Long reads

Trace on track

With the recent launch of streaming service Trace Play and the forthcoming launch of an MVNO and new channels, urban music and culture specialist Trace is in the midst of a period of frenetic activity. Co-founder, chairman and CEO Olivier Laouchez took time out at MIPCOM to talk to Stuart Thomson about his plans.

Olivier Laouchez

Afro-urban music and entertainment provider Trace is in the midst of a period of heightened activity. The urban culture-themed content provider recently launched streaming service Trace Play – its biggest digital move to date – and is also forging ahead with the launch of new regional channels and a mobile virtual network operator.

Trace Play is now available on multiple platforms across some 200 territories, using a platform built by Trace’s technology partner for the project, Simplestream. “This has been the most complicated project we have ever done, I must confess. The technological dimension has been complex,” says Olivier Laouchez, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Trace, speaking to Digital TV Europe on the Trace yacht at MIPCOM. “We learned a lot during the journey. It was more complicated than we expected, especially because of multiple territories, language rights, platforms, type of content and so on.”

Laouchez says that Modern Times Group-owned Trace will begin to market the service commercially in November, with a focus on Africa, France, the UK and the US as its core target markets. Currently the service has “a few thousand” subscribers, each paying E2.99, or the dollar, sterling or local currency equivalent.

In Africa in particular, Trace has focused on bundling Trace Play with mobile services, especially deals that include a zero rating for data used to view the service. Laouchez says that Trace is likely to close “six or seven” significant distribution deals before the end of the year, including a deal already concluded with Orange. The service is also available on streaming devices including Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV as part of the Amazon Prime line-up.

Laouchez says that Trace Play use has been concentrated on music and, primarily, on linear consumption. He says that “90% of usage is somehow music-related” and that linear TV accounts for 65-70% of usage, with radio accounting for 20% and on-demand consumption the balance.

He says that Trace Play will give users a “broader choice than you can find on any one operator”, where typically Trace will distribute three or four channels as opposed to the complete line-up available on the player.

“In many countries we think we will have a dual audience – of people just interested in urban music alongside the different diaspora audiences who can find content on Trace Play that the they can’t find anywhere else,” he says.

While the distribution mechanisms for Trace content are many and various, Laouchez is adamant that the key to success for Trace Play will be a clear focus on its core proposition – urban culture and music. “We put all our content budget into reinforcing our music offering. We also do live concerts. We are producing some musical content. We don’t buy any content from American studios, because we don’t think we can make the difference there,” he says. Recent scripted shows on the platform include Nigerian productions Wives on Strike and Crazy, Lovely, Cool. Trace has also put money into UK-produced comedy show Brothers with no Game.

Live content will remain central to the proposition, however. Laouchez points to the fact that Trace is not only a broadcaster but an organiser of more than 200 major live events this year alone. The company has a partnership with the Afropunk series of events and is also organising a Trace Roots event in South Africa on November 4, while in Côte d’Ivoire it has teamed up with mobile operator MTN to sponsor a live festival in December. He says that Trace is creating a dedicated section of Trace Play for live events in order to stream coverage of them.

Finally, says Laouchez, Trace is working on a plan – still at an early stage – to potentially launch a Portuguese version of Trace Play, with expansion into the Brazilian market in mind.

Trace Play is not the only new major initiative from the company this year. Trace also has plans to launch its own MVNO in South Africa as well as plans for the launch of new regional channels.

Plans for the MVNO are already at an advanced stage. Trace Mobile will launch in November on the Cell C network, building on an existing branded mobile resale offering. MVNO-enabler MVN-X is providing technology. Trace Play will be an integral part of the MVNO offering. While the online service will be available to all Cell C customers, Laouchez says that “there will be a benefit” for customers that access it through Trace Mobile.

Laouchez says that Trace is hopeful of being able to launch Trace Mobile in other parts of Africa in the near future, with a target of “five or six” markets to see launches next year. He adds, however, that the MVNO concept is still relatively new for Africa’s major mobile operators, so it will take time for them to “see how it works”. For Laouchez, a Trace-branded telecom service is just one part of his overall mobile strategy. Bringing content and exclusive experiences drawing on Trace’s media and event activities is what will ultimately differentiate the MVNO offering, he says.

Trace is also making moves to extract greater value from its content IP and reach in the African market, launching a new distribution arm – Trace Content Distribution – headed by former France Télévisions and Lagardère Studios executive Betty Sulty-Johnson. “It is expensive to produce content so you need multiple distribution partners,” says Laouchez.

New channels

Regionalisation of content meanwhile remains a top priority for the company. Trace recently launched Trace Prime, its new channel for the US. Laouchez is hopeful of striking a carriage deal for the service, which will also be available on OTT TV, soon.

Laouchez says that the company is looking to create more programming blocks featuring underground artists in order to differentiate it from more mainstream music offerings. In France, Trace plans to launch a Trace Hip-Hop block on its flagship Trace Urban channel that will air for up to six hours during the night “so we can connect with this more edgy and picky audience”.

Trace also plans to launch a new channel targeting the Indian Ocean. Within the Trace portfolio, the region’s musical currents have hitherto been served by its Trace Tropical offering, which is primarily targeted at the Caribbean market, despite the fact that the two regions have distinctive musical cultures.

The new channel, Trace Vanilla, will launch at the end of this year or the beginning of next, says Laouchez.

“We are seeing the emergence of new talent from the Indian Ocean…and there is not one professional channel that covers all this music and culture,” says Laouchez.

Regionalisation of its offering has long been key to Trace’s strategy where “it makes economic and also cultural sense”, he says. “You attract more advertising and investment because you are more relevant for the region.”

Trace’s biggest current localisation project is, however, a new channel that spotlights the culture and music of Africa’s biggest country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Trace Kitoko, which is set to launch at the end of this year or the beginning of 2018, will be versioned in the Ngala language that is spoken both in the DRC and neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville. The primary target market for the channel is the 90 million-strong population of the DRC, together with the five-to-six million of Congo-Brazzaville and a global diaspora of up to 10 million – over 100 million in total.

“The DRC is the biggest French-speaking country in the world,” says Laouchez. “Because of the civil war most international journalists don’t go there [but] the reality – and I was in Kinshasa a few weeks ago and saw this – is that this is a country where everybody is not just passionate but crazy about music. The big artists there are superstars.”

However, Trace Kitoko is likely to have a broader appeal, given the popularity of artists of Congolese origin in France. “Half of the biggest hip-hop artists in France are from the DRC.”

Trace already took a step to enhance its presence in the DRC in August, striking a deal with mobile player Africell to carry Trace Play and for Trace to acquire radio station AfriRadio.

Laouchez says that Trace Kitoko will be distributed in the DRC via partners but will be available globally via Trace Play. He says one of Trace’s missions is to bring different musical cultures together via its channels and digital platform. Localised channels typically comprise 70-80% local content supplemented by material from other parts of the globe.

Laouchez is also mulling the launch of a new international channel “taking the best from each region” in which it operates. He hopes this global hits offering will be ready in time for Trace’s 15th birthday next year.

“We want Trace to be a bridge between all countries with a strong urban identify and populations of African descent because this is what unites all the countries where we are have a strong presence,” he says.

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