Music piracy is rife in Africa, presenting a major challenge for artists in monetizing their work. But many music streaming services have emerged on the continent in an attempt to use tech to combat piracy and help artists earn income.
Boomplay’s director of artist and media relations, Tosin Sorinola, tells Quartz that the company’s freemium model is converting illegal consumers of music in Africa to legal listeners.
Africa’s music industry is booming, thanks to great musical talent, youthful population, and increaed internet connectivity. As a result, investors, international companies, and social media platforms are showing increased interest in the space, leading to funding and attracting global audiences.
But while opportunities in African music are clear to see, piracy, weak copyright laws, and poor enforcement of legislation hinder artists from generating revenue.
Boomplay is one of the streaming companies tackling piracy while tapping into the continent’s rapidly growing music industry. Others include homegrown and foreign music streaming apps such as Mdundo, MusicTime, Spotify, and Apple Music.
“Imagine everyone is streaming music legally. Imagine how much artists would be able to make from their digital music sales. The thought alone is exciting,” Sorinola tells Quartz.
With 60 million active users, Boomplay is the most popular music streaming service in Africa. The Chinese-owned, Africa-focused company is available throughout the continent and runs a freemium model, whereby users can listen to music free but with ads and they can pay to listen to ad-free music.
The Boomplay app comes preinstalled on devices made by Transsion—the top phone seller in Africa whose brands include Tecno, Infinix, and Itel.
Boomplay was launched in Nigeria in 2015. It is headquartered in China and also has offices in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Cameroon, and Côte d’Ivoire.
Nigeria-based Sorinola has been at the company for six years. She previously worked at Spinlet, one of the first music streaming services in Africa.
Quartz spoke with her about piracy, music charts, the freemium model, the regulatory environment, and the future of music streaming in Africa. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Quartz: How many free users and paying users do you have?
We’re not really focusing on the subscription bit right now because piracy is still a thing and it’s eating deep. What we’re really focused on right now is trying to convert the illegal users to freemium users, and then over time, we can convert them to premium users.
What’s the role of music streaming apps in fighting piracy and copyright infringement in Africa?
The core of a platform like ours heavily relies on tech. The kind of features that we’re able to provide not only ensure that music lovers get access to their favorite songs, but also that artists are able to get revenue from their music sales.
Our content is DRM-(digital rights management) protected, which ensures that music is not illegally distributed. Also, every stream on Boomplay counts. Unlike with piracy where artists don’t get any form of revenue and their music is just illegally distributed, you get to earn money from putting your music on Boomplay.
Boomplay has entered many deals in the last couple of years, including with Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, Chocolate City, and WCB, and adding your streaming data to Billboard charts. What’s the importance of partnerships in developing Africa’s music industry?
Most of these partnerships—well apart from Billboard—are content-based. The basic idea is just for us to be able to provide the kind of music that users require [and] that users want to listen to at any point in time—to be able to make that available on the app.
We have valuable partnerships with local and international record labels, and aggregators as well, because the industry in Africa is quite fragmented.
Unlike internationally whereby when you’re signed to three majors you’ve almost covered all of the content that there is, in Africa, at least in the beginning stages, we had to work with artists directly because there are a lot of indies as well. And of course, there are a lot of record labels, there are a lot of aggregators.
The Recording Industry of South Africa last year launched its first national music charts. Many African countries don’t have official national music charts. How does this affect transparency and decision-making in Africa’s music industry?
In Africa, we don’t have independent chart channels like Billboard, but they look at platforms like ours to make decisions on what music is trending.
We have Chartmetrics, we definitely have TurnTable Charts. We have some that are that are trying to break into the industry and become the go-to charts for African music. It’s just that they aren’t there yet, but we as a platform are definitely rooting for them.
We had a partnership with TurnTable charts early last year for instance. So we’re definitely having conversations with them. And we hope that over time, they become globally recognized as well as the go-to chart for African music.
But speaking of the recent inclusion of our streaming data [on Billboard charts], the significance of this is that it gives our African artists the kind of opportunity that is available to their international counterparts with respect to featuring on Billboard charts.
It also helps to further push our African artists and their music to the global scene, which is what a lot of African artists care about right now. After they conquer home, after they are really big in Kenya, after they’re really big in Nigeria, after they’re really big in Tanzania, they want to break out.
Boomplay has 60 million active users. Why do you think your model is working well?
I have to give a kudos to our personnel. We have personnel in Africa who are very knowledgeable about the music industry. And also the fact that our strategy is localized.
But also, in very simple terms, it is the kind of access that it (Boomplay) gives to users. Understanding that we still live in an era where piracy is really eating deep into the music culture. What people really want is for them to be able to have access to the music that they want at any point in time.
Music lovers want to be able to get access to their favorite songs, be it local, or international, at an affordable rate. And this is definitely what Boomplay offers. Our belief is that music should not be a luxury. Music should be available to everyone, wherever you are, whoever you are. And that is definitely what Boomplay offers.
Also, privacy is one of the major issues that we have. The freemium model has been very useful in converting music lovers from pirates to legal users. And being in this business, particularly in Africa, it requires a lot of investment and patience. And that’s something I’ve had to [do], because of the kind of potential that we see that the continent has. Even if right now we’re not exactly where we want to be, we see a future that is very bright.
Do most Boomplay users listen to music from Africa or from outside the continent?
We’ve seen a huge shift over time, which I am as an African very excited about. Seventy percent of music consumption on Boomplay is actually local. That’s great for music culture.
Has the pandemic helped or hurt business in any way?
