Short shelf life? There was a time when artistes comfortably went through a year with a single. With that one song, they were assured of bookings, endorsements and at times a solo concert, yet today, a song cannot even stay on the airwaves longer than a month. Is local music losing the taste? Andrew Kaggwa explores.
The relationship the Ugandan audience has with their music is progressive.
In 1993, for instance, when Sanyu FM was set up as the first English FM station, only a few Ugandan artistes could get a song on the station.
The situation did not change though, when more players such as Capital FM or Radio One opened shop; the stations were also looking for a specific kind of listener who in this case was not listening to local music.
Then, the Buganda Kingdom leaning Central Broadcasting Services (CBS) happened in 1996, the station became a pseudo home for kadongo kamu, a genre that had not found a footing on the existing FM platforms as well as contemporary music by mushrooming groups of the time such as Eagles and Diamond Productions.
With technology improving alongside other factors such as showbiz, PAM awards and an increase in electronic media platforms, the attitude of Ugandans towards their music drastically changed.
Radios such as Sanyu FM at the time started opening up to a few artistes such as Maurice Kirya, Klear Kut and of course Bebe Cool, Chameleone and Bobi Wine that had turned newspaper gossip columns into their battleground.
But at the same time, they forged a relationship with an audience; each year, an artiste would strive to score at least one famous song and with this, they would be booked for concerts and they would sum up the year with an album launch that was technically just a song.
A lot has changed since; last month, singer Alex Bagonza alias A Pass in a tweet addressed the situation when he noted that a lot has changed with the industry.
“Ugandan Music is very disposable right now, no disrespect to my fellow artistes but something is wrong. Is the music so simple and digestible that it doesn’t need that much time spent listening? Or do we not pay attention to the words anymore? And this also goes to the fans.”
As expected, his tweet attracted many responses from fans, artistes and different creatives. The question of Uganda and the lack of an identity was raised again but Bagonza himself was quick to shoot back that Ugandan music has an identity, people have only failed to support it.
“Most of you lack basic knowledge of poetry. That’s why your lyrics have no meaning,” one Ssebo Lule pointed out while Bob Walusimbi noted that artistes that appreciate lyricism still exist and whenever they hold concerts, it is a full house.
James Propa, a content creator and digital activist, says local music has not lost its taste, “In fact we have a better refined and inclusive approach that has allowed the rise of very many artistes amid all the competition and challenges.”
Too much music, little time
Propa says there is a lot of music being released from the world and Uganda, which means that it is tougher fighting for media space for both local and international songs.
“Songs leave and join rotation faster, which defines how long the music lasts on the market, but of course some songs, especially Afro Beat, ‘Band’ and Kadongo Kamu will last a little longer because of the sound, language and lyrics that speak better to the common people.”
Jenkins Mukasa, an artiste and panelist on Dembe FM’s famous Talk and Talk show, can reflect. He says at the time many of them started out in the mid 1990s, there were few FM radio stations and fewer artistes to provide content.
He says since producers at the time were strict and also few, not every aspiring artiste got a chance to get into the recording booth.
“Back in the day there were few artistes and they enjoyed more rotation. Today radios are receiving too much content thus play a particular song less.”
Propa also says today, songs have become shorter because everyone is fighting to get a spot on TV or radio.
“This greatly influences the quality of content one can put forward in a two or three minute song, compared to back in the day when the songs were [more than five] minutes, hence today artistes focus on the beats to drive the music than the lyrics to keep the song short,” he says.
The fans effect
Some have, however, noted that artistes have been misled by the fans that keep asking them for a new song every now and then, which in turn has forced many of them to pen songs hurriedly to satisfy a hungry audience.
Bagonza though explains that what he meant was not the time people take to make the music but the content. He says the problem with the music is not just an artiste’s but also the fans too.
“So many fans may want to put themselves out of this but it is the fans that consume the music. The fans at times may not want to consume the music but they consume it by force because you have these radios and TVs with presenters that are paid by artistes that do not do well but want airplay by force.”
He says in the end, the marketed songs become hits and thus create a perception that they are good. “It is because the fans are fickle, they do not look beyond what’s marketed to them.”
The paid DJs
In the same breath, Mukasa says when they joined the industry, it was more about passion above everything, thus people were particular about the sound and for whom they needed to produce that sound.
“Today artistes sing in anticipation of the money they can get, thus, you will see many of them pay DJs to quicken the process, even when the songs being pushed are not good.”
At the height of the lockdown, most sectors naturally suffered so much that they had to depend on relief. Most artistes may have been spared but different groups of people that survive on their shows were not.
This saw artistes come out to aid journalists and DJs with food. Much as it was an act of goodwill, some industry players were quick to note that most artistes were only giving back to DJs and journalists as a way of buying themselves into both nightclubs and media airplay.
“When the situation starts normalising, do not be shocked if artistes that gave out food rule the airwaves,” Mukasa said on one of the Talk and Talk broadcasts.
Copy and paste
And of course, the production quality has also had its effects. Stories have been told about aspiring artistes that had to bench around studios to specifically work with Steve Jean whenever he came to town.
Other stories have been told about the same Steve Jean rewriting some songs or even suggesting new collaborators instead of those the artiste had in mind.
“We had real producers that paid attention to every detail, including originality and vocals. Today, unfortunately, we only have beat makers without a clue on the basics of recording sound,” Mukasa says.
Today artistes have been heavily criticised for plagiarising songs by international acts, something that Propa says is their biggest sin today.
“There are top musicians singing on previously released Nigerian tracks, which is dangerous for the growth of Ugandan music and our share on the international market,” he says.
The dawn of the Internet
Of course, the Internet according to Mukasa, is one of the tools that have facilitated plagiarism since that is where people are getting many of the songs they are copying.
Propa, on the other hand, notes that the Internet has given people a lot of options, especially with the arrival of social media that has given rise to socialites and other Internet celebrities that all struggle for the attention of the same audience.
“You will realise that back then in the 2000s there were less engaging activities unlike today where we have social media, news, entertainment, politics and gossip which fight for the same space and attention like music. All these affect the amount of time people can dedicate to stream music or watch music videos.”
Away from the music though, it is also thought that social media has brought artistes so close to their audience, which has stolen the mystery that came with being a celebrity in the past.
“The local artistes are getting too close to their fans through social media, which takes away the respect they should be accorded and that gravely affects the direction of the industry,” Propa says.
But there are some positives with the Internet. For example, this year Eddy Kenzo became the first local artiste to hit a one million subscriber mark and with many people’s time spent online, the streams for local music has been growing.