The Biggest Challenge for Apple and Spotify in North Africa: YouTube

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The Biggest Challenge for Apple and Spotify in North Africa: YouTube

By Eromo Egbejule


YouTube is reaping the rewards of a seed sown in lands where no one else would tread.

By Eromo Egbejule

  • As the streaming services enter the region, they’re up against an older giant — YouTube — which cultivated North Africa when others ignored it.
  • A very visual culture and better mobile data connectivity also help YouTube over its rivals in the area.

Beirut-based music streaming service Anghami was founded by necessity, as many startups often are. After struggling to play music while vacationing at a Lebanese ski resort in 2010 — iTunes was unavailable in the country then — founder Eddy Maroun raised funding to build a solution. Tailor-made for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, it has amassed exclusive rights to titles from prominent musicians and signed deals with mobile operators. By 2019, it had crossed 60 million mobile downloads, with 21 million monthly active users and 1 million paying subscribers.

Anghami’s success points to the massive potential of the North African market, which is frequently excluded from African music charts and discussions, even as sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) remains the darling of Western music industry stakeholders. It was only in 2018 that Spotify and Deezer launched operations in North Africa, within months of each other. This April, Apple Music came to Tunisia and Algeria. But while they’re now focusing on the region, they have a long way to catch up with the one global player that beat them all to the region — YouTube, which has served North Africa since its birth in 2005.

North Africans are a very visual people.

Titilope Adesanya, head of West African operations, Africori

Across the continent, the newcomers continue to be dwarfed by the heights that streaming giant YouTube has hit in North Africa. In 2015, Moroccan pop singer Saad Lamjarred entered the Guinness Book of World Records with his song “Lm3allem,” which became the most viewed Arabic video on YouTube after garnering over 500 million views in three months; it has 841.7 million views as of July 2020. His duet with Egyptian singer Mohammed Ramadan, released four years on, racked up 100 million views in a month — numbers that American superstars dream of.

By contrast, no song from SSA has ever hit the 300 million mark. The closest, at 296.6 million, is “Magic in the Air” — and that involved a collaboration between Ivorian veterans Magic System and Moroccan singer Chawki and was released just in time for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. It benefited from the global soccer rush and the name recognition of both parties, but still falls short of the glory of fully North African videos.

Titilope Adesanya, who oversees West African operations at Africori, a pan-African digital music distributor, says that “North Africans are a very visual people” who place a premium on visual delivery. “North Africans for the most part have better visuals than we do,” she says. “They’ve got structure and on YouTube they are knocking us out of the park.” 

The data backs her assertion: Middle East and North Africa residents consume 6 hours and 20 minutes of daily television on average, compared to 5 hours in, say, South Africa, according to data from Statista.

To be sure, the newcomers are trying to play catch up. Spotify, for instance, is offering educational classes to train artists to better promote their music to global audiences. But the loyalty to YouTube — built over years when others ignored the region — will be hard to break.

Where artists have long needed to liaise with streaming brands that weren’t available in the region to have their content pushed elsewhere, “they can just upload on YouTube themselves and their people will watch it,” explains Adesanya.

Karima Nayt, a Switzerland-based Algerian singer who grew up between her country and Egypt, says North Africa’s young population — the average age is 25 — helps attract them to YouTube, which has visual content. “Most of them are with smartphones so [are] automatically using YouTube as the easiest platform accessible to them. … Spotify and Apple Music aren’t used by [the] majority there.” It helps that 4G data penetration in North Africa and the Middle East is 62 percent, compared with just 34 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the GSM Association, an industry body that represents mobile network operators globally. That makes it easier to stream videos on the phone in North Africa than in sub-Saharan Africa.

North Africans — even in the diaspora — remain attached to traditional music genres like chaabi, targui, andaloussi and raï, stresses Nayt. The region’s willingness to embrace its Arab heritage more than its African one means it’s only natural that young users prefer indigenous sounds — available on YouTube — to music from sub-Saharan Africa.

In other markets, Spotify and Apple Music have relied on their deep pockets to compete against local challengers. In North Africa, they’re up against a giant owned by tech titan Google — and one that catered to the region, when no one else would.