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

Wizkid recently released a late summer remix of his remarkable single Gasoline, which features North American pop superstar Justin Bieber. This update to the mid-tempo monster hit ranked #1 on the Billboard R&B/hip-hop Airplay and is currently America’s most searched song on the Shazam app; two new feats for the genre and contemporary African music as a whole.

Thanks to the internet, Afrobeats has traveled from afar. Having started 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 longest period of democracy in the country.

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

There was outrage against the musicians who chose to perform. However, the harsh socio-economic milieu typical of late 90s Nigeria may have rigged the moral compasses of those who decided to play the devil’s banquet.

The Rise of the Alaba Boys

Undoubtedly, Nigeria’s cultural industry was in a coma at the turn of the millennium. Music production flows were dying out, with international record labels being pushed out of the country for lack of viable businesses. The resulting gap was filled by music pirates domiciled in the market of Alaba, a suburb of Lagos; and the struggle against them was futile. No musician and their burgeoning catalogs were spared by music pirates who later rebranded themselves as music distribution and marketing companies.

When we say distribution we mean marketers, when we say marketers we mean Alaba, and when we say Alaba we mean piracy.

Early Afrobeats albums by boy bands like P-Square, Maintain, Plantashun Boiz, Def O Clan, Boulevard, Artquake and Remedies were released by the “Alaba boys”.

Rapper 2shotz, affiliated with Trybe Records – one of the pioneering record labels of contemporary Nigerian music – in an interview over a decade ago about 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, you’d think it was reckless that the music is “legitimately” distributed by the so-called pirates; but with a government fully accustomed to the practicalities of supporting cultural production, Nigerian musicians have been left entirely to their own devices, ergo the strong arms of pirates.

The Highlife Flavor crooner, in a recent interview with broadcaster Ebuka Obi-Uchendu, recalled his defining moment in 2005 when Alaba-based Obaino Music owner Chris Obaino offered to market and distribute his album.

The scrapbook, N’abania, would become his first album for which he had to wage a small war to receive the agreed advance royalties of ₦3.5 million (€7,190), which remained unpaid several months after the album’s release. “It was a terrible experience. The song is everywhere. The CD is everywhere. No call from Obaino. I went to Lagos to see it, no way,” says Flavor.

After several attempts to meet with Chris Obiano, Flavor skipped a line of waiting artists, stormed into Obiano’s office, and insisted on being picked up. He was pushed out of the office and severely beaten by Obiano’s acolytes who viewed Flavor’s legitimate request as an affront to their boss. According to Flavor, Obiano was a big hit in [the] the music industry at the time. In his own words, “Obiano was like Apple Music at the time.”

Music blogs break Alaba’s hegemony

How did Afrobeats reverse the grip of hackers posing as marketers? The simple answer is a decade and a half of proliferation of the Internet and appropriate technologies.

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

These blogs, initially interested in showcasing nascent music, have evolved into platforms for downloading new music, with reinvigorated interest from the African diaspora in the emerging genre. Although illegal, given the enactment of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it was compatible with the Internet’s peer to peer file sharing zeitgeist at the time.

In addition to offering new music, blogs tabloid-style energized gossip, which spawned community participation and led to the emergence of polarizing internet fan groups that have become a staple of Afrobeats in the social media space.

Independent musicians have quickly embraced this opportunity, going directly to music blogs to distribute their music and sometimes paying a fee in the process.

The emergence of streaming

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

Nigerians didn’t know they needed streaming until they got it.

Music app Spinlet, originally developed by two Finnish brothers in 2006, was acquired by Nigerian investors and launched as the first streaming app in the country, closely followed by Deezer the same year. At present, there are no less than 13 streaming platforms available in Nigeria. Among them are 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, seasoned cultural critic as well as author and chief content officer at Boomplay Music, the advent of GSM internet technology and affordable smartphones have been catalysts for streaming. “Nigerians didn’t know they needed streaming until they got it. He removed the Alaba model as it was getting difficult for the artists themselves. He also gave a new experience for the consumers and artists […]“, he said in a telephone interview with The Africa Report.

This is especially true when we reflect upon the arrival of Boomplay Music, in 2015, nearly a decade after the rise of internet blogs and their concomitant crack at Alaba’s monopoly.

Owned by Transsion Group, which also produces budget smartphone brands like Tecno, Infinix and Itel, the Boomplay Music app comes pre-installed on these products. This provided a ready audience for their growing catalog of local and urban African music content. This audience has continued to grow to reach 50 million monthly users today.

The rise of singles as an independent entity from the EP or LP album cannot be entirely divorced from the Alaba model, where DJ-produced interloper playlists were a staple. Naturally, internet blogs allowed singles to thrive because they were a direct response to issues of distribution, curation, and canonization.

Is streaming the ultimate solution?

Pioneering streaming platforms like Boomplay Music have also taken advantage of trends in this industry. “Singles are like byte-sized bait to lure people in. Instead of listening [a] A 60-minute album, you might listen to a 2-minute 47-second song… It’s easy for platforms to retain users if you’re able to come up with a strong single,” Taiwo says.

While streaming is responsible for the viral explosion of Afrobeats around the worldthis is not entirely without problems, especially on the African continent: the main ones are low Internet penetration, affordability of subscriptions and the high cost of the Internet.

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

Nigerian music critic Udochukwu Ikuagwu also agrees. “I doubt streaming will completely take over as Afrobeats artists now gear up for merchandising [Merchandise] and culture stan. What is not new… Fuji and Gospel have shown this model… Afrobeats artists will always sell CDs with tickets or merchandise for their shows and tours. They will still do media tours and give away CDs to fans as a promo. They will still be selling products with CDs at campus tours, street rallies, and carnivals.

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

Afrobeats continues to innovate on its own terms while maintaining its local relevance. The consensus is that the two-decade-old genre has fared well even by hip-hop standards.

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