The responses we got when we travelled across Kenya to check on the state of music shops were far from a sweet chorus.
Nairobi trader: “I no longer sell music in my shop.”
Makindu investor: “This is our last batch of radio cassettes and Compact Discs (CDs). Once we sell them, we will close the music shop.”
Mombasa businessman: “We used to sell music but we are now fully into books. Streaming has affected the music business.”
That this is a business on its deathbed was clear. The days when crowds would gather inside music shops across Kenya to watch the hottest music videos are long gone, it seems.
Speakers that used to boom from various shops have gone silent. Even the hottest hit song hardly draws much attention to the music shops.
According to the sellers, there are many factors behind this slow but steady decline. Online music streaming apps like YouTube and piracy top the list.
The Nairobi trader who said he no longer sells music is none other than Japheth Kassanga who, in his heyday, was a renowned gospel singer and distributor of Christian music.
“I chose to concentrate on selling musical instruments and church items such as Bibles and sacramentals.
“We seem to have surrendered to music pirates, and technology is developing faster than music copyright laws. We should start thinking of other options like streaming,” he said.
The situation is the same at the Assanand Music Shop, once one of the most celebrated stockists of rhumba music.
A spot-check at the two Assanand shops on either side of Moi Avenue in Nairobi revealed that selling music is the least of their priorities at the moment.
Conspicuously displayed were various musical instruments on sale. An attendant told us that although they still sell rhumba music, their mainstay is now the instruments.
“Our range of products includes all wind instruments, jazz band equipment, string instruments and accessories, electronics, public address systems, acoustics and so much more,” says a message on the Assanand website which, curiously, does not list any records on sale.
The Makindu investor who plans to close his business after selling all his stalled stock is 63-year-old Ben Mutiso, who set up his shop in the late 1990s when radio cassettes were the in-thing.
He is lucky to be among those who made a fortune from selling radio cassettes before CDs came and kicked them out of the market.
In his shop in Makueni County, we found a handful of radio cassettes and CDs in faded casings that were gathering dust on the few shelves left.
Mr Mutiso’s shop is located in the busiest section of Makindu. It was the home of music in its heyday. Musicians, both gospel and secular, as well as music lovers, made a beeline at the shop which was known to play loud music all day long to draw passers-by. The music has since stopped playing.
“Many secular musicians called to drop their latest albums at the shop. I used to go to Nairobi twice a week to restock the shop, guided by the tastes of our customers,” he recalled.
At some point, Mr Mutiso expanded the portfolio to include small-scale photography and printing services to prop up the business. These are now his lifeline. He struggled to recall the last time he stocked the shop with music.
“It is almost 10 years since I restocked the shop with radio cassettes and CDs,” he said after a pause. According to Mr Mutiso, advancement in technology has dealt a huge blow to retail music stores.
“Car owners are the only remaining customers of radio cassettes. Radio sets that could play cassettes are now obsolete. Yet CDs are more delicate than cassettes. Today, music producers have abandoned these two media. They prefer delivering music in flash discs and online links,” he noted.
Compounding the misfortunes of the music shops was the advent of smartphones and the affordability of the internet.
“Most potential customers, especially the young generation, access music easily on their mobile phones,” Mr Mutiso said.
In Mombasa, we interviewed Mr Simon King’ori, a salesman at Keswick, a shop along Nkrumah Road that used to stock music. It is he who revealed that the business has segued into the sale of books.
“You can have a shop selling music but you will only get one customer a month. There is no demand for music. Eighty per cent of our sales are from books. From the 1990s up to 2000, we used to get [music] sales,” said Mr King’ori.
Still in Mombasa, we visited the Kassanga music shop within Mwembe Tayari. The family has music shops in Nairobi, Mombasa and Nakuru.
The Mwembe Tayari outlet was a welcome exception because it still sells music, although the size of its clientele is not what it used to be.
“This shop began operating in Mombasa in 1996, selling gospel music. We started with cassettes before moving to CDs,” recounted Daniel Kilonzo at the Mombasa branch of the Kassangas Music Shop.
Mr Kilonzo, who is also a music producer following in his parent’s footsteps, said many music shops have shut down due to technological advancements.
“But we still have vehicles, home theatre radios and other gadgets that play cassettes. So, we still get a few clients. But we get mostly foreigners, especially Americans who come to buy cassettes. These are people who are looking for vintage. They just come looking for African music, not just any other genre.”
