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‘The business of music requires more than talent’

By Daniel Anazia
12 December 2020   |   2:02 am
MTN always strives for excellence. To achieve this level of excellence, we do surveys on a regular basis to understand the passion points of our consumers. When we do these surveys, certain things always rank high in terms of what Nigerians....

Richard Iweanoge is the General Manager, Brand and Communications, MTN Nigeria. In this interview with DANIEL ANAZIA, he speaks about MTN’s commitment to supporting artistes in the Nigerian entertainment industry in achieving global prominence through the recently launched Y’ello Star project.

MTN is well known for its support of the Nigerian entertainment industry, what informed your organisation’s decision to leverage entertainment as a touch point for its customers?
MTN always strives for excellence. To achieve this level of excellence, we do surveys on a regular basis to understand the passion points of our consumers. When we do these surveys, certain things always rank high in terms of what Nigerians are generally passionate about and music is one of such things.

MTN’s intervention in the music space can be categorised into five-key areas. We have the sponsorship element that entails sponsoring of major shows and projects like AFRIMA and the like; Project Fame falls into this category. We also have the capacity-building aspect in which we have a partnership deal with MUSON. We have endorsements, where we bring brand ambassadors onboard. We have gone beyond that into creating MTN-owned properties, which is where you have MusicTime and things like that. The reason we put our entire infrastructure into these properties is to enable us own and control them in such a way that it represents our brand fully and meets the aspirations of our customers.

Now, as regards MTN Y’ello Star, we are putting all our energy and all our resources into the property just to further build the capacity of Nigerians. Y’ello Star is one of those investments fully owned by MTN and we hope to create more properties of this kind for the sole purpose of talent discovery in Nigeria.

In February this year, MTN announced the launch of its Y’ello Star music-reality TV show. Is this a replacement for the now-rested MTN Project Fame or is it something entirely different?
Our interest in music spans years and will continue even beyond now. We have always loved to be a part of the process of identifying and nurturing young-music talents and this is what we did with Project Fame, although it was not owned by us. However, the idea of birthing MTN Y’ello Star, which is solely owned by MTN Nigeria, stemmed from the realisation that we still have a long way to go in terms of massively contributing to the nation’s music scene.

What are some of the steps you have taken into consideration in order to ensure the safety of the contestants participating in Y’ello Star competition given the times?
We are working in partnership with the Lagos State Centre for Disease Control. We have an internal-health unit, which is within the confines of the studio and the hub. We have gone through all the processes of double-checking everything. In fact, in order to be in line with the COVID-19 precautionary guidelines, we have a limited number of crewmembers working in the studio per time. Apart from the regular testing they undergo, protocol training on social distancing, facemask wearing, amongst others, were incorporated into the competition’s plan. From the brand side, these steps help to reemphasize our commitment to creating a certain level of confidence that we are fully ready to prevent the spread of the virus.

We have so many music reality TV shows in the country and some may come up later in the year or next year. What makes Y’ello Star different from the plethora of music reality TV shows in the country?
I think the best way to answer this question is to put things into context. Let me start by saying we are not against having multiple music-reality shows because what it does is to ultimately give opportunity to Nigerians to display the talents they have in this space. So, it is a case of the more the merrier because it provides more opportunities to Nigerians.

However, coming back to the MTN Nigeria brand, if you recall, we started out 2020 with a new-thematic campaign called “Turn It Up.” The premise for that campaign was the product of an extensive research we did into what the brand should mean to Nigerians and what it should stand for. It was clear to us that we needed to be the brand that would enable the dreams and aspirations of Nigerians to come through. Based on this realization, we then narrowed it down to the music space because we realized that many Nigerians are passionate about music. More importantly, many people who have this talent do not have the opportunity to showcase it. They don’t have a platform to make this talent come to life but they are earnestly eager to “Turn It Up.”

So, what we are doing here is to create an opportunity for them, but we wanted to be different in our approach. We didn’t want it to be the reality show that just has one winner and that is the end of it. We are building a reality show that provides training opportunities for the contestants to help them prepare for the business of music. The aim of the music-reality show is not to focus on one person. Rather, it would be focused on a group of talented Nigerians because it is not only the winner of the show who has superstar potential.

The first thing we did was to improve the pool of potential participants which was why we went digital to enable more people to participate. Over 9,000 people expressed interest, by submitting their entries for the competition. Think about it this way, when you have over 9,000 people expressing interest, the potential of finding talented people is a lot more than when you have only maybe a hundred people expressing interest, and that is exactly what we have done. Now, we narrowed the number down to forty and we are saying amongst this forty, win or lose, whether you are number one or you are number 39 or number 40, we will give you the opportunity to be part of a series of engagements that would shape you and prepare you for the business of music.

