Bring Back Physical Media For Music Consumption

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Just as music is ever-evolving, so too are the ways by which music is consumed. At one point, the only way to hear new music was by attending live shows; and then came radio, then vinyls, CDs, and eventually streaming platforms. Typically, the emergence of a new medium phases out the previously popular one; and while some of these modes of music distribution are still in use, streaming platforms remain at the fore. 

Popular though they are, streaming platforms are not without problems: It’s been debated in the last few years if they pay artists well enough. Spotify, a leading streaming platform, offers artists $0.003 per stream, an arrangement Mannywellz, an independent Nigerian artist, criticized last January.

This is not a new problem. In the 2010s, to distribute their music, Nigerian artists relied on such platforms as Musicplus and Cloud 9, both owned by MTN and Etisalat (now called 9 Mobile) respectively. Musicplus demanded as high as sixty per cent of revenue generated from each song, before handing over the rest to distros and labels, or to artists if they were independent. It was worse for signed artists because they received a share of the profits only after their labels had taken their cuts. Artists received as little as eight per cent of the total revenue earned.

As streaming platforms promise a much wider reach than CDs and vinyls, artists naturally opt for them. But though it allows their music to reach more people, it does not automatically translate into more money. To hit the jackpot, artists need millions of streams; and while well-established artists like Burna Boy and Rema will have no problem hitting those numbers, those of smaller star power can only dream of it. To outwit the system, certain artists have resorted to the unethical use of streaming farms, to artificially boost their streams and, in turn, their profits.

With the advent of streaming platforms, artists all over the world sold CDs and vinyls as merch, availing them with income to supplement whatever they earned from streams. But in recent times, this has gone from being just a means of gaining extra cash to being the mainstay for some artists, the perfect example being Mannywellz who sold physical copies of CDs initially and now moved to selling virtual CDs. What’s more? Regardless of the success of Afrobeats globally, Nigeria still has an underdeveloped streaming culture for many reasons. For one, given the poor state of the country’s economy , not many Nigerians can afford the monthly subscription required to access streaming platforms. This poverty breeds piracy: Many will turn to certain websites to download music for free, which does not count as streams for artists. 

While artists might consider going back to older ways of music distribution like the CDs, an interesting question to ask is whether consumers have adequate financial standing to drive its sale. For instance, in the early 2010s, CDs containing the latest single of an artist, sold for 200 naira. But with the current economic state, it might bump up to 1,000 naira, which is the exact price for an individual premium package on Spotify.

Does this change anything in terms of access to music? Maybe not. Does it put more money in the pockets of all levels of artists, either A-list or D-list? It certainly does. It also gives artists more autonomy over their art, allowing them to set the prices for their works and gain sufficient profit. Also, because it is a sure bet that people will always love music, even when artists decide to go back to selling their songs exclusively on physical media, consumers will always find ways to purchase music of their favorite artists, regardless of the economic condition. Nigerian artists like Rema, Cruel Santino, Asake, have constantly sold CDs and vinyls, earning considerably from doing so. Should they switch permanently to these media, they still are guaranteed  a significant amount of sales.

A major advantage of physical media over streaming platforms is that it helps the artist get money faster, sustains the music, and improves the art. Examples abound abroad: in 2021, to bypass an unfavorable distribution system and get the maximum profit, Kanye West sold Donda 2, a demo album, exclusively on Stem Player. With each stem player costing $200, West reportedly made a revenue of $2.2M in the first 24 hours of its release. Also, Tyler the Creator was 2023’s best-selling male artist on vinyl in the United States, having sold a total of 552,000 records. We have also seen companies, such as, buy into this system to help artists sell their music directly to fans, bypassing the mediation services offered by streaming platforms. These companies take their own share of the overall revenue, but it is not as kingly a price as demanded by platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, and so seems to be a better bet for artists.

Another advantage physical media has over streaming platforms is tied to the problem of piracy. Although this affects both the release of physical and online copies of music, it affects the latter more because, while individuals can upload an artist’s song to their websites, make money through numerous ads shown on the site and go scot-free, it is a bit difficult to do the same with physical media. Unlike their online counterparts, pirates of physical media work from physical stores, where the pirated copies of music are sold, making it easier to track them and hand them over to the police.   

Time will tell if the many benefits promised by physical media will suffice to see it supplant streaming platforms as the leading mode of music distribution in Nigeria. Until then, we will keep dancing to the music in whatever form it comes. 

Chukwuebuka Mgbemena is a culture writer focused on telling didactic and entertaining stories.