Black Coffee’s company Soulistic Music is working on a music platform that will enable artists to own all the rights to their work.
South African house music titan, the DJ and producer Black Coffee, is gradually conquering the world. Just two months ago, he was in studio with Pharrell. Last year, he appeared on Drake’s album/playlist More Life. Artists such as Usher and Jay-Z have reached out to him for music, and he hangs out with Diddy quite frequently. He is the only African artist to land a show on Apple Music’s Beats 1, and that’s just to mention a few of his achievements. Black Coffee is living the life your favorite artist dreams of.
But he wouldn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps. “My 18-year-old son loves music, and he tells me, ‘I wanna get into music,’ and I’m like, ‘don’t do that.’ But I wanna be able to say, ‘do it because there’s a platform for you—like, if your song is good and it’s uploaded here, that’s all you need,'” says Coffee.
He is speaking to renowned TV and radio presenter Sizwe Dhlomo in front of an audience of industry peers and journalists, at an event in which he is sharing a work in progress; an app that he believes will help up-and-coming musicians who don’t have proper platforms to showcase their music to the world. Named GongBox, the app has been in the works for the past “four years, going on five” by him and his team at Soulistic Music, his record label.
“But the industry we’re in,” he continues, “you could be the best and you wouldn’t get a chance.” He mentions that if he never met kwaito and house music legend Oskido, his career probably wouldn’t have taken off the way it did. “Maybe if I didn’t meet Greg Maloka or DJ Monde who put the bootleg of the Simphiwe Dana [remix I did] on radio… it’s a mix of all these things, everyone’s career depends on someone,” he says. “I’m doing a song with Pharrell. If he decides he’s not feeling it or let’s do it next year, I will remain where I am. I depend on him to go to the next level. There’s no structure where I can tell my son, ‘you start here, then go there, and you’ll win.’ We are all here by luck.”
GongBox is a music platform, similar to Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes and the like. But it’s tailored for an African market. “If you think about how these products [Apple Music, Spotify etc.] are constructed,” says Simukayi Mukuna, a member of Soulistic Music, who is explaining the technicalities of the app today, “the product team lives in Sweden, or Japan somewhere, and they don’t have our context in mind; price of data, the size of the app. So all of these things, we are considering as we build the app. And when we are marketing and targeting people.”
Mukuna states that GongBox when it’s launched, will first be an Android app, because it’s the most prevalent operating system among the smart phones the average South African uses.
But the reason streaming isn’t as popular on the continent, particularly in South Africa, as it is in developed continents, is because bandwidth costs an arm and a leg. When asked what they are going to do about the accessibility issues, Mukuna answers like he knew that question was going to come. “The conversation we are having with service providers,” he says, “they are super conscious of this, so the kinds of products they are talking about will address this. So for example, time-based access; so you pay R2 and you can access the product for a specific period without incurring any data costs.” He adds that it’s only a matter of time that data costs are lowered by companies like Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Telkom in South Africa.
Coffee adds that platforms like Apple Music and iTunes don’t work that well for (South) African artists. “When my song hits number 1 (on iTunes), and Beyonce is number 2, you feel, ‘I’ve made it,’ but in numbers, it’s a joke. Because you are only number 1 here, so the numbers don’t match up. You can be number 1 for a month, and then you wait for a statement, and you only have $4. So we are trying to create a platform that’s real, that’s real-time, that’s based on our charts, and if you are number 1, you are number 1 based on your sales.”
When Black Coffee got the idea to create GongBox, iTunes was the biggest online platform for music. “So the first thing to consider was, ‘how will we be different from iTunes?'” he says. “We understand our people more, we understand how they consume. We understand that most of them don’t wanna subscribe, they don’t want to be committed to pay, even if it’s R9 a month. They’d rather pay R15 pay-as-you-go. So the plan is to have different types of payment systems, for instance mobile money. We are currently talking to networks to see if we can have our own currency, like Gong Box money. We want to have vouchers that you can find in spaza shops. We want to bridge the gap that the big companies aren’t.”