A Chinese phone maker is building one of the world’s biggest music streaming services in Africa

Feeling the beat.
Feeling the beat.
Image: Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye
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The leading smartphone seller in Africa isn’t Apple or Samsung: it’s Transsion Holdings, the Chinese-owned maker of phone brands including Itel, Infinix and Tecno.

As its devices have become ubiquitous with African users, the Shenzen-based company has also been building out Boomplay, a music streaming joint venture between Transsion and NetEase, a Chinese internet company. NetEase has already built a music streaming service in China boasting 400 million users.

Transsion’s strategy of pre-installing Boomplay on its phones since the launch of the service in 2015 has already helped it build a base of 31 million users, 17 million of which are active monthly users in Africa. Those numbers would make Boomplay one of the biggest music streaming services globally.

Since launch in Nigeria in 2015, Boomplay has opened offices in Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania. But beyond the pre-installations, the app is also open to other Android users on non-Transsion brands and has racked up 10 million downloads from the Google Play store since April 2016. It runs a “freemium” model which allows user access an ad-supported version of the service for free as well as a paid ad-free, premium version which allows allows users stream and download songs and videos.

Much of Boomplay’s growth has happened without competition from global streaming services but that’s starting to change. This year, Tidal and Spotify have launched in their first African markets and Apple Music is available despite its payment difficulties. Alongside popular Afrobeats and several genres of African music, the streaming giants also allow users listen to songs from international music stars.

Boomplay is attempting to nullify that advantage by signing a multi-year licensing deal with the world’s largest music company, Universal Music Group. But given the economics of expensive licensing deals, Boomplay, which currently charges $1.40 monthly, may have to rethink its pricing model, ”if their goal is indeed to recoup the the minimum guarantee likely to have been paid” to Universal, says Rotimi Fawole, a lawyer with experience in the music streaming business. “Global streaming platforms charge more but are barely breaking even,” he says. Boomplay declined to comment on Quartz inquiries about the size of its paying user-base.

But Boomplay also faces drawbacks from long-running local habits especially in Nigeria, its biggest market. The culture of artists putting out music for free online remains rampant despite a growing “mental shift” in how musicians distribute their music, says Oyinkansola Fawehinmi, a Lagos-based entertainment lawyer who represents several artistes and producers. “There’s still a lot of ignorance in the industry, that’s why there’s still a lot of free music being put out,” she tells Quartz.

It’s a culture that’s rooted in prevalent piracy of physical CDs which has resulted in Nigerian artists historically missing out on revenues from selling their music, relying mostly on live shows and brand endorsement deals as major sources of income. The impact of piracy has also been telling on music consumers who have hardly had to pay top dollar for music—a sentiment that’s likely influenced Boomplay’s comparatively low pricing.

Radio, mobile downloads (mainly from artistes who upload music for free) and CDs also remain the most common ways most people consume music across the continent. But Boomplay will be hoping for a stricter enforcement of copyright laws to combat digital piracy, increased appetite for on-demand music consumption especially among young people—a majority on the continent, as well as cheaper smartphone and internet access costs.

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