What does it feel like to be a creative selling online in Kenya?​

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Experiences on digital platforms for creatives centered around the opportunity to get inspiration to create, directly interact with fans and clients, self promote and build a brand around their creative work. There exists a blurry line between transactional (earnings) and relational (building an audience) labor, especially with musicians who use social media platforms to engage fans and redirect them to more formal platforms that have monetization options.

While digital platforms offer a chance for independent creatives to showcase, they still work with distribution partners who help market and protect their work while earning a commission. Musicians rely on distribution agents while visual artists work with established galleries to get more market. In the process of distributing work online, piracy and copyright issues are still prevalent, creatives mentioned needing more channels to protect their work as they share and distribute it openly on online platforms.

"When they know me online, they are able to listen and download my songs because they also have my link, which takes them to my social media and the things that I have done. I have shared a lot in groups on social media until sometimes they block me from posting any more of the links. But that excessive sharing is what has made me be known. Digital platforms are what are enabling artists to be able to own cars. Selling CDs will not take you that far."

Conversations with creatives was the most explorative, compared to the other sectors, platform livelihoods of creatives is not well documented. The research focused on two types of creatives—musicians and visual artists—who use digital platforms to distribute their work. 

Platform experiences of Musicians

A chance to self-promote and reach wider audiences.

Distributing music on digital platforms offers a chance for musicians to self-promote on social media, which creates a wider reach. This drives sales through viewership, streams, and downloads. The more consistent the musician is in pushing their music online, the better their viewership. 

Online community reinforces purpose and passion.

Some platforms like YouTube offer channels for musicians to engage freely, creating a sense of community and reinforcing purpose and passion. When they relate closely with their audience, they are able to gauge the reception of their creative work and learn more about what listeners want to hear.

"Now I am doing YouTube, you push to get more subscribers. Because getting subscribers also converts to money. So YouTube is the biggest platform for now, CDs are in the past."

Social media channels lack clear ways to monetize creative work.

Monetization challenges were prevalent, especially on social media channels. With social media platforms lacking clear monetization channels, they are used as a conduit to direct fans to music streaming/download platforms where downloads, listening, and viewership translate into earnings. Musicians mentioned they are the best tools for promotion especially for independent artists who lack huge marketing budgets. 

Musicians tap into distribution partners to navigate distribution complexities.

Musicians work closely with distribution partners who have a larger promotion muscle. They help them navigate the large plethora of distribution options and assist with copyrighting, getting a commission from the musicians’ earnings. Some however mentioned a lack of transparency, particularly the complexity surrounding distribution, copyright infringement, and marketing where the pay is obscure with no breakdown of earnings.

Selling creative work requires relational labor.

Musicians mentioned needing to have an iron-willed focus on promoting their work, sometimes needing to share personal information to relate more with fans and drive engagement. Satisfying fluid audiences that shift with new trends involves challenges of relatability.

COVID-19 uncovered the importance of online channels.

When it comes to sustainability, musicians mentioned that platform earnings are often irregular, leading to diversification of portfolios, utilizing influence and entrepreneurial drive, for instance, becoming brand ambassadors, working as MCs/Hosts for events, or participating in live offline events. These offline gigs were affected by COVID-19. With the cancellation of live events and bans on gathering, COVID-19 uncovered the importance of streaming, digital downloads, and engagement with fans with many musicians seeing a growth in followership and online engagements.

Musician
Musician

Platform experiences of visual artists

Currently, there are not many formal platforms for visual artists to sell their work in Kenya. Instead, they rely heavily on social media platforms that act as online portfolios and channels for audience engagement and commerce. E-commerce and social media are effective means to sell art directly to clients, and online gallery pages act as curators to reach larger audiences.

Visual artist

Social media acts as a channel for engagement and commerce.

Formal platforms are few and lack a reliable or large source of clients who can readily purchase art. Artists complement this with personal websites, portfolio pages, online art communities like Kenya National Visual Artists’ Association, and personal social media pages. Offline galleries are also shifting to online curation, either through their websites or social media pages. With this, artists can access a wider market through listings on these curator pages. Most artists use social media to engage fans and get potential buyers.

I market myself mostly through Instagram because I feel like it is more interactive. They come to my DM, they ask for prices. I give them the prices and we communicate on the delivery.​​

Artists use different hacks to protect their work online.

Visual artists use social media platforms to showcase portfolios, amidst a growing challenge in copyrighting and lack of redress mechanisms when aggrieved. To protect their work online, most sign the artwork before sharing or rely on community networks when reporting copyright infringement cases.

Consistency showcase of both art and creative process drives sales.

Consistently showcasing the artist’s work and process ultimately increases art appreciation and the price tag of the art. They do this by showcasing the behind the scene that goes into the creation. When clients see this effort and passion that goes into creating art, they are willing to pay more, engage and support the artist. With most art being a physical thing that requires touch and feel, artists mentioned the need for both offline and online channels as they both complement each other. 

How can a creative in digital marketplaces?

1. Employ social creativity.

Most creatives we spoke to are not buying Facebook ads, trying to appear in Google searches, or selling their creations via formal marketplaces. Instead, they are relentlessly and comprehensively utilizing social media as a way to connect with audiences and buyers, to cultivate their brand and their position, to get known in any way possible, and to help turn their passion into a livelihood. 

2. Successful creatives need to be consistent and keep up with trends.

Creatives require talent and consistency to stay competitive. When starting out, they create a brand presence that constitutes followership and creative work. When their audience engages with this work, this subsequently translates into earnings. Digital channels serve as a source of inspiration, a path to wider distribution, and a platform to educate audiences on the value of art. Successful creatives need to be consistent and keep up with trends.

3. Fame makes society more accepting of creative career paths.

Support from family, friends, and fans enhances creatives’ morale.  Creative work is a numbers game in following and engagement. Fame begets respect from family, society, and brands. Once a creative becomes famous, those who were previously unsupportive start to notice and support.

Conclusion

From the experiences shared by creatives, luck, relevance, consistency, patience, and talent play a huge role in succeeding as a creative. This work requires significant investments of both time and money, to produce quality work and build an audience. They mentioned worrying about being a short-lived success—a case of here today gone tomorrow. Many also struggle to turn their creative hobbies into long-term sustainable careers. 

Like social commerce and emerging forms of social farming, discussed in accompanying reports, creative workers show social creativity. These new forms of livelihood entail new trade-offs, tensions, and vulnerabilities for creatives on the online social hustle to sell their work, especially in relational labor. For this to be a sustainable source of livelihood, creatives want 1) to learn how to convert their craft into a business 2)more transparency when it comes to platform payments, and 3) appreciation for creative work from clients, something some have been trying to achieve through showcasing behind the scenes. Platforms should concentrate on not just how the creatives distribute their work but also on how much they earn and how they get paid.

Creatives’ frustrations and failures alternate with hopes of a big win; they turn to digital platforms to find inspiration, consistently produce content to engage their audiences, and turn their passion and talent into livelihoods.

Explore the report results on other sectors

Farmers – Formal marketplaces; social agriculture through social media channels, social support via online groups 

Logistics  – Fast-paced work, driven by the algorithm. Structured weekly earnings, support in bookkeeping, budgeting, and saving.

MSEs – Experiences with platform sales (via formal marketplaces, social commerce, paid and free online advertising).

Crosscutting themes – Reflection on cross-cutting themes around rurality, gender, inclusion for differently-abled people, and fractional work.

This platform livelihoods research was conducted by Qhala in collaboration with Caribou Digital and in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation.