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The true story of the birth and demise of Nigerian record labels

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when Nigerian music geared for its first trip around the world, nearly every artiste wanted a record deal.
As Paul I.K Dairo had shown with 1962’s “Salome”, the difference between obscurity and super-stardom was usually a hit song. Only the biggest labels had the resources, financial and otherwise, to make that happen.
It is no mistake that the song was released under Decca Records, nearly a decade after Dairo and Haruna Ishola had founded their own label with only limited regional success.
While a lot of great music was made in that period, the most successful came with names like DECCA and Polydor plastered on the artwork.
At the turn of the 70s, a wave of international acclaim and the development of the industry created an opportunity for more locally owned companies and platforms.
play The cover for IK Dairo's 1971 release carries the logo of DECCA, the label he was signed to at the time. (Decca)

But only a few Nigerians could take advantage of the chance to create their own labels.
The growth of Premier Music was an isolated success story in this decade. From the 1972 release of Segun Bucknor’s “Who Say I Tire” to Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe’s “Osadebe ‘77”, Gentleman Mike Ejeagha’s “ Akuko N’egwu Original Vol. 1”, Alex O’s “Celebrate” and Charly Boy’s “Funka Dalia”, Premier Music would become the biggest label by roster for the better part of three decades.
It was home for tens of musicians who created the highlife era and laid the foundation for the golden age of Nigerian music and the birth of Afro-pop.
Still, the biggest stars of that decade were those who the American and British A&Rs had smiled on.
King Sunny Ade became the golden boy of African music, a juju-singing, guitar-strumming Wizkid before Ayo Balogun was born, on the strength of his deal with Island Records. His biggest rival and peer, Ebenezer Obey was signed to the rival Virgin Records.

This is not to say there were no exceptions. Fela Kuti, ever the rebel, turned Motown down on several occasions for the most absurd reasons.
But Fela was an outlier before Malcolm Gladwell wrote his bestseller; artists hungry for success looked to the formula that worked for those before, and record labels were both the constant and the variable.
Everything came together in the 90s. Gradually, the lack of structure and its offshoots like piracy had sent the foreign labels packing.
play A newspaper cutout from the 80s reports Dele Taiwo signing to Premier Music. (Dayo Olomu)

Nigerian record labels, moving along on inroads built by Premier Music and less prominent peers, erupted in large numbers and became the dominant force, so to say.
In their place, entertainment personalities like Kenny Ogungbe, a radio host at Raypower FM, investors, businessmen and venture capitalists (for lack of a better description) created small labels.
Today, those names: Kennis Music, Storm Records, QuestionMark, Westside Music are iconic. They did not have the resources of the old labels, and their reach was restricted to Nigeria and to some extent, West Africa. What they offered was an intimate knowledge of the system that produced these artistes, the audience and the music.
Posses like Eldee’s Trybesmen and Mode 9's Swatroot also developed into record labels of sorts. While one can take shots at the dip in quality of production during this period (a fair number of the hits made in the 90s and 2000s were produced in shabby studios, often sounding unfinished), it created the right atmosphere for a uniquely organic period.
Kennis Music was the undoubted leader of the pack. At its peak, everyone who commanded a following off pop music was signed to or affiliated with the label. Between its creation in 1998 and the departure of artistes like Olu Maintain, it released classics albums by 2face, Lagbaja, The Remedies, Plantashun Boiz, Azadus, Tony Tetuila and more.
Their success would motivate Nigerians like Jude Abaga, Bankole Wellington and Dapo Oyebanjo in the diaspora to come home, and the creation of the fourth generation of Nigerian labels — Chocolate City, Empire Mates Entertainment and Mo’ Hits.
play Kenny "Keke" Ogungbe and Dayo "D1" Adeneye created one of the greatest labels in the history of Nigerian contemporary music. At its height, Kennis almost held a monopoly over what played on radio. (Pulse)

Fast forward by a decade and of these three, only Chocolate City resembles a functional label. The circumstances that led to the Mo’ Hits split are public knowledge and in its wake, an arguably weaker Mavin Records was borne.
EME, on the other hand, has withered due to what seems like a loss of steam and a change in priorities for the label head, Banky W who is more likely to shoot a video than direct a musician’s career nowadays.
Today, Nigeria’s biggest artistes are independent, signed on their own labels or on international deals that do not preclude their freedom at home.
After leaving EME, Wizkid started a new chapter with Starboy Worldwide, inspired by one of his monikers. Davido emerged as an independent artist, first on the family project, HKN, before floating his own label, Davido Music Worldwide.
Both artistes are signed to RCA on the international scene but at home, they own theirs.
In contrast to the decades before, the label deal is no longer the holy grail. Instead, artists now look to get the same results that record labels could give them by themselves.
In a world where Twitter buzz, catch-phrases, a change in tempo and a couple of hits can transform you into a megastar, the story of Mr Eazi is fast becoming how the Nigerian star is made. There is no room for a record label in all of this.

