With over ten years experience helping a core of artists from the South East break into the Nigerian music scene, James Ndubuisi has built for himself a reputation as one of the best A&R and music business strategists in Nigeria. His client list includes Flavour, Phyno, Runtown, Zoro, KCee, Bracket, Wizboy, RuffCoin and the late MC Loph. He started his career with Eastside Records, after understudying Biglo and currently works with STARZ as the Soundtrack and Music Acquisition Lead. Flavour name checked James Ndubuisi on Destiny, a song on his second studio album titled Blessed. I sat down with James and he shared his experience on the business side of music.
How did you get into the music management business?
My entry into the world of music started immediately after my secondary school (2004). I got admission to study law at Obafemi Awolowo University Ile Ife, but the school was on strike. My elder brother “Jay Stuntz” was learning how to produce songs. We bought 2 Shotz first solo album after it came out and we loved the production of the album. There was a phone number on the album cover so we called to let the person know that we were interested in producing songs. Biglo picked up and we didn’t know it was him. My brother met him after that and he took him in to work with him at the studio. I was always hanging around the studio back then and that afforded me the opportunity to meet Durella, Ikechukwu, Ruggedman, Sasha and DBanj in the early days.
How did you get into music promotion?
After some months of meeting Big Lo, he wanted to release his own album. Jay Stuntz was working with him on the album and we were all involved in the process of songwriting and making of the album. A lot of people don’t know this but Big Lo started as a producer before he turned to a rapper. Big Lo produced most of the songs on 2 Shotz first album. From being in the studio with Big Lo and Jay Stuntz, I was able to understudy them to learn the basics about music production, songwriting and A&R. When the album was ready, a marketer (Uzi Music) dropped some money for the promotion of the album. Big Lo gave me some money and CDs to share his songs with top radio stations at that point. There was no mp3, so you had to submit physical CDs at different radio stations and give the presenters some money to play your song on the radio. Payola was normal then and it was the only way upcoming musicians could afford airplay on radio. It was at this point that I learnt that you can’t leave anything to the goodwill of people in the music industry. You had to pay to get presenters to play to your songs. The money served as an incentive for them to play your songs. From doing this for Big Lo, I started building my contacts and understanding how to promote and market artists, then A&R their projects to meet market demands.
How did you meet MC Loph?
After working on Big Lo’s album (Aristo) I had to go back to school. When I came back from holiday, my brother told me about MC Loph and played me some of the songs they made together. “Wrekognize” stood out from all the songs he played and I loved the song and I was eager to meet MC Loph. Jay Stuntz had perfected his production skills at that point but Big Lo didn’t allow him to mix and master songs. MC Loph believed in Jay Stunt ability to mix his songs which helped him perfect his mixing skills. Big Lo at that time was at the top of his career with the Delicious remix he made with 2shotz and was always on tour. For weeks we didn’t get to see Big Lo, that afforded Jay Stuntz and MC Loph the opportunity to work together in the studio and they were completing works on an album (Wrekognize) . I met MC Loph at this point, discussed some marketing strategies I used for Big Lo and what I could do for him when his own album would come out.
How did you meet Goldie and what did you learn from her?
Goldie was the person that changed our minds about the financial aspects of the music business. We didn’t know music pays good until Jay Stuntz and I wrote, composed and arranged an entire song for Goldie (Fashy). Goldie paid Jay Stuntz 100,000 naira in 2005. That was mind-blowing to us then. At that point we had been with Big Lo for years and we hadn’t made that kind of money from one song. Goldie paid me 20,000 naira separately for my A&R services and that was new to me.
Let’s talk about your experience with East Side Records and how it evolved.
