The Future Sound Of Mzansiby Ts’eliso Monaheng / 07.08.2013
On the 15th of December 2012 at approximately 17hr00, Mokgethwa Mapaya was going about admin work for Kasimp3, a music uploading/downloading portal he had launched eleven months earlier. Sifting through his e-mails, he stumbled upon a cease and desist order from a representative of Soul Candi music, the independent imprint partly owned by well-renowned South African deejay, Kid Fonque. The contents of the e-mail referred to an unauthorised remix of Ornette’s “Crazy” on Mapaya’s website, instructing him to remove it or face legal consequences. Back-and-forth correspondence ensued; the bigwigs at RISA – the main body representing South Africa’s recording industry – got involved. Unaware of the proverbial shit-storm that the e-mail had sparked, Mapaya carried on with site maintenance duties. The onslaught continued; within a week, he had received copyright infringement claims from Kalawa, Soulistic Music, and the Universal Music Group. Two weeks later, on the 28th, the website got shut down.
A statement from the site followed.
Positioned as a David vs. Goliath attack on the perceived threat of Kasimp3 to the music industry, the missive spoke of an internal plot by industry heavyweights to undermine the founder’s venture; “[they are] not comfortable with independent artists having their own platform”, an excerpt reads. A long-time bi-polar disorder sufferer, Mapaya went into a bout of depression.
“[Those gatekeepers] started [a] campaign where they sent a bouquet of letters to my hosting provider [and] the owners of .co.za tabling why this site should be taken down, and why it shouldn’t be allowed to exist” says Mapaya, referring to the record labels which brought forward the charges against him. He could not fathom why anyone would want to prevent their music from being remixed. “It’s how music evolves” he says, reasoning that an artist averse to having their songs re-worked is “indirectly killing that genre or a part of the music industry” with their actions.
Born in Limpopo and raised in Tembisa, Mapaya is the archetypal kid from the hood trying his best to carve a niche in an unforgiving, closed-off circle of insiders. After dropping out of university in 2005 (he was studying towards a degree in Computer Systems Engineering at Tshwane University of Technology), he started his first venture, an IT company. The move proved not lucrative enough to sustain a decent lifestyle, so he joined the private sector instead, working as a systems developer for companies such InVision, Datacentrix, and Liberty.
It was while at the latter organisation that he conceived the idea of Shipa, an iTunes-style on-line music portal which proposed to use SMSes instead of credit cards to facilitate the buying of music by the South African public. Mapaya recounts how the idea came about:
“I remember when [Skwatta Kamp’s] ‘Khut en Joyn’ came out. I used to go from store to store looking for the album, and I couldn’t find it. I was heartbroken! I think ever since that day, the idea of a place where you could find local street music for download has always been in my head. But I didn’t take it seriously back then because I didn’t have the intellectual resources to build something like that.”
While listening to a hip hop segment on the radio one afternoon, he heard two emcees from the East Rand freestyling. Impressed by their conviction, he recalled his idea for an on-line music store. But unlike seven years prior, he now possessed the skills to engineer the product. Shipa went live on the 15th of March, 2010, but was slow to gain traction. Mapaya tried, at various junctures, to leverage the store’s penetration into urban South Africa’s consciousness – everything from three month-long advertising campaigns on YFM, to writing business partnership proposals to record labels such as DJ Cleo’s Will of Steel productions and DJ Sbu’s TS Records.
But alas, his product was viewed as being below-par. “It’ll cheapen our brands”, some quarters of the music industry are rumoured to have commented. Mapaya sank into a manic depressive episode, the first of many which would plague him throughout his Shipa journey – a path laced with the disintegration of deals he had brokered with EMI Music (which folded), and rival companies which were entering the market with a better value proposition and a stronger financial muscle. The end came with the advent of Mp3twit and Spotify. He decided that the venture had failed; that it was time to explore other avenues.
With MP3twit as the ballpark, Mapaya set about building the engine for Kasimp3, the third in a trio of planned endeavours which included a video downloading site and a news aggregation portal. The fourteen-day sprint to build the back-end had been preceded by weeks of considered planning – everything from the algorithm to the business model.
Porting users after launching in February 2012 was easy. As he puts it: “I just went to Facebook and told people about the product; one-by-one, I messaged each person.” Facebook limits the number of messages any one person can send to other users; Mapaya had his account repeatedly blocked, but exercised patience until the banning period elapsed, then continued sending the messages. “I repeated the cycle until I knew I had enough critical mass to just let this thing have a life of its own” he says. In three months, Kasimp3 had around three thousand registered users.
