‘Nigerians should expect more investments from Spotify’
Phiona Okumu is Spotify’s Head of Music for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Before joining Spotify, she was the head, Music Editor and Label/Artist Relations at Apple Music, SSA. In this interview with ENIOLA DANIEL, she spoke on the platform’s commitment to the Nigerian music industry, support for women in the industry among other issues.
As Head of Music for Spotify in the region, how has the journey been so far?
I JOINED Spotify in 2019. When I joined initially, I was in charge of artiste and label partnership; I was doing the similar job I did while with Apple Music. I was representing artistes, advocating for them in the organisation.
But in 2021, when we launched Spotify in the rest of Africa, I was promoted to the head of music. So, right now, I’m responsible for music strategy for Africa and the journey has been good so far.
About a year ago, Spotify expanded into over 80 markets, including Nigeria, what has the growth trajectory been like within this period?
We have recorded an incredible growth trajectory. Every time I see a pattern, I like to think about why it happens. So, for example, with Spotify, a number of things have happened. Obviously, the fact that we went live in Nigeria, and in the rest of Africa, meant that we were able to jump-start our consumer base. Since we launched in Nigeria, the number of streams per user in Nigeria has increased by 60 per cent. For me, it means that we are on track to becoming the biggest Digital Service Provider (DSP) on the continent.
So, in terms of that, I speak in two different aspects; there are the numbers, which obviously matter, but I also speak about culture. And my feeling is that culture will always lead the numbers; culture starts and the numbers follow. And for me, one of the most powerful things that I’m witnessed in the last one-year or two years has been the fusion.
I am so happy to see Nigerians, South Africans and Ghanaians collaborating; that is literally the reason the music in the continent is making waves. Afrobeats is successful, it’s doing what it’s doing, but there is no denying the fact that it’s an evolving genre. And there are so many other genres and cultures that are influencing it, and it’s making Afrobeats better.
What would you consider the biggest impact since the platform launched in Nigeria?
The fact that now, streaming per user has increased by 60 per cent, that’s a big number. That means our service is sticky, which means that we are presenting music that people are actually interested in. And here is the thing; Spotify has two different facilities to make sure that we have the best project. One is the fact that we have an incredible algorithm, but in order for that algorithm to work, we need the people; we need the editors, we need people who know the region more than the average listener of music. And that is what we took our time to do.
In West Africa, we have a dedicated team that does the curation and the management of the relationships with labels. I think a lot of DSPs overlook the importance of localisation of the team. Even though I feel very comfortable in Nigeria, and I’ve been doing music for living for more than 15 years, I would never be so arrogant to assume that I can come to Nigeria and just represent Nigeria. We made sure that we have a team that is from West Africa, that understands the nuances and that we can actually banter with executive leadership.
Nigerians should expect a lot of investment in the country. In this year alone, we have Radar and all of the things we used to see only with the western side of our business are nowhere. And for me, what is exciting is that this is a growing market.
How is Spotify ensuring that Afrobeats and other local music genres reach a larger audience?
One of the things we do is to make sure that the team makes sense; making sure that the people who are experts in helping the music grow are in place. Spotify is a collaborative organisation, which means that if I know an artiste is coming out with an album next month, I make sure that I communicate with the UK, US teams, and they will track where the music is resonating organically. Then, we will use that information to sell the artiste to the rest of the world.
With the expansion project, were there challenges, and how did you address them?
There are lots of challenges and a lot of them are outside of our power. The first and the biggest challenge is the fact that piracy is rife in this continent. Culturally, Africans don’t like to pay for music. We take music as a circus and consider engineering a serious job. I feel when we reverse that type of thing, the better for us. The truth of the matter is one of the biggest exports from this continent is music and culture. And therefore, it’s going to take a couple of generations for us to switch our thinking and understand that art contributes immensely.
Remember when we were in COVID-19 lockdown, we were in our houses and what saved us was music. So for me, I’m hoping that we all understand that music is a big business and that we will make sure that music is front and centre in our decisions making. We need to make sure that the creators are taken care of.
We’ve been celebrating Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy for 10 years, however, the next stars are coming, so making sure that that happens, we have Radar, our new artistes programme; Tems, Focalistic came from Radar and they are big today. So, I know that what we are trying to do in terms of lifting those marginalised artistes works.
But I want to make things absolutely clear; I do not come into Nigeria assuming that I know the answers; I need the partners, I need the media. I need the artistes and I need the labels; I need everyone to help me understand and help make this continent the absolute star that it is.
There are platforms like Equal helping to promote female artistes in the music industry, what are you doing, especially for the male artistes to give them the sense that they are not left uncared for?
Have you ever heard of a man feeling alienated? The reason all those programmes for women exist is because of the fact that women are not considered. As a person, I need equality everywhere.
South Africa had a race issue for as long as it has. And because apartheid is so efficient in its oppression, we have affirmative action almost as a default. To register a company, there have to be black people’s names in ownership. It seems unfair to people who are already privileged, but it is a necessary thing that we have to do as human beings. It’s a justice cause and that’s why we do it. Men are good; they are fine.
Okumu sounds Nigerian, where exactly are you from?
I get this all the time, also in South Africa where I hail from. People think I’m a Nigerian, and I don’t correct them because spiritually, I feel like I have an affinity to West Africa, that, I can’t complain about. I visit Nigeria and Ghana, at least two or three times every year.
Nigeria or Ghana Jollof Rice?
I am afraid to answer this question. I will say Sierra Leonean Jollof; by this, everything is fine.