One day we were all in the studio together and MC Loph got a call that he should come to Ojez Night Club in Surulere. Surulere was the hub of entertainment in Lagos at that point. A lot of Nollywood actors and actresses were living in Surulere and Ojez was the favourite spot for entertainers. He met with Ifeanyi Anagoh who was a movie producer, owner and financier of “Mega Movies”. His younger brother was a rapper (Sino) and he needed someone to feature on a song with him. Rappers like Ikechukwu and Ruggedman were difficult to get and someone recommended MC Loph. He recorded the song that day and shot the video of the song the following day. Ifeanyi Anagoh was impressed and signed him to EastSide records. I remember the night he got signed, it was wild. Loph came back with a “ghana must go”bag filled with cash. I will never forget that day. Loph couldn’t sleep that night and we were all squatting in the studio. Loph used the money to rent apartment. MC Loph told Ifeanyi Anagoh about me and he signed me to work with him at East Side records as their only Promoter and A&R exec. Jay Stuntz was signed as the in house producer. I was in my early 20’s, still pursuing my degree at OAU Ife. Ifeanyi Anagoh, on my recommendation also signed Nigga Raw “Mr Raw” to East Side records. At this point we were no longer available for Big Lo as easily as we used to be.
Jay Stuntz had a recording session with an artist at Big Lo’s studio, but because of his new engagement at East Side, he missed the session that night but came back the following morning. Biglo was pissed, but he wasn’t paying JayStunt salary for production. He wasn’t paying me for my promotion and A&R work- we had no contract with him. Jay could produce a song for an artist , Biglo would charge the artist 50,000 naira and only give Jay Stuntz 5000 naira. Sometimes, 3,000 naira.
At East Side Records, Jay Stuntz was paid 70,000 naira for a song and earning a monthly salary of 50,000. Big Lo gave us an ultimatum to choose between working for him and East Side Records after Jay Stuntz missed the night session, we chose East Side Records and that was the end of our working relationship with Big Lo. Working with Ifeanyi Anagoh “Mega Movies” we had the opportunity to meet nollywood stars who came to Mega Movies and interact with other producers who came to record at East Side Records. That experience made us understand better the music industry and opened us up to the movie side of the entertainment industry. And marketing films.
How did you meet Flavour?
If not for EastSide records and MC Loph, I probably wouldn’t have met Flavour. EastSide signed Nigga Raw, MC Loph and Sho’boi. 9ice came to Eastside record to ink a deal, but Ifeanyi Anagoh didn’t sign him because he wanted to work with Igbo artists only. 9ice already had some songs that was getting street buzz. I made recommendations and begged that we sign 9ice, but that didn’t happen. 9 months later Gongo Aso dropped, 9ice blew up and was the biggest artist in the country. I remember we even had to pay him to perform at one of the stops on Nigga Raw’s album tour. After we released Nigga Raw and MC Loph albums, Flavour asked for a deal, but that didn’t materialize for some reason. Flavour was featured twice on Dat Nigga Raw, Everything Remains Raw album.
After the album was released, I met Flavour. I came back from Ife ‘cos we were on another ASUU strike. Flavour was working with Jay Stuntz in the studio when I met him. He had released N’Abania and was gradually coming up on the music scene. Eastside tried to sign him at that point when he started buzzing. But he didn’t need them again. Flavour had a great studio chemistry with Jay Stuntz and it was easy for both of them to create songs together. We had a chat that day and I convinced him of some strategies I could use to market his projects and that was the beginning of our working relationship.
How were you able to combine all this with your educational exploits?
Upon graduation from OAU Ife, I was posted to Nigeria Law School, Enugu. I called Jay Stuntz to inform him and he said he had moved to Enugu in order to complete production of Flavour’s second studio album Uplifted. When I got to Enugu for law school, I joined them at Obiagu where Flavour was staying. At that point, Jay Stuntz didn’t have any contract with Flavour when they were producing the album. As the album was nearing completion, Duncan Mighty released his second album titled Legacy. That album was everything. This is a secret but Flavour had to postpone his album release after we listened to the songs on Duncan Mighty album. We went back to the drawing board. We worked on the album for another 2 months before we came to the conclusion that the album was good . We were heavily influenced by how good the Duncan Mighty album was and created our album to match the work he released. I didn’t have a contract with Flavour either, but we kept on working. I A&R’d several songs on Uplifted. Also, I set up his social media accounts and handled PR. I worked on three album projects for Flavour. Uplifted, Blessed and Thankful.
What did you understand about social media that made you set up social media accounts for Flavour?
