SIGNING DEALS: Over the years, giant music labels such as Sony and Universal Music Group have ventured into Africa and much as it is always exciting, Lawrence Ogwal and Andrew Kaggwa explore why it is not all sweet music.
Last year, Universal Music Group (UMG) acquired 70 per cent of AI Records, a Kenyan music label. AI Records is one of East Africa’s oldest music establishments, having been started in the 1950s, not necessarily as an ordinary label that records and signs artistes, but one that buys and sells African, East African and of course international music.
Because of their exposure over the years, AI Records became a defacto link of the world’s music to Africa and in turn selling Africa to the world.
UMG purchasing 70 per cent of AI Records gave them access to a big catalogue which of course includes vast East African music.
Many have looked at the UMG deal as one of the various ways the world is trying to turn to Africa for the next big pop star, considering the fact that this deal happened at the time when Spotify went live and Tidal had embarked on a monumental partnership with MTN to launch in Africa.
For labels such as Sony Music Entertainment, the continent has been a target for years, from the time Viacom opened up to African music, courtesy of the networks MTV and BET.
World comes to Africa
Some did not necessarily come to Africa, in fact, one of the first big deals to make waves was D’Banj signing to Kanye West’s GOOD Music in 2011. GOOD Music is a subsidiary of UMG.
Later that year, Akon through his Konvict Music that had been responsible for bringing to light careers of acts such as Kardinal Offishall, Colby O’Donis, French Montana, T-Pain and pop princess Lady Gaga, ventured into Africa, signing WizKid, P-Square and 2Face Idibia.
In 2012, there was a wave of Sony Music Entertainment coming to Africa, they set up an office in South Africa and in the shortest time they had signed a good number of established and promising African artists.
Among these was 21-year-old Kenyan rapper Xtatic, South African singer and rapper Toya Delazy, Tanzanian singer Alikiba and Ugandan rapper Joselyn Tracy Keko.
The expected success by Keko did not happen. After more than five songs that were in between electronic music and pop, many Ugandans wrote the artiste off. But it was not just Ugandans writing artistes off, Xtatic had not released a song in years since she was working on her debut album that she was producing between the US, Kenya and South Africa. Toya Delazy had music released, but like Keko, her sound was changing to pop.
How does it work?
Last week, news of Swangz Avenue artiste Veronica Luggya alias Vinka’s signing to Sony Music Africa hit the web. Much as the news was met with mixed reactions – but more of positivity, it was clear many did not really understand what it meant.
Although many recording contracts indicate that artists will release this or that number of albums, some artists do not get to release anything for even five years – it is not even guaranteed overnight world stardom.
Most of such labels have got used to particular markets and as they venture into Africa, they tend to market Africa sounding the way they know how. This means that even when an artist like Vinka, Keko or Nigeria’s Davido is signed, they may want to package them in a way they believe will work for the market in which they intend to sell you.
This as a result, means that scheduling music, studio time or releases, is different. They will not want you to work with producers or even collaborate with artists they may not approve of and one cannot release a single or an album, in fact, they have the power to release the artist’s music.
Radio consultant Joel Isabirye noted that deals such as Sony come with money and commodification.
“When an artist like Vinka goes to Sony, there will be a desire to structure a sound that goes across markets. If Sony does that, we should forget about the Vinka we know.”
He, however, says for the time some of these labels have been on the continent, they have learnt a few things about the market and thus, stylistically, we could keep bits of the Vinka we grew to love.
Swangz Avenue boss Benon Mugumbya, in an interview, however, made a few things clear. He said, besides a number of singles, the artist was scheduled to release every month until December, much of Vinka’s business will change – she will not be releasing music frequently.
When Keko worked with Sony Music, her first release Let Me Go came in handy, maintaining parts of her, but introducing her to electronic.
But that was not all. The releases were inconsistent and veering further from what people had fallen in love with. Songs such as See Ya, Fly Solo or Naughty did not even come close to what Make You Dance or How We Do It had got without a Sony deal.
Three-and-a-half years down the road, Ugandans forgot Keko existed and it was not long before she took to Twitter: “It has been three and a half years at this label and there are no gigs, no cheques, no publishing, enlighten me on that. What should I do?”
Does Africa need these labels?
According to distractify.com, an entertainment and music website, among the thousands of artists signed to music labels, only 99 per cent get to release their first album and 0.2 per cent only survive being dropped before releasing their first album.