Music as an art goes beyond just having talent. It entails the ability to manage success, write music, amongst other things. These are the technical exposures we are providing for the contestants. To accomplish this, we have collaborated with Afrinolly. Through them, we have both Berklee School of Music and Henley Business School as partners for the show. Once the competition is over, these top 40 persons will come into that hub for further training and they will be privileged to work with the best in the world. The top five would also have the opportunity to travel to the US as part of a scholarship to further study at Berklee College of Music. They will become part of an exclusive alumni group of these partners, which would provide them the platform to meet the best in the music industry. They would record songs with the best set of musical artists and in one of the world’s best studios. Beyond that, we have massively invested in our MusicTime app, which provides musicians the opportunity to monetize their content as either an A-list artiste or an upcoming art in the music industry because this is how they generate revenue. This digitally led platform enables music artists to make money as people subscribe to listen to their works.

So, what we bring to the table as a brand goes beyond a particular contestant winning the competition. It is an avenue for the contestants to show their talents while they are being incubated with the best in the world in order to have a successful-musical career. This is what sets us apart.

Speaking about partnerships, MTN is bringing in the Berklee College of Music, which is one of the world’s renowned music institutions, and Henley Business School. What value propositions are these two institutions offering the Y’ello Star music-reality show?
If you don’t mind me rephrasing, we have a partnership with Afrinolly which is a giant in the Nigerian-entertainment industry. This partnership brings not just Berklee School of Music in the USA on board but also Henley Business School in the UK and Malik Yusef, who is a six-time Grammy-award winner. For the sake of the competition, let me just do a rundown of what our participants and winner would be enjoying. First, the winner will record a song in Berklee’s world-class studio in New York, which is where some well-known artists struggle to be allowed to record their songs. It is regarded as one of the best in the world and the winner of the maiden Y’ello Star competition is guaranteed this opportunity.

We will also give scholarships to the top-five finalists to attend Berklee’s 2021 Summer Music Programme in the US while all fourteen of them will be beneficiaries of the online-music training offered by the school. This is like an incubation period where Berklee would be giving them a power-packed class on the business of music, which will cover the technical areas needed to be a successful musician. To show how high-end this training is, only one Nigerian that we know of has successfully attended Berklee School of Music for such training. When they conclude the training, they would be certified and then be inducted as part of Berklee’s alumni. Again, this is a landmark achievement only a few successful musicians in the world have attained.

As for Henley Business School, they are going to give access to the top 14 contestants to perform at their alumni events in Africa and in the UK. To add more context to it, let us view it this way. You are sitting in a particular place, hoping MTN would call you to participate in the Y’ello Star competition. You are called finally and then win. No one knows you yet but all of a sudden, you are going to sing to the world. That is what we bring to the table as a brand. Asides that, Henley Business School would also give creative-entrepreneurship training to all the finalists. They will be certified and inducted into the Henley alumni association.

Malik Yusef, who is a six-time Grammy-award winner, is going to write and sing a song with the winner of MTN Y’ello Star music-reality TV show. Again, I have to put that in context. You are sitting in Ikorodu, hoping MTN would call you, and the next thing you are producing a song with a six-time Grammy-award winner.

The winner would join Malik at the Power Station in New York to record and produce this song. He will also expose all the five finalists to the nitty gritty of the music industry in the US. Now, you will agree with me that these are opportunities one may never get, but working with our partners, Afrinolly, and Berklee School of Music, we have been able to bring this to the table for the finalists.

What other project is MTN working on in the Nigerian-music industry that is not in the knowledge of the public?
If I reel out all we are doing, then we would not have the opportunity to announce what we are doing when we are ready for it. So, I am not going to tell you all we are doing but I can tell you the ones that are already in the public space. From the point of view of enabling music distribution, we have the MusicTime app and the caller-tunes service. These platforms were created for the sole purpose of monetizing the content of music talents. In terms of supporting and sponsoring music shows, we will always be part of it in Nigeria for the high-value customers and for the mass market. Once there is a music property and we can participate, we will always be there to encourage our customers to participate in it.

From the classical-music training point of view, we will continue to work with MUSON Center through our Foundation. That ongoing project will not stop. Also, we always have music artists to work with as ambassadors and we have had several of these people work with us before. We have engaged the likes of Don Jazzy, Davido, amongst others at one point of the other as our brand ambassadors. Now, with Y’ello Star coming on board, we are going to be changing the landscape of music-talent discovery in Nigeria.

The package MTN has adopted for its Y’ello Star music-reality show is obviously new and captivating. Why is there a shift in terms of monetary rewards?
I said to you that if we do the same thing, we would just end the show by giving money and that is it. Frankly speaking, what we want to do is to create opportunities for the winner and other contestants and provide them tools to chase those opportunities. We would give the winner a fully furnished house and one of the rooms will be a fully equipped studio, which is to help the winner record and produce ground-breaking-musical compositions. A brand-new Honda CRV car and 5-million-naira cash prize will be given to the winner as well. A recording deal will also be secured for the first winner.

We have similar things for the top five finalists. But that is nothing compared to the main thing we want to achieve in terms of the partnership opportunity we have created with Henley Business School, Berklee School of Music and Malik Yusef. This is because being in the hub will guarantee you access to an intensive two-month musical training. It would also give you the opportunity to travel to the US to perform, to record and to work with the very best in the world. All these constitute the benefits of the training the winner gets access to in order to focus on what is required to become a successful-music star. We don’t want it to be a one-off thing. Instead, we want to provide an opportunity for young Nigerians to truly develop their musical abilities.