A DECADE after iTunes demolished the traditional music
industry, the arrival of Simfy Africa finally gives South Africans a legal
The music industry, for all its culture of revolution, has
always resisted change, and almost always to its enormous cost.
When a program called Napster arrived at the end of the
1990s to allow online sharing of digital music files between individuals, the
industry took to the courts to shut it down.
The music industry succeeded, giving it the confidence to
resist any attempt to embrace the concept of digital, or to find new ways to
add value to a disenchanted public.
It insisted on sticking to a business model that was decades
old: selling an album of about 10 songs to give fans access to the one song
they wanted to hear.
Then came iTunes, an online music service integrated with
Apple's iPod, a digital alternative to the Sony Walkman.
Apple's charismatic CEO Steve Jobs was able to convince most
major American music labels to allow digital tracks to be sold on iTunes, and
also played on computers.
Overnight, the album died.
Individual tracks at a dollar a time made so much more sense
But it also meant that the music industry imploded – from a
$33bn business in the 1990s to $16.2bn in 2011. In the USA in 2011, digital
sales overtook physical for the first time, taking 50.3% of the market.
Ironically, along with that landmark, album sales grew for
the first time since 2004, as new artists like Adele gave the mass market a
more compelling reason to buy a full set of songs.
In all this time, the South African music industry tried to
fend off the digital revolution, or at least hide from it.
They were helped along by iTunes, which paid little
attention to this market.
As part of its deal with the music industry devil, Apple
still maintained the entertainment industry's fiction of geographically-defined
rights to music.
So, despite how illogical this may be in the boundary-free
internet era, a South African may not – officially – buy music from an American
or European online store.
But on August 27 South Africa's digital isolation ended.
A German alternative to iTunes called Simfy struck a deal
with eXactmobile in South Africa to bring its service to this country. It is
branded Simfy Africa, underlining the intention of expanding northwards.
Simfy was originally modelled on the online radio station
Spotify, which offers unlimited access to a vast catalogue of songs at no cost.
It's all paid for by advertising, which may work in markets with deep internet
penetration, but is a non-starter in South Africa.
The South African adaptation is an all-you-can-eat model for
R60 a month. That, coincidentally, comes in at the same level as the BlackBerry
internet service's unlimited access option (excluding streaming media like
video and music).
It is also, according to eXactmobile founder and Simfy
Africa CEO Davin Mole, a price point that gave the major music labels in South
Africa a sense of comfort.
It's not the first unlimited music offering in South Africa.
Nokia pioneered the concept, but only for purchasers of
specific phone models bundled with Nokia Music Unlimited, like the hugely
popular Nokia 5310 XpressMusic.
That service turned the Nokia Music Store into the biggest
digital music outlet in South Africa, but made little dent in the overall music
Both services offer millions of songs, but Simfy Africa
takes the concept a few steps further, opening it to all computer and most
Indeed, as Mole puts it, "This is a smartphone
play". Through an app on BlackBerry, iPhone and Android phones, the music
can be downloaded or played directly off the data stream.
Ironically, Nokia is not part of this mix, as its Symbian
operating system is not supported by Simfy.
For the rest, as long as the monthly subscription is active,
customers can build up unlimited music libraries on their own phones or
computers, within the Simfy app.
The music can't be played on other devices without using the
app – another element that persuaded major labels to tolerate the service.
The four major music labels in South Africa - EMI, Sony, Universal
and Warner Music - are all represented.
The independent music aggregator The Orchard, which was
started 15 years ago to give independent music producers access to mainstream
outlets and pioneered legal digital downloads, is part of the lineup.
Two other aggregators, finetunes and Merlin, are also in
there, and more are expected to join, giving usigned artists a variety of
options to access Simfy Africa customers.
Users can build playlists, make them public, and share their
music tastes with other users.
The beauty of the unlimited option is that it opens music
fans to the concept of discovering new music. When you don't have to pay $1 or
R10 a time just to find out if you like a track, music truly arrives in your
*Arthur Goldstuck is MD of World Wide Worx and
editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee
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