ASTANA – The Sazalem startup, whose name translates to ‘world of music’ in Kazakh), is on a mission to build an online platform that unites all genres of Kazakh music. With an extensive database of over 20,000 compositions, the app has crossed the one-million download mark. Sazalem CEO Numi Musalieva shared insights into their vision in an interview with Digital Business news agency.
The Sazalem was previously owned by someone else. Could you please tell us more about what changed?
Gani Myrzamuratov initiated the Sazalem project in 2013, observing discontent as Kazakhs favored foreign artists over their own. He created the platform to showcase the wealth of Kazakh musical content, collecting both contemporary compositions and musical folklore, including kui (traditional Kazakh instrumental pieces). Initially a website, the platform gained substantial traffic, reaching up to 1,000 visitors per day.
However, development ceased after accumulating 10,000 songs, likely due to unforeseen popularity and increased technical demands.
By the end of 2022, Serik Beketayev, who currently works at Google, acquired the project, including all intellectual and commercial rights, and allocated $150,000 for rapid progress and team maintenance.
Why did Beketayev take on this project?
Beketayev sees it as a duty. Born and raised in Kazakhstan, he learned to play the dombyra (a Kazakh national musical instrument) locally. With experience working in the United States, he recognized an excellent opportunity to contribute to the Kazakh culture’s development and popularization. We are observing an increasing number of people switching to their native language, leading to the emergence of many local artists. A similar trend occurred in Japan and South Korea, which became progressive and did not lose their identity, as they value their culture and history.
We did not have to start from scratch: there is a website, and there is a vast database of musical creativity. We just needed to create versions for iOS and Android, rebrand, and set up processes that direct users exclusively to the mobile app.
Why do you prioritize mobile apps?
This aligns with the strategy followed by advanced music platforms. Even industry leader Spotify emphasizes mobile app usage. While the Sazalem website still exists for music searches, clicking the ‘Listen’ button prompts users to use the mobile app.
How does Sazalem differentiate itself from global platforms like Spotify and Yandex Music?
We simply cater to different target audiences. Spotify and Yandex Music are large global platforms that hardly consider local peculiarities and do not understand our mentality. Moreover, they target an audience in big cities and primarily promote their products among urban dwellers.
In our case, 95% of the audience is in rural areas, in regions where many people may not even know what Spotify is. That is our audience.
Offering free music with ads, Sazalem’s 500 tenge ($1) monthly subscription is significantly lower than the 1,500 tenge ($3) minimum on other platforms. Our team wants to make Kazakh music accessible to people in small and medium-sized cities and rural areas for free, in good quality, with personalized playlists.
There is another aspect to this issue — the artists. On other platforms, the system is set up so that artists gather information on where their content is placed and then request listening data for royalty payments. We seek to empower artists by providing a transparent system where musicians, after registering and passing compliance checks, can access statistics and receive fair royalties.
How does Sazalem address the issue of regions with limited access to the internet?
While acknowledging internet challenges in rural areas, we partially address this by enabling offline song listening. You can save the necessary compositions and then listen to them anywhere. The platform currently boasts 70,000 monthly users, with 70% of them from different regions, turning these users into mini-brand ambassadors to promote the app further. By talking about Sazalem, they help us promote the app.
Sazalem finds its highest usage in southern and eastern Kazakhstan, which covers around 50% of users, with the Almaty Region leading the user count.
How does Sazalem generate revenue, and what sets it apart?
There are two main types of monetization — advertising and subscriptions. Subscriptions are straightforward: we need to prove our value to the customer so that they want to pay to use the platform. The service costs around 499 tenge ($1). Out of 70,000 monthly active users, approximately 8% have already subscribed.
Advertising on the Sazalem can take various forms, including banners and audio advertising.
The third potential avenue for promotion and monetization is collaborations with major companies in Kazakhstan. For instance, we won the Altel and Tele2 competitions and became their partners.
Sazalem is not a story about monetization and making money. Of course, we need finances to pay salaries and continue its development. But our main goal is to become the digital cultural heritage of Kazakhstan and make Kazakhs genuinely love domestic creativity.
How many people are on the project team?
A team of 14 individuals is structured into technical and creative teams. The first group comprises developers and individuals responsible for the product’s functionality. The other one consists of content managers, who conduct searches for rare compositions both offline and online, along with social media marketing (SMM) specialists.
Could you tell us about the IT component of the project?
Our foundation is a mobile application on iOS and Android, which we developed over four months.
We also use machine learning for personalizing music playlists. We tested the algorithm to guarantee it offers comparable songs and music with a probability of no inferiority to other leading global music platforms. Another interesting aspect is our testing technology that will allow us to improve the quality of vintage music recordings. Within our database, numerous outstanding works suffer from subpar sound quality.
What can we expect from Sazalem in the next six months?
Our main goal is to achieve stable economic conditions to expand our musical collection and launch large special projects.
These projects include a digital library of all Kazakh kuis, aiming to capture the diverse regional renditions, and the launch of Kazakh language podcasts about Kazakhstan’s culture. Collectively, these initiatives aim to enrich Sazalem’s content and enhance its overall value.
The article was originally published on Digitalbusiness.kz