South Africa steps into the modern era of music consumption with the successful launch of Simfy Africa, the continent’s first cross-platform music service. Without the tech-jargon, this means legal access to 20 million songs for less than the price of a sale-bin CD.
(This article by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” on 2012/12/16).
The launch of Simfy Africa into South Africa earlier this year was bold and visionary, on the one hand, and downright crazy on the other. Pronounced “sim-phy”, a streaming music service – meaning that you need to be connected to the internet to hear any songs – is a big ask in a country where only one in three people have internet access, only 20% of the population have an internet connection at home and upwards of 75% of cellphone users use prepaid, rather than contract. But it’s working, with a recent Top 20 showing the most popular song to be The Killers’ “Runaways”, the top South African tune to be Van Coke Kartel’s “Wie’s Bang” and artists like David Guetta, Mumford & Sons, Coldplay, ChianoSky, Kongos, Kabomo’s “Uzoboya”, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Toya Delazy and, yes, Psy and his “Gangnam Style” featuring in the Top 20 most listened-to songs.
Simfy Africa CEO Davin Mole starts the interview about the digital jukebox of the 21st century with some numbers: “In general terms, we’re very happy. We have tens of thousands of registered users and a strong uptake. But we’re also seeing that, beyond a certain demographic, there’s misunderstanding about what streaming is. We want to get the service to hundreds of thousands of users…”
What, then, is “streaming”? With a CD, DVD, cassette or LP, a person acquires a physical object and, if they have the right machine to play it, can listen to the music that’s been encoded or engraved on this physical object. With a download, a person acquires a digital file (usually an MP3) and, as long as they have the right player, can listen to the music that’s been turned into bits and bytes in the download file. Apple Inc.’s popular iTunes download site is probably the best example of such a site especially since, just last week, the American company opened up its shop to South African users. Other download sites include eMusic.com, CDBaby.com and South Africa’s ownRhythmMusicStore.co.za, a collector’s delight with its catalogue of out-of-print local releases (David Kramer fans; go there now). With a streaming service, a person pays a monthly fee that gives them access to the music catalogue, and installs a player on their computer or ‘phone to listen to music that is “streamed” to them via an internet connection.
Simfy takes the streaming model a step further, with an “offline” mode, which allows customers to store music they’ve streamed on their computer or ‘phone – thus reducing their connection costs since they don’t need to connect again to listen to a song a second time.
“In South Africa, you have to be conscious of the cost of connectivity,” says Mole. “Generally, we’re not encouraging people to open stream, unless they have an unlimited (uncapped) connection. We see a lot of people download a lot of music to the offline mode, which is an indication that we’re coming early to South Africa – maybe a year before the internet situation is perfect for what we offer. But, on the basis of our offline mode, people aren’t paying more, per month, than they would for a once-off download of an album or a song, or buying it in a brick and mortar shop. We also have a hardcore group of users with very fast, uncapped internet connections and they are streaming music all the time. The high-end users are listening to two hours of music a day, and have stored thousands of tracks each. What we are streaming, if we were selling that music one at a time, the volumes would be impressive. Astounding. We’re seeing that once people have the right idea and the right access, Simfy Africa offers real value to them.”
In addition to offering value for money, Simfy brings back to the online world the delight of a physical music shop. Since one pays for monthly access, one can dip into an album at no additional cost, listen to a new single just for the heck of it, delve back into nostalgic back alleys, and, most importantly, hit the “Discover” button. Are you sure you want the whole Lady Gaga album, just because a friend is still bending your ear about how good the concert was? At well upwards of R100 to gamble on her CD, it’s quite an ask. With a streaming service, used something like a customised radio station, you can dive into all those musical maybes and, hopefully, unearth some gems. Simfy can also be connected to social networks like Facebook, offering users a chance to get recommendations from others, and propose their own playlists.
Simfy has also seen interest from a perhaps unexpected quarter. “All of the music we have is legal and we can vouch for that. We’ve seen a surprising number of people who had a guilt complex. We’ve seen hundreds of comments saying, ‘I’m very happy it’s legal’. At R60 per month, we feel this is sufficiently low that only the most hard-up would consider that a major price barrier. The music we supply has been vetted to always be encoded at high quality and to be legitimate. Also, if you stop paying the monthly subscription, the offline music you have, and your playlists are locked, not deleted. If you pay again, you can play it again.”
Simfy Africa has an app for computers, and the Apple, Windows, Android and BlackBerry cellphones, with a raft of upgraded players slated for launch in February. The new apps will offer improved “Discovery” mode, improved user interface, improved offline modes and, for mobile users, a leaner version of songs aimed at easing the download costs by 70%. There are also talks in place with handset manufacturers and cellular networks to offer bundled deals, and with independent and major record labels to get their catalogues onto Simfy.
“What we’re trying to say to people is ‘Give it a try’,” says Mole. “We’ve offer a two week free trial: use it and tell us what you think. We’ve always recognised that there’s more to do – if people don’t like it, we’d like to know why so we can improve. If they do like Simfy Africa… and we think it offers very good value… if they subscribe, then we’re happy, and we’re sure they will have many hours of happy listening.”
This article by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” on 2012/12/16
Disclosure: the writer is one of Simfy’s trial users. More on Simfy.co.za, which offers an obligation-free 14-day trial. Internet penetration stats are quoted from “The New Wave”, a superb study by Indra de Lanerolle released in November 2012 and © University of Witwatersrand. See NetworkSociety.co.za