Trailblazers is an MBW interview series that turns the spotlight on music entrepreneurs with the potential to become the global business’s power players of tomorrow. This time, we speak to Tshiamo Letshwene and Nhlanhla ‘Nivo’ Ndimande, co-founders of independent South African music company The T Effect. Trailblazers is supported by Believe.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s music industry is booming.
The SSA region was officially the world’s fastest-growing recorded music region in 2022, seeing 34.7% YoY growth, according to IFPI’s Global Music Report 2023.
South Africa, the SSA region’s largest market, and the home of genres like Kwaito, and house-derived rising global sensation Amapiano, was the key driver behind the region’s growth last year, growing 31.4% YoY itself in 2022.
Like most markets where major music streaming platforms are available, South Africa’s hopes for future recorded music growth lie in the conversion of free music streaming users to paid subscription account holders.
The free-to-paid-user conversion conundrum was highlighted in IFPI’s Global Music Report 2023.
Spotify has been available in the market since 2018, and while we don’t have figures on the number of users on the platform there, SPOT did recently reveal that South Africans have streamed over 1.2 billion hours of music since it launched in SA.
Commenting on other obstacles in the way of growth for the music business in South Africa and wider Sub-Saharan Africa, Tshiamo Letshwene, founder of independent South African music company The T Effect, points to what he says is a “lack of affordable data infrastructure across the continent, particularly in the context of the streaming economy”.
He adds: “Access to high-speed internet and affordable data plans is quite important for the DSPs to operate and for artists to reach a wider audience.”
Another challenge highlighted by Letshwene is “the limited availability of bank cards and other payment options suitable for the market”.
“I am now talking across the board across the continent,” he says. “[Not all] Africans have bank accounts or access to credit cards, which can make it difficult for them to subscribe to streaming services or purchase music online”.
The T Effect co-founder ‘Nivo’, adds: “We face a lot of challenges in the marketing. Another major barrier for growth is audiences’ hesitancy to adopt new technology/ways of doing things.
“The narrative is, ‘why should I subscribe to a paid-for service when I can download, keep and share music on apps such as Whasapp, which I can get quickly and easily from a piracy site?”
Tshiamo Letshwene and Nhlanhla ‘Nivo’ Ndimande tell us over email that the company is working on addressing these challenges and “engaging different entities to see what resources can be made available”.
“Ultimately the growth of streaming services will create a wider audience for our artists,” they say.
The T Effect was launched in 2018 and operates across recorded music, artist management, distribution, publishing and live.
The company has had success with artists like Ampiano star Musa Keys, hip-hop star AKA, Gospel artist HLE and late South African rap star Costa Titch (who sadly passed away last month).
“Our hard-working team has helped to grow the profiles of emerging South African acts,” the company’s founders tell us.
Big Flexa, the viral Amapiano hit by Costa Titch,has seen significant success with over 51 million views on YouTube and over 11 million streams on Spotify, while the remix version features superstar Akon.
Meanwhile, Musa Keys’ hit single Selema (Popo) has amassed over 9 million streams on Spotify and almost 9 million views on YouTube.
“Musa Keys has also emerged as one of the most sought-after dance producers and artists from South Africa,” notes Letshwene, adding that another artist the company has worked with, Kiddominant, has relocated to Los Angeles and worked with Chris Brown on his hit single Under The Influence.
“We take great pride in the fact that we’ve been able to help our artists make the transition from emerging markets to the global stage, and we’re committed to continuing to do so for the many talented artists that South Africa and the rest of Africa,” says ‘Nivo’.
Here, The T Effect’s co-founders Tshiamo Letshwene and Nhlanhla ‘Nivo’ Ndimande tell us about the company’s global ambitions, growth in the South African recorded music market, and the challenges around breaking sub-Saharan Africa-based artists abroad…
Your business operates across various areas including management and label services, creative production for live and digital marketing. Was the plan always for The T Effect to be so multi-faceted or has it evolved since you started the company?
The vision has always been to create a company that offers a comprehensive range of services to support and promote emerging talent from Africa. From the outset, we recognized that to succeed in the competitive music industry, we needed to provide our artists with the full range of resources and expertise they need to succeed.
As a result, our goal has always been to create a one-stop-shop where artists can access all the resources they need to develop their careers, and we’re proud of the diverse range of services we’re able to offer.
Our approach has definitely evolved over time, and the pandemic played a significant role in shaping our strategy over the past three years. With live shows on hold due to lockdowns and restrictions, we had to re-evaluate our priorities and put more effort into music distribution and digital marketing.
However, even as live shows have resumed, we’ve continued to prioritize distribution and digital marketing. We’re always looking for new ways to improve and expand our offerings, and we’re excited to continue growing and evolving in the years to come.
In which area of your business are you seeing the fastest growth?
Without hesitation and with complete confidence, we can proudly declare that our distribution services experienced the fastest growth.
Unlike other independent distribution companies that sign every act they come across, we have deliberately kept our roster small and focused on creating impact and generating the most buzz with the acts we represent.
“Unlike other independent distribution companies that sign every act they come across, we have deliberately kept our roster small and focused.”
This is accomplished through meticulous planning and strategic marketing of the music, utilizing our in-house digital team to develop robust campaigns. We are particularly excited about this division of our company, which was established during the pandemic to help sustain our artists’ presence in the absence of live events and gatherings.
Our partners at Believe have played a crucial role in providing the necessary resources and skills to expand our reach and introduce our acts to a wider audience. Our first release with them, Big Flexa, has become a massive global success and the video is one of the most watched Amapiano videos of all time and we credit this to an aggressive, consistent, collaborative approach.
