Africa Unsigned: the Professionalizing of User Input

On: September 30, 2010
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About Erik van Bemmelen
I am a student of the New Media Master at the University of Amsterdam. My main academic interests are the new online business models around production, distribution and consumption of culture in general and music in particular. My goal is to make a living out of downloading music.

Website
http://getmodus.wordpress.com/    

In the past years the Internet has been flooded with user generated content. The theory on new media has subsequently been flooded with research into this phenomenon, that is commonly centered around the web 2.0 concept. This theorizing of the beautiful possibilities and promises of freedom on the Internet has become almost tiresome. What I want to do here, is propose to place the emphasis of research on these web 2.0 phenomena not on the ever flourishing and endless stream of amateur content, but on the possibilities for professionalization (partly) free from traditional forms of industry. The ‘cult of the amateur’, as Andrew Keen theatrically and cynically dubbed it, has had more than enough attention. Numerous authors, Henry Jenkins arguably leading the ranks, have often enthusiastically embraced the possibilities of the Internet for the regular consumer to become a producer – or produser as the awful neologism of Axel Bruns goes. I believe it is much needed to take it to the next level and try to think of ways all this diligent users can put their time and work to use in a very concrete way.

One of the areas of industry that’s been in need of a serious makeover for the past decade or so, is obviously the music industry. With free illegal downloading still running rampant, the position of the major labels is ever weakening. In my opinion, one of the most important challenges that faces us as new media theorists in specific and media consumers in general, is how to come up with a model that allows the artist to keep creating and us to keep enjoying these creations. In this respect, the user can use his power for great causes in the music industry.

This is exactly what the website and model of Africa Unsigned has in mind: professionalizing promising and beginning artists through the power of the user. It was founded by Pim Betist, who was also one of the co-founders of the quite similar Sellaband. However, Sellaband didn’t become as successful as hoped, so Betist started a new, improved, even more idealistic venture: Africa Unsigned. The two biggest mistakes that were made with Sellaband were the reliance on cd’s – which made the whole concept way more expensive – and the lack of a quality filter (for more information on the bankruptcy of Sellaband and the lessons Betist learned, see this article from Wired). The goal of Africa Unsigned is to make a pre-selected number of artists from Africa famous and professional artists, that can live off their music . These artists are in fact unsigned, so the money has to come from another place than the regular record label advance money. This is where the user comes in, because Africa Unsigned revolves around crowd funding. The user can invest any amount of money, with 1 dollar being the starting point, in an artist and when the artist hits the magical $10.000 line, it gets to record a professional record in a professional studio with a professional producer. In short, the user decides which artist will become, you guessed it, a professional artist. As a bonus, the users / investors gets half of the revenue generated by online sales. The users become an important part of the process.

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However, there are still industrial forms of control at work. Not just any artist or band can put their music on Africa Unsigned. This is probably a good thing, otherwise the users would get overloaded with artists to chose from to invest in and no artist will ever generate enough money. Anyhow, the users gets to decide which artist will make it. In an absurd sense, they get to decide which artist gets an advance to record a professional record. It turns the production and consumption process around.

The fact that Africa Unsigned is concerned with helping African artists is a sign that people are willing to bridge the gap, or digital divide as Pippa Norris called it. It is one of many examples of websites with a web 2.0 approach that attempt to make the contributions from users literally useful. I believe this is the way to go: use the connecting power of the Internet to create a healthier climate for collaboration and culture production worldwide. It’s a fine example of the idealism that characterizes a lot of web 2.0 websites. It helps out less fortunate artists and proposes a way to keep the production of culture profitable.

Africa Unsigned is successfully utilizing some of the opportunities the Internet offers, but is still a part of the web of the traditional music industry. This is not a bad thing: segments of this industry posses a much needed expertise and experience. In this sense, models like AfricaUnsigned are also a great way for record labels to reinvent themselves. The record labels, or rather: the people that work for them, posses important and absolutely necessary expertise and know-how that helps talent develop into artists. Next to this the success of the promotion of artists and their releases still relies on exposure in the traditional media like radio and music television. When the Africa Unsigned model will further develop, there’s a good chance that at the end of the day everybody’s a winner: the artist, the consumer and even the traditional entertainment industry. The industry has to look at new ways to generate revenue and this will mainly be possible with merchandising and concert tickets, as is seen in the 360 deals some of the bigger stars in the music industry are cutting. Some of the functions of record labels are vital to a healthy and qualitative musical milieu. When these parts of the music industry are combined with the power of the user and with the creativity of more independent artists, the only way is up.

An interview with Pim Betist on Africa Unsigned.

Sources:

Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and beyond. From production to produsage. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2008.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence culture. Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Keen, Andrew. The cult of the amateur. How today’s internet is killing our future. Doubleday/Currency, 2007.

Norris, Pippa. Digital divide. Civic engagement, information poverty, and the internet worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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