I understood the power of social media to reach many people at a time. I came to this understanding because of an artist I worked with in university, his name is Cyko. I used to promote him before I met Flavour. He became popular because of Facebook. Reverbnation was the only music site that accommodated sharing on Facebook so I set up a fan page for Cyko and people were joining and sharing his music. I knew what Facebook did for Cyko and how it helped push his music further. We were even getting gigs within the university for him. I had to translate that knowledge on a bigger scale for Flavour.
What one moment would you say changed your life?
After we dropped the Uplifted album, we recorded a video for Ashawo remix featuring some Ghanaian artists (Asem & Bradez Stones). The song was hot and it blew up in Francophone Africa and France. I got an email from Trace France about the video. They said they loved the song but the video was not good enough to air on Trace. There was no Trace Nigeria at at that time. I showed the email to Flavour and the team. I advised Flavour that instead of shooting a new video, we should redo the song, remove the Ghanaian artists and shoot a better video in South Africa. P Square had the best videos in Africa then and the videos were shot in South Africa by Godfather. The bill they gave us to shoot the video was 2 million naira, compared to what we had shot for 400,000 naira. Psquare level was the standard we were looking to achieve. I was able to convince Big A (Anderson Obiagu of Big A Ent. who was then the GM of Bad Beat Records who partnered with us for a bit) to fund the video shoot and he did it. After the video was shot, I sent it to Trace in France through DHL. The Ashawo Remix got massive playtime on Trace Urban and this cemented my position as a top promoter and music strategist. I still wasn’t getting paid because it felt like family business working with Flavour.
So how did you start working with other artists?
As a result of the success we recorded with Uplifted, other artists started reaching out to Flavour to find out who helped with his music promotion, marketing and A&R. Flavour kept referring them to me. I later on worked with Bracket, Kcee, Phyno, Runtown, Wizboyy etc. Because of my relationship with Trace France, I was able to help push their videos and handle other things for them. My connections grew, and the relationships I have built since I started working with Big Lo became very useful. I had contacts in Alaba and I was the go to guy for anything music promotion for these artists. These other artists were the ones that paid. Before I started working with Flavour, there was probably no Igbo artist from the East who had recorded the kind of success Flavour had in Lagos and across the continent
What do you think is the reason behind your success with these Eastern Artists?
It wasn’t my deliberate choice to work with Eastern artists alone. Some call me tribalist because of this, but this is far from the truth. It was a coincidence. Remember I asked Ifeanyi Anagoh to sign 9ice but he failed to do that. I would have worked with 9ice, if Eastside had signed him. Flavour’s success was visible to these Eastern artists and they could relate to him, knowing he came from Enugu just like them.
The reason behind the success of the Eastern artist I worked with was my ability to understand both offline and online audience. I understood what Alaba wanted. I knew how to push the songs on radio stations, navigate through Alaba and run power street campaigns. I knew the right industry connects that could help these artists at each point of their careers and Alaba was key in blowing up their songs then. Of course, times are changing.
From all the things you mentioned you did for these artists, promotion stands out. Taking their Eastern sound and blowing it up in Lagos through Alaba. What did you understand about Alaba at this point?
Promoting and marketing artists is also one of the roles of an A&R exec. I am of the opinion that online sales of music and streaming is still in the minority in Nigeria. Look, compare the numbers, without sentiment, you’ll see I’m right.Some people make the mistake of thinking that everyone who lives in Abuja or Lagos are educated and internet savvy. But that’s not true. Take a look at Lekki axis, you’ll see a combination of beautiful estates alongside horrible slums. From Jakande to Sangotedo, slums are everywhere. Majority of the people that live around here don’t know anything about streaming even today. Uploading music into people’s phones at Computer Village is still a thriving business in Alaba and Computer Village. Nigeria is a poor country and we have a lot of people who are not educated and don’t understand anything about streaming or paying for music. When I started, internet penetration was very low and Nigerians didn’t have access to streaming platforms. With this understanding, I knew that Alaba and the radio stations were the best channel to promote these artists because they could reach a mass audience easily.
What was the influence of Alaba at this point on Nigeria music and how did you become the go to guy for Artists in Alaba?
