Explaining Universal Music Nigeria’s Perplexing Reign in the Nigerian Music Industry

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About two years ago, Nigeria’s entertainment industry received a new entrant who threatened to make a splash. Universal Music Nigeria, a subsidiary of one of the world’s largest music companies, Universal Music Group set its stall in the market with a glossy spread in Guardian’s Life supplement boasting of marquee label signings like Tekno, Stonebwoy, Vanessa Mdee, and Mr. Eazi who would be complemented by the likes of WurlD, Odunsi the Engine, Tay Iwar, and Cina Soul.  It leased office space at the high ticket Landmark Towers which has as its anchor tenant, the Big 4 consultant, PwC. The rollout also highlighted the executives who would set the tone behind the scenes. Korede Ogunyomade who goes by the pseudonym Kimani Moore and played a key role in the breakout of acts like Odunsi and Tay Iwar was tasked with leading the A&R efforts. Music Journalist, Joey Akan who at the time had made his name on the music desk of Pulse Nigeria was also onboard in a communications role while Efosa Aiyevbomwan previously the Public Relations Manager of the pay-TV platform, DSTV was hired as PR, Marketing and Communications Manager. Former Trace TV Head of Campaigns and Branding, Betty Anthony, was tapped as Marketing Manager. At the center, stood Ezegozie Eze in the capacity of General Manager building on his experience at Banky W’s EME label, TV station, Channel O, and as Patoranking’s manager.

Through its entry into the Nigerian market, Universal sought to create an outpost in one of the creative meccas of the world. With Lagos’ growing importance to the rising Afrobeats movement, it is natural that the music majors are paying greater attention to the market. Sony Music opened an office in Lagos in 2016. Warner Music Group has partnered with Chocolate City, Aristokrat Music also recently announced a partnership with the Universal Music Group via its French subsidiary while Don Jazzy’s Mavin Records raised fresh investment last year to help catapult the talent in its latest iteration after losing two of its prime artists in Tiwa Savage and Reekado Banks.  Two years on, it’s worth reflecting on the subsidiary, its performance, and some of its recent changes. 

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, a lot of the narrative around the Universal launch was essentially typical of what we’ve come to associate with label announcements: rich in fizz but lacking in substance. Some of the acts identified as being the centerpieces of the new label were merely signed to licensing deals. Mr. Eazi, possibly the canniest operator in the space, built his career understudying the industry and its underlying trends while retaining his larger independence by opting for short-term options like single licensing deals. It was such a deal that formed the basis of the initial UMG announcement. The aforementioned agreement was executed with the Universal Music office in Johannesburg headed by Sipho Dlamini to cover solely South Africa as a territory. In a nutshell, the label anchored its rollout in part on an artist it had no contractual relationship. In the case of acts like Odunsi, WurlD, and Tay Iwar, there are no full releases that bear UMG’s name suggesting the deals we’re most likely limited to singles or it was also leveraging on the involvement of Kimani Moore (who managed both Odunsi and Tay Iwar) and served as its first A & R. It speaks to the general opacity and lack of detail that tends to accompany industry announcements leaving audiences and press guessing and susceptible to misinformation.

As the central hub for Universal’s dealings in South and Subsaharan Africa, “South Africa” comes up a lot in my conversations with insiders. It is to South Africa that the West African General Manager reports to and is ultimately accountable. The consensus is that South Africa lacks a fundamental understanding of the Nigerian industry and has opted to treat it as it would the prime territories in its arsenal: Kenya and South Africa. Those countries have some of the most advanced methods and processes in the African music industry and are thus, not the best templates for the Nigerian industry. Also, because of their lack of grounding in the market, there was no clear method of independently verifying the briefings of their representatives on the ground. One insider describes South Africa as the biggest impediment to the label’s progress on the grounds that they offered next to no freedom to the Nigerian executives who were ultimately left as mere figureheads- lacking the power to make the necessary changes to facilitate the label’s growth while serving as the lightning rod for internal criticism. The need to report back to South Africa before making seemingly mundane decisions essentially left the label scrambling behind its competitors. That raises an obvious question about the ultimate goal of Universal’s entry into the market when it was impairing the people tasked with executing its vision. In the statement announcing its entry, Dlamini said “In recent years there has been an increase in visibility of Nigerian and Ghanaian music and its influence on contemporary music around the world. Eze and his team are perfectly placed to support, nurture, and help develop artists and musicians from the region, whilst creating opportunities for new talent from the region to reach the widest possible audience.” That suggests that the goal was to incubate talent and potentially find the next Burna Boy or Davido. Another unspoken benefit would come in the form of a more formal marketing outpost for its global roster. While its goals were perhaps clear, its strategy was not and is still not. We reached out to Dlamini for comment but he failed to respond. 

Despite its best efforts, the only artist the label can be credited with breaking is Alpha P who despite putting out an interesting debut project has had the misfortune of having to bear comparisons with his ex-bandmate, Rema who in turn, was blessed with a transcendent debut single and the structure of possibly the best-run label in the country. However, Alpha P still marks the sole success of Eze’s time as the label’s General Manager. Right before the music industry was thrown into the dark as COVID-19 hit, Eze’s reign was brought to an end in February. Accounts differ, but the summary is that he was subtly eased out. It’s suggested that his ouster was unfortunate on the basis that owing to a background honed in the States, he’d struggled to find his feet and was only just finally showing signs of getting up to speed. Eze was generally well-liked with one ex-staffer arguing that “ideas were not his problem. He just lacked the power.” His appointment at Empire, the U.S distribution company which has made a play for the market by inking deals with Olamide and  Kizz Daniel means he will remain a player in the scene. 

