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emPawa Africa and YBNL: Models for the future of the Music Label?

From a bystander point of view and without going into the fine print, I daresay that emPawa Africa, and YBNL’s short-term contract model are worth examining as a structure for a more sustainable Music Label of the future, especially as the music business becomes more democratized and the ‘Era of the Independent Artiste’ gains more ground -think of the abundance of digital music streaming sites, social media reach, self-publishing, sound technology, creative digital crowdfunding sites etc., giving pretty much anyone tools to record and publish music from their couch.

As new creatives strive to wield more agency in their career’s direction/business, calls for more transparent contracts and preserving authenticity in the culture portrayed will get louder, especially as many caution that a new Scramble for Africa is happening in the continent’s music space. The question of whether the current, often hegemonic structure and function of the music label will survive these, arises.

Will the idea of a ‘Music Label’ as we know it now will fade away totally with time? I think not. No matter how much the music industry and technology change, humans will fundamentally remain social creatures who need community and social capital to put their best foot forward, always, in my view. The form will simply keep evolving.

I call emPawa Africa’s and YBNL short-term contract models the ‘Tassa’ or Greenhouse Models. The Tassa is an original African (Sahel region) strategy used to grow plants and conserve resources. The idea is to pool nutrients in a central location (a planting basin) and plant seeds around it. Therefore the recipient plants are quite independent/ not inside of the pit itself but stand in a way that they can always draw from the central location. This easy inexpensive method increased yield, revived lands and made plants resilient against adverse conditions. In the same vein, a greenhouse starts plants in an environment that optimizes their growth, so when they are ready to start life outside, they are much stronger to thrive.

How would this music label model work? Like this — rather than artistes ‘having’ or ‘belonging’ to a music label, which manages (or monopolizes) every or most aspects of an artiste’s career (and life sometimes!), with complex contracts that carry the risk of limiting the artiste’s creative control, what we have is an entity receiving a steady stream of serious talents, new or established, from which the best is curated, trained, funded, mentored for a set term, and given a good footing according to their immediate needs, to strengthen their independent long-term career with. The artiste is invested in not just as a person/talent, but as a ‘business entity’. For example, according to its website ‘emPawa Africa [is] an incubator program that provides career guidance and funds music videos for upcoming artists in Africa’. This puts them in the same lane with Tech Incubators and Accelerators, except that here we’re talking about an actual person’s music career, homegrown financiers that actually know the music business and a strong central infrastructure to feed from, as opposed to numerous new labels scattered here and there trying to build a music business structure from scratch, and offering generic solutions.

While the talents under such labels would thus be in constant flux, it can be argued that if a musician comes to the table as a business entity to be invested in, no matter the stage of her/his career, with the mindset that this ‘incubation’ is for a set term, they are more inclined to hone their craft in that time, resist complacency and stay involved in the direction and profit aspect of her/his career, in preparation for the long term. Under one umbrella, this model will give the average artist more agency in building where they want to go, in the propagation of their creative works, and accessing heavy weights in the industry to guide them.

It would also be remarkable as homegrown financing options gives a higher chance for the indigenous music industry to retain infrastructure to grow and also fully exploit returns or revenue. In context, BTS alone contributes over $4m to the South Korean GDP, not to talk of returns in soft power. Imagine if all the net profit instead flows out to some investor in another far-away continent?

The PopRev feature on the Nigerian music streaming platform UduX which will allow subscribers invest directly in artistes’ content and earn profit/share in the equity generated thus, is a perfect example of the democratization and higher local input to financing and investment in the music business, even though the founding partners, UduX and Piggyvest are not strictly labels, but act somewhat as financing middlemen for music record companies using their services.

Not only this, a tassa-like or greenhouse model could potentially help the labels minimise losses to an entity at a time as they would be dealing with independent artistes in the short-term with a definite exit timeline, whether they blow or not. The fallout from conflict can also be minimized. One thing labels will likely always have an advantage in is that they have the traction, industry knowledge and bargaining power new artistes might not yet have, to collaborate globally in several aspects of the music business and scale. In February for example, YBNL announced signed a joint venture deal with distribution company EMPIRE.

Talk about saving two birds with one seed. Independent artistes associated with these labels whether in the short-term or on contractual basis would have the leeway to negotiate flexible profit sharing contracts on the management and ownership of each, or certain aspects of their art — be it rights to touring profits, merchandise, endorsements, royalties, music sales, street cred😅 etc., such as the one Stormzy had with Warner’s ADA in distributing Gang Signs & Prayer. This will also tackle the problem of generic services cited, for example, by the Headies’ Best Alternative Album Winners, The Cavemen, saying ‘ No record label is offering us things that we want; they are offering us things that we already do’. This system could also develop the industry further by pushing for new ways of profiting from artiste’s intellectual property given that ownership of all aspects is not under one entity. In addition, using the Tassa model, a pool of networks remain accessible to draw from the label even after the incubation time is over. It may also give labels more room to be adventurous and adapt quickly to shifts in consumption of music given that they don’t have burdening long-term financial commitments to one person/style to think of.

Stormzy partnered with Warner Music’s Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA) for distribution of his independent album release Gang Signs and Prayers

This blueprint could well be a disruption which other music industries’ artistes in the world could tap into to exert more personal independence and creative control: Africa, Asia and the ‘West’ included. Just think: I could be a mechanic by day, recording artist by night and use these music labels anytime to do the rest of the work and continue my life.(as opposed to artistes who point out their lives are too pressured by the business, politics and fitting ‘industry standards’ with negative consequences for their lifestyle and mental health, perhaps you have a glimpse what I mean? I apologize if I am overlooking something, every industry has contributed a world of great things globally in their own rights and have challenges unique to them).

As hinted earlier, these are general projections- I would have to examine the fine print of the contracts to be able to make more specific conclusions and I envisage that new models will not be immune to risk as they will strive over time to fine tune the system. For now, certain artistes whose musical journeys are tentative prototypes for how this model would work could be one of our favourite couple in the Nigerian industry who keep evolving and pushing genres -Simi (formerly at X3M Music), and Adekunle Gold (formerly at YBNL). Both were already creatives on the move in their own right before getting signed. After having their craft propelled higher under a label, they are now independent artists. Simi went on to launch her own record label, Studio Brat, and Adekunle Gold. Special mentions of course to Joeboy and Lil Kesh.

Already, many global labels are having outcrops who thrive on a similar structure described here, but without the one-stop shop incubator part and emphasis on indigenous financing. My view here is that industries building up might do well to favor this model as their go-to in the first instance, as opposed to that of the traditional ‘Music Label’, in making a pathway for the future.

Do you have a different take on this? I would love to hear it!

Meanwhile, you can read about: 5 things South Korea and Nigeria have in common, 5 Naija music Videos that were pure art, Korede Bello’s Table for Two, WurlD’s new banger, Africa Day 2020,and the melanin Moon!

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