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What US Artists Can Learn From Their Nigerian Counterparts About Monetizing Digital Music

Taylor Swift expressed her deep worries in a widely shared Tumblr post about the compensation musicians receive from Apple’s new music streaming service, which offers a three-month free trial before requiring a monthly charge.


She detailed her motivation for pulling her new album, “1989,” from Apple’s new streaming service, doing her best to avoid seeming like a “spoiled petulant child.”

We don’t ask you for free iPhones, she said as her final punchline. Please don’t request that we give you our songs for free. Taylor Swift’s protest was heard, and Apple agreed to compensate artists out of their own pockets for the three-month free trial period. Apple is wealthy and can afford it!

A discussion over whether the entire incident was a PR hoax can wait until another day. But it brings up memories of Nigeria.


Before the internet’s widespread use and the rise of online music download blogs like notjustOk, artists had to sign deals with major labels to get their work distributed commercially, and even pirates were opposed to their success. Music companies gave their master records to the marketers at Alaba once piracy grew so prevalent that it was made legal; there was no better distribution route than theirs.

The music business did, however, have some kind of control up to the rise of digital piracy, when consumers began to purchase songs on USB storage devices from independent offline content aggregators in tiny kiosks for as little as one naira per track. A free music period resulted from the fact that music became virtually free.

Another efficient distribution channel was finally available, but it was free for both the supply and demand sides. It was the blogs for music downloads. With the help of bloggers, musicians were able to connect with their fans more effectively, locate their listeners, and gain social authority. The idea of free music was quickly embraced by labels and artists, who eagerly offered their top songs for download on various platforms. They had at last put on their thinking caps and created business models based on offering free music. Something that would amaze Taylor Swift.

Nigerian musician today frequently releases multiple singles in a single day or even all of their top songs ahead of the album’s release; Davido is a prime example. With the exception of 9ice, many artists have fully embraced the new era of free music and even offer their songs both for sale and for free (your choice). I’m curious how that turned out for him.

Many upcoming musicians nowadays produce music, investing in its quality and production, only to distribute it for free in the hopes that it would go viral, become a hit song, and establish them as major stars. These blogs that offer free music downloads act as their distribution channels, and they make money off the traffic by renting out ad space to businesses. I recently spoke with one of these bloggers, and he described to me how he’s making a fortune and how musicians who are just starting out sometimes have to pay to get their content on his blog.

There is no denying the significant value these blogs offering free music downloads have brought to the music business. If they were to disappear, would the music business suffer significantly?

Then Came the Online Streamers

Then online music file streaming startups started to appear, including iROKING, Spinlet, and others. All of which have comparable but marginally different business and revenue generation models. They are all claiming to be the top company for downloading and streaming digital music in Africa. All of them distribute commercially-laced free music, sell premium subscriptions, and offline music sales, and sign exclusive distribution agreements with artists. The music download blogs were used to direct traffic to their chase for content, which was set up by them. After the extremely popular callback tunes, the telco partnerships followed. Spinlet and Etisalat were the first, followed by Music + from MTN, Wynk from Airtel, and Spinlet and Etisalat.

We can’t measure the impact of music file streaming startups in this country profitably because there are no statistics or metrics available, but if we had to put a number on it, their impact on the Nigerian music industry would be next to zero. According to Spinlet, they are only considered “next” because they continue to attract paying subscribers and give 60% of their revenue to artists, which isn’t very significant given how widely music blogs disseminate music.

Online music streaming services primarily monetize content, which is more expensive as a revenue model than music download blogs that primarily monetize traffic. Even Spotify, which has 60 million subscribers and operates in areas where people are accustomed to paying for music, has yet to make a profit. iROKING hadn’t made a profit as of 2013, and it doesn’t appear that they will any time soon.

Free Vs. Non-Free. Free Wins

The problem is not with the product but with the business model itself because you can’t compete with free. For illustration:

This song was nominated for several awards at different events. It was adopted as the standard tune for those patiently awaiting their favourable turn. Don Jazzy, a legendary local producer, basically begged fans to steal the number-one hit song for free. Do you intend to sell that?

His business, Mavin Records, has created revenue models that revolve around free and are successful for them. Free music means he doesn’t have to concentrate on getting people to buy; all he has to do is wait a short week for the song’s popularity to grow, which leads to a lot of shows, wedding performances, endorsements, and enormous pay from appearances at prominent politicians’ parties and political rallies.

Digital music is undoubtedly the way of the future, more so in the West than in our region, and consumers have a wide range of options, including subscription-based and free music download services. On a smaller scale, artists in this country have succeeded in becoming the Kings of their time. Will Apple’s allegedly disruptive move in the digital music space be good for artists and their record labels, who previously saw digital music sales as a very small portion of their overall album sales revenue in the west?

My opinion is that even though their music sales may double or even triple, their revenues have actually decreased when compared to earnings from traditional album sales. On the plus side, they still have live performances and tours to sell out, and their recurring royalties will continue to trickle in.

What can the legal systems of the western world, Apple, and Taylor Swift learn from Nigeria’s music industry? Regulation, in my opinion, is essential, but that is up to them to decide.