The Money of Music in Uganda

There is a popular prevailing assumption that when you make a hit song, you break through and achieve lots of success. The reality is very sobering. Every music artist must have a side hustle or alternative streams of income other than recording and performing music. Acaye Kerunen dives into the Ugandan music industry and speaks to some key players to investigate where the money is in music.

By Acaye Kerunen

Context of Music Production

In a dimly lit basement room at the Uganda National Theatre basement, paper egg trays and thin sponge lining make up the basic sound proofing of the LittlePenny studios of Jude Mugerwa. The Uganda National Cultural Centre whose official acronym is UNCC, is a Ugandan statutory body that was established on the 8th October 1959 by the Uganda National Cultural Centre Act, a 1959 Act of Parliament (amended 1965).

Sometimes the entrance to this basement area, which also serves as an exit from the back stage of the main auditorium area, is flooded with sewerage from a nearby drainage passage. Clients include the likes of  Sammy Kasule, a veteran Ugandan musician who made a name in Kenya in the 1970s and the 1980s. He returned to Uganda from Sweden in 2016 and has been busy creating a new canon of work with Jude. In this profile article by Amos Ngaira of the Daily nation, Kasule’s earlier music career in Kenya is described.

He is doing what Joel Sebunjo  describes as the obligation of every self-assuming musician or artist. With this he refers to the need to create an album of work that speaks to who they are creatively or artistically at least annually or biannually. Sebunjo is an Afro-fusion musician whose preferred musical instrument is the Kora. He made this statement during a conversation with other arts aficionados at the 2019 Bastille Day Celebrations at the French Ambassador’s residence in Kampala.

“There is a different good live band playing in some part of Kampala everyday, but hardly a catalogue of original work through the years that a person can reference about Ugandan music. How can we transform the music industry if we do not have a musical lineage of sorts?”

Joel Sebunjo

An interesting blog post by Adam Kozie titled ‘To Start At The Beginning’ provides a sneak peek into the relevance of music lineage with reference to Congo.

Europe has a lot too. In fact, Kampala Music school (KMS) has established a whole classical education curriculum based on Western Classical music. Their main source of revenue is music education to expatriate children based mostly at international schools.

“We shall continue to make useless money from commercialized music if we do not wake up and do the needed work.” Joel concludes.

Kampala music school students performing at a public concert. Image courtesy of KMS.

Music Education Money

According to Fred Musoke , the director of Kampala Music School, at least 85% of their earnings are from education services. He posits that KMS has trained between 60 and 100 music teachers through bursaries including himself. Of these, 24 of them are staff at KMS while the rest are dispersed within international schools like Kampala International School Uganda (KISU) and Rainbow International School Uganda (RISU), Ambrosoli, Aga Khan and GEMS.

The music programme at KISU is an adaptation of the Uganda National Curriculum, integrating Western Classical Music with indigenous African music studies. The International School of Uganda (ISU) follows an American system of music education and Aga Khan both run accessible international and local curricula. In most cases international schools adapt the curriculum to integrate cultural studies of Uganda as the host country (Kigozi, 2015).

Other music institutions opening up in Uganda are based on the model of the KMS. These include Esom School (established 2006) and Kiwatule Music School (established 2012), as well as Africa Institute of Music (AIM) among others. Although some schools offer music as a classroom subject, music is still not examined in Ugandan Primary Schools.

Recording Music

Back at the LittlePenny studio, Suzan Kerunen, Kiyingi Kremmer, Anne Kansiime and other industry movers jump over the mess, seemingly unaware of it to get to the studio. They humbly remove their shoes at the doorway and step into the dimly lit front room to wait their turn.

Snatches of music, voice and percussion fill the area. On this particular day, James Sewakiryanga – fondly referred to as Sewa of Janzi band – is preparing for a recording session his Janzi, an instrument he recently patented.

With the narrow passage way that constitutes the entry into the inner room of the studio, wooden shelves with glass paneling stand in single file against the wall. They are filled with footage of tapes and documents of productions recorded at the National Theatre from as far back as 1959, when the National Theatre was inaugurated. I take my leave at this point to go find Akello for our scheduled chat on how the money of music is realized in Uganda.

