January 15, 2023

Sewasew’s utter pride in gear-shifting the Ethiopian music business for good

City: Addis AbabaArts/CultureZeybe Talks

Music shouldn’t be disregarded in a way that it is played mindlessly when one runs out of thoughts or words- Sewasew

Avatar: Abiy Solomon
By Abiy Solomon

Abiy is the Editor-in-Chief of Addis Zeybe. He has intense experience in journalism, visual communication, and online media. Abiy has worked in various editorial positions for The Daily Monitor, The Reporter, Fortune, and BBC Media Action.

Sewasew’s utter pride in gear-shifting the Ethiopian music business for good
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Credit: Addis Zeybe (From left to right- Habtu Negash, Sewasew’s music department head, and Behailu Tesfahun, Sewasew’s legal consultant and podcast department head)

The emergence of Sewasew music streaming service has spurred the Ethiopian music industry into a notable stimulus. The service’s bold move of exclusively signing in musical heavyweights like Teddy Afro has also put it in the limelight among the creative community. Addis Zeybe’s Abiy Solomon had a conversation with Habtu Negash (Sewasew’s music department head), and Behailu Tesfahun (Sewasew’s legal consultant and podcast department head), on their experiences during the brief course of their operation. 

Addis Zeybe: How was Sewasew conceived?

Habtu: The founders had a great vision. The question of whether the Ethiopian economy values creativity was the major urge behind the conception. And there is no Ethiopian economy that based itself on creativity and no environment is established that contributes to a creative mind. Thus, it was envisioned to build an Ethiopian creative economy. Music is chosen as the first sector because when thought is marketed through music it has enormous power. It is founded not to basically reward the music, but to reward the creativity in the music. 

Behailu: The primary drive behind Sewasew’s establishment is creativity. Creativity has broad dimensions; there is artistic creativity and there is mechanical creativity.  When we look at relevant data, developed countries are witnessing an ever-expanding service sector. This is the result of their social setting that encourages a creative mind. Sewasew is devised about three years ago with the dream of contributing our share in this context. We started out by designing a project called Creative Kingdom which comprises and supports various creative fields. The project intended to bring together individuals of creative minds from different vocations and let them present their works to the market. 

We were wondering how we can make the project accessible to the people. We picked the favorite of the populace which is loved unanimously-music. Since the music industry has been a dying sector, we decided to begin there; by supporting and developing it. We aspired to grow the music sector into an industry, let it create its own economy, and be able to make money. We planned to make use of the financial capacity that would be garnered by the music industry in the other related sectors. Though we are working on music currently, there is a plan to launch podcasts, audiobooks, and even actual publishing services, among others, in the near future. 

Addis Zeybe: Who owns Sewasew? What’s the name of the company?

Habtu: It’s called 2F Capital. It is a private limited company. 

Addis Zeybe: Why is the name Sewasew given to a music streaming service while the word basically means “grammar” in Amharic? 

Habtu: I’ve even been explaining this to similar inquiries a while ago. Even though the Amharic root definition of Sewasew is “grammar”, it holds a comprehensive meaning representing “an organized system”, it also means a hierarchical ladder. The name is given to the service with the supposition of reflecting its being a systematically organized creative platform. 

Addis Zeybe: Sewasew has already gone operational. On the presumed achievement of the service after some time, what changes do you yearn to see? What are you expecting to witness from the success of Sewasew? 

Habtu: We anticipate the coming of the creative economy to the fore, an industry that rewards the thought and creativity of people. To grant a creative mind the liberty to focus on its art and have financial freedom, and get settled believing that there is a company that handles the artists' hustles and errands. 

We believe financial freedom dictates original creativity. If you see the music being produced currently is market-oriented. The musicians produce works assuming what’s the popular taste of the time. However, if the musicians had the financial freedom, we’d have been privileged to obtain quality works of art from the creators. 

Behailu: I would say Sewasew is successful from two points of view. One is from the artist’s direction. I state Sewasew is successful when the artist quits begging. It is when it is the end of time that the artist can’t stand by himself when he’s sick or desperate and becomes obligatory to raise funds for him. 

