Instep Today

Exclusive: Spotify’s larger plans for Pakistan

By Maheen Sabeeh
Sun, 05, 21

Technology has been playing a massive role in the life of artists and consumers. However, with the global pandemic affecting everything from local and global economies to cultural events to the loss of countless lives around the world and right here at home, live shows have diminished. A stricter lockdown is imminent.

“And over time we’ve learned from the past/That no man’s fit to rule the world alone.” – ‘Happy Nation’ by Ace of Base

Pakistan’s music scene has lacked a proper infrastructure since forever. Ask any two diametrically opposite artists and they will agree. This means music-friendly venues, piracy that still exists, the culture of free passes over buying tickets, exploitation of intellectual property rights and overzealous taxation by the government instead of subsidiaries. These are some of the issues that plague the music scene.

With the shutdown of factories, piracy has slowed down. However, these issues have affected the revenue stream of musicians, forcing session musicians and affiliated acts to take on day jobs while creating music and then marketing it via social media. Some get nabbed by a brand that may or may not allow creative control.

Fast forward to last year and the culture of buying tickets was making headway. With the pandemic, that culture is currently on-hold. Technology has been playing a massive role in the life of artists and consumers. However, with the global pandemic affecting everything from local and global economies to cultural events to the loss of countless lives around the world and right here at home, live shows have diminished. A stricter lockdown is imminent.

This means that everyone from session players to mainstream artists no longer play enough shows. For music, it is a catch 22 situation where shows cannot happen due to rising numbers in the pandemic but not having live gigs for a ticketed audience could take us back.

The silver lining in these dark times is the digitization of music and content. New labels have cropped up as have streaming sites that allow a greater diversity in listening options open to consumers.

Pakistani artists have explored major platforms including the home-based Patari streaming site. The purpose is to provide great music content while earning through digital platforms. A healthy competition between different platforms could bring the revenue stream that artists can rely on.

To that end, a major player has entered the market by the name of Spotify (you may have heard of it with its 70 million songs and availability in multiple markets). From its interface to what it offers, Spotify is not only promising to pay artists but take them to a far-reaching global audience, changing the game in entirety.

“Yeah, history in the making/Part two, it’s so crazy right now.” - ‘Crazy in Love’ by Beyonce ft. Jay-Z

To learn more about their plans, Instep spoke to Claudius Boller, Managing Director for the Middle East and Africa (MEA). He oversees operations in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh at Spotify.

Over a Zoom conversation between Karachi and Dubai, Claudius articulated what Spotify’s entry means for Pakistan’s music scene at large. For someone as experienced and prominent within the larger music global place, he is friendly and very polite. He’s spent seven years at Universal Music Group and thus has an expansive digital knowledge of the business, equipping him as the right person to rep the app and explain deeper nuances.

An excerpt from our conversation…

Instep: Every country has its own set of artists. Some are well-established and many are emerging. Will Spotify take lesser known names and push them via the app? I read somewhere how Spotify pushed Hozier and that made him a global name. Our sound is obviously different but will Spotify push artists in similar vein?

Claudius Boller (CB): Absolutely. But let me explain how this usually works for us and the artists. We treat everybody equally. So when we launch in a new market, specifically Pakistan, we want to serve and support the artists via various tools. Spotify allows artists – including those from Pakistan – to have their releases included in playlists across the world. A global audience makes a huge difference.

The second thing is we’re running artist master-classes. We’ve done one for Pakistan where artists, managers, labels, songwriters are invited not just to know Spotify but really to understand how to protect their rights, how the ecosystem works and monetization works best. It also includes hand-on information on how they can actually market and collaborate their music out there.

Another point is understanding our radar program, which is an emerging artist program that we’re also running in many markets. I don’t know if Hozier was part of the radar program; what we do is we look at artists that do very well in a relatively short time. I personally don’t make decisions on which artist we should support. We need to hear from the artist, understand their music and see how it does in the Spotify ecosystem because sometimes within just a few hours, our editorial team can identify ‘this song is performing extremely well; maybe we should consider this artist and give an even bigger push’ from Pakistan to a global audience. It’s also about which other artist is trending and if someone is doing well virally in Pakistan, it can literally travel into the global viral charts if he has a quick success on Spotify ecosystem.

