Michael Ugwu

Michael Ugwu

CEO, Freeme Digital Entertainment
Cobhams Asuquo

Cobhams Asuquo

Founder & CEO, Vintage Gray Media
Nigeria can offer the world some amazing musical talent, but it must be cultivated and distributed correctly. Enter Nigerian entertainment companies, ready to support local artists.

How has the company developed over the years since its inception?
MICHAEL UGWU After starting in 2013, we were interested in what we could do to aggregate distribution rights for international digital service providers (DSP). At the time, some companies were aggregating content to sell as ringtones, but no one realized how big streaming could become. Freeme was one of the first, if not the very first platform, to capitalize on the potential of aggregating rights for digital streaming platforms like Spotify. We signed a deal with VEVO, which helped us because it allowed us to open VEVO channels for artists. From 2013 to 2016, we were the only players in the market; but as the market started to get a bit more competitive, other players started to become interested, and artists started to get offers from other people. We realized we had been focused on distribution for so long and needed to examine other aspects of the value chain. We were lacking in the production, marketing, and promotion spaces. We have also been growing our real estate infrastructure. Back in 2013, there were a few small venues; we figured that demand for small, medium, and large venues would pick up. Now, we have a sound stage that can host a 500-person EP launch, for example, at better rates than our competitors. We are working on another venue right now (to be finished in 3Q2020) that should be able to host 1,000 people. In Nigeria, there are not many studio facilities. Presently, we have a strong structure for content production. We have in-house engineering, mixing and mastering, a rehearsal studio for acoustic albums, a photography studio, a digital recording studio, and other essential infrastructure.

COBHAMS ASUQUO Vintage Gray Media was created in May 2016 and was the result of my previous effort put in other areas. Having worked for numerous artists and produced a lot of content for advertising agencies and corporations, I started Vintage Gray Media to focus on music production. But what we had was the talent, not necessarily business skills. We put a lot of effort into creating music for banks and other companies. We eventually discovered and exposed new artists through the money made by creating advertising materials. But we had to put in place processes and a structure to ensure that the business could work. Part of our interest as a business is to continue creating quality material for commercials. Eventually we want to focus on visual projects. Now we have progressed to developing content both with audio and visual materials for projects with the EU, UNICEF, and so on. In a nutshell, we are a multimedia business dedicated to exposing talent, as well as creating quality audio and video content for clients.

What made you decide to move from Sony Music to building Freeme Digital Entertainment?
MU I began Freeme while I was consulting Sony Music, which was trying to enter Nigeria then. Major labels can still do more, but the fact that Nigeria's industry is still new means it will take independent companies like Freeme to develop the genre on a larger scale. There is a lot left to do so we can really create significant value at home, which will allow us to create value abroad. My time with Sony was a great learning experience, but an independent company like Freeme is able to do more to put artists into a space where they are ready to work with international partners.

What difficulties do Nigerian artists face in the sector?
CA One of them is variety, or acceptance of variety. The Nigerian music scene is experiencing a huge proliferation with the Afrobeats genre (not to be confused with Afrobeat, a genre made popular by Fela Anikulapo Kuti and a force to be reckoned with too). However, we have many branches of music that represent many cultures and are often excluded. These cultures face difficulties in marketing their music because the gatekeepers want to sell the music styles that have already worked commercially. This could be an opportunity to educate people and show them other styles. While Afrobeats is can be addictive, there are other styles that are just as important. The main challenge is how the gatekeepers manage the entry of new styles and the distribution of royalties.