Stephen Budd: Professionalising The UK Afrobeats Industry

17 Jun 2014

I’ve had a long love affair with African music, starting in my early twenties when I discovered Nigeria’s Fela Kuti.  His unique Afrobeat rhythms and deep political message and especially his incredible live performances, blew me away and in my mind he became the African equivalent of Bob Marley.  His sons Femi and Seun keep that proud tradition alive and constantly perform around the world.

That love affair continues today via my involvement with Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project, through which we aim to bring new young African talent to the attention of a wider audience via musical collaborations with high-profile western artists.

As a part of the process of wanting to discover new African talent to partner with, I’ve been going to see as many of the rising Afrobeats artists as possible who visit the UK, as well as going to Lagos, Nigeria to meet them and see them perform ‘in situ’.  I have seen a lot of the key artists in performance including; D’Banj, Sarkodie, Wizz Kid, Ice Prince, Tiwa Savage, P Square as well the UK based Fuse ODG and many others based in England.  Some are very good live performers, many are less so.

Recently, I was asked to talk at the ‘African Music Goes Live’ panel at the Afrobeats Roadshow held at Ravensbourne University at London’s O2, which featured various members of the UK Afrobeats industry.  Being wary of being seen as a patronising non-African ‘colonialist’ giving unwanted advice to an African diaspora audience, nevertheless a constructive open discussion about the quality of the live events that are staged in the UK and the challenges the Afrobeats live business faces was held between the panel and the audience.

In London more and more Afrobeats nights are being hosted at venues varying from small clubs like the Stratford’s Cue Bar, the Steam Bar in Paddington, Camden’s Jazz Caféthrough to large venues such as The Troxy, The Forum, Hammersmith Apollo up to the giant Wembley Arena. Some  of the shows are good, some are very bad.

The audiences attending these events also of course go to see the major urban acts of the day, from Chase & Status and Rudimental to Drake, Kanye West and Rihanna and they are a very sophisticated crowd.  Sadly, the general feeling amongst those present at the panel was that many of the Afrobeats shows, mainly those featuring live acts, are giving audiences a very poor customer experience indeed compared to the aforementioned artists.

The panel’s audience reported that many shows start several hours late, have been promoted poorly – often competing with other major events on the same night this splitting the potential audience, have over-the-top branding, very badly organised guest-lists and – worst of all – feature poor performances by inexperienced artists who have not learnt or developed their stage craft properly.

The social networking aspect of these events is a central draw to diaspora audiences and the focused radio support from the likes of DJ Edu (BBC 1Xtra) and Abrantee (Capital Xtra) have been vital to building the scene.

Whilst the attendances of many of the live events has subsequently been high, often the fans overriding feeling is of one of disappointment and anger at being let down by badly organised shows or by artists who just want to ‘take the money and run’ and who give a shabby performance.  Amateur promoters who are often just looking to have their pictures taken with the artist so they can look like a ‘Big Man’, make for bad shows and bad business, even in the short-term.

In Lagos I have seen shows by Afrobeats artists of a far higher quality than I have seen here in the UK, with better production values, performances and overall ‘vibe’.  I see no reason why that cannot happen here in the UK, where the music business is so well established and where advice and suitable partnerships are easily obtainable and professional standards or production and performance readily attainable, and indeed expected.

If the Afrobeats movement is to thrive here and not wither on the vine with disgruntled customers disappearing off somewhere better, it needs to professionalise quickly and start to deliver a real quality to its fans and to move away from the ‘quick buck’ mentality that undermines its lasting health.  I fully believe it can grow exponentially if the artists performance standards are raised and the promoters become professional at their jobs.

Stephen Budd

Stephen Budd is a manager, festival co-owner, a founder/council member of the Music Managers Forum and a director of Damon Albarn’s ‘Africa Express’ project. He chairs the MOBOs ‘Best African Act’ selection panel | @stephenbudd

The Afrobeats Roadshow  ‘African Music Goes Live’  panel can be viewed here

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