Spotify and the democratisation of music


[Two young friends, X and Y, are sitting in a cybercafe in the early 2000s, excitedly discussing how to access the latest music online.]

X: Hey Y, have you heard the latest track from our favourite artist?

Y: No, not yet. I’ve been trying to find a website to download it from, but it’s been tough.

X: Tell me about it! Ever since Limewire got shut down, it’s been a struggle to find reliable websites for downloading music.

Y: Yeah, I know. And some of those sites are filled with pop-up ads and sketchy links that could harm your computer.

X: Exactly! I’ve had my computer infected with viruses before, and it’s not fun.

Y: So true. I’m tired of taking risks just to download a song.

X: Me too. I wish there was a safer and easier way to access the newest music.

Y: Yeah, me too. I miss the good old days when we could just burn CDs or share music with friends.

(conversation becomes faint)

For many music-loving millennials the above scenario, whilst fictional, is very relatable.

As late as the early 2000s, music lovers had limited options for accessing music, such as buying physical albums, purchasing songs and albums on platforms like iTunes, relying on traditional media outlets such as radio and television to play music or resorting to illegal music downloads, which posed security risks.

However, the music industry has undergone a significant transformation with the advent of music streaming. This disruptive technology has democratised the industry – rapidly changing how consumers listen to and purchase music.

Streaming has revolutionized the way we listen to music. It has made it possible for anyone with an internet connection to access a vast collection of music, regardless of their geographical location or socio-economic status.

Streaming platforms such as Spotify have played a significant role in this democratization of music listening, and their impact has been noteworthy across the globe but especially in Africa, where access to music was often limited due to a lack of resources and infrastructure. This has led to a more diverse and inclusive music culture, as fans are exposed to a wider range of artists and genres.

The Spotify Effect

Spotify is one of the biggest players in the streaming industry, and its impact on the music industry cannot be overstated. Founded in 2006 in Sweden, the company has since expanded its reach to over 500 million users, including 205 million subscribers across 180 markets.

Its presence in Africa continues to grow. Since launching in South Africa in 2018, the streaming giants have since expanded to cover over 40 other countries or 90-plus percent of the continent. Spotify’s impact in Africa has been significant, as it has helped to bridge the gap between African artists and their global audience.

According to a report by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), streaming has been growing in Africa, with Sub-Saharan Africa becoming the fastest-growing region in 2022 with more than 34.7 percent growth. This growth is a testament to the increasing global appeal of African music

How has this been achieved?

One of the ways that Spotify has helped to promote African music is through its curated playlists. The platform has several playlists dedicated to African music, such as “African Heat,” “Afrobeats,” and “Gbedu,” which feature a mix of established and up-and-coming African artists. These playlists have helped to introduce African music to a global audience, with several African artists, including Burna Boy, Wizkid, and Davido, achieving international success thanks to their exposure on Spotify.

Spotify has also partnered with several African artists and labels to help promote their music on the platform. In 2018, the platform announced a partnership with Nigerian artist Burna Boy to promote his album “Outside” across the platform. The partnership included the creation of a mini-documentary about the making of the album, as well as a global advertising campaign. The campaign helped to raise Burna Boy’s profile on the platform, leading to a significant increase in his streams and global popularity.

Another way in which streaming has democratized the music industry is by making it easier for listeners to discover new music. Platforms like Spotify use algorithms and data analysis to recommend new songs and artists to users based on their listening habits. This means that users are more likely to be exposed to a wider range of music than they would be through traditional radio or television.

In the words of the Head of Music for Sun-Saharan Africa at Spotify, Phiona Okumu, speaking exclusively to the B&FT: “Data is crucial, and that’s why we have Spotify for Artists. The data that you see where your song is being streamed and how all of that works, we see it too. This helps us eliminate bias because it’s not about someone taking a liking you or not. It’s about the numbers.”

Phiona Okumu

Similarly, listeners have more control over their listening experience. Traditional radio stations tend to play a limited selection of songs, often chosen by program directors and advertisers. Streaming services, however, allow listeners to create their own playlists and customize their listening experience according to their own preferences.

Streaming has also helped to level the playing field for independent musicians and small record labels. In the past, getting music distributed to a wider audience was often a costly and challenging task, with many musicians and record labels relying on major labels for distribution. However, with the rise of streaming platforms, independent musicians and small record labels can now distribute their music to a global audience without the need for a major label.

In Africa, streaming platforms such as Spotify have helped to promote local talent and provide a platform for independent musicians to showcase their music. The platform has also been instrumental in providing resources and tools to help musicians grow their careers.

Spotify’s impact on African music is not limited to promoting established artists. The platform has also played a significant role in helping up-and-coming artists to gain exposure and build their careers.