A grey carpet, visibly worn by years of intensive and passionate walks to and from this temple of sound production, continues its silent mandate of absorbing unnecessary sound. The future of recorded music sits as precariously as the fate of the Uganda National theater building which is under constant threat of demolition to favor some modern concrete monster.

How the Money of Recorded Music Is lost

There is a popular prevailing assumption that when you make a hit song, you break through and achieve lots of success. The reality is very sobering. Every artist must have a side hustle or alternative streams of income other than recording and performing music.  For if good singles where the single standard for success, a lot of musicians like Kerunen Suzan, Jackie Akello, Apio Moro and Kiyingi would presently be filthy rich already.

Kasule recalls traveling to Nairobi to record his songs like Ekitobero in the sixties. “That song took Kampala radio play and audio cassette purchases by storm by storm without my  knowledge.” At this point in the conversation, Kasule falls into a short contemplative silence.

In between, one of the food vendors from around the National Theatre, delivers his food. It is a lunch meal of boiled chicken stew with Matooke and rice which he digs into with zeal before returning his recording session with Mugerwa Jude. Kasule later migrated to Sweden where his music flourished..  

“The danger to recorded music is fueled partially by music piracy, and mostly by the emergence of digital downloads,” Samy Kasule narrates.

Although musicians and entertainers alike have greatly benefited from being on demand playlist at radio stations, they are mostly looking at this airplay as advertisement for their live performance.

“I cannot say that I earned money from my hit song Ekitoobero due to piracy and unregulated music copying. However, that song became my badge of identity. I played a lot of paid, live gigs with Ziwuna Band because of it.”

Samy Kasule

“The money in music is in live performances.”  Joe Kahirimbanyi believes. Joe is the creative lead of Qwela band and also practicing musician. “But I believe there is more money to be made in merchandising, edutainment and teaching of music,” Joe adds.

Kasule, however, believes that the future of financial enterprise for the musicians and artists alike should be pursued from a minimum wage standard. “…. Otherwise, the devils of an unregulated economy will continue to plague us with peanut pay. Especially live artists who are not necessarily popular requests on radio stations,” Kasule concludes.  Kasule is presently compiling and recording an album of songs with Jude Mugerwa.

Making or Finding the Money to get by

Jackie Akello performing at DoaDoa 2018 Image @Bwette Daniel Gilbert

“In Uganda, the business side of music is propagated mostly through Nkola-Linya mode (work for visibility, informal, forced, volunteerism) as well as some meaningful collaborations.”

Akello Jackie

She goes on to explain that Nkola-Linya mode (work -for-visibility and booking apprenticeships) is a period of unpaid service that hopefully leads to a break through booking or performance slot.

For a long time, Akello, who is a multilingual Musician from Pader, did back-up singing and voicing for Kerunen Suzan, T-shila and Micheal Ouma before asserting her own brand of music as Jackie Akello.

Akello composes and sings music in Luganda, Acholi, Englishand Swahihi. After performing at DOADOA last year, she got her first direct booking to Sauti Za Busara earlier this year. She reminisces on her earlier days as a musician finding her way. “There was little or no pay during this time. But we were happy to be singing, and on stage, before people.”

Akello reaches for her drink on the stained plastic table that inhabits one of the container shops at the national theater parking lot. This scenario is similar to most artists starting out.  Akello continues to state that one cannot simply rely on live shows to get by. There is burnout to look out for but also stagnation due to becoming too busy chasing after money through this one source-live performance, especially for Uganda.

“After you have performed at DOADOA, Bayimba International Festival, Fezah’s monthly popup, plus several private functions and gigs, where else do you perform!? The money offered is more or less the same: it cannot sustain your living costs and even the audiences get tired of watching and hearing you perform the same music over and over again.”

Jackie Akello

Akello makes these statements while she is contentiously on the phone answering calls and making delivery arrangements for her coffee brand VillageBelle. Other musicians have also had to get a side gig or hustle to make ends meet as a musician.  Sandra Nankoma, a jazz musician and song writer, has a T-shirt line branded Kadugala Dont Crack as her merchandising avenue besides her music performances. Wake Mugooda, the performance poet and musician, manages a fresh juice making company in partnership with friends.

There is an exception to this rule in Afrigo Band though, whose fans never seem to get tired of their old hits like Nzewuwo, Speed and others in regular live performances. Afrigo band, arguably Kampala’s oldest band, has hardly made any new music over the years. Afrigo Band has been a band for over 50 years now.

