Why You’ve Never Heard of Any Other Online Record Labels from Northern Ghana

The Internet doesn’t work in this part of West Africa the same way it does in the US. It is always slow, and pretty inconsistent. Even with disposable income and unlimited free time, trying to do simple things like checking email, not to mention watching YouTube videos or listening to streaming music can feel like an exercise in futility. As I’m sitting here at the Wooden Cafe—the only place in town with free Wi-Fi—a number of other expats sit around me, patiently trying to use the Internet. My friend and fellow Fulbrighter Karl Haas has been trying to open an email for about ten minutes. Not an attachment, just an email. So starting an online record label here is challenging, to say the least.

This became painfully obvious when I started uploading Abu Sadiq’s record a couple of months ago. It took three weeks to upload the first eight songs of this album. If that seems crazy, then you’re on to something, because that is exactly how it felt. When I went to upload the first song, “Soja,” I was excited, not only because it is an awesome song, but because I thought I’d have the album uploaded and ready to release in a few hours. My excitement quickly turned to surprise and frustration. I had queued up .mp3 files to upload, and Bandcamp didn’t like that. To offer its customers as many download options as possible, it requires that you upload .aif files. So I burned the .mp3s to a CD and then ripped it to iTunes as .aif files. Turns out .aif files are pretty large—around 50 megabytes per song. At the speed I was uploading to Bandcamp, this translated to around two to three hours of uploading per song on a connection that is average to fast by local standards.

Not only does the uploading take forever, but also if the connection is broken at any point during the upload, then that upload will fail, and you have to start again. Say the power flickers out for a minute, or the Internet just stops for some mysterious reason—things that happen pretty frequently here—there goes an hour and a half of uploading down the drain.

Granted, there are alternative Internet sources to the free Wi-Fi I use at the Wooden Cafe. The fastest and most popular Internet connection in town is the Vodafone Internet Cafe, but taking advantage of the speed means getting there at 6:30 or 7:00 AM before crowds of people descend on it an hour later. I could use the prepaid Internet credit on my USB modem, but the rate of GHC60 (nearly $25) for five gigabytes of data is prohibitively expensive. Or I could get a landline wired to my house for around GHC150 a month, but those can sometimes take months to get installed and be operational—not something I’d bother to try since I’ll only be here for nine months. All in all, access to the Internet in northern Ghana is not friendly to potential online label entrepreneurs.

Additionally, small record labels aren’t exactly a goldmine. My colleague Benjamin Lebrave, a writer for Fader Magazine and CEO of the Accra-based online label Akwaaba Music [insert link], told me early on in my project that unless I had many artists signed and near-weekly releases, running a label with only a small number of signed artists from Ghana wasn’t worth the credit it took to upload the songs. After my experience uploading and my expectation for sales numbers, I am inclined to agree—though I welcome you all to prove us wrong by purchasing Abu Sadiq’s album.

The model that I followed when I set up Sakasaka Music was that of labels like Sahel Sounds and Awesome Tapes from Africa. I’ve come to realize over the past seven months, though, that frequent travel between sites in Africa, Europe, and North America are what sustain those labels. Both of the guys who run those labels are DJs as well, and travel around spinning the music that they’ve collected or recorded. Spinning at clubs is a really good way to expose people to new music: putting stuff up online is a great way of making music available, but it is not necessarily the best means of exposure.

What this means for the future of Sakasaka Music, I’m not sure. It probably means that I’ll be making many more (shorter) trips back to Tamale, and it would be a good idea to learn to DJ. For the time being, I’m working on a few more releases representing different popular styles here in the Northern Region: Lord Destro and Don Sigli, younger brothers of Sheriff Ghale, are hiplife and R&B artists, respectively; Deensi is a group of three singers that mix together hiplife, R&B, and dancehall styles, and they just won the Vodafone Ghana Music Award for “Traditional Song of the Year.” I’m also working with musician and teacher Mohammed Alidu, who runs a local school funded by the Playing for Change Foundation, and might release some traditional music he’s been working on. We are also organizing a mini-tour in mid-June. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 5th, 2014 Audio

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