The state of Nigeria’s live music industry

It is rare in much of Africa to see a festival line-up of both established and up and coming artists performing with a full band.

With the burst of Afrobeats on to the international scene, much of the world now looks to the Nigerian music industry as the leading charge to establish a permanent African presence on the global pop landscape. In spite of these successes, several players in the local entertainment industry have identified bottlenecks in the Nigerian music scene, and are looking at ways to improve the business that surrounds it.

On a recent trip to Lagos for Gidi Culture Festival, I was fortunate to have two separate yet overlapping conversations about the state of the Nigerian music industry. Chin Okeke and Teme Banigo, co-founders of the festival, explained to me how they are trying to raise the bar in terms of music performance in Nigeria — by prioritizing live acts over pre-recorded and playback sets. For those who don’t know, it is rare in much of Africa to see a festival line-up of both established and up and coming artists performing with a full band. On the contrary, at Gidi Culture Festival, this was a common occurrence. To add to their successes promoting live music through the festival, Chin and Teme’s longer term goals also include opening up mid-sized venues to expand the live music offerings in Nigeria.

Later on my trip I spoke to Jenny Tan, co-founder of Lagos Music Conference, a 2-day event taking place in Lagos this weekend. Jenny’s thoughts illustrate that the conference is sure to stir up a lot of debates in regards to how music is handled both in and outside of Nigeria.

D’Banj at Gidi Culture Festival

The following interview excerpts contain highlights from these two discussions:

What’s the live music landscape in Nigeria today?

Chin: There’s a lack of infrastructure. What was here in the 1960s and 1970s has been entirely dilapidated. We’re now building up. Most events are sponsorship-driven. If you look at the event space, you’ve got weddings, normally one person foots the bill, or if it’s a branded event, the brand foots the bill. Technically, it doesn’t generate money.

What about venues?

Jenny: There are no medium size venues, so if you’re not an A-list artist, and want to go on a national tour, it’s really difficult. In Lagos you might just about find something, but outside Lagos it becomes really difficult, because either you are looking at stadiums or you’re looking at clubs.

Chin: There’s a lack of venues, we have hotels and tents, some can seat 2,000 people. There are no arenas, and this is an area we want to move into quickly. Right now we’re working on a site that we don’t own [for Gidi festival], but we want to look into acquiring land and building it up, developing the festival and around the festival.

What about promoters?

Jenny: There are also no promoters: not many artists pull a crowd; fans are not particularly loyal or specialized. Mainstream music does not have die-hard fans, so most artists alone are not able to pull a crowd. So if a promoter wants to put on a show, they have to bring the big guns, which you can only do with big sponsors.

Chin: We don’t have promoters in Nigeria because we don’t have enough venues. The cost of putting together a production at the venues we have can never make sense if you look at the numbers. Renting out Eko hotel costs US$80,000, it seats 3,000 people, so if you charge US$50, the numbers never add up.

Jenny: Our system is kind of broken. As a promoter, you look at the potential revenue you can make. You budget about 50% on production, and 30% is supposed to go to the artists. If you were to book talent and apply this formula, nobody can put together an event here, because the artists are too expensive to support the industry. There’s a real disconnect between money they expect and the money they would get without a sponsor.

So the only way to make it work is to do it with sponsors, and I imagine this approach has its own challenges?

Chin: Most brands don’t get it. Their idea of success and their criteria are so warped, because they pay attention to the wrong details. Some brands just want their logo on a flyer, they’re not about creating an experience. Then you have brands who are just interested in the 20 VIP tickets.

Teme: we have brands of consumer goods more interested in the red carpet aspect, instead of their customers’ experience.

Chin: for Heineken, all I had to do was show the brand manager a few things trending, she saw how much engagement had come from a simple event. They do more research, pay attention to the customer experience. Rather than just ask to have their logo everywhere.

Jenny: 90% of events are branded shows. The promoters are the sponsors, they mostly care about banners, VIP seats for the management teams, etc. Nobody cares about the experience.

Yemi Alade
Yemi Alade at Gidi Culture Festival

It sounds like this system doesn’t push the music or experience?

Jenny: There’s no curation of content. Recently a promoter tried to convince me to put so and so on the bill for an event I was organizing, “otherwise people won’t come”. As opposed to saying for instance, we just want the real hip hop fans, and you put together a hip hop line up. Then you’ve got the hip hop crowd. But what we see is a little bit of everything, and the die hard fans don’t want to go, because they will feel like they’re wasting their time and money.

The fact that people never have a great time, and never share a great experience with fellow fans, makes people not want to attend shows. Most shows start late, drag on til late, it makes it costly or dangerous to go home. It’s a mostly shitty experience to go to a large event. Sometimes they run out of drinks, or don’t even sell drinks altogether. Not to mention security guys treating every single people in attendance like they’re football hooligans, girls getting harassed or robbed. So the overall experience is… not great.

Chin: As long as there are people like us ready to up the game, it will continue to grow. Not as fast as we wish because there aren’t enough platforms, but it’s growing.

Teme: In Nigeria we have an environment where we copy success, so as we grow, people look at our model and try to mimic it. If you even look at what’s happened since we started Gidi Festival, we’ve literally seen other events now calling themselves festivals! So I feel that as our model becomes more and more successful, the industry will lean towards this model of live entertainment. I think artists will now be forced to have a live act that will be more attractive to promoters like us.

It sounds like you all agree that Nigeria needs good promoters and more variety in music?

Chin: The industry is evolving, people are watching, production’s gone a long way. But again there’s a lot of top line and very little bottom line. Everybody’s running with it, it looks great, but there’s very little underneath. Everything sounds the same, so the next wave will be stuff that sounds different, that’s what people will be buying into, just because the other stuff is not sticking anymore. Right now I think we just need a few more people to guide the industry, to be responsible for taking decisions, for deciding what is good or bad, what needs to be done. There’s a storm brewing, there’s the mainstream and there is the stream which influences the main. That’s the idea behind the Collective.

Teme: the audience can now be critical, once they’ve been exposed to better, they can be more critical.

Jenny: When I did parties in New York City, we wouldn’t promote on a Clear Channel radio, we’d promote through the scene. Same thing goes for the music at LMC festival. We’ll drill down social media analytics, we’ll find fans who commented on Kid X’s content, we’ll geotarget, then we’ll let these people know the artist is in town. With a line-up of 15 artists, if you find the fans, if each artist pulls 100 fans, then we can pull a crowd. We don’t need to speak to everybody.

What we are doing this weekend is pioneering in a totally different way, we have booked a non-commercial, non-mainstream line up, but it’s not aspiring artists, it’s good music, it’s curated to fit together. I’m now going to have to prove that it is in fact possible to pull a crowd specific to a genre, and prove that curation can help fill the space.

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