The Challenges African Artists Face: An Interview With JTV Digital

JJTV Digital is a music distribution company that offers a wide range of services to artists and labels from all around the world. They take a personalized approach in helping their clients and also offer very high royalty payouts.

Dotted Music interviewed Jeremie Varengo, the founding president of JTV Digital, and asked him questions on the current state of music distribution as well at JTV Digital’s work with African Artists.

What is JTV Digital and what services do you provide?

JTV Digital is a music company with a primary focus on digital distribution. We also offer various artist services such as publishing, licensing, consulting for artists and labels around digital release strategies, content management, social media, and promotion.

From what we know and have seen on your website, it looks like you work with quite a few African artists, is that correct? Can you name a few?

Yes, we do work with several artists from various countries in Africa, such as Charlotte Dipanda (Cameroon), Efya (Ghana), Vivalda Dula (Angola), Wiyaala (Ghana), Vicky Edimo (Cameroon), to name a few.

Jeremie Varengo

Jeremie Varengo

Why such popularity among music acts from Africa, in your opinion? Do you offer them special service packages?

This popularity is certainly a mix of initial coincidences and referrals, which followed. It started with Wiyaala; her manager reached out to us after a somewhat negative experience with a major record label in South Africa. Then, thanks to word-of-mouth, some additional artists and labels from West Africa showed some interest in our services. We do not offer “special” packages for African artists but always take them seriously and show consideration for their music. There are a lot of talents on the continent, but they sometimes can’t find the appropriate level of support in their homeland in terms of expanding overseas and developing on an international level.

Before we talk more in detail about your services, can you comment on the general state of the music industry in Africa? It’s surely different from European and North American markets, for example, and we are sure there are differences among individual countries. But are there any common trends that dictate where the money is coming from and other things?

The biggest issue at the moment is the lack of major services such as iTunes, Spotify, and others, on the continent. There are some interesting local initiatives, such as but the digital music market mostly remains unstructured. It is extremely challenging for an artist or label to build a strong online presence under these conditions.

Another – and probably bigger – concern is piracy. It is almost impossible for an artist or label to distribute physical records without having them pirated and copied within a few minutes after the release, and then have the music get widely spread. Frequently, we’ve been seeing how records are made available illegally everywhere at the same time or even before the release date, since the same manufacturing plants that produce the official CDs also produce the illegal copies. So physical records sales are basically a dead end considering the piracy issue and the lack of structured and legal retail channels and stores. Digital sales suffer as well due to piracy. Sites that crawl the web for free mp3s and file sharing lockers are very popular and widely used.

Finally, collective rights management is almost non-existent, and so has a lot of room for improvement. Most songwriters and publishers never see a dime from their rights. This is one of the reasons why European collecting societies like Sacem tend to focus on Africa. They offer an alternative by providing a structured rights management to African songwriters.

But things are not all bad; telecommunication companies are very active in the field of music and do invest in music retail services, artist endorsements, shows, and so on. There are also a few initiatives going on from major media groups who will soon establish affiliates or sister companies in Africa in order to develop local talents.

Africa in general may be a difficult market for music sales, but definitely a very interesting one for other activities such as events, brand partnerships and endorsements, merchandising, touring, etc.

So what are the most common payment methods in African countries right now?

Online payments are still very problematic in most countries, since there is a lot of fraud. There are some local payment processing suppliers, usually backed up by important regional banks. As an example, PayPal is not available in a lot of countries. A growing and very popular payment method is using mobile phones, but again, fraud can be a showstopper.

So how do you try to help artists in that market, with all its specifics, and how is it different from what your competitors based in Africa offer?

First, and this is a major difference with our competitors, our digital distribution and artist services are open to any artist and label anywhere in the world thanks to a flexible and accessible payment system. We use a payment processor named Stripe, in addition to the “traditional” method being PayPal. This means no country-based restrictions, as long as you have a Visa, Mastercard or Amex, you can pay for distribution or other services. We also assist all artists individually, upon request, in terms of developing a global strategy. We offer this regardless of where they come from, and make sure every question gets a personalized and detailed reply. This is something quite unique compared to other distributors who will usually provide very standard answers (if they ever do reply!).

Why do you think so many artists from Africa are only focused on local markets and what should we do to change that?

There is quite a lot of money flowing in the music industry, especially in West Africa, with countries like Nigeria or Ghana who have a very dynamic domestic market. Surprisingly, some of the most successful local acts do not even need, nor do they try, to expand elsewhere. They usually have a huge level of celebrity and make solid revenues in their homeland. However when it reaches a peak, or when their music genre does not fit that well for the domestic market, some of them may want to try another route and create awareness overseas. This is where worldwide digital distribution, social media, and online marketing can help.

Any advice to an African artist reading this interview?

Think big; you may be successful in your homeland or even in the region, but make sure to consider the rest of the world when you build your development strategy. For example, you can target the diasporas first (which can itself represent a huge audience), then progressively try to expand to a wider audience. If you can’t or don’t want to do it yourself, get some assistance from skilled companies or agencies with proven results. Educate yourself; learn all basics about copyright, music contracts, royalties, social media, marketing, and so on. This will help you avoid scams. Also, be professional; in terms of music production, performance, and branding, make sure your “product” and your artist image meet the international music industry standards. Stop dreaming; success does not come overnight, it requires hard work, perseverance, personal investment, sacrifices, talent, and a bit of luck to connect to the right people at the right time.

Never forget that nothing is impossible, no matter where you come from.

Interview conducted by Frederic Sahyouni. Frederic is a music writer and COO of the Dotted Music marketing agency.