Women In MusicTech #8 – Addy Awofisayo, Head of Music for Sub-Saharan Africa at YouTube
While Addy Awofisayo started out in finance, she soon moved into the media world - pursuing her interest in telling stories - before finding herself in the music tech industry. As of September 2021, Addy Awofisayo is the new - and first - Head of Music for Sub-Saharan Africa at YouTube.
A well-deserved position for this music, content, and storytelling enthusiast, who joined YouTube in 2018, first as Content Partnership Manager and then as Head of Content Partnership for Sub-Saharan Africa.
In these roles, Addy Awofisayo has been instrumental in putting local creators and artists on the global map. She was also a major contributor to the launch of YouTube Music in her native Nigeria and pioneered the Africa Day Concert on YouTube.
You started your career in finance, so how did you end up working in the tech and music industry and why did you make this choice?
It’s a bit of a long story, so let me try to shorten it! I think I started in finance because I was good with numbers, and as a kid I used to think that if I wanted to make money, this is where I should be working. But after spending four years in finance at Microsoft, I was really bored, and I told myself that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was very monotonous, and I wanted excitement, uncertainty, and problems to solve. As finance wasn't giving me any of that, I decided to take a year off to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
During that year off, I went to Jamaica to work as program manager for the Clinton Foundation. I was working on the healthcare system and HIV clinics. Everyday there was something different to do, so it was very interesting to me. I started thinking it was the type of workspace I wanted to be. After that year, I went to grad school, still unsure of what I wanted to do, only knowing that I wanted an exciting job.
It turned out that one of my grad school professors was working on the MTV Shuga show being filmed in Kenya. The show was designed to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS among young people, among other things. Because of my experience with the Clinton Foundation and my experience in finance, my professor asked me to work with him on the project. It was my first inroad into media, and I just thought “This is what I want to do! You’re actually creating what people are watching and telling stories”. As a kid, I was always fascinated with storytelling, with TV and media, but I never really thought of it as a career until then. After I got my Master’s degree in Public Policy, I kept working in the US media space at Discovery for a year and that basically sealed my career path and my interest in the media space
After that, I moved back to Nigeria to work with an entertainment company that owns a TV channel, a radio channel and a cable network. I was working on business and content strategy, helping figure out how we could succeed in the competitive media space. I was doing everything from music to film and series. I absolutely loved it.
But after four years, I wanted to work in technology again because I really missed the intellectual curiosity of the field, being around intelligent people, and the relaxed but efficient workplace culture of technology. I also wanted to move back to tech because I really felt like tech was shaping how people were consuming media. At the time, tech and media were starting to cross, you were beginning to see how tech players like Google and Netflix were influencing media and sort of taking over more traditional media. I thought it was the future of media, and I wanted to be where the future was going to be. Finally, everything just fell into place for a job at YouTube, and that's how I got there in 2018.
When I started at YouTube, I worked with creators, artists and labels to grow their presence on our platform. Music is a very important sector in Nigeria and even though it wasn’t my core role at the time, I started spending at least 30% of my time on music initiatives. Ultimately the company saw that we definitely needed someone looking after music specifically, so they opened up a new Head of Music role for Sub-Saharan Africa. I applied and I got it!
For several years now, many international music tech players have been investing in Africa, but we are also seeing many local initiatives being created. Can we consider that there is a real dynamic and that the market is becoming structured?
Yes, most definitely! I If you look at the IFPI 2022 report, a section for Sub-Saharan Africa has been created, it shows a growth of 9.2% for the year for the region. But before, it was included in the MENA region, and most of the time only South Africa was highlighted.
I think this shows that the market is not only starting to structure itself but is evolving. A lot of music labels and music industry actors are now focusing on Africa, as other markets are starting to feel quite saturated, especially when it comes to audio and video streaming. We can see streaming players investing more in Africa because that's where they believe their next level of growth will come from. The thing with Africa is that we are yet to scratch the surface in terms of Internet access, which will open up the world online on the continent.
Many people are not online yet, but by the time they are, the market is going to boom and open up. It’s only inevitable as data prices are going to come down and more people will be able to afford it. And more people online means more people consuming digital products. There’s definitely an upward trajectory. I think Africa is one of the only markets where, year on year, the growth of streaming will probably be a positive one compared to CDs or otherwise which are starting to decline as people move away from offline music consumption patterns.
