Music in the clouds, the rise of Spotify

When music was restricted to physical form in vinyl records, cassettes, compact disks, iPods and flashdrives it was very difficult for local musicians to imagine they could sell not only across the border but to millions of fans globally.

But with the evolution of music onto online platforms such as Spotify, Kenyan artists are getting access to over 527 million monthly active users globally including 210 million paying subscribers as of March 2023 to market their audio, podcast and music streaming content.

Spotify has especially been at the heart of major shifts and changes in the music industry in Kenya and across the globe. From promoting Kenya’s music in foreign audiences, to giving small artists the platform to showcase themselves, artists like  Maandy, Karun, Sauti Sol and Buruklyn Boys are spearheading rise of Kenyan music at the global stage placing local stars on Spotify’s banners in New York’s Times Square. 

Almost like all other disruptions, the music industry transformation towards online starts from the advances on the mobile phone. The mobile phone initially carried ring tones, blaring notification that later morphed into sections of popular songs. As users developed their favourite ringtones and call back tunes, the emergence of smartphones allowed users to create favourite music lists just like walkmans and iPods.

Faster and affordable internet also expanded to holding playlists on the cloud rather than the carrying capacity of mobile phone memory and all of a sudden users were one click away from access to millions of songs at the convinience of our phones with little to no struggles. 

While Spotify’s recent surge is relatively new in Kenya, I first interacted with the streaming service a few years back. I had previously sought unconventional methods to access the famed music streaming service and It had completely lived up to its hype. If at any point Spotify checked the locations of their account owners before their launch in Africa, mine would have read several European cities with an occasional Australian city which I had never even set foot on.

All this was possible because of a VPN which would give me access to the streaming service that was only open to some select locations. So I was excited to hear Spotify were set to launch in Kenya in 2018 and other African countries. The struggles we had to access the platform were all about to go away for good, that was surely set to be a good win. “Finally inakuja” I thought to myself.

The firm’s entry into the African music scene came in line with its agenda to push African music to greater heights and empower the artists to get their music heard in all the different markets in which Spotify is present in.

Read also: Government laying digital traps to tax virtual music

Spotify has been gaining widespread popularity and acceptance since it’s inception in Europe in 2008 by Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon. Its beginning came at a strategic time when the internet was present, piracy was at an all-time high and global music revenues were declining. All those conditions shifted the odds in favor of Spotify. 

Napster, an open sourced website on the internet with millions of uploaded songs in it’s libraries and anyone could download free of charge. It was deemed as piracy and was classified as illegal.

That paired off with the soaring prices of album purchases by apple music created a huge gap between legal music purchases and piracy.

It might not have been the same exact situation in Kenya in terms of music purchases but as for piracy, the Kenyan music scene is no exception. The industry has long been riddled with piracy and the artists not getting their deserved pay for their works.

As Spotify’s founders looked to bridge this gap, they knew that the only way to compete with free pirated music was to give the listeners an experience that would push them to pay for its usage despite being able to torrent or pirate any song. They certainly wouldn’t yet know how big the platform would be nor how it would change the global or Kenya’s music industry. 

The platform made their interface in a way which the user would feel like they had the entire world’s music library at their fingertips and focused on making it as lightweight and instant as possible which made it very popular.

In addition to that, they sought to develop their prototypes experience, maintain exclusivity, provided high quality and completely legal music streaming services. This was seen when they rolled out on an invite only basis which worked to increase it’s demand. 

Spotify gradually won over music enthusiasts as it was affordable, easily accessible, a wide range of options, an attractive user interface, good algorithms that customised playlists for the listeners and all that went for just $10 a month.

This would give the listeners access to millions of songs, albums and genres, which provided a streaming experience that was and has remained unparalleled till date. 

Spotify also went on to sign deals with four major global record labels in 2009 (Sony, Warner music, Universal and EMI). The period saw declining revenues in the music industry thus the two needed each other. This added on to their successes as Spotify would now legally be able to distribute the labels music. 

In 2013 the company launched its user centric app with the free and premium versions in a booming smartphone market that had been greatly appreciated across the globe. Another huge factor behind the success was the gap between its paid and free versions. 

The product developers in the firm spent a huge chunk of time making sure both free and paid versions got an optimal experience regardless of the amount they paid. This helped Spotify’s numbers grow steadily by attracting users of all kinds 

Over the years Spotify has outshined all other platforms because of its impeccable user experience and accessibility. It has managed to stay on top with features such as discover weekly, release radar, time capsule etc all of which use well curated algorithms to get the choice of music for the individual user. Discover weekly alone attracted 40 million new users in 2015.

Release Radar on the other hand is Spotify’s global artist program that is exclusively designed to help emerging artists worldwide reach the next stage in their careers and strengthen their connection with their listeners. 

Spotify provides upcoming artists taking part in RADAR with the needed resources and access to integrated marketing opportunities to boost their careers, in addition to expanded reach and exposure to over 150 markets worldwide.

Last year, Kenya’s very own Buruklyn Boys were part of the program alongside other participants from the other African countries.They greatly benefitted from the program as we saw them release their album titled ” “East Mpaka London”. We saw their reach increase and their listeners numbers grow. Apart from making good and unique music, Spotify for sure with their resources and intergrated marketing strategies played an influential role in putting the Kenyan drill duo out there.

This year’s RADAR program nominee is Xenia Mannaseh. The Kenyan RnB songstress was selected alongside an all female lineup from the other countries, namely: Bloody Civilian (Nigeria), Ria Sean (Nigeria), Baaba J (Ghana) and Tyla (South Africa). Such an opportunity gives her the needed resources and support to push her career up further and gain exposure in the different markets Spotify offers.

Although Spotify is giving Kenyan musicians an opportunity to sell their music across the world, what Kenyan listeners are actually clicking on has revealed the long running love for foreign music over local numbers, something which for a long time has been blamed on radio and DJs refusing to play local numbers.

Last year’s Spotify Wrapped numbers gave alot of insights to the artists and Kenyan music industry. Kenya’s number one streamed artist being Drake, closely followed by Burna Boy.

All in all, Kenyans are gradually streaming more local content, with Sauti Sol being the most listened to, Kenyan artists for the second time in a row. They were followed by the famous rap trio, Wakadinali and Buruklyn Boys. 

The industry has also made great strides on it’s own providing a platform for smaller artists to be heard and rise, including the likes of Ethan Muziki, Kinoti and Njoki Karu who all have amazing Eps on Spotify. 

Kenyan podcasters such as Eli Mwendwa from Man talk have also been on the rise since the have a platform that can widely share their content.

Back in the days, whenever our forefathers wanted to hear some jams or as they’re commonly known now “bangers”, the most they could do was tune into a radio station of choice which they had little to no control over what the host would play.

Hearing “Take me home, Country Roads” by John Denver back then can almost equate to currently jaming to a Drake song on YouTube or Spotify.

Over time we’ve seen the music entertainment industry change. Technically, the younger generations haven’t seen as much change in the industry as the older generations.

Some of the memories I have as a kid I are the ones where I remember playing with my parents’ large cassette collection that were marked by marker pens with the artist’s name. With time it gradually changed and CDs were now present. 

I vividly remember we had this black LG DVD and on weekends my mom would play her favorite bongo CD collection which had video. My brother and I would dance while singing along and say when we grow up we’d be the AliKibas and Mr Nices of our time. 

Looking back, it’s funny how our then dreams would become shattered by adolescence and our voices would be good enough for just talking and not hitting high notes or harmonising.

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