Close of the Music Golden Age

The Ethiopian music industry has been in a state of flux recently. Even though the popularity of Ethiopian songs and singers has increased with the spread of social media and video sharing sites, the advent of new technology in the industry has led to a change in how professionals make and distribute their music. Part of the side effect of this change is the closure of the historic music and record companies. EBR’s Menna Asrat looked into the reasons behind the closure of music labels and their long-lasting impact.

The 1960s and 1970s have been regarded by many commentators as a “golden age” of Ethiopian music. During those days, the backbone of the Ethiopian music scene was the music companies that produced and distributed albums by various singers, often in their own shops. The logos of the companies were as familiar to young Addis Ababa residents as the landmarks of the city.
Many of the music labels and music shops, which not only distributed albums, but produced their own, began to close down one by one, taking with them the tradition of physical music formats. With their closing, fans feel that they are losing something vital. “I think the closing of music shops takes away something great from Addis Ababa, not just Piassa,” explains Girum Mersha, who has lived in Piassa, a place once regarded as the center of music and culture.
The closure of music and recording companies not only diminished cassette recording but also weakened album production and distribution. Although around 25 music albums used to be released three decades ago, the number is now roughly less than 10 annually.
 “No one wants to spend money to produce album,” Sewmehon Yismaw, manager of Sabisa Film Production, told EBR. “Instead, artists are choosing to reach more people with less expense way by singles. It’s easier to make a career like that because it is expensive and difficult to produce an album in the absence of music companies. Even if the artists managed to produce his own album, due to copyright related problems, he could not refund his investment.”
Sewmehon speaks to an issue that has dogged Ethiopian musicians for many years. Even when music was shared on analogue formats like cassette tapes, people would copy and share them among each other, hitting music businesses in the bottom line. The introduction of CDs and digital music meant that copying music became even easier.
“Especially nowadays, I don’t really see people buying albums and music like they used to,” commented Girum. “With the technology available, you can just give whatever music you like to whoever you like, or download what you want. You don’t have to spend money.”
In addition, the problems associated with receiving royalties for their work has led many new artists to shy away from producing full albums, instead choosing to release a series of singles, often with accompanying music videos to promote themselves, especially as the internet, video and file sharing sites have made it infinitely easier to share pirated files. 
Dawit Yifru, the chairperson of the Board of the Ethiopian Musicians Association, has seen almost everything in the industry. Having been a musician for over 30 years, the veteran keyboardist and arranger has been at the fore of the fight for copyright and intellectual property protection in Ethiopia. To him, the closure of record and music companies is a turning of the tide. “Any company wants to make money,” he says. “It’s the same for record companies. It’s discouraging when someone who didn’t involve in the album just copies and sells it for a fraction of the price. It eats into their profits. Where there is no money, there just isn’t any point in staying in business.”
For producers who worked on the traditional model, buying a lyrics, hiring a band, and finding the singer was their responsibility, as was paying them before the recording began. In the end, they would be able to sell the albums to make up their expenses and hopefully make a profit. However, Dawit says, in addition to copyright issues, that model is no longer viable.
“Of course, there are many factors that contributed to the closure of the traditional record and music companies. In this day and age, young singers don’t want to spend their time waiting for producers to do what they can do themselves. At the same time, through the internet, they can grow their following much more than if they went the traditional route.”
While the concerns for the viability of traditional music and record companies are mounting, there are good sides to the issue as well, according to some music lovers in the city.
“It’s so much easier now to get music,” explains Girum. “You don’t have to wait, you don’t have to spend money on foreign music like before, and even people abroad now have access to music from Ethiopia they wouldn’t have known before.  I will miss going somewhere and having something tangible in my hands with music, but there are some positives.”

7th Year • Oct.16 - Nov. 15 2018 • No. 67


Menna Asrat

Deputy Editor-inChief

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