In the long ago days when I used to work in the physical distribution of music around the globe, Africa on the whole tended to be considered off-hand as a non-viable and therefore practically non-existent musical market- essentially due to a combination of two factors; scarce money and rare electricity.
Without in any way wishing to imply that the basic economic situation has dramatically improved for the average inhabitant of this continent (of enormous natural wealth and cultural resources–let it be noted), nevertheless some elements are tending to make this rule less founded.
Cassettes were then considered (not just in Africa) to be the instruments of musical piracy and in practise as they were mass reproduced, they made the compact disc an uncompetitive musical carrier. Not to mention, they were compatible with the solidity and practicality of the battery-driven and portable Sony Walkman (R.I.P…I’ll miss you) or “Ghetto-Blaster” as opposed to the fragile, expensive and highly steal-able CD player.
But for a certain “middle-upper class” in Africa which like in any other country would like to have the latest technology, the problem was also infrastructure. Electricity doesn’t reach out to everywhere yet in the Third World anymore than Internet broadband will do in any immediately foreseeable future. Clean water distribution should and hopefully will come first.
Music isn’t important compared to water, but it is also vitally part of everyone’s social activities, and so has become the “mobile” telephone on which I personally spend more of my monthly revenues than on electricity. So, it is in a certain way logical that the two should meet enabled by something that Africa has more of than anywhere else…sunlight.
Mobile phones with batteries that can be re-charged with solar power (that exists) are ecologically advanced…and an immediate micro-solution to one part of the problem. The rest just depends on commerce.
Money of course is an issue but so is the possibility of choice and the capacity to express that despite not having credit cards, cash dispensers, and banks more than three days travel away. Therefore the system of being able to use your mobile phone as a portable and relatively more secure wallet–exchanging pre-paid mobile phone credits for perishable goods or music becomes viable and attractive.
Ringtones and ringbacktones, once the new toys of young western kids, now in sharp decline as consumer items , are also becoming commercial realities in the rest of the world but will probably follow the same evolution. As all mobile phones get more “smart”, then everyone will be able to create these themselves from full-tracks through apps that are free and easy to use.
For example, without giving away trade secrets, one French-based mobile operator was recently doing more business with our catalogue in Mali than in Belgium…no massive numbers but significant sales, at a lower price point per transaction of course but real nonetheless.
And as a tentative conclusion to this, since my job is “marketing” music and creating playlists to help generate sales amongst these growing new populations of music consumers…what is the music that is being most eagerly looked for and bought in these territories? Urban, Hip Hop, Reggae, R&B, “Young” Pop Music generally and often with a “soul” that has traveled across the Atlantic and come back again several times…and is now more easily available to people all around the world. Its a tough job but someone has to do it : )