Okumu: The Ugandan making major decisions at Spotify for African artistes

Phiona Okumu

What you need to know:

High flyer. Phiona Okumu is the music streaming service, Spotify Head of Music in Sub-Saharan Africa, a role in which the Kenyan-born Ugandan amplifies the continent’s music globally

It’s not every day you get to talk to someone as influential as Phiona Okumu, a former music journalist now Spotify’s Head of Music in Sub-Saharan Africa.

It took me three months to get the attention of the Kenyan-born Ugandan music executive, tasked with solidifying the presence of the giant Swedish audio streaming platform in Africa which launched in Kenya and Uganda in February 2021.

Okumu has been busy towering the continent, studying the 40 new markets Uganda included, laying strategies and foundations to ensure the multibillion-dollar hit-making business becomes successful in Africa as it already is abroad.

Still, it did not shelter her from all life’s tribulations. In the year 2000, she tried to get her footing in to the music industry, when her friends and herself decided to organise a major concert in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“The task was to host, American chanteuse Lauryn Hill who was ruling the charts at the time, as the main headliner,” Okumu divulges.

They had been in constant talks with the That Thing hit maker management but the engagement broke down on the eleventh hour with Hill infamous for cancelling shows, saying she was not going to make it.

Sponsors immediately withdrew.

“We lost all the money we had invested. I had thought because I loved music we could pull off the event,” she reflects.

After the devastation, Okumu left South Africa for the United Kingdom to learn more about music management taking every blue-collar job that came her way; bartending, waitressing, cleaning to make ends meet.

Dealing with failure

While in the UK she kicked off her journalism career, serving as a freelance writer with UK’s New Nation black community newspaper and later the Guardian in the UK.

“There is where my journalism began, writing music articles and interviewing the star celebrities of the time. Her journalism career landed her an opportunity to curate music for a platform based in Netherlands called 22 tracks, which was then an innovative streaming service.

“This was long before the world of playlist opened up.”

By the time she was getting into the tech world around 2015-2016, she was an authority in music and public relations.

At this point in time, she had served 14 good years as a music journalist and public relations consultant.

Her big break came when Apple Music launched in June 2015. This is the job that introduced Okumu to the world of streaming business.

At Apple Music, Okumu handled editorial work and managed artist-label relations for the platform for three years before jumping ship in 2019.

“I joined Spotify in 2019 and I was in charge of artistes and label partnerships. I was representing artists, advocating for them in the organisation, and working on partnerships that would benefit both parties.

Two years later, when we launched Spotify in the rest of Africa having already existed in South Africa for two years, I was promoted to the Head of Music. So right now, I am responsible for music strategy for Africa, and we have some amazing plans coming up,” shares the former Afripop! Magazine Editor.

Phiona Okumu

Spotify opportunity

Under her current docket, Okumu leads a team of cultural experts, in this case, editors, artistes, and label partner managers to execute the company’s music strategy.

As the boss,  Okumu operates a strictly  localised policy.

“Every region has a music editor who understands the local dynamics. They then report to me on their market,” Okumu shares.

Despite being in a different world, Okumu still sees a lot of similarities between her current job to the one in which she filed editorial copy.

“Both roles require a well-honed instinct for what is next in culture. I had been a music journalist by the time my partner and I started the blog, Afripop! The only difference is that data is integral to the role with Spotify.

For example, our team’s decision to get behind genres like Amapiano was and continues to be guided by what analytics say about the way that music and culture are expanding in Africa,” says Okumu.

Her days are as varied as they are reflective.

“No day is the same. My job is to amplify the music of the continent throughout the diaspora,” Okumu says while adding, “on a good day, I am speaking to every single corner of the world, making sure that everybody understands that Africa is not a trend for us.” 

Despite being in existence since 2006, the Swedish audio streaming service, Spotify, only launched in East Africa in February 2021. The streaming service also expanded to Nigeria, Ghana, and Tanzania who joined other African markets –-South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia— where it launched in 2018.

Spotify is the highest paying music streaming platforms in the world and saw Uganda join the over 345 million monthly active listeners to stream popular music and podcasts on the free platform with an additional premium subscription that offers ad-free streaming.