I worked directly with Obaino music at Alaba after I left Eastside Records. He is arguably the biggest marketer in Africa. But when I was working with Ifeanyi Anagoh, Eastside Records had a store in Alaba. They had their own store. Ifeanyi was a movie producer and these movie producers back then all had shops in Alaba, Iweka road (Onitsha), Pound road (Aba) and outlets in Asaba. So it was easier for them to move their music through the same channel as their movies. I understood the channel and links for distribution of music. Then working with Obaino, I was able to get the numbers of CDs we sold at each particular point. The numbers were very important to me.
What was the number of CDs sold for Flavour Uplifted album?
The last time I checked Obaino Music had sold 17 million copies of the Uplifted album. Yes, 17 million physical CDS.
Obaino Music confirmed this to you?
I knew when we sold a million copies and when we sold 10 million copies. Some people will say it is not documented. But my question for them is have they met any Igbo man that doesn’t document his sales? Even to the guys who sell okrika in Yaba, they have a book where they document their sales. The numbers are there in Alaba. Duncan Mighty has sold more than 20 million copies as an artist. P Square’s Game Over is still selling till today and I think it is the highest selling album in Nigeria. I am aware that the album had sold more than 30 million physical copies.
Do you still believe in this age of streaming that CD sales is important?
Yes of course. More numbers means more money for the artists. Some artists are okay with having their fans streaming their music online. But Nigeria has a mass market that you can still reach with your CDs.
Do you believe Alaba is no longer relevant today? And should artists do away with them?
Alaba is still relevant. Without them you can’t serve the mass market completely. If you throw them away as an artist, you’re the one losing. Because someone out there in Alaba is making money off your sweat. As an artist if you fail to print physical copies of your CDs, you don’t negotiate with any of the marketers in Alaba. You’re busy focusing on online alone. You’re losing out on a major cash stream. Because someone will print the CDs in your name and sell them to your fans.
Does this still happen today?
Yes it is still happening. Tekno and Teni have albums at Alaba.
This is piracy. How do Alaba do this?
It is piracy, but it can be solved. It’s a demand and supply problem. Before an album comes out there is already a demand for it. The distributors fund the production and printing of the album, and they pay a marketer who buys the albums from the artist to sell. If an artist takes his/her album to Alaba, negotiates properly with the distributors, you can easily checkmate the piracy of your work and earn money from the marketers at Alaba who buy the album from the artists. But when an artist fails to sell to a marketer, the distributors will bypass the marketers and illegally fund the production of the album to sell to the mass market who are ready to pay for it.
What can young artists do to prevent fix this and have Alaba work for them?
They need knowledge. A lot of them don’t know that Alaba still sells. Asa had decent numbers from Alaba. Adekunle Gold and Simi had good numbers from Alaba. I understand that the problem some artists have with Alaba is that of trust because they feel that the numbers can’t be tracked with tech. So they are afraid that the numbers coming out from Alaba is rigged against them.
So the main issue artists have with Alaba is trust?
Yes. Lack of trust is a big problem. A lot of marketers are dishonest. Just a few of them I can recommend that can show an artist their numbers without falsifying it. Alaba is a key part of the music industry, but these new artists are neglecting. They need to go to Alaba, do their own research, find out what is working against them and find a way around it and create the trust they need to push their music further. There are new marketers who are in Alaba, ready to show the artists their books and get decent numbers for them.
But online we have seen artists buy Youtube views to rig their numbers?
The difference between Alaba and YouTube is that, buying YouTube views increases the number for an artists. The artists prefer their numbers to increase than to decrease. So some of them will invest their money in buying more YouTube views, than waiting for Alaba to tell them they sold 100,000 copies. TJoe told Psquare they sold only 500,000 copies, it took their late mother confronting him to admit the truth about the number of sales he had recorded.
After all the success you recorded in the music industry, why did you leave?
