Signing, Releasing & Developing Music from Africa to the World
#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with Obinna Agwu took place on Tuesday, April 25th, live from Lagos, Nigeria.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
This interview dives into the state of the music ecosystem in Nigeria: how did it develop, where is it today and where is it going? Our guest, Obinna Agwu, offers up his thoughts, as a newly appointed A&R executive at Horus Music, about what young musicians should be focusing on and what stumbling blocks to avoid. These are transferable insights that work around the world in every territory. Spoiler alert- hard work, preparation and focus are key.
Marc Brown: Hi Obinna. Welcome to #HowWeListen Live: In Conversation. Where are you joining us from?
Obinna Agwu: I’m in Lagos, Nigeria.
Marc Brown: Let’s start with the basics, like where do you work and what do you do?
Obinna Agwu: I work for Horus Music, which is a music distributor and label services company. Our HQ is in the UK but we have other offices in Asia, Latin America and now in Nigeria! Horus Music Nigeria started in 2020 but the larger company has been operating for 17 years. We are passionate about working with new artists because we understand how lonely that journey can feel. We want to be a service that offers way more support than is the norm in the music industry. We’d like to be a more wholesome distribution service to artists. Before Horus Music, I was at Boomplay, a very popular streaming service over here, where I was the Artist Relations Manager.
Marc Brown: Can you explain how you got started in the music business, and how you ended up at Horus Music from Boomplay?
Obinna Agwu: I did a lot of radio plugging, pitching music to radio, in my early days. At the time there were not a lot of other people doing that over here. Because of that, I did really well. That was when I started developing relationships with some of the key players in that world, and everything started moving forward. After that, I got into management because I happened to meet an incredibly gifted artist and I knew the world deserved to hear him. That led to me working in all sorts of different capacities for several different entertainment companies and with so many artists. That was right up until I joined Boomplay. It was a natural progression because I had developed to a point where I understood what the artist wanted and what the expectations of a manager were too. So being in the role of the artist relations manager (A&R) felt right to me. At Horus Music, it is even more of that. Working with a distributor, you talk to artists and managers all the time, I just feel so at home with it. I understand the expectations and worries of the artist so I can put myself in their position, and understand their perspective and needs. After doing a personal hustle for so long, going corporate, and working for a bigger company, feels like the right thing for me right now.
Marc Brown: You have landed in the right spot, happy for that. When we did our pre-interview you mentioned that artists and their teams in Nigeria want to move way more quickly than in Europe or North America. What do you mean by that?
Obinna Agwu: Yeah. It’s super interesting. I think the reasons behind this have more to do with economics. Here in Nigeria, you might find that people don’t have the time or patience to put in the work that it takes to develop their music properly. In Nigeria, life is coming at you so quickly so you “don’t really have the time to just chill and focus on your music”. So for example, there are not a lot of artists who are regularly doing vocal training, picking up their instruments and spending hours practising or anything like that. People will get lucky and break out early and then fine-tune their craft as they go. That is not ideal for anyone. The downside of that is that people will just put out music and hope that something will stick – a quick hit… but as we all know the truth is it might be the 10th or 100th track that will work, that might be years down the road. So some great talent gives up.
Marc Brown: Are there any advantages to this impatience? I guess I am thinking of indie rock over here, where there might be a sort of cool, relatable vibe to not being perfect the first time around.
Obinna Agwu: The marketplace is the marketplace, and unfortunately, here, like most places, people expect to get the very best off the shelf every time. People do understand that it might not be perfect, to a point. Ultimately people tend to expect that artists will be getting it right before they launch the product. It’s universal, if you don’t consistently work on getting it right, you just stay stuck and there will be a disconnect between your music and how it is presented once you play live. Some artists are lucky and have great teams, and of course, there are those visionary artists who seem to emerge fully formed. Unfortunately, a lot of artists are just never able to develop their craft beyond a certain point.
Marc Brown: Yeah. It’s interesting how the artists want to move fast, and then the audience is saying that if you want to move fast you’re going to have to deliver. Let’s talk about the infrastructure in Nigeria.
Obinna Agwu: There are a lot of musicians who are trying to make music. We don’t have a lack of talent, that’s for sure! I like to think it’s very different here, from other parts of the continent.
Marc Brown: So it is emerging maybe? What about South Africa, is that where the music business has been based traditionally?