For instance, some will spend months working on albums but the release gets extended for years and eventually cancelled altogether and later getting dropped.
Many Ugandans have blamed Keko’s unprecedented stunted career on her Sony deal. They argue that the plan to change a rapper into a singer, especially an electronic music one, drove her away from the crowd that had appreciated her Afro-fusion rap style.
But it is not just Ugandans that are accusing a big label of murdering a career. Over the years, stories have been written of how Kanye West and GOOD Music ended D’banj’s relevance.
For instance, for the years he was signed to the label, his biggest song was Oliver Twist, which had been produced by his former label, Mo Hits label producer Don Jazzy. Between 2011 and 2016 when he left the label, D’banj did not record an album nor a solo project, as one Nigerian journalist puts it. Besides giving him a chain, a remix and an appearance in the music video, GOOD Music took so much from D’banj than it offered.
However, Swangz Avenue’s founder Julius Kyazze strongly disagrees with everyone that says Sony Music or any other international music label fails artistes because he believes they have propelled more artists to greater heights.
“You cannot say Wizkid or Davido were failed, can you?” Kyazze says.
While talking to Nigerian paper, The Guardian, Davido noted that he did not want to sign to Sony because he did not need them.
“I was doing tours all over Africa with 50,000 to 80,000, people, so I was like why am I signing the deal?” he said.
Like many of the artists they sign, Davido lost his creative freedom, fixed with a producer and almost ended up making collaborations with other Sony cosigns even when he did not necessarily need them.
In the same way, Wizkid signed to Sony in 2016. Then an African mega artiste, he went on to work on a project that featured other label cosigns such as Major Lazer, Trey Songz, Drake and Chris Brown.
The project Sounds From the Other Side like Davido’s Son of Mercy, failed both globally and in Africa, a thing that saw the two artists’ careers take a dip.
BET Award winner Eddy Kenzo says Africans have found it hard to make it while signed to big labels because they do not have the appeal a Nicki Minaj or Justin Beiber come with.
“An artist such as Nicki Minaj will easily make one or two million dollars in a week or days because that audience is ready to buy that music, unlike an African artiste who is trying to change to fit in,” he says.
“I wish Vinka the best of luck, although the kind of contract she signed will determine her fate in music since labels have different kinds of contracts for different artists,” Kenzo says.
He adds that an artist can work with a label and sign a distribution deal where they work on commission and licensing deal and then deals where they own the artiste and music.
According to Kenzo, what Vinka has gone into is a recording deal where Sony Music will be in charge of her music production; they tell her when to release a song and if a song is not approved by them, it can never be released.
“Lydia Jazmine signed a distribution contract with Universal Music, it was never publicised because they do not own her,” Kenzo says, noting that in Vinka’s case, the label has invested heftily and hope to make it through her music sales.
He refers to Nigerian singers Wikzid and Tekno who signed with international labels but have wanted out in vain since they signed contracts they cannot buy out.
Davido is still signed to Sony but had his contact revisited and amended, thus regaining the creative freedom that saw him rejuvenated with 2017 singles such as If, Fall and Fia.
Kenzo says he has over the years refused to sign a deal even when he has been approached by Konvict, Sony, Universal and Warner Music.
“I only work with a distributing company called TuneCore and I stay with my recording label Big Talent Entertainment,” he says.
What’s next for Vinka?
About what Sony will offer Vinka or Swangz as a company, Kyazze was uncomfortable revealing details and said that transactions of such a nature are not meant for public debate. He reveals, however, that for now, they will still manage Vinka.
Kyazze says Sony now has control of the music that Vinka released starting this month and it will not be the kind of release schedules they were used to – every beginning of the month, but they are going to make adjustments to give the artiste a chance on the bigger market.
Kyazze concludes that the rest of the songs coming out from now to December are Sony’s and they are lucky enough that Sony signed an artiste who was prepared with a lot of music and videos already in store, ready for release.
Why labels fail in Africa
A telecom company employee, who prefered anonymity, says Sony, like all giants coming to Africa, operate best in America and Europe where there are structures. “In Africa, things work differently, the industry is not mapped or organised and people succeed in it that way.”
They said at the moment, players such as Sony or Tidal are trying to organise a market that has sustained itself without them, “and sadly, they are doing this by eliminating local stakeholders, forgetting that each African market has people that understand it best.”