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Ringtones are the new music in phone-rich Nigeria

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Phizbarz is only 23 but hopes to become the next Nigerian Afro-pop star to be famous across Africa — and to get himself known and earn a living, he’s using his mobile phone.

The young performer from the country’s commercial and entertainment capital, Lagos, floods social networking sites Twitter, Facebook and Instagram with clips of his music. Sometimes he appears as a baseball-capped rapper surrounded by gyrating, scantily clad dancers; sometimes as a sheikh in a pristine white dishdasha, dripping with gold.

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“If you want to be someone, you have to show off,” he tells AFP, from behind the wheel of a red Mercedes he borrowed from his manager.

In all, Phizbarz has composed about 100 songs but has never produced an album. Instead, his creations are converted into ringtones by phone companies, who sell them individually and pay him and his label 60% of the profits.

Phizbarz himself earns about 50,000 naira ($164) a month, which he considers a “decent” wage. In Nigeria, performing artists have long been left to their own devices because of the lack of a structured market, making them powerless against piracy, which accounts for most sales.

In the packed streets of Lagos — a capital of creativity and resourcefulness — bootlegged copies are sold at car windows or between packets of sweets, cigarettes and recent Nollywood releases — many of which are also pirated. For the last three years, there’s been a revolution in Nigeria’s music industry because of digital sales and especially mobile phones, which are bringing in increasingly more revenue.

Analysts PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimated in a report published late last year that Nigeria’s music industry was worth $47m in 2015 and should rise to $86m by 2020. “Nigeria’s total music revenue is dependent on ringtones and ringback tones, with the legitimate music sector being small otherwise,” it said.

Instead of hearing a beep while waiting for a caller to pick up, companies play the latest releases and offer them for download. Telephone operators, led by South African mobile giant MTN, sense the potential of Nigeria, which is home to nearly 190-million people and where music is almost a religion.

MTN, which has 60-million subscribers in Nigeria, says it is the largest distributor of music. Ringtones are sold at 50 naira each and MTN also operates a download platform, MTN Music Plus, which competes with world-leading online music sites such as iTunes. “There are lots of talented musicians in this market who had issues with piracy; it was difficult for them to sell their music,” says MTN Nigeria’s marketing director, Richard Iweanoge.

“We enable them to monetise the work. Every year we pay out more money to the artists, it’s really a working formula,” he says. “Nigerians actually wanted to buy music, they just didn’t have the means to acquire it legally.”

Wannabe mega-stars such as Phizbarz are looking to emulate musicians such as D’banj and Davido, whose songs play in clubs from Johannesburg to Cotonou and Kinshasa. With roots in the streets of Lagos, they are now courted by major labels and record in Europe and the US.

“Superstars like Wizkid inspire millions of Nigerians,” says Sam Onyemelukwe, the head of Entertainment Management Company, a partner of the Trace TV music network. “There are not many jobs for them, not much to do with their lives. Everybody wants to become a singer, have a lot of girlfriends and buy a jet: it’s glamorous.” The law of averages suggests few will attain the dizzy heights of fame, but mobile phones are one potentially lucrative way of getting noticed.

According to PwC, ringtone downloads alone can earn artists such as D’banj and Davido up to $350,000 a year. “Anybody can record a song for a few thousand naira and sell it online,” says Onyemelukwe. “There’s about one million ‘artistes’ in Nigeria. But very few of them are successful.”

Phizbarz doesn’t need to be told this: “The music industry is very hard.”

Posting photos and videos online, and touring the local music scene and radio stations is a way of trying to catch the attention of one of the top industry figures, he says. “You sell your brand first and then you get recognition. You have to know a lot of managers, radio presenters. Even if your beats are good, it is more about who you know in the industry. It’s more a brand that you are developing, it’s business.”

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