In 2020, the platform launched its RADAR Africa program, which aims to discover and promote emerging African artists. The program features a series of curated playlists, podcasts, and videos, which highlight the best new talent from across the continent. The program has helped several African artists to gain exposure and build their careers, including Ghanaian artistes Amaarae and Gyakie as well as Nigeria’s Tems and Rema.

In addition to promoting African music, Spotify has also helped to democratize music listening within Africa. The platform’s affordable subscription plans and availability on mobile devices have made it possible for music fans across the continent to access a vast library of music.

According to market research firm Statista, data reveals that in 2023, music streaming revenue in Africa is projected to reach US$372.08 million, with an expected annual growth rate (CAGR 2023-2027) of 8.89 percent. This growth trajectory is anticipated to result in a market volume of US$524.10 million by 2027. This growth is a testament to the increasing popularity of streaming platforms such as Spotify within Africa, and their role in bringing music to the people.

Spotify has also music more accessible to Africans by offering a wide range of payment options. In many African countries, credit and debit card usage is low, and many people do not have access to these payment methods. Spotify has addressed this issue by offering payment options such as mobile money and vouchers, making it easier for Africans to access its services.

One of the challenges facing the music industry in Africa has been piracy. The lack of access to legal music distribution channels has led to a proliferation of pirated music, which has hurt the revenues of musicians and record labels. However, streaming platforms such as Spotify have helped to address this issue by providing legal and affordable access to music. According to a report by the IFPI, there has been a significant reduction in piracy in African countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya, as more people turn to streaming platforms to access music.

This has had a particularly significant impact on independent musicians and artists from underrepresented communities. Prior to the rise of streaming, these artists often struggled to get their music heard, as traditional record labels tended to focus on more mainstream, commercial acts. Now, however, they have a level playing field, and can potentially reach just as many listeners as more established artists.

In 2020, Spotify launched its “Equal” initiative, which aims to promote gender equality in the music industry. The initiative includes a database of women in music and a mentorship program for aspiring female musicians.

Closer home

The pandemic affected the growth of Spotify in a positive way. People were looking for a distraction, and music was a way to take their minds off things. Music consumption rose during the pandemic, and this was a phenomenon common to many streaming services, including Spotify. For example, Ghana, saw a 193 percent uptake of streams year to year from 2020 to 2021. This reset how people think about music, and it was a significant change in how people consumed media.

Since the platform formally launched in Ghana, Spotify has helped to connect local artists with a global audience and its services have been accompanied by a wave of excitement among local artists, who saw it as an opportunity to reach a wider audience.

One example of a Ghanaian artiste who has benefitted from streaming is Black Sherrif. The rapper’s music has been streamed over 100 million times on Spotify, making him one of the most popular artists from the country on the platform. Other Ghanaian artistes who have gained significant followings on Spotify include Stonebwoy, Sarkodie, Kwesi Arthur and Shatta Wale.

Spotify’s launch in Ghana has also had a significant impact on the country’s music industry as a whole. The platform’s arrival has helped to boost the profile of local artists and has created new opportunities for them to monetize their music.

Prior to Spotify’s launch, many Ghanaian artists struggled to earn their dues from their music, as they relied on physical sales and live performances to make money. Now, however, they can earn revenue from streaming royalties, which has the potential to create a more sustainable income stream.

According to a reviewer, Green Street Residential, since its introduction, there has been a 22.28 percent uptick in the number of new local songs added by Ghanaian creators to the Spotify platform. Additionally, Ghana has now emerged as one of the top ten new markets with the highest number of user-generated playlists.

Over 46 percent of Kumasi-based Asakaa music, for instance, is now streamed in the UK, US, and Germany. Afropop from Ghana is also experiencing significant growth in the US, where it has found an audience of 21 percent. Since the accessibility of Spotify in Ghana, Ghanaian Afropop has seen a remarkable 160 percent increase in streams in the United States.

Furthermore, Ghanaian Gospel music has registered a substantial 70 percent growth during the same period, with more than half of the streams originating from outside of Ghana.

But as is the norm, Spotify’s effect transcends just the music scene to the entire creative space. Last year, Surf Ghana – “a concerted group that integrates extreme sports like skateboarding and surfing as a driver for youth development and also creates a platform for local artists to promote positive values like tolerance, respect, peace, and the celebration of African creativity” – received a donation to facilitate the launch of its Vibrate Studio.

L-R Sandy Alibo, Phiona Okumu, Joe Hadley, Ansah at the support for Vibrate Studio

This was followed up by a more substantial multi-year investment for emerging artists in March 2023, through Spotify’s Creator Equity Fund.

According to Phiona Okumu, this has yet to scratch the surface of what is possible when the tools that Spotify brings – data, analytics, local editors who know the terrain – combine with the abundant, free-flowing talent of local creatives. “The future of streaming in Africa is bright. It’s growing fast, and we’re seeing more and more people coming online. We’re also seeing more local music being created, and there’s a growing appreciation for African music globally. We believe that streaming will continue to play a big role in the growth of African music.”

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