How do you feel T Effect is positioned in the music and entertainment business in South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa?
We’ve worked hard to build a strong reputation for ourselves as a company that is dedicated to supporting emerging talent from the continent and our industry network is vast and wide – also known in the West.
One of our key strengths is our ability to offer a comprehensive range of services to our artists, and by providing our artists with access to all the resources they need to succeed. In that way, we’re able to help them build successful careers and make a name for themselves in the industry.
We also partner with labels across the continent who reach out to The T Effect to outsource certain services, such as BET award winner Sjava whom we have built an event property for, to produce and promote. Nigerian artist Falz has used our company to shoot his music video and we have different publishers and labels that continually reach out for A&R assistance on the continent.
Additionally, we’re proud to be part of a thriving music scene in Africa that is increasingly gaining recognition on the global stage. As more and more talented artists from the continent emerge and achieve success, we’re confident that our position in the industry will only continue to strengthen.
Ultimately, our success is driven by the incredible talent of our artists and the hard work and dedication of our team.
What do you look for in the artists you work with?
We’re always on the lookout for talented artists who are more than just musicians. We look for performers who have a unique charisma and stage presence, and who are able to connect with audiences in a meaningful way.
Before signing an artist, we always make sure to do our research, including attending their live shows and checking out their other work. We’re not just looking for great music, we’re looking for artists who have a clear vision for their careers and who are willing to put in the hard work to achieve their goals.
Many of our artists have gone on to do amazing things outside of music, including creating their own TV shows and becoming judges on popular TV competitions. For us, it’s not just about the music, it’s about building a brand and creating opportunities for our artists to succeed in all aspects of their careers. Another characteristic we look for is hunger, we cannot want success more than they do. It’s hunger that’s going to fuel the hard work.
Ultimately, we believe that the key to success in the music business is talent, hard work, and a clear vision. When we find an artist who embodies these qualities, we know that we can provide them with the support they need to achieve their dreams.
How hard is it to break artists from South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, globally?
Breaking out as a successful artist globally is a challenging feat for artists from any part of the world, including the US, Germany, France and yes, even South Africa.
When it comes to South Africa in particular, one of the primary challenges that artists here face is the deal structure [from] labels. Often, labels prioritize breaking out acts from their own country, and resources are allocated accordingly, leaving little to no room for local acts to compete with international artists. This can make it difficult for artists from these regions to gain the necessary exposure and support needed to succeed globally.
“South African artists need to create music that can live in the US and Europe, for instance, while still being authentic to their cultural identity and experiences.”
However, it’s important to note that music needs to translate in different territories to thrive there. In other words, artists need to create music that resonates with audiences beyond their home country. South African artists need to create music that can live in the US and Europe, for instance, while still being authentic to their cultural identity and experiences.
What are your ambitions for The T Effect’s positioning globally in years to come?
The T Effect’s slogan, “Making African Global Superstars,” reflects the company’s mission to help talented African artists achieve success on a global scale. The company’s vision is to take an artist profile from a single emerging market and grow them into a global Western market, leveraging our established global networks with the majors and key relationships with international festival executives.
To achieve this, The T Effect will focus on developing and promoting African artists who have the potential to become global superstars. Whilst we have been advised to try and gain market share, our goal is to really work with the best talent and focus on impact. That is why we are always there to provide all our artists with the necessary resources and support to create high-quality music and build their brands.
Overall, we aim to be the leading talent management agency that can help African artists achieve global success, and also represent artists from other continents on the African continent. So by leveraging our networks and relationships, we just hope to create a new wave of African superstars who will make a significant impact on the global music scene.
What creative and business trends are you seeing in the market in South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa currently that we should know about?
Currently, we are seeing a trend of viral dance content created by South Africans. South Africans are some of the best dancers around the globe and have inspired some of the biggest global acts seen through various music videos. Dance challenges and content are bringing more visibility to potentially break songs.
On the business side, artists are going more independent as majors are doing the wrong kind of deals in South Africa, and it is proving to be more beneficial to go the independent route which also has some “street cred” to it.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur starting a business in the music industry in 2023?
Well, first of all, congratulations on having the guts to enter the music industry! It’s a wild ride, but with the right mindset and preparation, you can definitely make it work.
My advice? Learn as much as you can about the industry – read books, attend conferences, and scour the internet for resources. But don’t just rely on what the “old heads” tell you.
Sure, they may have more experience, but that doesn’t mean they know everything. Use your creativity and fresh perspective to outthink them and come up with new ways to succeed. And most importantly, don’t forget to have fun! After all, music is all about passion and expression, so let your entrepreneurial spirit run wild and enjoy the ride.
If there was one thing you could change about the music business, what would it be and why?
It would be the mindset that success can only come through traditional channels. South African music businesses still want to sell physical CDs. Some are still against the streaming model. The industry needs to adapt or die. With the advent of streaming, music is now available globally at a very low cost, with no manufacturing costs.
Digital marketing allows us to target any market around the world in a matter of seconds. We live in the greatest time for music, and it’s the perfect opportunity for African artists to break globally. It’s essential to embrace these changes and adapt to new technologies and trends to reach a wider audience and succeed in the music business.
Trailblazers is supported by Believe. Believe offers advice to independent artists and labels, in addition to distributing and promoting their music through a portfolio of brands including TuneCore, Nuclear Blast, Naïve, Groove Attack and AllPoints.
Music Business Worldwide