At YouTube, we have launched some of our global music programs in Africa, such as Foundry and Black Voices Fund. With Foundry, we have artists like Tems, Bella Shmurda, Rema, and Adekunle Gold that are part of the alumni class. For Black Voices Fund, Fireboy DML, Sho Madjozi and Sauti Sol were part of the first global cohort.
Many people are not online yet [in Africa], but by the time they are, the market is going to boom and open up. It’s only inevitable as data prices are going to come down and more people will be able to afford it. And more people online means more people consuming digital products. There’s definitely an upward trajectory
What changes and opportunities does this streaming boom bring for labels and artists?
Monetization is a huge opportunity, and streaming also offers a better knowledge of your audience. I remember speaking to Yemi Alade’s manager Taiye a couple years ago, he mentioned how they used to determine where she goes on tour based on what her YouTube analytics was showing in terms of the geographics where her music is consumed. Yemi is English-speaking, but her team saw an audience growth in France, which they thought was interesting, so they decided to do a show there that went incredibly well. She wouldn’t have known this without access to data analytics that streaming platforms or services like YouTube provides.
I think what streaming has done is to allow music and artists to “travel without a visa.” It has allowed artists to reach audiences all over the world and has allowed them to access other markets around the world, expanding the pool of monetization. If your music is consumed in massive markets like the US or in the UK, you might have even more opportunities (in the form of brand collaborations, international artist collaboration and more) than in your home country in Africa.
Artists are also getting more aware and educated on that topic. Before, they maybe didn’t fully understand how streaming works and how you could make money from a digital streaming platform. They were used to selling CDs or concert tickets. That was the traditional way to make money as an artist. But now they see how streaming can contribute to their income. I think that awareness is helping the industry mature as well.
Recently Nigerian singer Burna Boy played at New York’s Madison Square Garden and it was broadcasted live on YouTube. It’s very symbolic, as for many African artists, YouTube has been a springboard to the world for many years, long before streaming got so big, right?
Thanks for bringing this up! Yes, Burna Boy had a historic show at Madison Square Garden. He was the first Nigerian to sell out the iconic venue. But we realized that only the people who were at the show venue would experience the epicness of what was going to happen. So we worked with Burna Boy’s team to bring the live show to YouTube, making sure the whole world could experience it. The livestream video reached 1,000,000 views in five days trending on different platforms because people were talking a lot about it. I was physically at the show – it was great – but I watched it online later as well, and it felt different, I noticed other details. It was another kind of experience!
Bringing that historic moment for Burna Boy to the world is one of the best examples of what YouTube has done for Afrobeats artists in helping them reach a global audience for over a decade. And it’s also a great example of what I said earlier, that technology was going to change the media and the way people consume content.
I think what streaming has done is to allow music and artists to “travel without a visa.” It has allowed artists to reach audiences all over the world and has allowed them to access other markets around the world, expanding the pool of monetization. If your music is consumed in massive markets like the US or in the UK, you might have even more opportunities
To stay on the subject of local artists, you were previously responsible for content partnerships for sub-Saharan Africa at YouTube. How important was it to bring local content to the local audience rather than just provide international content?
Local content is certainly important, but it also really depends on the market. In Nigeria for instance, there is a heavy consumption of local content. Whether it's Nollywood films or Nollywood series, Nigerians love to watch their own stories. Same on the music side, they love to consume their own music.
And local content is not just for entertainment, but also for information. During COVID, a lot of people came online to access news, and for instance in South Africa, SABC would stream the presidential speeches on COVID online to reach people wherever they were at home, in their car or in the office. So, making sure local audiences can have access to local content is an essential part of the work we do at YouTube.
A part of my role when I was doing Content Partnership was to make sure we were able to bring most of this local content for people. It was to make sure that local creators like beauty vlogger Dimma Umeh, comedian Mark Angel or series channel Ndani TV were able to reach this local audience. But these content creators also want to reach a global audience, right? So the other important part of my job was to make sure they could also experience the power of YouTube: accessing the +2 billion people who log into the platform every month and have an international reach.
