Words By Damilola Layode
So I’ve heard from supposedly respected personalities in the Nigerian music industry that making music with quality content is sure to leave the artiste broke. We all know that despite this statement being repulsive, it is true. Save for a few Urban musical artistes like 2Face, MI and once upon a time, Banky W amongst a few others that have found a way of making music that’s both critically and commercially acclaimed, the rest of the artistes are caught up in the loop of having to choose between compromising their standards and cashing in, or staying true to the art and wallowing in penury. The third option which is not so much an option since only a select few can function in this regard, is balancing the act by making music that can serve both purpose. Some of the artistes that can do this have been mentioned above.
Focusing on the former, i.e. compromising standards and cashing in, a lot of artistes with promising talents have plied this route and arrived at unfathomable riches e.g. Ice Prince Zamani who used to be revered in Hip-hop quarters and touted by some as the strongest link in Choc Boiz back then. Zamani dropped his debut album using the “pop” formula and this got him a number 1 single that year, in the form of “oleku” but in exchange for this commercial success, his album review was shitty in general and it was believed that it fell below the standards his potentials promised when he first dropped that “dope 16” on MI’s track called ‘Blaze’. Same was said of Jesse Jags when he released an album that was more pop than Hip-hop but looking back now; he was actually making good music that cut across various genres. The critics were just being overtly hard on him. The question then is: do artistes like these feel fulfilled? Are they on their way to achieving/accomplishing the purpose for which they came into music in the first instance, whatever that purpose is? They are in the best position to respond to these questions.
Moving on to the class of artistes that stay true to the art and ‘supposedly’ never break even, I’d propose a theory that this class is none existent. First of all, it would do us good to define the terms ‘stay true to the art’ and ‘music with quality content’. I’ll start with the later; ‘music with quality content’ can simply be defined as music whose content reflects that a creative thought process was engaged from its conception toits production. From the theme, to the production, to the vocals and the execution, no part of music of this kind can be faulted or labeled as mediocre. ‘Stay true to the art’ on the other hand, is a character of persistence and perseverance that an artiste exhibits and which influences the works churned out by such an artiste. Is it possible to ‘stay true to the art’ and release ‘music with quality content’ and still break even? Mode9’s recent record deal with Monarch music is testament to that possibility. The deal earned him the sum of 10 million naira and part ownership of the record label, whilst still retaining creative control of his works. Other artistes that have plied this route with success include Asa, Nneka, Timi Dakolo, Praiz (who has already bagged an endorsement deal with Etisalat despite being relatively new to the terrain) Bez, IBK and a few others. These artistes have recorded a certain level of success without compromising the art which they are known for.
At this point, one might ask, how about the others with talent that didn’t breakthrough? These days, talent in music and the entertainment industry in general, is ‘a dime a dozen’. Undoubtedly a lot of other artistes with various degrees of talents have had to either abandon their music pursuit or comprise standards to survive as a result of not succeeding in their initial pursuits. This category of artistes faltered in 2 ways. The first error is that when they realized that they had musical talent, they didn’t take time to submit themselves to the experienced tutelage and guidance of persons more knowledgeable and experienced than they are musically, before jumping into the pool of musical artistes. What that mentoring/tutoring period would have done for them is, it would have helped them find their niche. The other error they made is that they didn’t study the inner workings of the music industry and showbiz in general before venturing into the game. What this would have done for them is help them realize the importance of a structure and how to go about setting up this structure. More importantly, it would have helped them to approach the business end well prepared.
The neglect of both points stated above made many a musical career end before even starting. The few resilient ones have had to go back under so they can reinvent themselves in a bid to re-launch and have a successful second attempt. At this juncture, it should be stated that there is no such thing as a prestige genre in music. What I mean by this is, doing say pop does not make you lesser of a talent than someone else doing say RnB. The most important factor is originality. 9ice came into the game with his unique talent and succeeded both critically and commercially. Let’s take into consideration the artiste called Terry G. Just because he was musical and gifted with the ability of playing certain instruments, he assumed singing RnB would suit him despite his talent and personality not being suited for that. He failed to make an impression and had to go back and tinker with his style before realizing where his niche is. Today he can be credited for founding Nigeria’s own urban music genre yet, rather than being celebrated, he is criticized. Another typical example is D’Banj. In the early part of the 21st century, he released an RnB single titled ‘Kiss me again’. However, he didn’t make an impression so he had to go back and reinvent himself. He found his niche and became the D’Banj of today.
Please note that everybody’s niche is not in the pop genre of music although it is the genre that artistes with zero to average talents can find expression in whilst attaining a decent degree of success creatively. This is not to say that talented artistes don’t delve into the pop genre from time to time when exploring their creative bounds. However certain factors have made pop seem like the preferred genre of choice these days. These factors have led to the watering down of quality content in music and this in turn has influenced the population’s listening habits. Let’s now talk about the factors that have influenced the compromise of content.
