EXPLAINED: Nigerian Music Has A Streaming Farm Problem

BNXN and Ruger's latest spat reveals the industry-wide phenomenon that has been growing alongside the music

In recent years Afropop has been on the rise. Its standard for music-making and live performances has bolstered, while the fans—who make sure the music pops—have taken a more active position in their criticism and commentary, creating globally-recognised fan bases and spurring conversation on social media. Some days ago, BNXN (fka Buju) and Ruger continued to clash their swords in honour of a supposed battle of artistic superiority. 

Anyone who has closely followed online discussions this year knows the nature of the beef between both artists. Initially stoked several months ago, it has become a periodic activity to engage whimsically, sparking heated, comic-relief-esque conversation from listeners on both sides of the artist divide. Well, to be honest, there’s no doubt the Nigerian audience can appreciate how diverse the artists are: while Ruger imbibes the Dancehall ethos which has earned him credible reception, BNXN is closer to the R&B tradition, weaning saccharine ballads with sufficient doses of realism and romantic trajectory. 

The previous tiff however spawned the more enduring conversation of streaming farms, a phenomenon that’s been in the music business for as long as streaming has been the primary method of distributing music. While Afropop has been on the rise, that acclaim is mostly earned as a result of the musicians’ acceptability outside the shores of the continent. Understanding the business side has progressed slowly but gradually, as background industry players usually prefer to work in relative anonymity. This means the knowledge behind the talent hasn’t been acknowledged as much, but the generated interest on streaming farms no doubt repurposes that light in a deserved direction that gradually espouses the workings of the game. 

Basically, a streaming farm is a complex technology system which uses bots to jack up the streams of a particular record. Connected to a central operating system, several devices—be it phones, laptops or tablets—are able to play a song on repeat for a particular period of time, resulting in the eventual popularity of that record. At least, on that given streaming platform. 

In the Nigerian context, there’s surely a number of nuances to unpack before going forward, especially considering the relative newness of its modern music industry. Whereas older markets such as the United Kingdom and USA have evolved standardised charting for decades, Nigeria’s first indigenious charting system TurnTable was founded only in 2020, while other systematic procedures are still being galvanised into existence. This newness reveals itself in the acceptability of new music technology. Streaming, while being explored in the earlier mentioned markets as early as the mid 2000s, only began to penetrate the dominant consciousness of Nigerians about some five years ago. 

Before then the distribution model was largely physical. Blocks of pressed CDs either found their way to Alaba International Market or were sold independently by the musicians. However, by choosing the former an established structure of middlemen and distributors made the process of getting one’s music to maximum ears seamless, while the creators of said music usually got an advance payment. This was the system which propelled both Nigerian music and Nollywood to national acclaim, although in time pirated CDs also began to infiltrate the market. Attempts were made to clamp down content pirates, but how could that be successfully achieved when, in most cases, these pirated products were very accessible and affordable to most consumers? 

The popularisation of internet-enabled cell phones changed the game as we knew it. Musicians were growing into their stardom and some of them saw the potential for deliberate piracy, so to say. Leaking their records to online music sites, they were able to generate clout by foregoing the monetary benefits of legitimate purchases. In return their street credibility bolstered, they commanded good money for events, and most crucially their music was heard. This exchange system offers insight into the logic behind streaming farms: to get something that is supposedly beneficial, something else has to give. In this case, the hard-fought tactics of organic promotion. 

The existence of streaming farms in the US has been suspected for a long time now. In the critically acclaimed documentary ‘Music Industry Exposed – Fake Streams’ the late great actor Michael K. Williams went from Baltimore to New York, speaking to people who had first-hand experience with manipulating music streams. 

As he went deeper, more avenues of manipulation were discovered. Seemingly the world is almost run entirely by bots which have filtrated several industries—from fashion to sports and content creation, there’s no limit to its adaptability. His primary interviewee was Chad Focus, the infamous rapper who used streaming farms to make himself super rich while teaching it to others around his neighbourhood. In the final scene where he appears, he’s about to go to court for his fraudulent activities (he would later be charged to 30 months in prison) when he reveals his motivation was always to broaden the perspective of black people in regards to tech. 

What’s the motivation for Nigerian artists manipulating streams? There’s the prospect of increasing streaming royalties, but that doesn’t account for its evolution. “They have been in existence since when being on the charts has become very important to a Nigerian artist,” says Olayinka Ezekiel, a digital distributor expert based in Lagos. “Before now, we knew radio was the king, but when the streaming era came and when the major artists were being signed by major labels—when I say major labels, I mean the Warner’s, Universal’s, Sony Music—that’s when streaming farming has been in existence in Nigeria”. 

