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Nigeria: Will music streaming ensure Afrobeats doesn’t skip a beat?

By Dami Ajayi
Posted on Friday, 10 September 2021 18:31

Employees chat inside the garden of the music streaming services Deezer's headquarters in Paris, France, September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Burna Boy’s fifth LP album 'Twice as Tall' clinched the Grammys for Best Global Music Album in March 2021. Receiving the award via video teleconferencing could not dampen this momentous event for the Nigerian, whose real name is Damini Ogulu. It was a roaring win for Afrobeats, the nascent music genre - a fusion of West African rhythms superimposed on an American Hip-Hop ethos - that began to gain popularity at the turn of the millennium.

Wizkid recently released a late summer remix to his outstanding single Essence, which features North American pop superstar Justin Bieber. This update of the mid-tempo monster hit has charted at No.1 on the Billboard R&B/hip-hop Airplay and is currently the most searched song in America on the Shazam app; two new feats for the genre and contemporary African music as a whole.

Thanks to the internet, Afrobeats has travelled far and wide. Having begun its journey as an imitation of American hip-hop two decades ago, Nigeria’s political climate was crucial to its evolution at the time. Afrobeats set in motion what became the country’s longest spell of democracy.

In March 1998, General Sani Abacha – Nigeria’s then military head of state – orchestrated a political manoeuvre that would convert him to a ‘democratically elected’ president; part of that agenda was the ‘2 Million Man March’ and a music concert featuring some of Nigeria’s finest musicians.

There was outrage against musicians who chose to perform. However, the harsh socio-economic milieu, typical of the late nineties in Nigeria, may have rigged the moral compasses of those who decided to play at the devil’s banquet.

The rise of Alaba boys

Undoubtedly, Nigeria’s cultural industry was comatose at the turn of millennium. Production streams of music were dying out with international record labels cycled out of the country for the lack of viable businesses. The consequent lacuna was filled by music pirates domicile at Alaba Market, a Lagos suburb; and the fight against them was futile. No musician and their teeming catalogues was spared from the music pirates who later rebranded as music distribution and marketing companies.

When we say distribution, we mean marketers, when we say marketers what comes to mind is Alaba, and when we say Alaba, we mean piracy.

The earliest Afrobeats albums by boy bands like P-Square, Maintain, Plantashun Boiz, Def O Clan, Boulevard, Artquake and Remedies were marketed by the ‘Alaba boys’.

Rapper 2shotz, affiliated with Trybe Records – one of the pioneer record labels of contemporary Nigerian music – in an interview more than a decade ago on music distribution in Nigeria said: “When we say distribution, we mean marketers, when we say marketers what comes to mind is Alaba, and when we say Alaba, we mean piracy.”

In retrospect, one would think it was foolhardy for music to be ‘legitimately’ distributed by the so-called pirates; but with a government totally inured to the practicalities of supporting cultural production, Nigerian musicians were left entirely to their own devices, ergo the strong arms of pirates.

Highlife crooner Flavour, in a recent interview with ace broadcaster Ebuka Obi-Uchendu, recalled his breakthrough moment in 2005 when the owner of Alaba-based Obaino music, Chris Obaino, offered to market and distribute his album.

The album, N’abania, would become his debut for which he had to fight a small war to receive the agreed advance royalties of ₦3.5m (€7190), which remained unpaid several months after the album was released. “It was a terrible experience. The song is everywhere. The CD is everywhere. No call from Obaino. I went to Lagos to see him, no way,” Flavour says.

After several attempts to meet with Chris Obiano, Flavour skipped a line of waiting artistes, barged into Obiano’s office and insisted on being attended to. He was pushed out of the office and thoroughly beaten by Obiano’s acolytes who considered Flavour’s legitimate demand an affront to their boss. In Flavour’s reckoning, Obiano was a big shot in [the] music business at the time. In his own words, “Obiano was like the Apple music of the time”.

Music blogs breaking Alaba’s hegemony

How did Afrobeats subvert the stranglehold of pirates masquerading as marketers? The simple answer is one decade and half of internet proliferation and appropriate technology.