Others marry or partner with moneyed spouses or ‘white-sponsors’ as they are referred to among the Ugandan artists scene. To clarify this phenomena; the artist/musician gets into cross-cultural and/or cross-generational relationships of convenience for financial facilitation reasons of their creative dreams. The illustrations are many but will not be itemized within this article for purposes of moral ethic.

Herbert Ssensamba becomes the other exception to the rule of scarce gigs and burn-out in this scenario as he charges a minimum of 400,000 Uganda Shillings (just over 100 US dollar) per gig, for a two-hour session of acoustic performances of song covers. This singer songwriter and guitarist has been genuinely employed this way for the past three to four years for at least four days a week.

“Doing acoustic covers is a niche that many musicians disdain as a selling of their souls. Yet it is abundant with financial provision. There will be a time for me to release and promote my original songs. That time is not now. My market is not mentally or psychologically ready to pay for my music. Why make deliberate losses?!” 

Herbert Ssensamba

Ssensamba has had to give away some of his gigs to his fellow musician Benjamin Kasule aka Benji, because he is over booked. Benji is a guitarist, singer songwriter and producer.  Jacinta Kayegi is another such musician who is doing it like Ssensamba and Benji and minting a decent income off her weekly gigs under the name Jacinta & Friends.

Digital Migration

In 2016 Elijah Kitaka quit his job at Google to co-found a music performance booking app – FEZAH. FEZAH, is presently the only app in wider East Africa that is concentrated on booking local artists whose music struggles to make popular music radio airplay.

In 2018, FEZAH partnered with DOADOA, an East African Performing Arts market programme by Bayimba Foundation,  to showcase four artists in concert to prospective promoters. That collaboration saw four artists including Jackie Akello booked for Sauti Za Busara in Zanzibar.

Kanye West who also visited Uganda in 2018, used a relatively small live-streaming app called WAV to broadcast the release party for his album Ye. But did it make money for Kanye through album sales or monetized downloads of Ye? This move however catapulted WAV to the top of the Music charts in the iOS App Store.

Back home, Kansiime Anne, a world acclaimed comedian and self-made creative entrepreneur, released a song on the June 11th this year to immediate viewership of up to 2950 views in the 12 hours within which it was released. And, she is smoothly bypassing the musical gatekeepers of this constrictive industry. Her music definitely gets a boost from her online popularity of her comedy sketches. Will this viewership translate into ticket sales for her music shows, or is she just happy to release music?!

There is no money to be made online through streaming or mass viewership yet. Google is yet to pay any popular artist from Uganda and present on YouTube a sum of $1000 or more for likes or views. Maybe apart from Kansiime nobody has earned that yet from music!”

Elijah Kitake (Fezah)

But this lack of direct earning is not necessarily bad news for artists. The viewership that the internet has made possible is allowing musicians to reach their listeners.

“As FEZAH, we make the number of listens meaningful to the musicians through media monitoring. We are yet to start making a profit from music bookings. But we are not making losses either,” Elizah Kitaka explained.

To manage the dynamics of staying afloat, FEZAH is also providing other types of multimedia services like radio monitoring content for its clients.

The Technological Exceptions

Until his promotion by Nyege Nyege, Otim Alpha was just another Acholi musician with great Acholi music, only amplified by cheap software.  Now, he has been on tour to more countries internationally than he cares to remember. He has been touring internationally since 2016.

According to their website, Nyege Nyege is a Kampala based arts collective, inclusive of two record labels, the festival, an artist’s residency and artist management agency as well as a party crew.

Nyege Nyege Tapes explores the production and release of outsider music from around the region and beyond and has released 14 albums since 2016. Image:

Nyege Nyege had 25 artists on fully booked international tour international tours by May 2019 for the third year running.

Through DJ sets, played by a formidable tribe of realized DJs from Uganda like Kampire Bahana, they are demonstrating an astute ability to create visibility for original music styles for Uganda. They are also forging meaningful collaborations with industry players like SN Brussels Airlines.

“Uganda is a place of such diversity that it would be a shame for only two or three genres of music to thrive. Mobility is certainly essential and is probably part of the reason we hear of Ugandan artists and geniuses who died in relative poverty and obscurity in spite of their incredible musical output.”