His analysis of radio hegemony is accurate, considering how important the medium was in regards to music promotion. Even then, the high number of artists seeking potential coverage led to the ‘payola’ system where paying radio station employees through the backdoor got one’s music in rotation. The lucrative prospects of the global music industry regardless of moral implications enables these ideals, which is why the idea of streaming farms isn’t totally far-fetched. 

“They have helped well-known artists to get top of streaming charts and also helped labels earn more money from royalties,” explains Ezekiel. “A number of artists have used streaming farms to get deals; not just from record labels but from brands. The increase in streaming farms have also positively and negatively affected the music industry. Basically, unknown artists find it difficult to build their numbers. You see that there are artists that have done all the marketing and promotion that they know they can do, to get numbers and to reach an audience, but they find that they’re not reaching these audiences. A-list artists are getting these numbers, topping charts, breaking charts, and they’re wondering, ‘Am I not doing enough? What is it that I am not doing well?’ So this has helped only a section of the music industry in the country.” 

Some independent artists have however found ways of properly utilising streaming farms, a friend of mine who also works in distribution says. “To get placement on digital streaming platforms you need some sort of pedigree,” he affirms. “You can’t just be an independent artist and come into the game and say, ‘I need placement’ without signing a record deal or something. It’s kind of difficult. So streaming farm is a marketing tool that grows your listenership; it will give you the particular attention that DSPs need from you. It’s going to give you that pedigree for your song to get on playlists, to get proper placement. You’re also bound to have genuine listeners—so that’s one kind of advantage. The second reason is easy: people get paid. There are a lot of institutions and talents that make up the music industry—ranging from producers, labels and the rest. Streaming farms is one of them. We’ve been viewing the music industry through the artist perspective for long, whereas there are lots of institutions behind those artists. So the second advantage is economical, simple: people get paid, which is very important. In any aspect of life, people must get paid”.  

On the flip side, DSP’s are getting smarter and adopting new technologies to track unusual activity on internet servers. “Engaging in any way with artificial streams can result in the withholding of manipulated streams from streaming numbers,” said the Spotify Global Head of Commercial Partnerships Jen Masset, in an episode of Your Morning Coffee podcast. “We can withhold royalties and, where necessary, we can remove the tracks from our service. So it ultimately hurts an artist’s long-term process”. 

Ultimately, the listening patterns of a country like Nigeria isn’t adequately captured on streaming charts. They’re collated individually, meaning a song that’s really big on Apple Music might not be the same for Spotify users. One also considers the relatively high number of economically-challenged Nigerians who find it hard to pay monthly subscriptions for DSPs, rather preferring to illegally download music onto their phones once and for all times. TurnTable is the only charting system that effectively collates data from the mediums of radio, TV and streaming, but not many artists have embraced its ingenious efforts. No week passes without an artist publicly laying claim to the “No. 1 song in the country” or scheming to achieve that, even though a screenshot of the Apple Music Top 100 is often all they have to go by. 

“They want the bragging rights,” says Ezekiel, in response to the question of why big artists use streaming farms. “They want to be able to control deals, they want to be able to control figures. The music industry now is a game of numbers. An independent artist will find it difficult to control numbers or even attract brands if they don’t have these bragging rights, inclusive of social media numbers as well. We’re also aware of the purchase of social media followership – that’s another industry on its own”. 

Perception is key, some players in the music business will tell you, and for good reason. There are greater prospects in the slow burning journey however. Building from scratch, marketing your releases with creative strategies, and curating special moments for one’s listeners and being a part of their lives forever—no amount of numbers could replace the sweet essence of that journey. We have seen artists announce concerts and on the event day, there’s very little turn-up as opposed to the high number of streams they might have gotten from the same state or neighbourhood. 

The alte community deserves praise for mastering this tactic. As a cultural philosophy rooted in rebellion, its narrative verve and sonic ingenuity have enabled its artists to reel in followership from all over the world. On first glance their numbers on YouTube and streaming platforms might be relatively low, compared to the millions quickly accrued by mainstream Afropop stars in a matter of hours. One however just needs to visit a concert to gauge how strongly their fans turn up, supporting not just the music but everything else that concerns the artist, from merchandise sales to cross-industry collaborations. You might not come across a fan of Cruel Santino or Amaarae everyday but when you do, they are very likely to be big fans, and could tell you with gleeful eyes when they first fell in love with the music of that particular artist. 

In the end, it’s all a game of interests. As artists tend to deliver differently on records, so also are their motivations variant. Regardless of one’s approach to music-making, the business of entertainment is no walk in the park. As such, not everyone has to employ streaming farms, and there’s no shortage of gradual, better-rewarding methods of garnering a strong fan base. Gaining insight on such methods by reading books, watching shows on YouTube or listening to podcasts offers a lot of leverage, while working with honest advisors could never go wrong. Perception might be key, but firstly one has to locate the door. 

Featured image credits/NATIVE

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