So why did the company take so long to enter the East African market?

“Every market has different nuances and therefore customisation is key. We took time with the expansion because entering a new market without what it takes to figure out different audiences would be a miss. We wanted to be sure how we would connect with Kenyan music lovers and creators. We also wanted to ensure we have the right payment structure and partnerships set up in Kenya before we could finally announce our expansion. These things take time to implement,” Okumu shares.

Projecting growth

Even though these are still early days Okumu sees growth.

“This is one of our fastest growing markets, and we attribute this growth to a variety of factors including the provision of localised content, integrating payment methods that work for the market as well as supporting, collaborating with, and highlighting local creators.”

Since the launch, Okumu says there has been a 25 percent increase in the number of artistes, and over 8,000 songs have been added to the platform. Last year Spotify paid USD7 billion as royalty to artistes across the globe.

However, local artistes are yet to start milking money from the platform as is the case with the video streaming platform YouTube, but Okumu maintains there is no reason to panic.

“Artistes on our platform can be assured that they will be compensated and acknowledged for sharing their music,” she assures.

Roughly two-thirds of Spotify’s revenues from Premium subscribers and advertisers are paid out to music rights holders including artistes, labels, and distributors. Spotify generates revenue for rights holders, who in turn pay artistes and songwriters their streaming royalties based on their stream share.

“We do not publicly share how much royalties are paid in each of the 183 markets we are in, as every market is unique and is at different stages in the streaming journey. So you have places like the US, UK, Canada where streaming is ubiquitous, and in Africa where streaming is starting to gain more traction,” Okumu notes.

Amplifying African voices

Under her watch, a number of programmes  aimed at amplifying  African artistes have been rolled out with EQUAL Africa specifically curated to support female musicians.

The global music programme was launched in March 2021 as part of Spotify’s commitment to advancing gender equity in music. The initiative aims to celebrate women pushing the envelope and inspiring the next generations of artistes, producers, and executives.

“Our EQUAL Africa programme and playlist spotlights female talent from the continent, and Kenyan rappers such as Muthoni Drummer Queen and Ssaru have benefited from it,” Okumu points out.

Fresh Finds Africa is another initiative developed under her leadership that also seeks to support both up-and-coming female and male African artistes.

“It spotlights up and coming artistes who aren’t signed to major labels. These programmes and playlists are crucial in helping music lovers across the globe discover sounds, perspectives, and voices they otherwise would not come across.

“We are also looking to do more Masterclasses as we know there is a need for artistes, to have forums where they are taught the ABCs of the music business, including songwriting, distribution, and monetisation. We had the first one in Lagos, Nigeria earlier in the year which was a success, and our next stop is Kenya,” she shares.

What is Spotify?

Spotify is a digital music, podcast, and video service that gives you access to millions of songs and other content from creators all over the world.

Basic functions such as playing music are totally free, but you can also choose to upgrade to Spotify Premium.

Whether you have Premium or not, you can: Get recommendations based on your taste, Build collections of music and podcasts

And more! Spotify is available across a range of devices, including computers, phones, tablets, speakers, TVs, and cars, and you can easily transition from one to another with Spotify Connect.It has been almost 15 years since Spotify first launched in 2008. Much has changed since, and today the platform is among the most popular music streaming services, with a considerable lead over other options like Apple Music and Tidal.

Spotify is a digital music streaming service. It gives you instant access to its vast online library of music and podcasts, allowing you to listen to any content of your choice at any time. It is both legal and easy to use.

You will find millions of songs from a variety of genres and artists: from obscure indie rock, to top 40 pop, to movie soundtracks and classical music. It also has a complex algorithm to recommend music based on your listening history, as well as curated playlists and internet radio stations

In 2018, Spotify, expanded to more than 40 African countries, thus offering Africa’s predominantly young population an additional music streaming option.

Davido (left) and Burna Boy (right) from Nigeria and Eddy Kenzo from Uganda are some of the biggest artistes from Africa enjoying rotation on Spotify.

By Sinda Matiko