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 in February 2021.
Phiona has been busy towering the continent, studying the 40 new markets Kenya included, laying strategies and foundations to ensure the multibillion-dollar hit-making business becomes successful in Africa as it already is abroad.
Phiona was destined to be in the music industry. In her university heydays at Rhodes University in South Africa, she was a Deejay and admits to being the reason why she didn’t do so well on her Bachelors of Commerce, Economics, and Statistics degree.
“I was too obsessed with music and too focused on media relations,” says Phiona.
A child of many worlds
Although born in Nairobi to Ugandan parents, her family moved around quite a lot when she was young which best explains why she considers herself Ugandan, Kenyan, and South African.“The three countries make my heritage,” she beams.
Her mother worked in various administrative roles with her last assignment as a Project Manager at the United Nation before retiring. The family also lived in South Africa for years as her parents pursued their respective careers.
Phiona’s family would later move to the United Kingdom for some years during which period, her father, a teacher by profession graduated from Sheffield University.
However, Phiona’s journey to the top has not been all rosy. But the moving around and the challenges that came with it taught her to be prepared for any eventualities.
Still, it didn’t 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 organize 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,” Phiona 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 wasn’t 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, Phiona 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 Phiona to the world of streaming business.At Apple Music, Phiona 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 artists 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’m responsible for music strategy for Africa, and we have some amazing plans coming up,” shares the former Afripop! Magazine Editor.
Under her current docket, Phiona 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, Phiona operates a strictly localised policy.
“Every region has a music editor who understands the local dynamics. They then report to me on their market,” Phiona shares.
Despite being in a different world, Phiona 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’s 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 Phiona.
Her days are varied as they are reflective.
“No day is the same. My job is to amplify the music of the continent throughout the diaspora,” Phiona says while adding, “on a good day, I’m 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 Kenya in February 2021. The streaming service also expanded to Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda 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 Kenya 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 Kenyan market?
“Every market has different nuances and therefore customization 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,” Phiona shares.
Even though these are still early days Phiona sees growth in the Kenyan market.
“Kenya 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, Phiona 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 7 billion dollars as royalty to artistes across the globe.
However Kenyan artistes are yet to start milking money from the platform as is the case with the video streaming platform YouTube, but Phiona 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,” Phiona 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 program 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,” Phiona 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 wouldn’t 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,” Phiona shares.