I remember the moment I realised that music streaming services were the future. I was at the Trans Musicale music festival in Rennes, France, in 2009 and was invited back to some French youngster's apartment to carry on the party after the day's festivities.
As we all piled into Julie's flat, she asked what we wanted to listen to.
"Some Bob Dylan," I replied. "Where are your CDs?"
With a flash she was online and asked: "Which Bob Dylan album?"
Julie did not own CDs; they were a relic of history to her. Why own music in CD form, or even MP3 form, for that matter, when you can just stream anything you want off the internet?
I sat there listening to Highway 61 Revisited, wondering how long it would take us to get a service like this in South Africa with its poor broadband penetration and expensive data costs.
The answer is two and a half years. South Africa finally has its first music streaming service. Dubbed Simfy Africa, the service has been launched in South Africa as a partnership between German music streaming service Simfy (pronounced sim-fie, a shortened version of Simplify) and Exact Mobile. In Europe it competes with services such as Spotify, Rhapsody and Rdio.
Simfy Africa chief operating officer Gillian Ezra told the Mail & Guardian that Exact Mobile had looked at all the major players, but Simfy stood out because it saw Africa as a future market. The other companies were less enthusiastic.
Also, Simfy Africa was the only service with a BlackBerry app and this was important because BlackBerry is still popular in South Africa.
So how does it work? For R60 a month you can get an account with Simfy Africa and access to the 18-million tracks on its database.
All the major record labels are on board: Sony, Universal, EMI and Warner have all signed up and so have a number of independent label aggregators such as The Orchid and Fine Tunes.
Simfy Africa is actively encouraging local independent labels and all South African artists to sign up too.
This is going to be a one-stop shop for your music needs, except for those rarest needs, of course.
Protecting intellectual property
What happens when you are not near an internet connection? The service allows you to download your favourite tracks or albums to your phone, iPad or laptop and store them for offline listening.
A security wall protects the downloaded tracks so you cannot share them, thus protecting the intellectual property of the artists and label.
"Even if you can find the downloaded tracks you won't be able to do anything with them," said Ezra.
The service launched on August 27. The M&G interviewed Ezra four days before the launch and 2000 subscribers had already registered for the service.
Every consumer gets a 14-day trial period during which they can use the service before handing over a cent.
Payment is made by credit card, electronic funds transfer or using mobile airtime.
But what about the data costs? All tracks are encoded at 192KB a second, which Simfy Africa says translates to about 85MB for every hour of listening.
Good news all round
Simfy Africa is good news all round. The labels win because the service is bringing consumers who pirate music back into the fold. Why would you illegally copy music when Simfy Africa is legal and a click away for R60 a month?
Research done by analyst firm Strategy Analytics suggests that streaming services will bring in £696-million for the global music industry in 2012, a year-on-year increase of 40%.
According to ABI Research, 5.9-million users will be signed up to music streaming services globally by the end of this year and this figure is projected to be 161-million by 2016, an annual compound growth rate of nearly 95%.
The streaming services are also great news for consumers, because everything is a click of a button away and they no longer have to deal with South Africa's abysmal physical music retail business, which mostly just caters for popular tastes.
The labels may have deleted certain music from their physical distribution lists, but that does not mean it is not available in digital form and albums that are not on sale can thus be found on Simfy Africa.
New albums would go live on the service immediately, said Ezra, so there will be none of that month-long wait before a new album reaches South African shores.
It is also great news for South African artists because they can load their music on to Simfy and earn royalties from it.
It works on a proportional payment system, so the artists that get listened to the most are paid the most. Musicians can also use the social media aspects of the services – it links to Facebook, Twitter and Last.FM – to market themselves and their music.
The social media components are great for everyone: users can make a playlist on Simfy Africa and share it with friends, whereas artists can network with their fans directly by looking at who is listening to their music, befriending them and then creating a direct marketing link. Labels can also use these services to market their artists.
Ultimately, just like the rest of the world, music streaming services are going to shake up the industry and bring some much-needed revenue to the artists and labels.
Getting one’s music on to Simfy Africa
Small independent labels or unsigned artists who are wondering how to get their music on to Simfy Africa will be glad to know the process is quite simple.
Simfy Africa works with a number of music aggregators who collect the rights to small independent labels and artists.
These aggregators currently include Exact Mobile, TuneCore, Zimbalam, Finetunes, INgrooves, Ioda, The Orchard, Zebralution, Believe Digital and GoodToGo. However, because Exact Mobile is a local shareholder in Simfy Africa, it seems to be the first point of call.
Once artists have registered their music with one of these aggregators, it will be uploaded to Simfy Africa and they can start earning royalties, the amount of which will depend on how often their music is played.
Simfy Africa claims that its tracing technology allows it to compile comprehensive reports for all music being listened to on the service. These reports are used to calculate the payments to artists and labels through the aggregators.
What this offers local artists and labels is a great distribution model and the ability to market and promote their music straight to the people who are listening.
Artists or labels who need more information can email Simfy Africa on [email protected]