The untold story of the Nigerian music industry
Let’s start this from artist A. He’s broke. His family is broke. And he is in the big city of Lagos, without a professional skill, except the talent that he desperately holds on to. But we know singing isn’t exactly a talent or a gift in Nigeria. If anything, it can prevent an artist from putting in the grunt work of finding the right commercial balance and achieving some form of pop progress.
In the morning, Mr A goes to a studio to hang with his fellow musician strugglers and stragglers, who are without a prayer or a realistic chance of getting a big break except by some stroke of good fortune. By the afternoon, he’s finally gotten the chance to record a song, which he half-finishes. By evening, someone throws some compassion his way and buys him a plate of food, which keeps away the hunger until nighttime, when he has to smoke enough marijuana to fall asleep on the couch of a distant ‘egbon’ or elder friend who has an apartment. While sleeping, he cuts a sad figure of hopelessness as he snores to the heavens. As dawn breaks, he rises, rinses himself, and repeats the previous day’s pattern.
Sometimes he hangs at the gates of prestigious music events and concerts, praying that he might get past the security, and gain access to networking targets for help. It’s a faulty plan that rarely works, but he keeps pushing. He needs access to have a shot at changing his situation. Once every 3 months, he records a decent song, pumps it full of heart and belief, and scrapes resources to promote it. But even as he releases the new music, and begs his low-influence network to help post the announcement, a link or the file on their pages and platforms, he knows deep in his heart that this is an exercise in futility. It will not blow. But it might get lucky, and bring an investor his way.
That investor will most likely not come, and the artist will have to recycle. If he does get one, he might be falling into the hands of a Yahoo boy, who knows nothing about the music but wants to “own a record label” because “I have a record label, and these are my artists” sounds very soothing to his ego. The artist might even get worse luck and sign a “slave contract” with an investor who ties him down legally to pick cotton while withholding investment from him. He might be reduced to washing the investor’s car, or buying him food, or worse, chauffeuring his boss’s girlfriend as she runs errands.
After 3 years, he meets up with a smart, kind person, who advises him to rebel, and seek ways to escape from the contract. By this time, this young man has spent years achieving nothing of note. His biggest skill is knowing “how to move a crowd,” but the crowd only moves if you have enough accepted material to move them. He also knows a bunch of industry people, who themselves are struggling in their niche spaces to generate value for themselves.
Some popular OAP once told me on a night of drunken revelling, that “music industry money rarely makes you genuinely rich, except you are Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy, or tied to their teams. There’s some truth in that.
What becomes of Artist A? He either goes back to his village and learns farming, goes to a vocational school to pick up a skill, or becomes an artist manager due to his experience with suffering. Former struggling artists managing new struggling artists are a match as old as time. That’s where we stop following him, because A is not an artist anymore. His time is done. Some of his mates became successful, but they are the ones who got away. He sees them on TV from time to time, moving crowds, driving luxury vehicles and rolling with pretty women.
He knows that could have been him. He knows how much of an exception that success is for it to be a mass venture. But he doesn’t say it. He’s suffered in this life. And you too, an upcoming artist must suffer.
That’s why, when a new artist plays a horrible song for him, he won’t tell them the truth. Instead, he encourages them down the path that damaged him. “That jam is fire!” he exclaims. The artist believes. Walking away from him, with renewed hope. Is he going to be successful? Very unlikely. But he can try as Artist A – who is now Manager A – did. And the cycle continues.That, my dear friends, is the untold story of the Nigerian music industry. Approach with caution.