He said piracy is partly to blame for the dwindling fortunes of the music sale business.
“There is not much from the sector. This has been occasioned by the change in the music industry. Production and distribution of music are now different. It has moved online. And we now have the flash disk,” he said. “We sell gospel instruments, music, hymn books and church items.”
In Kisumu, we also found an investor who is keen on keeping his music sale business open despite the changing times. That is one Peter Otieno Okwach, who has run the Ramogi Music Entertainment Store for 30 years.
Inside his tiny one-roomed office, we found neatly arranged video cassettes and CDs produced over 25 years ago.
He has also continued to keep a DVD player and a television set, gadgets he uses only to test the discs his customers buy.
Mr Otieno said he has continued to stock music recorded in different forms, something that has earned him the nickname “Music Library”.
“I ventured into the music industry in 1993. Initially, I had a shop selling drinks but the earnings could barely sustain my family,” said Mr Otieno.
He started his shop by buying cassettes from producers in Nairobi and transporting them to suppliers in western Kenya.
He says that he had a wide range of customers, mainly musicians and music lovers.
“In a day, I would make between Sh30,000 to Sh40,000 depending on the number of clients,” said Mr Otieno, adding that the earnings helped him in providing for his family of six.
He also worked as a music producer with local Luo musicians including Musa Juma, Ochieng Kabasele, Omondi Long Lilo, and George Ramogi, among others.
He would also help in labelling cassettes while nurturing the upcoming artistes. Mr Otieno, however, abandoned music production after the advent of CDs.
“We were doing a lot of work but had nothing to show for it. A number of sellers would produce fake CDs and sell them to listeners while we, the producers and musicians, had nothing to take home,” he said.
Due to a lack of equipment, he also had to travel as far as Nairobi to get the music recorded. As a result, he abandoned productions and went back to selling cassettes and CDs.
With technological advancements, Mr Otieno says that the sales of the products are currently low.
On a good day, he can sell three records. But there are days he sells none. That has forced him to venture into other businesses.
Mr Otieno says that he still has a few customers who visit his shop to buy the cassettes. A majority are musicians who are tracing some of their old songs. Most of the musicians pick the music cassettes to play and later store them either in flash disks or CDs.
His shop has now been converted into a library of sorts, frequented by fans of classical music.
“I cannot dispose of the cassettes or leave my shop. There are people who still need my services,” he said. He also says that most of the old songs stored in the cassettes are educative compared to the latter-day releases, something he would want to pass down to his children and grandchildren.
In Vihiga, Eric Mwachi has been a music vendor for over 10 years and has fond memories of the sector that is in its sunset years. Mr Mwachi, who runs a music shop at Mudete market in Sabatia, says selling music nowadays is no longer viable.
He points an accusing finger at technological advancements.
“Anybody who can access any (music) through mobile phones and the internet sees no reason to visit a music shop,” said Mr Mwachi, noting that it has become difficult to sell something that can be downloaded for free from YouTube and other platforms.
“I could make more than Sh10,000 daily in the last eight years from the sale of music and movies. But that is not happening anymore,” he shared.
To keep his business afloat, he is now selling mobile phones, radio sets and their accessories. He also sells electrical appliances such as bulbs, electric cables and gadgets.
In the neighbouring Kakamega County, Salim Mapao, who has been in the music business in Mumias town for years, was making profits as late as 2019 when the steady decline started.
“Times became tough with the introduction of YouTube and online music stores. Many people are simply downloading music to store on their flash disks and are no longer purchasing CDs. This has really killed the market for us,” said Mr Mapao.
It has been 15 years since Mr Mapao opened the Bolingo Music Stores in Mumias. Initially, he used to sell CDs only. The discs would be stacked in his kiosks like books on a shelf.
“If CDs had a decade, it was in the 1990s. This was the brief golden era of CDs before downloading and devices such as smartphones and iPods changed everything. The profit margins were the stuff of dreams. The CD was bringing me up to twice its buying price,” he recalled with nostalgia.
Now he has been forced to diversify his business. His small kiosk is now packed with flash disks, subwoofers, radios and electric gadgets.
Reporting by Elvis Ondieki, George Mwendwa, Winnie Atieno, Pius Maundu, Derick Luvega, Angeline Ochieng and Shaban Makokha