Skiza earnings up...but there's a long way to go

Size 8 performing at "One nation one vibe" Peace concert which was sponsored by Nation in partnership with Kenya commercial Bank(KCB) at the KICC grounds on Sunday 1st December 2013. Photo/CHARLES KAMAU

What you need to know:

  • Skiza is essentially a ring back tone or a call tune that allows subscribers to entertain callers with their fauvorite song instead of the mundane ring.
  • Safaricom charges for this service and is by law required to pay royalties to the rights holders of the music they use.
  • However the mode of this payment has been the subject of many controversies some of which have ended up in court. 

It is possibly the single biggest revenue earner in Kenyan Showbiz, and in efforts to continue empowering Kenyan artistes make a living from their music, Skiza has increased the percentage on their (artistes) earnings.

In a recent development, the content platform announced that musicians will now earn 30 per cent on Skiza earnings, up from the current 22 per cent they were earning per song. The amount will be paid through their respective Content Service Providers who will then pay the musicians in accordance with the contracts they have signed and in line with recent legal directives.

The move was widely celebrated by artistes such as Mercy Masika who is currently the top Skiza earner.

“If it was possible I would vote Safaricom for president, which is how happy I feel. However I wish we didn’t have to go through middle men, I know they say we have to but some of them are not transparent” she says.

That said, however, there is still a call for the percentage to be increased. Artistes contend that they are the sole investors of their music and they should receive the lion’s share. The government has also been faulted for biting into artiste’s earnings with crippling taxes. Significant as they have been the journey to musical bliss continues and we are a long way off. In a functioning creative sector an artiste’s earnings supports an entire ecosystem and denying creative’s their cash literary strangles the entire sector. 

Skiza is essentially a ring back tone or a call tune that allows subscribers to entertain callers with their favorite song instead of the mundane ring. Safaricom charges for this service and is by law required to pay royalties to the rights holders of the music they use. However the mode of this payment has been the subject of many controversies some of which have ended up in court. 

The major bone of contention has always been the use of middle men who have in the past swindled artistes of their hard earned revenue. According to Safaricom’s Director of Corporate Affairs, Stephen Chege, Skiza is a content platform that is obligated by the Communications Authority, through licensed Content Service Providers. In addition the Copyright Act, which created Kenya Copyright Board (Kecobo), allows different rights holders of musical works to form Collective Management Organizations (CMOs). These CMOs allow artistes, producers, publishers, composers and different categories of rights holders to collect royalties. As such, Safaricom has to interface with these third parties as required by law. He says:

“Safaricom has created the Skiza portal to increase transparency and empower artistes in their dealings with middlemen. By simply dialing *622# they will now know how much each of their songs have earned and be able to engage from a point of information. This contrasts with the situation in the past where they relied entirely on the middlemen to pay them without being aware of what was due to them.”

According to Size 8 a top Skiza earner, some of these unholy alliances with middle men are born out desperation. Some artistes are cornered at vulnerable moments in their lives and tricked into signing away their birthright.

“Never sell your intellectual property, that’s one thing Clemo of Califf Records always advised me,” she explains “No matter how hungry you are never sell your intellectual property.”

Despite all the hullabaloo surrounding Skiza payments, on her part, Size 8 is laughing all the way to the bank.

 “There was a time I was being paid by MCSK and now I am being paid by Liberty but I have always been paid on time,” she admits.

 Yet, for all its benefits to artistes, Skiza Tune has had its fair share of controversy. The Swahili saying goes Fuata nyuki ule asali and as such, the millions of shillings generated from Skiza has attracted various types of players all looking to cash in. For the most part, it’s been a case of the fool being parted with his money but Safaricom has done its best to balance all the conflicting interests. Still, the journey to a prosperous future remains an uphill task.

Though the issue (of royalties) is not unique to Kenya, it is compounded by the disorganisation that is rampant in the local showbiz industry. In 2014, American sensation Taylor Swift pulled her entire catalogue from Spotify, an online streaming service sighting low royalty payment. In the same year Pharrell was not happy with Pandora after it allegedly paid him less than $3,000 in writer’s royalties from 43 million downloads of his hit single “Happy”. The incident sparked a major spurt between several record labels and digital music distributors.

As the global industry comes to terms with shifting revenue sources, our local scene is facing far complex issues. The lack of structures, artistes’ ignorance and absence of proper record companies makes it harder for artistes to enjoy the fruits of their labor. In Kenya, a commercial entity that wants to utilise any creative works will face a myriad of challenges which have driven many to give up. Yet thanks to a brave few, a glimmer of light remains at the end of a very dark tunnel.

On the flipside, industry players do admit that (Premium Rate Service Providers (PRSP’s) and other middle men fill a gap in the industry. Creative’s are not typically entrepreneurial in nature and that is why record companies exists;  to produce, manage, market and commercialise creativity. Demonised as they are, PRSP’s do act as record companies in our local context helping artistes who would have otherwise not had a chance to shine. According to Gerry Gitonga a leading IP lawyer in the region, the fundamental flaw in the whole system is artistes’ ignorance. He says:

“Business is what you negotiate, people who own copyright need to understand what their economic interests in the copyright are. It’s a business decision at the end of the day, it’s okay to sell your copyright but the major question is what are you getting in return? You need information to accurately value your intellectual property; otherwise people will take advantage of you.”

Gerry admits that business people have more information, experience and networks than artistes and often use these against them. Though it is a necessarily engagement it is one that requires caution and advice to avoid the pitfalls that have befallen many.

According to a National Endowment for the Arts study, arts and cultural sector contributed nearly $730 billion to the U.S. economy in 2014, the year for which the agencies evaluated data. That is roughly 4.2% of the U.S. economy for that year. To put it in perspective the Kenyan GDP is currently estimated at about Ksh 7 trillion so our creative sector should be contributing about Sh 166billion every year.  Starving artistes their cash amounts to killing the golden goose that laid the golden egg. Though Skiza has made major strides in this trek, it still has a long way to go.


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