Kampiire Bahana (DJ)

International mobility is crucial  for the artist who has to put up amazing shows without necessarily breaking the bank to set up one.

“You just need to understand your market niche and get on with it.” Derek Debru, Nyege Nyege co-founder says with a shrug of his shoulders. Their claim to enterprise on these streets is an unapologetic exploration of African music and syncopation that directly engages contemporary explorations of metallic sound.

Our first tour booking came via a friend, in an email from Norway. It self-funded but we got there and set the place on fire. And other locations and bookings just fell into place. We thrive on meaningful collaborations to get by.”

Derek Debru

Geert Lemmen, the Country Manager Uganda/ Africa at Brussels Airlines smiles earnestly at the reference during the French-Uganda Friendship week activity at Ndere Center when I spoke with him.  “We pride ourselves in being the go-to airline for efficient, affordable and sometimes, free flights to artists. We have especially loved collaborating with NyegeNyege these past years. They are doing great work.”

Derek shrugs his shoulders in humility when I relay this remark to him from Geert. “It’s the least we can do. I wish we could do more for the great music and musicians out of this region.”

Amidst the din of cultural drums at Ndere Center, Geert concludes our conversation with the remark, “Artists need collaborating friends in places, I mean, where would the world be without art?”

International Mobility

Giovanni Kiyingi performing at a concert. Image by Kibuuka Mukisa

“My sustenance is through international gigs.”  Giovanni Kiyingi says.

“When I travel, I am at least guaranteed a professional fee. The Ugandan market is yet to appreciate our work, effort and talent as live musicians. Until then, I will be traveling as much as I can.” Kiyingi.

Samy Kasule agrees with this sentiment. So, does Jackie Akello who is currently planning a United States tour of her music starting in August through another informal network in the person of Herbert Kinobe.

Kiyingi is presently on a one-year tour in the United States, organised through friends and informal networks.

You don’t have to be a genius to realize that this is a hard hustle to tame into a thriving career that is also financially rewarding. Jude does side gigs as a sound man to make ends meet. Once a year he makes time to propagate promising musicians for the world stage through the Pearl Rhythm Stage Coach Program, Giovanni Kremer Kiyingi is one of those artists so far.

“I have a great producer who understands my musicality and commits the time to make hits which cross over and are welcomed internationally.” Giovanni says of his producer Jude Mugerwa.

 The Risk Of Signing To A Label

Vinka, whose real names are Veronica Luggya, is the second Ugandan artiste to enter into a contract with Sony Records, after female rapper Keko in 2012. Vinka is the Ketch Up hit maker who is managed by Swangz Avenue, @swangzavenue_official.  

Alex Aheebwa, a finance enthusiast and creative producer attached to Bayimba Productions commented this about such seemingly lucrative contracts

“Signing onto a label is not a guarantee to success. They have to pay back all the costs the label expends on their behalf. There is no free lunch anywhere. Show me where it is and I will go have it.”

Alex Aheebwa

Once upon a time, Keko was a rising musical force on the Uganda and Africa scene in 2012. Then, she signed on to Sony Records Africa and we stopped hearing about her or receiving any newer hits from her end.  Word is that she was given a lump sum payment with legalities to march which, apparently were aimed at killing her popularity in Africa. Needless to say, it worked. It remains to be seen how signing on to Sony records is going to financially transform and propel Vinka’s Career. 

Acaye Kerunen
writer, social-cultural activist

I am a writer, socio-cultural activist, creative doer and seer based in Uganda. My work includes design-based thinking and communication, mediation, curation, directing, producing and performing.  As a writer/communication consultant, I am committed to gathering, designing and sharing information, to propel creative industry growth and transformation.  My writing includes plays, poetry, journalism, copy writing, short stories and event scripts

To follow more of my thoughts about creativity and business, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram, @AcayeKerunen #AcayeSpeaking and/or sign up for my newsletter Kenduzine that will be up soon.


2 thoughts on “The Money of Music in Uganda

  1. Nice article, I bet if you had interviewed “mainstream” Ugandan musicians like John Blac, Bebe cool and the like, you would get different findings.

    1. Most def. Not interviewing them was a deliberate choice of perspective with the politics surrounding them et all.

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