Obinna Agwu: Yes, their music business is very advanced to be sure. All of the big labels and production houses are there and have been there for a long time. Music-wise, however, South Africa has never seemed to offer huge opportunities for international growth. Nigerian artists and their teams will often target the U.S. or the U.K. We Nigerians are everywhere in the world now, which has greatly helped introduce Afrobeats and it achieving the success that it has globally.
Marc Brown: So then did Nigerians go to the U.S. & Europe to learn more about the business?
Obinna Agwu: You have to give it to the Nigerians – they are very resourceful and resilient! They knew that they had to find a way to figure it out. There was a South African wave, and after that, Nigerians started to want more and they started to look beyond just Africa. I think that says a lot about the spirit of the Nigerians. Over the years there’s been a lot of capacity building in our music ecosystem, from the video production side to the audio side. There is still a lot of work to be done. For example, a lot of the studio setups here are still very basic. That results in artists not waiting for the most perfect situation before they make music and put it out. Sometimes that is good and sometimes it is bad.
Marc Brown: Yes, get it done! You said you did radio promotion early in your career, but not a lot of other people were doing that in Nigeria at the time.
Obinna Agwu: Yeah, it was pretty uncommon at the time, so for me it was very profitable because it was such a new concept. Eventually, people started to catch on, a company emerged called Hype Nigeria, they began meeting with a lot of new artists, helping them build relationships with radio stations and getting the music out there.
Marc Brown: How has the way people listen to music changed in Nigeria over the last 10 years, and how is it that Boomplay became so popular in Nigeria, as opposed to Spotify or Apple Music?
Obinna Agwu: Ten years ago radio was a lot more relevant and bigger than it is today in Nigeria. It will be no surprise that what has changed the most over the years is streaming. Boomplay has a great story, they started as one of the sub-companies of a larger company in Africa that built and marketed phones. So initially, the Boomplay streaming service was a bonus, it would come pre-installed on low-end Android phones. That was the start and that’s how it grew. Over time the product developed and got better and people began to like it and just want Boomplay, even without the phone. They made their way into places that Spotify and Apple Music did not get into.
Marc Brown: OK, so we’ve got all of these super impatient artists, and then you have music streaming technology that’s making it easier to hear the music in Nigeria. What does that mean for a new artist over there?
Obinna Agwu: The younger musicians are definitely more tech-savvy and calculated in their approach to releasing their music these days. They realize that they can gather and gain deeper insights about their fans from the numbers, and the metrics. I notice that a lot of the younger artists think hard about music streaming. They are very open to learning more about and better understanding the technology around streaming. Some have even come to understand how long it’s going to take to move their careers forward, they have the patience and confidence to keep going. The artists who win here are the ones who understand that this is going to be a lifelong journey. They just take it slow and are enjoying the journey. Sure some people might blow up “overnight”, but that’s not a reality for most artists. People need to think hard about who they are and what they want to do with their life and then lean into it and work hard.
Marc Brown: What about signing to a major label, what are Nigerian artists’ take on that, versus a more DIY(do it yourself) approach?
Obinna Agwu: Yes, things have changed. It is no longer business as usual these days. What has changed with the development of streaming is the label deals and the level of importance people now attach to them. A lot of the newer artists are more independent-minded, they already feel that they know what they need to do and who they want to work with, they just need money to help make it all happen. So the distribution companies have kind of stepped into this new role as an alternative to having the bigger record labels own a portion of an artist’s work. Not to demonize the bigger record labels at all – in an ideal world, they would offer artists the budget, the structure and the relationships that they would need to grow and succeed. When a record label is behind you, it can really help move things forward and make things happen. Looking around, these days, younger artists don’t seem to be attracted to that. They want to make the music that they feel passionate about, so they’ll take that freedom over a big, elaborate record deal. In Nigeria especially, because of some bad history, it’s easy to see why many people aren’t interested in those types of deals. There have been disgruntled investors on the one side, who have felt like they put a lot into a project and either it didn’t deliver or they did not get their investment back. On the other side, you have the artists who are upset when they do not get the support they were promised. So today when an artist hears that they can get some funding without having to give up their creative control, most of the time…they’ll take that. I always tell artists that when it comes to the contract- try to eliminate ambiguity. Have everything be very clear, if you’re not on the same page, then just walk away. Points, timelines and budgets should be very clear.