Instep: Do consumers have to pay for listening to Spotify? Is it like you get a premium service if you pay and free if you don’t pay minus a premium service?

CB: I’m happy to clarify this. Spotify has two offers. One is free of charge but there’s a little bit of advertising as you play the music; you have full access to the entire catalogue of Spotify which is more than 70 million tracks and more than 4 billion playlists from all around the world. The important thing is even with free tier, the artists are being paid for people listening to their music on Spotify.

The second offer is the premium subscription where you have to pay but you’re getting the full experience – you can play songs offline and download music on your device so you don’t need to consume any data and there’s no advertising. The premium subscription in Pakistan starts at 29 Rupees per day in the daily subscription. So far, what we’ve seen is lots of users enjoying it very much in Pakistan.

Instep: Pakistani music doesn’t function as an industry per se. Performing or being on a branded show is how musicians earn primarily, either in or outside the country. With Covid-19, everything has changed. Now more than ever, artists should be paid for their music…

CB: …I agree

Instep But many – if not all - simply aren’t. Will Spotify contribute to changing the environment?

CB: We understand this and we have a lot of evidence from Latin America, and other markets in Asia and Africa as well where Spotify’s launch has contributed to a fast acceleration of an entire change. It’s been a game-changer for the music industry in those markets and we’re already seeing the same change happening in Pakistan already. We believe artists want to make a living off their art. Therefore, it is our responsibility to ensure and help them do that as best as possible. We are 100 per cent legal music service and even if users are streaming on the free tier, we are paying out to the artist and to the labels respectfully who can pay the artist. Our mission is to unlock their full creativity but it only works if there is return happening so they can reinvest more money in the next product. We’ve seen these dynamics in many markets across the world. We’re equally supporting Pakistani artists very much.

A year before we launched, we connected with the local labels and distributors in Pakistan as well as global distributors to make sure that all artists have their music ingested into the digital ecosystem so it becomes available on Spotify. With Spotify growing, now Pakistani artists can overnight reach an audience of 345 active users worldwide. Out of them, 155 million users are paying subscribed users. For instance, there are lots of Pakistani music fans in the US, Europe who are paying Spotify on a monthly basis. This opens a completely new world for Pakistani artists in terms of monetization.

Pakistani artists are emerging in Spotify ecosystem to be discovered. By activating their fan-base, the algorithms pick up really fast a successful song and it can emerge in Spotify ecosystem and seamlessly artists are receiving payouts from their labels and distributors.

Instep: How soon is an artist paid?

CB: That depends on the agreement between an artist and their labels or distributor. On average, we usually pay on a monthly basis to the rights owners and labels or distributors who then deal with the artist directly. An artist can choose to go with a label where they just focus on the music and leave everything else on the label or it could be a scenario where they want to do everything themselves and want to retain all the rights and just pay a yearly fee (which is a few dollars) but a distributor will distribute their music on all music platforms including Spotify. We, at, Spotify want to give equal opportunity to everyone; we’re not interfering in distribution. An artist can go with one label but if they’re not happy, they can go to a different label or distributor.

Instep: Do you trust algorithms alone to pick up a song?

CB: We trust our own algorithms 100 percent but also we have our own curation team, which means experts for each market including Pakistan. It’s a brilliant team we’ve put together and I’m very grateful to them because it’s about human and technology and minds and experiences. We have a Pakistani artist, for instance, that now creates a reggae vibe which the machine (algorithm) wouldn’t pick up that maybe in the Carribean or Latin America this song could be trending. But it needs the human mind to spot this. Artists can notify us that a song has also a reggae vibe and our editorial team picks it up and we see how that track does in Latin America.

We’re trying to identify some early success on the platform literally with our algorithm’s understanding that this track is being played again and again for certain users; it’s not skipped and is shared a lot, we see it on the viral front meaning social media and for us what’s important is trajectory.

That means say an artist goes from 1000 to 30,000 followers; it’s not the numbers that matter as much as how much time it took to reach those numbers and how much popularity they reached. These are greatest indicators for us that okay this could be picked up and we look from our team’s perspective that we could add the artist in the radar program and unlock additional support, career advice, include them in our artist’ master-class and support the artist globally on platform promotion and off platform as well.