Digging deeper into Eze’s reign, a murkier picture emerges of a dysfunctional organization where corruption and all-around incompetence found their perfect intersection. One source who can’t go on record owing to the execution of a non-disclosure agreement also suggests the age-old “Nigerian inadequacy”. As one of the “Big Three” record labels in the world – alongside Sony Music and Warner Music Group and a $33 billion valuation, Universal boasts of its presence across 60 countries in the world. With this background and platform, it is fair to suggest that there’s a level to which things should be done that should set it apart from its contemporaries. That was not the case. An insider tells me it was well known within the company that Eze and Bayo Fatoba, the former Head of ULive and Brands were involved with the company to which the Graphics team was contracted. Corruption on this scale can be a significant setback to the culture of the organization as incentives shift from delivering on set objectives to self-profiteering. It also filters from the top down. There are also suggestions of sexual relationships between top-level executives and subordinates. This also raises concerns about conflicts of interest and the quality of decision-making. Through its use of NDAs and willingness to threaten litigation, a culture of silence has been fostered. Tolani Baj, the Big Brother candidate whose account went viral earlier in the year before being scrubbed off the internet is the only known person to go on record describing her experience there as “mentally draining and toxic”. The Marketing team under Eze is viewed as being the only optimally functional unit of the company-wide operations.  

Two months ago, Chin Okeke, the Harrow and Bristol-educated founder of the Gidi Fest festival, one of the first experiential innovations designed to cash in on the Nigeria to the World trend, tweeted “New Chapter!”- a subtle reference to taking on the General Manager job. To some observers, questions exist over his suitability and competence for the role. Prior to this, his most obvious successes were managing Lynxx, executive producing the supergroup, The Collectiv3’s debut project, and A&Ring for the upcoming singer, Somadina. While those are creditable, they could be viewed as not constituting the brand of mainstream success a label like Universal should be seeking. However, there’s a counterpoint to be made that the variation in his experience is a testament to the well-roundedness that should serve him well in such a role. While Gidi Fest is the most well-known asset of Eclipse Live, the event promotion, and production company he co-founded with Oriteme Banigo, it can also boast of producing live shows for Asa, Mayorkun, Maleek Berry, Simi, WurlD, Odunsi, and Femi Kuti and creating the ticketing platform, Seagate. He also has the gravitas required for such a role where relationships at home and abroad as embodied by the range of artists who have headlined Gidi Fest (Diplo, Burna Boy, Davido, Wizkid, 2Baba, Awilo Logomba, and Sauti Sol) could prove essential. His work is cut out with one observer saying “For Chin to be successful, the first thing he needs to do is cut out South Africa. If he can create a situation where the Nigerian office reports directly to the UK or Sir Lucian (Grainge- the Universal Music Group CEO/Chairman), the Nigerian industry will see the instant difference.” His first order of business was to institute a sensitively handled clear out. Emails were sent inviting employees for what would amount to exit interviews where they were expected to identify where the company had failed and what it needed to do better. Severance packages were then handed out to smooth the break-up. Taking the cue, some of those retained have since opted to leave. Akin Solanke, the erstwhile Marketing Manager and the only Manager retained by the new regime left of his own accord.

Earlier, this month I received a phone call from an unknown number inviting me as a potential music insider to a listening session for what will be the debut album of one of the country’s biggest artists. I agreed taking it as an indication that the new regime at the helm of the company is eager to foster a greater degree of bonhomie with a critical class in the coverage of its content. In the past, engagement used to come in the form of a PR representative seeking to place an article or schedule an interview with an artist regardless of the synergy or lack, with the media brand. Interviews with relatively unknown foreign artists who happened to be in the country were often mooted. Perhaps, in that sense, it’s not surprising that the label has done away with external PR representation and gone in-house. It is important to read this piece and observe the broader impact on the country’s industry. There’s no doubt that the Universal Music Nigeria project has failed to take off as it should have. While some of its problems have been self-inflicted, there is a larger conversation to be had about the viability of the traditional label structure in the Nigerian market. There are a range of reasons for this. There’s not as much money to be made as a label in the prevailing climate as there perhaps was in the past as while streaming offers a revenue base, it’s nowhere near enough to sustain both the labels and the artists. There’s a reason that elements of the music industry have been built on the back of fraud. This has also culminated in the culture of disregard for legal agreements within the industry, leaving investors with little recourse in cases of dispute. The country’s biggest artists have cottoned on to this and have cut out the middle man by inking deals with majors outside the country, leaving the local labels to fight for a lower and subsequently, less bankable tier of artists. There’s also confusion on the part of foreign players who are wowed by the potential size of the market but lack ideas on profitability and are thus seeking to mop up the market by purchasing artist’s back catalogs on the cheap in a bid to buy time as they finesse their strategy to potential profit. At the heart of it, the label’s lack of success is more of a reflection of the structural flaws of the Nigerian entertainment industry and a reminder of the things that need to change for the industry to fulfill its true potential. 

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