Second, when we see it in a national context, a work of music is an asset. It has the potential to produce hard currency. Ethiopia has a huge musical asset that can grow towards a capacity (like the art industry of the developed countries) wherein it would develop a muscular music industry strong enough to protect and defend its copyright globally. Sewasew’s objectives come to fruition when it can also achieve this. 

Addis Zeybe: Many users who are acquainted with international music streaming services often comment that Sewasew’s launching only with some content (a few albums) would be a drawback to luring the audience. Some popular music streaming services such as Spotify are said to populate their platform by dealing with record labels so that they could begin with a bulk of music content. How are you planning to deal with this lack of database at the early stage of your service?

Habtu: We are managing to collect quality content as much as possible. The reason we refrained not to include previous works of music in Sewasew is that many have copyright complications. If owners of earlier works come to us by clearing their copyright issues, we will of course welcome them. For the time being we are starting with new content. Two new albums are being released weekly now, and about over 14 albums are already on Sewasew so far. 

Last year, only 4 or 5 albums were released in the Ethiopian music industry. We exceeded the annual Ethiopian album release threshold within the three months time we started service. 

Addis Zeybe: Is there anything that makes Sewasew distinctive from similar services which were launched and experimented with in Ethiopia and from the other popular international services?

Behailu: With respect to technology, similar services that were tried in our country are downloadable services, not streaming. In the previous platforms, you just buy the album and listen to it after downloading. Nevertheless, Sewasew is a streaming service that doesn’t require you to download the content. And as it's a subscription-based service you can access everything with ease, especially when you are a premier user you have the privilege of unlimited access. 

And if you consider Sewasew at an international level, it is distinctive, even from Spotify. Spotify is a Digital Signal Processing (DSP) service; you just bring them content and they upload it. Whereas, Sewasew is a DSP service, but also a record label, and rights management platform. 

Addis Zeybe: Online content-sharing platforms like YouTube, CD Baby, and Spotify have their own copyright ownership and protection arrangement and policies. What does Sewasew’s copyright scheme look like?

Habtu: At Sewasew we are making a deal with the content creators themselves. Thus, we won’t have copyright issues like YouTube and Spotify. If any content on Sewasew is needed to be on other platforms like YouTube, it’d be Sewasew’s exclusive right to do so, not the creator’s. We are signing in musicians and their works to Sewasew with a two-year royalty advance payment. 

We want Sewasew to be an Ethiopian streaming “go-to app”, one that anyone interested in Ethiopian music should have. We would have uploaded the same content we are sharing on Sewasew to other platforms like Spotify or YouTube too and earn additional money. But that is pointless. We can realize this dream only if we are determined to progress it, setting aside any further advantages we would obtain. 

Addis Zeybe: Sewasew is currently available only on a mobile app. How are you going to deal with radio stations, clubs, or events that want to play songs on Sewasew? And since music is a work of art that should be consumed publicly, can’t Sewasew deter this wide accessibility of the music?

Habtu: We are working on it. For instance, we are discussing with DJ associations and radio stations to facilitate the service for them. In this case, the availability of a web-based platform is raised as one solution. But we don’t have a plan to do that now. We are creating a more convenient system than the web-based one where chosen groups would be given access to the selected content. We are also giving out some songs physically to radio stations.  

We don’t want music to be considered an instrument of hoopla for occasions or events. We desire music to be honored when it is listened to, enjoyed, and appreciated. Music shouldn’t be disregarded in a way that it’d be played mindlessly by the mass media when one runs out of thoughts or words. 

Addis Zeybe: You have a subscription and advertisement business model. To that end, are you soliciting advertisers and making deals? 

Habtu: A number of giant companies interested to advertise are approaching us. But for now, we haven’t proceeded to forge a deal with anyone. However, in this regard, we already have two big companies working in partnership with us which are Ethio Telecom and Enat Bank. 

Addis Zeybe: How many musicians have signed to Sewasew so far? 