I moved to California in 2016, after more than 10 years playing an active role in the music industry. I was tired of everything and I was done with music. I had no plan when I was moving to LA. But a friend was gracious enough to host me in LA. When I got there, it felt out of place. But after my friend saw my CV, she told me how good it was, it dawned on me that I could use my portfolio to get a job at Hollywood. Within the passage of time, I was invited to a meet up organized by Showtime. It was at that event that my friend introduced me to someone, whom I later found out was working with Starz. I had a meeting with the person the following week, they offered me a consultancy role for the projects they were working on. Towards the end of 2016, I moved back to Lagos to work with STARZ on a docuseries they were shooting in Badagry. They shot the docu series for 13 months in Lagos. There were a lot of interviews, research and ground work done. It was wild. The docuseries was about slavery in Badagry, I can’t speak more about it because it was eventually shoved aside.
When did your job with STARZ become permanent?
My consultancy role with STARZ lasted for months then I reached out to Netflix and HBO. When my boss got wind of it, they offered me a permanent role- Soundtrack and Music Acquisition for STARZ.
What advice do you have for any upcoming A&R?
The ugly truth is that A&Rs, producers and songwriters are at the mercy of musicians in Nigeria. Especially the young A&R, producers and songwriters. We need a structure that covers A&Rs, producers and songwriters when an artist is signing any contract that licenses his music or whenever they are working on any project. The contract should be inclusive in such a way that everyone involved in the project will get a percentage from it. Everyone involved in this industry should standardize this in our contractual process, doing this will ensure that artists don’t take everything and leave those who contributed to the project dry. For the young ones coming into the music industry, they must know that you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you signed for.
So what are you doing at the moment to help make this possible?
Whenever I acquire sound for STARZ, in the contract I make sure that the song writer, producer, composer, A&R, samples to be cleared and everyone involved in creating the song has a percentage from the money we are paying to you. That is how I am trying to correct this norm that is prevalent in our music industry and make sure that upcoming A&Rs don’t make the mistakes I made when I was starting out. It is my job now to verify and make sure that everyone involved in the creative process of making a song benefits from it. It is in the best interest of the industry, for other key players involved in the music industry to adopt this model and make sure artists don’t cheat anyone. Artists are cheats. Quote me anywhere. I once worked with an Artist who when he signed an international deal, he put down his name as producer, mixing, mastering, song writing, back up. His name was everywhere. He cheated everyone involved in the creative process. And then I knew these guys can kill.
Since you left the music scene in 2016, artists from the East are no longer topping the charts as they used to. Do you plan on coming back to help some of them again?
I think any advice I give will help them. I don’t plan on helping them again. The work I did for the majority of them felt like charity. I didn’t have anything to show for my labour and I don’t plan on doing that again. They need to get over themselves because they have some success now. They should hire people that are capable. There is nothing wrong in paying songwriters, A&Rs and producers that work for them. I used to go out of my way to get investors that will invest in some of these artists. They don’t have the culture of everyone eating- they made it difficult for people that will help them to get involved at this point.
Afrobeats is trending globally, and you’re in the middle of it acquiring afrobeats sound for STARZ. How has the experience been?
Thus far, I have been able to acquire sounds that STARZ will use in their upcoming shows from Nigeria. We have paid almost $250,000 to different artists in Nigeria. STARZ gives me song briefs to work with. If I can’t find the sound, I go into the studio with Nigeria artists to sing according to the brief. Sometimes they give me specific songs to acquire. Because of my position with STARZ, I have been able to plug in some upcoming artists from Nigeria, because it is easier to work with them and have them create the sounds you need.
What is the future of Afrobeats?
Afrobeats will fade away in 2023. There is no music that doesn’t fade away. We are not cashing in from Afrobeats.
So how do we cash in?
We all need to storm Hollywood collectively. If not time will come when no one will care about afrobeats, the same way no one’s paying attention to reggae music at the moment. This is not the first time world is seeking for a bit of Nigeria music- it first happened under Majek Fashek and King Sunny Ade. If we are not careful we can lose this moment. That is why I am making sure that our songs are used as soundtracks, making it easy for a lot of people to benefit from Nigeria music. Also, we need to stop limiting ourselves, everyone that is involved in the creative process of making Nigeria music should be involved with what’s happening beyond the shores of Nigeria. Seek opportunities outside Nigeria, protect the culture in order to prevent vultures from ripping and owning our sound.