The strongest influence on the popularity of mediocre content which we have been faced with today is none other than the media or rather mainstream media. By media, I am referring to radio, print, and recently online/social media. The print platform can’t be blamed though because they have to leverage their publications on the in-demand personalities by featuring these music personalities in their publications. This leaves us with radio to take the blame. I really can’t pinpoint the specific time it started but I came to the realization one faithful day when I had to monitor radio platforms because of a certain project (I work in PR). I was skimming through all the stations on the FM dial and on about 2-3 occasions, about 3 stations were playing the same song which cannot be described as fantastic in any way. Any music head that knows his stuff will tell you that. What do you think the implication of radio playing a song over and over is? The listening populace will subconsciously identify with the song as what is hot because the radio OAP is believed to be a person that’s vastly knowledgeable on the subject of music. This used to be the case back when we had people like Jimmy A. Johnson (JAJ), Steve ‘the sleek’ Kadiri, and a host of other personalities that knew their business when the subject is music. Recent trends in Lagos is a departure from this norm as the criteria for employment as an OAP is some corny accent mixed with a healthy dose of wits whilst forgetting that the primary reason why people tune in is the music. Present day OAPs exploit their positions by demanding money from desperate and ignorant artistes with mediocre content in exchange for playing their music in the rotation. This has made radio spins a ‘pay per play’ arrangement rather than a merit thing.
In addition to this, we have OAPs that want to live the life of the celebrity because they believe they possess the power to make or mar an artiste’s career and as such, they should be on the same level with the successful artistes in the social strata. So you find OAPs sometimes refusing to play an artiste’s material because they are not in good terms, regardless of the quality of the material. The online/social media communities are as guilty as the radio folks. Save for some blogs that still maintain best practices by giving everyone an equal opportunity on their platform, the norm these days is for bloggers to either request for money to upload an artiste’s material or oblige the request for upload based on their personal relationship with the artistes or their people. Social media especially twitter, has become the market place where links to music of all types are offered to users for free. This is aside the ignorant masses co-signing a song just because someone they think is cool likes it too.
So the media has projected certain songs as hot by giving such songs regular spins whilst failing to play music with quality content. The next culprits responsible for today’s standard in music are the marketers. As a result of a lack of structure which has seen piracy increase, artistes were forced to go through these pirates to distribute their works. As this trend became popular, the pirates branded themselves as marketers and in exchange for the rights to distribute an artiste’s body of work; they pay the artiste an amount that is proportional to the level of mass appeal of such an artiste’s music by their reckoning. The tool employed by these marketers when deciding the level of mass appeal of these artistes, is the level of buzz generated by radio spins and online blogs. In addition to this, there is no system in place for the artiste to track the sales of their work leaving the marketer to decide whether such an artiste deserves a bonus for commendable sales. These marketers, knowing little or nothing about music, even refuse to distribute music of genres they believe is not popular amongst the masses. A typical example of the failure of this system is that of Timaya and his first album titled “True story”. Word on the streets says Timaya was paid the sum of 500,000 naira for the rights to distribute his first album. An album whose musical content ranks amongst the best he has ever released. Subsequently, Timaya deviated from making music with conscious content like he did on that album.
Asides the stipend that an artiste receives from marketers in exchange for distribution rights of their work, the main source of livelihood of artistes in this industry, is events/shows performances. The people responsible for putting the shows together and deciding what artiste performs are the show promoters. Songs of certain genres never get booked for shows by these promoters cause they are trying to maximize their show by featuring only in-demand artistes and as is the case with marketers, they also sum up an artiste’s level of appeal by taking into consideration the amount of media buzz and radio spins the artistes’ songs get. For these folks, quality content has got nothing to do with their decision to have artistes at their shows.
Having highlighted the problem with music content and how these problems came to being, I believe there are two principal solutions that can be applied to remedy the situation. The first of these solutions is putting a working structure in place within the music industry. The importance of structure and organization can’t be overemphasized when we compare the level of our music industry to that of South Africa despite our having more talented artistes than they do. We need an active regulatory body that can address and eliminate the issue of piracy once and for all thereby ensuring that the artiste will earn the amount due for their work. We need record labels that will be responsible for the welfare of artistes by providing an enabling environment for the artistes to be able to explore their creative bounds (the closest thing we have to a functioning record label right now is eLDee’s Trybe Records). We need to desist from having media people function as music execs as well because this brings about a clash of interest when discharging their responsibilities.
The other solution is as important as the first. The radio execs have to get more involved in the day-to-day running of their various stations. Stringent codes of conducts need to be put in place by media execs so as to guide the actions of their employees. They also have to fashion out a system and formula whereby the radio and not just the OAPs, determine the music to be played. The veto power of the OAPs concerning songs that go on rotation have to be reduced to the barest minimal so as to curtail some of the problems identified earlier.
At the end of the day, there is nothing wrong with the Nigerian listeners because if they can listen to various genres of music from outside the country, how much more music of Nigerian origin.
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