Babaeko… The man with a gut for extreme music
Born in Kaduna State, Steve Babaeko is an advertising and music executive, public advocate and founder of X3M Ideas, a Lagos-based digital advertising agency that was listed in 2017 as one of Nigeria’s fastest growing communication agencies. He is also the founder/CEO of X3M Music, home of talented singers such as Praiz, Simi, Sammy and D’Truce. In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, the Kogi State native spoke on his passion for music and his resolve to create platforms for young talents to actualise their dreams.
What actually informed your decision to set up X3M Music?
Music is a passion for me and it’s not going to stop; there are just too many talented people in this country. I mean, if I asked you who was Simi three years ago, maybe a few people knew about her. But who is Simi today? She’s known worldwide. In fact, somebody once sent me clips of videos from a wedding in Istanbul, Turkey; I’ve never been to Turkey in my life, but they were playing Simi’s music there. So, that’s the power of music and we will continue to invest in that. Some people have tried to say, ‘okay, it looks like there’s something here, let’s jump into it.’ But if you don’t understand it, you will get your fingers burnt. I understand music; I understand the craft, I understand the art form and I understand the business. Look, I ran X3M Music for many years with the salary I was getting working on my full time job and we are still here today bigger, better than before.
What do you actually look out for when signing an artiste?
I get this question all the time. For the past 10 years, people who know me always say, ‘oh, I have one cousin, who wants to sing, what do you look out for when you are signing?’ But my answer to that question is, ‘I don’t know, but if I hear it, I will know it.’ So, I listen to music with my guts. I’m so passionate about music, but I don’t want to sign the usual suspect. All those guys singing mainstream form of music, so many people would sign them; I’m not interested in those guys. I’m interested in originality and some kind of uniqueness. Music is a lot of craftsmanship and if I don’t see that craftsmanship, then what are we discussing? We were playing Etcetera’s music way back, in 10 years time, some people are going to play Etcetera’s music again and they will ask themselves, ‘are you kidding me? In 2008 in Nigeria, some people put down money to promote this kind of music?’ But that music will still be relevant in that 10 years time. So, I want music that will be around for a long time, I don’t want disposable music; I don’t want plastic music. That’s the much I can tell you.
Today, Simi has become one of the leading voices in the Nigerian music industry, winning numerous awards. What did you see in her before you brought her into X3M Music?
It’s not what I saw; it’s what I heard. You know, why I’m so excited it was Simi Today is that I’m just reassured that, ‘look, there’s something about your ears for music that’s not deceiving you.’ It’s a validation of what I heard; I heard something unique, something original, I heard something different.
So, how did you discover her voice?
I went on notjustok.com and I listened to everybody there; I just put it on random play. If I hear something that catches my ear, I ask, ‘who is that artiste?’ So, I’m not looking for your name, I just want to hear what you can do. And she (Simi) had a cover of Drake’s Mavin’s Room on notjustok.com. So, I called Osagie Alonge and said, ‘do you know this lady,’ he said, ‘yes.’ So, I asked him to get her for me. She came and we spoke; the chemistry was instant because, I really just like her person; no airs. You know, musicians try to prove something, but she was just down to earth. So, I said we are going to work with this lady. Today, to see that she’s known worldwide is so amazing; I feel so humbled. And it underscores the fact that music is spiritual; there’s a spiritual element to music. When it’s your time, it’s your time; it’s her time right now. She’s one of the biggest music forces in Nigeria today and we are proud of that.
And Simisola, her first album on X3M Music, became instant hit?
In fact, six minutes after she dropped that album, it became the number one selling album on itunes; that’s powerful. We dropped it by 12-midnight, by 12.06 am, it was number one selling album. She’s on the roll now; we just need to keep supporting her with anything that we can to make sure that she stays there.
Sometimes, managing talents could be a challenge, how do you cope with your talents?
I’m a creative person myself, so, I understand. Creative people want freedom; they want to be heard, they don’t want you to box them to a corner and push them around. Treat people the way you want to be treated; I’m a creative person and I know how I want to be treated. For Simi, she’s like my daughter; we have this fabulous relationship, I trust her. The same thing with all my talents, whether it’s Praiz or Simi, I trust them. I expect them to do the right thing; I always encourage them to be the CEO of their own career first and foremost. And I see all of these come true; we have fabulous relationship.
What’s your take on the Nigerian creative industry generally?
The creative industry in Nigeria is the sleeping giant. If you find a country like Nigeria with so much youth population, you ask yourself, what’s the government doing? Whether it’s the creative industry or sports, you have to do something. You can create jobs in other sectors that could hire a few people, but if you create opportunity and platform in the creative industry, you don’t even need to create jobs because, people are already creating it. If you look at the creative space now, entrepreneurs like myself and a whole lot of other people are already opening doors for young people to come in. From a guy that used to earn salary a few years ago, across the group of companies that I have now, we’ve hired almost a hundred people to work. So, you can imagine if the government creates the enabling environment for the creative industry; from music to movies, to performance, comedy… there’s so much going on! You are going to be creating opportunities for thousands because, for every Simi that emerges, there are about three or four people that follows Simi now that are in charge of either her wardrobe or road manager, who earn a living off the income she gets. And the bigger she gets, the more the number of people. So, you can imagine the number of people that feed off Davido and Wizkid today. That’s why its going to be foolhardy for any government not to pay due attention to the creative industry.
In your opinion, where do you think government can come in?