You were talking about intellectual curiosity earlier, what is the next intellectual curiosity that tickles your brain right now?
African entertainment in general is the topic I'm the most excited about – African stories, films, music. The way the world is experiencing it now just shows how much more could happen, how much more growth could come out of here. See for example what K-pop has become, African entertainment has barely even scratched that surface. I'm so excited to see what is going to come out of it.
When it comes to Nollywood – the New Nollywood, - streaming players like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ are helping to change the game. It gives these movies an audience that they didn't necessarily have before, and because of that they’re now upping their game. When you’re reaching such a diverse global audience, you want to put your best foot forward. It worked the same way for Afrobeats!
The way the world is experiencing [African entertainment] now just shows how much more could happen, how much more growth could come out of here. See for example what K-pop has become, African entertainment has barely even scratched that surface. I'm so excited to see what is going to come out of it
There is a strong demand for change towards more gender equity in the music and technology sector. How do the sub-Saharan music and tech industry stack up in this regard?
We are catching up, but there's still so much more to do. I think it also depends on the different sectors that you look at.
Inherently the culture in some African countries is a very male-driven culture. It's not going to change overnight and it’s taking time. Fortunately, we have this new generation, intelligent, rebellious, exposed to change, who is trying to move things forward by claiming: "my gender doesn't matter, it shouldn't determine whether or not I can hold a job, or whether I am qualified for it".
And even if it's slow, it helps move along. We are seeing more women in politics; we have female presidents in Africa. In the entertainment sector, we’re seeing more women directing movies and series. And in the music space, we’re seeing more female artists breaking boundaries and showcasing their talents. Before, when you would think about the top ten African artists, you would most likely have mentioned only male artists like Wizkid, Burna Boy, Davido, Fireboy DML before getting to Yemi Alade or Tiwa Savage. But that's changing, now you would mention Tems, Ayra Starr, Elaine…
There are programs that help shape this change, that give women a platform to excel, tell their stories and gain knowledge. We recently supported a program called The Nhala Initiative, it helps developing female songwriters and producers. Because we need more of them, but it's not that they don't exist, but usually they are not given the same opportunities as their male counterparts. The program is trying to give them these opportunities: ease access to networks, enable them to get their songs out and get their talent out there. I think it’s needed to have more and more of such initiatives that can help break the boundaries that have been put for women.
From your perspective, what would be the ways at a global level to enhance equity in these industries?
First, doing more programs like the Nahla Initiative to empower female songwriters and producers and provide access and resources and knowledge for them.
Also, having more women in positions of power in the music industry. We need to see more and more women in positions of power, because they are qualified and not just because they are women. I think seeing more and more women in positions of power will also inspire the next generation. Young women of this next generation are already rebellious, ready to take the throne. If they believe they can do it, they will probably take it, whether you give it to them or not.
There are many roles in tech companies, and you don’t have to be a scientist and or an engineer to get them. You have graphic designers, UX designers, people who work in communications or even event planning! Don’t limit yourself in terms of the opportunities and the type of roles you can do. I mean I’m doing music in a tech company; how far can that be? So, if you identify this is a space you want to be in, I'm sure there would be a role for you so don't be afraid to explore
Finally, what advice would you give to the younger generation who wish to embrace a career in tech?
As long as you think this is an area you’re interested in, I would say start as early as you can: do internships while you’re in school, do programs that give you opportunities to be involved in this space.
In my case, it was a little bit of luck, and I didn’t really think I would have a career in tech. I used to think that tech was for science students, and I never thought it was for me. As a math student, I thought finance was for me. When I finished school, I didn’t want to work in investment banking and found an opportunity to work at Microsoft, a tech company. At first, I told myself “I’m not tech a person” but then I said myself “Hey you don’t have to be.”
There are many roles in tech companies, and you don’t have to be a scientist and or an engineer to get them. You have graphic designers, UX designers, people who work in communications or even event planning! Don’t limit yourself in terms of the opportunities and the type of roles you can do. I mean I’m doing music in a tech company; how far can that be?
So, if you identify this is a space you want to be in, I'm sure there would be a role for you so don't be afraid to explore.