In defence of the labels, it is not a Nigerian thing. The death of the record label was first announced in the early 2010s by platforms like Vibe and Complex. What they foresaw was inspired in large by the creation of platforms like Soundcloud and Tunecore which put digital distribution in the hands of anyone with a PC and internet access.
To them, social media, the opportunity to earn a greater share of the proceeds, coupled with the emergence of streaming, the slump in music sales and the success of independent acts like Mac Miller and collectives like Pro Era and Odd Future would reduce the relevance of the record label.
play In some ways, EME was an incubator for artistes like Skales and Wizkid who have reached newer audiences with some success since they left the label. (Empire Mates Entertainment)
In all of these, there is one running theme. The resources and platforms that only corporations and labels owned or could afford have now been opened to everyone who cares.
Until recently, paying for studio sessions and finding personnel like a studio engineer and a beat-maker was the artist’s first challenge.
Today, artists like Runtown can record music in their rooms with nobody around and send to young producers who will refer to YouTube as their mentor.
The old grips on publishing and distribution are also falling apart, or giving way to new players, depending on how you choose to look at it. In the 1970s, records were sold in vinyl plates; one of these cost anywhere between 4–6 dollars.
The cost of physically producing records en-masse was too intimidating to consider, which is why many Nigerian musicians signed over their publishing rights without knowing what it meant.
Today, publishing music is as simple as uploading a file on TuneCore, CDBaby or other platforms and pushing to streaming to services like Apple Music, MTN Music Plus and Spotify.
The same can be said for marketing. Pushing a song in Nigeria has long been a reason to find sponsors or concede ground to a label.
Today, a carefully curated university tour, an innovative social media presence and a consistent slew of well-marketed amateur videos will serve the same purpose.
In the end, labels are not NGOs and the trail always ends where the money sits. As M.I, who is now Chocolate City’s CEO said in that infamous episode of Loose Talk, “The economy is hard and labels are dying”.

Nigeria’s recession has affected nearly every sector of its economy and while it is one of the few bright spots, the entertainment industry has taken heavy body blows.
A history of highly publicized disputes between artistes and their labels has also changed the way many artistes view a record deal.
  Wizkid's rise to international prominence is evidence of what can happen when an artiste is in the driving seat. (Instragram (@wizkidayo))

Creative differences were cited when Brymo, and then Jesse Jagz left Chocolate City; an open reference for those who say that record labels often stifle or suppress creativity in exchange for marketability.
The demise of Trybe 2.0 and the departure of a roster of promising acts that included Sarz, Eva and K9 could be put down to questions that are still unanswered and the scale of the operation required.
The details of Skales’ contract with Baseline; the still-unconfirmed 70–30 sharing formula, the alleged 10 million pound release clause and the eventual sacking of his manager, Osagie, put things in focus for the average fan and musician alike.
You want to sing, but the record label wants to make money. Sometimes, whatever middle ground exists isn’t even favourable for the artiste.
So, how has the Nigerian artiste fared with the gradual demise of the record label? For the most part, the immediate effect has pushed the music in directions that it was too financially-astute to explore.
The artiste’s first pragmatic concern is usually making enough money to sustain his art and then himself. Usually, pressure from the label forces the artiste to sacrifice one for the other, gentrifying their sound to appeal to the few places where Nigerian music makes money.
With no such pressure to consider, artistes are publishing their music and telling their stories in their preferred medium on their own terms. The result is that the scope of what Nigerian can sound like is getting wider.

Sleeper hits in every genre from neo-soul to street-hop are finally breaking radio and garnering attention on a larger scale. A testament to this trend is Small Doctor. 15 years ago, such an artiste would have been snapped up by a label and re-packaged to suit the market’s tastes.
Instead, he has drawn attention from a scene now obsessed with crossing the Atlantic, with a consistent slew of street jams, culminating in his hit “Penalty”.
Mr Eazi at his show We may not be certain which west African nation he is loyal to, Mr Eazi's eventful career has become a template for a wave of Nigerian artistes looking to replicate his success while remaining independent. (Instagram/Mr Eazi)

Purists may chastise amateur audio production or artistes who self-produce and record, but the D-I-Y culture is perhaps the biggest propeller of this shift.
Particularly among the mood-heavy new wave, made up of familiar names like Odunsi and Nonso Amadi, young artistes have taken things into their own hands literally.
Some of the artistes are self-taught in production, audio engineering, mixing and mastering, skills necessary to create marketable music; skills that labels once offered in exchange for a signature on a dotted line.

Collectives have also emerged to cover other needs; it is easy to mistake some of these for labels when what they are is loose associations of creatives who share services, resources, beliefs and a purpose.
What has come of this is a wave of independent artistes that is pushing the labels closer to the edge and reaching for their necks.
For the first time since Swatroot's zenith and the Port-Harcourt scene that produced Dekumzy, Korkomikor and Duncan Mighty, the music industry outside Lagos is growing in places like Abuja, off the strength of artistes like Morell and the Bantu Collective.
Artistes are now more reluctant than ever to sign deals with labels who appear to have little to offer, especially as they have front-row seats to the growth of their peers with next-to-no mainstream backing.
Where does this end, you ask? Is there a chance for the Nigerian label to resurge?
Perhaps, but only if it understands the times it exists in.
The promise of an advance and wardrobe allowance is no longer enough to get an artiste to sign a contract.
The true story of the birth and demise of Nigerian record labels The true story of the birth and demise of Nigerian record labels Reviewed by opeyemi on 8:58:00 am Rating: 5