Because we’re a digital music streaming platform, I would not say that it has hurt us in terms of the streaming culture. We’ve witnessed a lot of growth. In the year the pandemic started we witnessed over 200% increase in our streaming data, because people were at home, and listening to music on Boomplay—it doesn’t require you to be outside. You just needed to grab your phone, have internet and then just plug. It was good in terms of business.
But in terms of our artists, they were experiencing something totally new. In Africa, a lot of them depend on having physical shows and endorsements from big brands to make money. Before the pandemic, a lot of artists were not really paying attention to their digital music streaming, and even sometimes some of them were not really paying attention to the revenue coming from there. But the pandemic shifted their attention to their digital music streaming.
We saw that we had quite a lot of interaction with artists around that time. They wanted to know what the numbers were, they wanted to know how they can leverage off by a digital streaming platform like Boomplay to still be able to reach their fans and connect with them while the pandemic was going on. Even now that things have eased off a bit, they still have them still very interested in their digital music streaming culture and also the revenue.
Boomplay operates in all African countries. What are some of the regulatory enablers that are helping you thrive and regulatory constraints that you are facing?
In terms of regulation, definitely, things are not very smooth. I’ve been talking about piracy, and I just keep going back to it. And that’s because I have access to the kind of data and the kind of revenue that the artists can actually be making if it wasn’t for piracy.
We need the government—it’s not a fight that we can take on head to head. We need governments to be to be involved. We need strong laws against piracy. And that’s definitely a point that we need help on in the different markets. In all the markets that we’re in, we need the governments to be more involved.
Also there’s quite a low penetration rate of online payments, which affects subscription penetration as well. We know that once there’s some sort of economic growth in the different markets, we’ll definitely be able to have more online payment solutions, whereby people can have better and easier access to making payments.
You’ve been operational since 2015. What new opportunities are you seeing in music streaming in Africa? And how does the future of music streaming in Africa look?
The next couple of years might just be the start of business for us in terms of just scratching the surface. Because so far, what we have tried to do is build some sort of structure around an industry that has no structure.
Looking at the kind of exposure, and looking at how technology-driven our business is and the kind of progress that we’ve been able to make in such short time, over the next couple of years, we’ll definitely be seeing better growth. In terms of music production, for instance, in the continent, and in terms of the kind of revenue that artists can get paid.
I am looking forward to an industry in the next five years, in which artists can get sufficient revenue from their digital music streaming sales. Not just making money online but let it be at the top top-two top-three channels of revenue for artists.
But for the different markets, say, in Nigeria, I’ll be looking to see an industry that is better structured, in which more industry stakeholders get involved and come work together, better to create an industry where everybody on the value chain is actually able to benefit and profit.
In Kenya, a lot of work has to be done in music production, and the frequency of music production. Also in Ghana. The rates of releases are quite low. And the strength is always in the numbers in everything. Sometimes it seems like Nigeria is being promoted and then it’s the number one market, no.
I think that the rate of local music consumption in some of these countries like in Kenya has to increase. We have the gengetone genre of music for instance, which is kind of catching on right now, but is still just in Kenya. Locally, there has to be some sort of coming together to make some laws to ensure that local music—the music of your country—is being well appreciated, and is being streamed and listened to.
That is not to say you don’t have the choice to listen to any music from any other country. Charity begins at home. Such that, it’s not just one country in Africa that is exporting music globally. We can say we’ve had the amapiano wave of late, Afrobeats has been everywhere.
We want to be able to also unlock other kind of genres from, the different markets. Because that is what will really help African music become global. It can’t come from from just one country in Africa—it has to be all of us doing the work together.
So, I’m looking forward to a better structured industry definitely more proactive in terms of music production and music releases, and also an industry that is able to sustain artists in terms of their digital music streaming revenue.
It should just be enough. Like I know, when I get my check from my digital music streaming revenue, that should be enough for me to be an artist and do all the things that I want to.
A lot of them (artists) got depressed (at the start of the pandemic, due to lack of concerts, a main revenue stream.)
Imagine everyone is streaming music legally. Imagine how much artists would be able to make from digital music sales. The thought alone is exciting, and we just need regulatory bodies and the government to be able to help us ensure that this is done.
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What is it like to be the director of artists and media relations for a music streaming company in Africa today?
It’s definitely exciting. But it’s also very challenging. You work with artists, who are very, very interesting people, I must say. But it’s a great opportunity to move our music in Africa forward, and to be able to be a part of the promotion process.
And giving them the opportunity to reach more people, reach a larger fan base, and also get the opportunity to even partner with brands and also collaborate with other artists from different countries because those are some of the responsibilities as well.
Some sort of cross-promotion whereby an artist from Kenya can come and say, “Oh, I want to partner, I want to collaborate to meet an artist in Nigeria,” and then we facilitate that and make that happen.
But just in a nutshell, it’s exciting and it’s also challenging, but in a good way, because it’s me being in a position whereby I am able to help project the African music industry further as much as possible.
What gets you motivated to go to work every morning?
Passion. I’m a very passionate person. Right from my formative years, I’ve been very passionate about music, even though at the time I didn’t know that there was something called the music business.
But right from my formative years, like when I was in university, I used to work as an on-air presenter for my school’s radio station. I used to have a lot of artists friends, and then we’d go to the studio together. Joining the radio station was me trying to look for ways to be able to promote their songs, and I did a lot of events management as well. That has always been a passion point for me.
Also, I work in a company where the culture is very, very interesting, and very women-friendly and inclusive.
What keeps you up at night?
Maybe the lack of structure and piracy. Every day I wish that something can be done. And just in a bid to ensure that artists can get more from their music sales. I wish that we’ll be able to work together as Africans. I wish that we’ll be able to appreciate our own efforts.
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