artists. Kanjii adds that Kenya’s Top 100 companies have on average two to three campaigns each year which require jingles. This according to the artist translates to about 300 jingles which are premium.

“For any artist those are potentially 300 chances for you out there. That is how fast the market is growing. But these opportunities are not just there, you must contest for them. It is a competitive market,” says Kanjii[x]. His advice to budding artists is: network from the bottom up.

“Stop chasing managers of advertising agencies, they are too pre-occupied with other things. Work with a copywriter who is handling that specific campaign, show them what you have got. Again you cannot find networks at the point of purchase, you have to maintain networks and keep sending agencies any singles that you do. Make sure they always have you in mind whenever they are doing any commercial or campaign,” he adds.

Film Scoring

This involves composing music that accompanies a film radio or television act. This may be through dramatic underscore or popular songwriting. Kenya’s ballooning film industry has expressed appetite for artists to do film scores, yet another great platform for budding artists.

Blinky Bill[xi], a Kenyan artist who has been involved in film scoring for award winning films like ‘Veve’ (2014) and ‘Something Necessary’ (2013) says film producers are always looking for fresh talent in film scoring which gives upcoming artists a competitive advantage.

“Film producers don’t want to use the same old voices that are known to everyone. They are looking for fresh talent that can inject new meaning and fresh of breath air to their work. And with the Kenyan film industry having come of age, this is a classic opportunity for serious budding artists. The pay is good,” he says.

As talent in the music industry blossoms, so are the many opportunities and platforms that artists struggling to make it in the industry can take advantage of. Industry pundits insist that the first step in making it is having and owning the initiative to want to excel. This coupled with patience, a great sense of networking and having the ear on the ground are sure bets in turning a novice into an industry virtuoso.


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