Mapaya learnt from his Shipa experience that reaching out to established artists wasn’t a worthwhile exercise, so he decided to, as he put it, build his own stars instead. “I don’t want to be a component of the music industry, just the way that Facebook is not a part of any social society; it’s an entity on its own” he says. To him, a product he engineers also has to produce results. “I wanna manufacture superstars; that’s the output that I want”, he declares.
Mapaya is the first to admit that his product is not necessarily the most glamorous. Various quarters of the web haven’t taken kindly to it. “It has an ugly interface”, one developer commented. “The navigation experience is horrid, there is no apparent flow between areas of the website”, said another. Others have taken to Internet forums to express their distaste. Shortly after it launched, MyBroadband published a short profile on Mapaya. One of the commenters who claimed to work in the music industry wrote: “This site along with his other piracy bullshit have already been reported to Risa as well as the RIAA. He won’t be around long.”
However, regardless of the amount of vermin directed at it, Kasimp3 works exceptionally well for its intended market.
Website traffic statistics are sketchy. While a recent report claimed that Kasimp3 is currently experiencing 500, 000 unique visitors per month, the analytics website Alexa places the figure at a little above 200, 000.
Logging into the desktop version of the website, one cannot help but draw parallels to Twitter’s interface. Twitter’s engineers released a rapid development kit called Bootstrap which Mapaya decided to employ in developing the site. “Besides, I’m also a fan of the Twitter concept” he revealed.
Still, there are ideas one feels could have made the site better-suited to a web 3.0 environment, like the ability to embed songs on third-party applications, for instance. Twaambo Haamucenje, a web developer who is also part of the African hip hop blog 25tolyf, laments the lack of HTML5 support, adding “this means that there is a large demographic that can’t see the flash players on their devices.”
Mapaya counters: “In the music industry, people find this HTML5 component cool, but in other industries, the key is mobile. Desktop strategies are secondary to us.” Since ninety percent (Mapaya’s claim) of Kasimp3 users access it on mobile devices, the strategy makes sense. “Mobile is the new oil, it’s the new platinum. Everyone wants to get the mobile thing right”, he concludes.
Even via Skype, Mapaya’s soft mannerism is infectious. His sentences are punctuated by dry doses of humour. “So you work for free?” he quips when I inform him who the story is for. He has an occasional stutter which becomes more pronounced when he tries recalling past events. In person, his thick, heavy-set dreadlocks add a couple of centimetres to his otherwise medium-sized height. He is confident in his abilities, yet never comes across as arrogant.
During a foray in Jozi central, an emcee approaches us and offers to kick a couple of raps in exchange for a few coins – “but only if you dig it”, he adds. Visibly impressed, Mapaya takes out a handful of coins and hands them over to the rapper. He also advices him to pay a studio down the road a visit, adding “they might be able to help you record.”
The Kasimp3 business model trumps logic. There are no clear-cut ways in which artists earn money, and the desktop and mobi versions don’t have links to the website’s piracy policy. Additionally, since South Africa doesn’t have the equivalent of a SoundExchange (SAMRO is concerned with terrestrial broadcast), how is the royalty collection process facilitated?
Mapaya explains the piracy part: “[The site has] an end-user license agreement, just like any other site. You won’t be able to upload music if you haven’t approved that agreement. All artists who use our platform are aware of that agreement.” The agreement reads: “Do not upload songs you don’t own, your account will be deleted.”
Kasimp3 re-launched this past February under a new host. But how did the shutdown affect them? “It did damage a lot of our reputation…there [are] a lot of artists who thought it was our fault that the site was shut down, but they were not aware of the politics behind it”, says Mapaya. It would seem that a loyal user-base had been solidified, however. Within a month of the re-launch, they were back to pre-shutdown figures.
Mapaya has written a handbook called “Download Currency” about how Kasimp3 was founded. Tefo Mohapi writes in the book’s foreword:
“The townships were meant to incarcerate black people, both mentally and physically. As such the odds are generally stacked against any young person trying to “make it” from the township as a myriad of factors are against them…”
It is against this backdrop that Mapaya is stacked. He, a visionary with a revolutionary edge and flair for development, or just another hack trying their hand at changing the music industry?
“I have a couple of thousand songs to go through” says Mapaya as we part ways. At that very point I think to myself: this could be the one guy with his finger on the future sound of South African music. One can’t help but dream; only if…