Marc Brown: With all of that in mind, how does Horus Music operate, do you offer marketing money to new artists?
Obinna Agwu: Yes, if an artist is eligible. What does that mean? If they can make at least $100 monthly, so around 20,000+ real listeners on streaming platforms that is good enough for us. One thing that’s unique about Horus Music is that we don’t just wait around for the artist to be eligible. We(or I) will actually go in and help a new artist develop, and strategize with them, so they can get to the point where Horus Music can invest in their project.
Marc Brown: OK, so, let’s say I’m a new artist, how would I go about getting to 20,000 listeners in Nigeria?
Obinna Agwu: Hard work. You have to do everything. The first thing is to consistently put out music. There are so many people putting out music, so the more music you put out there the more chances you have to make money from streaming. You also need to look at using social media, playing live shows, meeting with your fans – all of it. That’s where a lot of artists struggle, but I remind people to just constantly try to do something, try new things. Like yes, TikTok is a great tool if it works for you! Ultimately, it comes down to telling stories – people are more likely to resonate with you when you tell stories, allowing your fans to connect with you.
Marc Brown: So what you’re saying is that you can be in as much of a rush as you want, but you can’t act like it to the public. You need to build a genuine connection with your fans, and you can’t really do that if you just have a short video with a flashing sign saying “Stream Now” without actually offering up any background. That makes sense.
One of the last things I wanted to talk about was the future of A&R over there. You’ve had a lot of different jobs in the music industry in Nigeria. What do you think A&R means there today? Does it exist in the way it used to?
Obinna Agwu: I always get really excited to talk about A&R in the context of Nigeria. In the U.S. and Europe, the industry is different, labels have existed for so many years. Nigeria is in the early stages of A&R, and it is such a beautiful time because there’s an explosion of interest and enthusiasm in this new role. There’s a growing appreciation for it. It also helps that in Nigeria, we have people who are actually earning money in the position of A&R, which is new. It is showing others that it’s possible. A&R from my perspective is very different from the way most people view it. I think Nigeria is working towards a golden era.
Marc Brown: Totally. I think there used to be this belief that the A&R person could come into an artist’s life and help them to develop their vision. I think that aspect of the job is sort of lost today in North America & Europe – these days the A&R person ends up mostly being your contact at the label, not as hands-on. I think it’s really exciting that you are in a position that can work to move a career forward.
Obinna Agwu: I agree. There’s so much positive change that’s happening within the industry here in Nigeria, and so much more collaboration than ever before. There used to be no writing camps (where musicians get together and collaborate with each other and with producers), but now they’re everywhere! And it’s us A&R people who are behind a lot of that.
Marc Brown: That’s a beautiful place to end! The last question I wanted to ask is what kind of vision you have for your company, their A&R department and how are you applying that.
Obinna Agwu: I’m learning so much about people and artists in this role. Everyone is different – some artists are very gifted and aggressive in their push and how they put themselves out there. We still send out music to radio stations and do things like that, but here there is the issue of Payola, which is a big issue here. So we try to concentrate on sending the music out to the people who don’t believe artists should have to pay for air time. Since Horus Music distributes all kinds of music, it’s tricky, because I’m not here to say whose music is better than others – the artists are my clients no matter what. It is always important to bring in and promote music that has appeal and where the artist has the potential to scale. When I reach out to new artists it is because of their work ethic, consistency and because I believe in them. I see a lot of artists who could do amazing things if they had the support of a company like ours. It’s also our way of sending a message to the world that Nigeria is a lot bigger than just Afrobeats. It’s a way to globally expand the taste and the options for everyone.
Marc Brown: That’s brilliant – this was a super inspirational chat. Is there anything else you wanted to touch on?
Obinna Agwu: The last thing I have to mention is the podcast I work on, it is called The Listening Sessions. We started the series in 2020 and so have a lot of episodes available. Each show talks about a different aspect of the music industry – really interesting and informative a little like this conversation. At Horus Music, we are also looking at doing a lot of educational programs. Our first one -Music Distribution Simplified- takes place on the 26th of May in Lagos. We will be breaking down everything to do with music distribution. It’s an exciting time. Thank you so much, Marc.
Marc Brown: Thank you. So many great insights, Obinna!