Honestly, I don’t even think anybody is asking government to bring money; just create the enabling environment. If we put our works out there, make sure that you give the IP laws (Intellectual Property) teeth to bite. If we put Simi’s work out there and someone pirates it, make sure that they go to jail for doing that because, they are killing opportunities for other young because of the income that she could have generated, which is being robbed off. But if the government can’t stand up and live up to that responsibility, then it’s a big shame to the entire country.
What future do you see for the Nigerian music industry?
On one hand, I’m excited because I know the Nigerian youth is one of the most creative person you’ve ever meet in your life. Singlehandedly, they have created a genre of music that is colonising the entire continent. You know how the American culture has dominated the world, that’s how Nigerian music is dominating the world. People, who have not come to Nigeria before, they will speak pidgin English to you. How did they get it? From our movies and music! We are exporting our culture worldwide and that’s fantastic; that’s the bright side of the future of this industry. But the bad side is that the government is sleeping on this huge mega opportunity that can even earn you more than oil. Oil is already gone; Europeans are making electric cars, nobody cares about your oil. In the next 20 years, you will be looking for militants to help you bomb those installations because it will become useless. But music will continue to generate money till the end of the world. Why are we not paying attention to that? So, when I see that, I feel that the future of the industry is probably bleak; we need to find a middle ground to make the future of this industry become bright.
Given the opportunity, will you do music again?
I have no choice, there’s a reason God put me in this planet; I’m fulfilling my destiny. How would I be able to tell my grandchildren that a young woman as brilliant as Simi or a young man as talented as Praiz lived in my generation and because nobody supported them, they died with their talents buried in the ground? It’s a sin; people should go to hell for that. So. I’m doing what God put me on this planet to do; create opportunities and platforms for young people to be able to thrive and fulfill their destinies. So, I feel good.
It seems you believe so much in the energy of Nigerian youths?
The last time we were invited to the Nigerian Stock Exchange to ring the closing gong, I’m sure they were wondering, ‘who are these people? We invited a company, who are these youngsters?’ But this is us, everybody making X3M thick today are those young people and the future belongs to them. The rule of nature is that the old shall give way to the young; that’s the way nature designed this planet. Anybody trying to change the equation is just trying; in the fullness of time, you will realise that the old will still give way for the young. We have a whole lot of abundant talents and across all fields of endeavour, that should be the rule; whether its business, music or movies. In another five years, I don’t expect to be running X3M Ideas; I need to give way to someone, who is younger with new ideas to take the company to the next level. But you see, in Nigeria, if you don’t grow old and have gray hairs coming out of your armpit, nobody thinks you are entitled to any position of responsibility and it’s nonsense. How old was Chinua Achebe when he wrote Things Fall Apart? Probably 29 years old. Till he died, I’m not sure he wrote another book that topped that one. So, young people have a lot to offer this country, but are they being given the opportunity? That’s the question that we must ask ourselves.
You left your well paying job some five years ago to set up X3M Ideas, how did you manage to scale through?
To be honest, with my team, I had no choice but to show confidence because, if I was afraid and scared, how are you going to inspire people to follow you? But as I looked confident on the outside, inside, I was so afraid. But we did it, in spite of all of the fears that we had. What if it doesn’t work out? I know people that would have gone for church thanksgiving to say, ‘yes, this people failed,’ but you can’t let that fear stop you from making progress. You have to still tell that fear, ‘yes, Mr. fear I know you are here and I recognise you, but I’m still going to go ahead anyway,’ which is exactly what we’ve done. Honestly, if I have to do it again, I will do it the same way we did it in 2012; to go out fearlessly and make it happen. Within such a short time, look at all the clients that have shown us confidence by entrusting their brands to us; look at all the brand we’ve built, look at the business that depends on us to show direction, as far as branding in concerned. I think we’ve not done so badly.
Within a very short time, you were able to build a state of the art edifice for your organisation, how was it conceived?
For the first time, I had to give somebody credit, he’s the guy that has always supported us from day one; I will give Uzoma Dozie the credit for this office, he’s the GMD of Diamond Bank. I remember one day, he was going to the airport and we were working on Diamond Bank project. I had been trying to call him because we were working on a Diamond Bank business at the time; of course, he was always busy. So, I managed to beg him to just come to our office and see what we are doing, ‘we are your agency and you need to see where we are operating from.’ So, on his way from the trip, he said, ‘when I land at the airport, I will call you.’ So, he called and I gave him direction and he came through; we were in our first year then. He said, ‘not bad at all, but I think your next step now is to set up a place that’s going to be your own and you operate out of there.’ I was like, ‘does this man want to kill me?’ We were just barely surviving and paying salary, but he said, ‘if finance is the problem, Diamond bank will support you.’ So, when I thought we were ready and we found another property within the same area we were operating, I called him and he connected us with his people; we fulfilled all the due diligence and got the finance to build this place. Sometimes, it looks like, ‘he’s such ingenious, how did he come about it?’ But to be honest with you, the original idea wasn’t mine; Uzoma Dozie set it up. Till today, we did what we had to do; put all the finishing touches to it and today, it’s what it is.
So, how does it feel like operating from there?
Well, people will think, ‘what are they trying to prove? Why are they building this place? We didn’t build it so much for us; it’s partly for us and partly for the clients. If your team works out of a very nice environment, they get more creative. Personally, I can see how it has transformed my team in terms of their headspace; they can think more and they are getting more comfortable. For the client, if the team is getting more creative and more comfortable, then they come up with more interesting ideas that would help push the client’s brand. I’m really very grateful that we’ve been able to achieve that in record time. I mean, most agencies that have been around for a long time, haven’t been able to get to that spot. So, it’s a privilege.