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How The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Affecting Africa’s Music Industry

Several African nations responded quickly to COVID-19. But as they start to open back up, the music industry is hardly secure

Thanks to tough measures that included overnight curfews and restricted travel between provinces, health authorities were hopeful that African countries could avoid the worst of the coronavirus outbreaks that have ravaged Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

As of May 28, Nigeria and South Africa — two of the continent’s largest music economies — had 254 deaths and 552 deaths, respectively, according to the World Health Organization. Amid initially slowly rising numbers of cases, both countries relaxed restrictions in early May, allowing some stores and shops to reopen. But the number of COVID-19 infections in both countries has started to accelerate, stoking fears that the worst is yet to come.

Health officials in South Africa project that cases will peak in August or September, while some public health experts believe cases are being underreported in parts of Nigeria. Even as South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the easing of the lockdown, he warned that the country should expect infection numbers to “rise even further and even faster,” adding: “The coronavirus pandemic in South Africa is going to get much worse before it gets better.”

Many parts of Africa are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus because of fragile health systems and dense populations.

For African musicians, the pain is particularly acute, as most rely heavily on live performances and brand sponsorships for income. In South Africa, at least half of artists’ revenue flows from live gigs, says Mark Rosin, CEO of the Southern African Music Rights Organisation, Africa’s largest collecting society. In Nigeria, the percentage is likely higher, music executives there say.

Less-reliable internet connections and the high, sometimes prohibitive cost of bandwidth data have complicated both work-at-home orders and efforts by artists to connect with fans through livestreams, let alone to monetize them, says Rosin. Governments have also earmarked little funding for music-industry relief. South Africa has set aside 150 million rand (about $8.2 million) in aid for sports, arts and culture practitioners — “everything from swimming to drumming,” says Rosin. Most of the funding is going to individuals for lost gigs, with payments capped at 20,000 rand (about $1,000) per person.

Piriye Isokrari
Piriye Isokrari Bolaji-Odukoya

Beyond live entertainment, the pandemic shutdowns have set off the first recession in sub-Saharan Africa in a quarter century. According to the World Bank, this creates the potential for a severe food security crisis in the region. “You are talking about an economy where people aren’t eating,” says Rosin. “So more important than if your gig got canceled, whether you’re going to get money for that, is have you got money to eat?”

For Nigeria’s oil-based economy, both plummeting global oil prices and outbreak-related shutdowns have exacerbated the pain. While in South Africa, two airlines have sought bankruptcy protection, 90% of the hotels are closed, live entertainment is completely shut down and advertisers are fleeing.

Evidence is mounting that Nigeria is severely underreporting cases in parts of the country. In May, Kano, the country’s second-largest city, was experiencing one of the continent’s worst outbreaks, with a wave of unusual deaths that, until recently, officials there had blamed on a range of other ailments than the coronavirus, according to media reports.

With scant testing — as of May 27, less than 50,000 Nigerians had been tested for the coronavirus in a country of over 200 million people, according the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control — many are nervous.

“We think the restrictions were lifted a little bit too early,” says Piriye Isokrari, CEO of Aristokrat Group, a Lagos-based creative agency and record label. “But we understand that for people that live day-to-day, the alternative would have been a lot of civil unrest.”