Habtu: More than a hundred creators have signed to Sewasew to date.

Addis Zeybe: What’s the highest payment Sewasew has issued to a musician since its launch?  (If I may not ask who is the individual) 

Habtu: (Chuckling) …It is confidential. But I can tell you the minimum payment we have given for an album, which is 1 million ETB. 

Addis Zeybe: Have you got any plans aimed at supporting the music industry (it can be skill development, fundraising, initiatives, etc)? Any afterthought of enhancing the industry as you are profiting from it?

Behailu: Yes we have, not in the short term though. The point here is there is no lack of competent musicians and professionals. What the music community missed is the right platform to market its works. As we are dealing with individuals, we are also bringing in producers. I heard a story about one music professional who abandoned his musical career and was working in a Ride taxi service. During the early days when we started signing musicians and the news of the service was circulating, he just quit his taxi business and got back to a studio to re-embark on his musical journey. I think he also sold his taxi. Similar instances show me that we are inspiring hope. 

Addis Zeybe: Sewasew has already launched the service. And what’s the impact you witnessed in the music industry attributed to Sewasew?

Habtu: Everybody in the music is busy now. The vocalists are working on their albums, composers are over-engaged, and even one who went away from music about 20 years ago is even back to work, convinced that the music industry pays off this time. New music studios are being built. Professionals who have been contributing to song and melody writing, and music arrangement of Ethiopian music for the past 10-20 years are producing young vocalists by exploiting their intense experience. 

The self-esteem of vocalists, composers, and others in the sector has already been aroused. The Ethiopian music business is totally changed for good. The vocalists, producers and everyone is busy believing that they will be beneficiaries of Sewasew’s initiative. 

Addis Zeybe: You claimed Spotify’s starting its service in Ethiopia is triggered by Sewasew’s aggressive launch in an article published by Addis Zeybe. However, in reaction to the article, some commentators slammed your claim saying that Sewasew is making a publicity hype by putting itself on a balance with the industry’s heavyweight like Spotify. What do you say about this?

Habtu: As I’ve also told you in the article, Spotify hasn’t ever considered the Ethiopian market as one to work into. Ethiopia wasn’t in Spotify’s 2023 plans, not to mention starting service in late 2022. They started service in Ethiopia without even laying the groundwork. If you want to subscribe to Spotify in Ethiopia, there is no local payment gateway to do so. If they really had an interest, they would have arranged all the necessary groundwork as they do in any other country. It is also triggered by the signing of impactful musicians to Sewasew who used to upload their works on Spotify.  

Behailu: When we started out, one of our concerns was how we would obtain new content which is produced consistently. We harbored this dilemma because only a few albums were being released even annually. What turned out was however otherwise. When we begin collecting works for assessment, we found out that there are a plethora of albums already finalized and ready for release. To our surprise, there is a bunch of skillful youth working on their albums in every house, who astonished us with the quality of their work. 

But we were oblivion to the reality that there is a superabundance of creative treasure. The emergence of Sewasew has revealed the availability of these creative riches. I listened to over 200 albums submitted for evaluation within just 45 days. Therefore, it became clear that in a country of about 120 million population, the potential of creative content is indisputable. 

By the same token, I also realized that we could grab the attention of international record labels too. We knew this when two of the biggest international record labels contacted us to work in partnership. So, if such names in the global music industry seek to work with us, it clearly means that we are going to be a direct competitor to Spotify. We held their request temporarily because we want to thrive in the Ethiopian market well for some time. 

Addis Zeybe: Can you mention some popular Ethiopian musicians who signed to Sewasew so far?

Habtu: To mention a few, starting from the most celebrated ones, Aster Aweke, Tsegaye Eshetu, Teddy Afro, Girma Tefera, Tsedenya Gebremarkos, Abinet Agonafir, and Tadelle Gemechu… among several. And (we shall surprise you with the addition of other big names soon). We have approached many who have completed albums. I can tell you for sure that a musician who didn’t sign with us yet is one who is still undertaking his album preparation. 

Addis Zeybe: We thank you!