Following the arrival of GSM technology in Nigeria, internet and smartphone technology became commonplace. With the proliferation of budget smartphones and affordable internet, the yoke of Alaba’s distribution monopoly was broken. Music ripped from compact discs could be distributed via the appropriate file-sharing smartphone technology. This encouraged the proliferation of music blogs like Notjustok (launched in 2006), Jaguda, Naijaloaded and so on.

These blogs, initially interested in showcasing the nascent music, became platforms for downloading new music, with the invigorated interest of Africa’s diaspora in the emerging genre. Although illegal, given the promulgation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it was compatible with the peer to peer file sharing zeitgeist of internet at the time.

Aside from providing new music, the blogs also energised tabloid-type gossip, which engendered community participation and led to the emergence of polarising internet-based fan groups that have become a vital part of Afrobeats in the social media space.

Indie musicians latched on quickly to this possibility, approaching the music blogs directly to distribute their music and sometimes paying a fee in the process.

The emergence of streaming

Swedish-founded audio online platform Soundcloud was incidentally launched in 2007, the same year that DRB Las Gidi – a collective of similarly minded musicians often credited as pioneers of Alté music – was formed. Although that seamless blend of funk, hip-hop, R&B and Afrobeats enjoyed a cult following on Soundcloud, it has since crossed into mainstream streaming platforms over the years.

Nigerians did not know they needed streaming until they had it.

Music application Spinlet, originally developed by two Finnish brothers in 2006 was acquired by Nigerian investors and launched as the first streaming application in the country, closely followed by Deezer in the same year.  At present, there are no less than 13 streaming platforms available in Nigeria. Among them are technology stalwart-owned Apple music, Spotify, Youtube Main (by far the biggest platform), YouTube Music, Tidal music, Audiomack, Boomplay Music and NotJustOkay’s Mino Music.

For Jide Taiwo, a veteran culture critic as well as author and chief content officer at Boomplay Music, the appearance of GSM internet technology and affordable smartphones were catalysts to streaming. “Nigerians did not know they needed streaming until they had it. It took out the Alaba model because that became difficult for the artists themselves. It also gave a new experience for the consumers and artists […],” he says in a telephone interview with The Africa Report.

This is particularly apt when one reflects on the arrival of Boomplay Music, in 2015 , almost a decade after the rise of internet blogs and their attendant fissure to the Alaba’s monopoly.

Owned by the Transsion group, which also produces budget smartphones brands like Tecno, Infinix and Itel, the Boomplay Music application comes pre-installed on these products. This has provided a ready audience for their growing catalogue of African local and urban music content. That audience has grown steadily to monthly users of 50 million currently.

The rise of singles as an entity independent of the EP or LP album cannot be entirely divorced from the Alaba model, where interloping playlists produced by DJs were a staple. Understandably, the internet blogs allowed singles to flourish as they were a direct answer to the problems of distribution, curation and canonisation.

Is streaming the ultimate solution?

Pioneer streaming platforms like Boomplay Music also leveraged this industry’s tendencies. “Singles are like byte-sized bait to reel people in. Instead of listening to [a] 60-minute album, you could listen to a 2-minute-47-secs song… It is easy for platforms to retain users if you are able to deliver a solid single,” Taiwo says.

While streaming is responsible for the viral explosion of Afrobeats globally, it is not entirely without problems, especially on the African continent: chief among these are poor internet penetration, subscription affordability and the high cost of Internet.

Last year, UK-based Nigerian musician Mr Eazi lamented about how less than 2% of his digital revenue comes from Africa, where 90% of his fans are based. This fact undergirds the fallibility of streaming as the ultimate solution to music distribution especially in Africa.

Nigerian Music critic Udochukwu Ikuagwu is also in agreement. “I doubt streaming will completely take over as Afrobeats artists are now warming up to merch [Merchandise] and stan culture. Which isn’t new…Fuji and gospel showed that template… Afrobeats artists will still sell CDs with tickets or merch for their shows and tours. They will still go on media rounds and give CDs to fans as promo. They will still sell merch with CDs on campus tours, street rallies and carnivals.”

This goes without saying, especially since the sale of physical Afrobeats CDs, alongside those of the locally dominant Fuji and gospel genres, continues in poorer Lagos suburbs and other parts of the country where the standards of living and internet penetration remain wanting.

Afrobeats continue to break new ground on its own terms while also maintaining local relevance. The consensus is that the two decade old genre has done well even by hip-hop standards.

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