Chidi Okeke: Into the Mind of a Music Maven
– By Lanre Solarin
With several meetings back to back, after only returning from a business trip the day before, Chidi Okeke, a veteran entrepreneur in the music and entertainment industry, greeted me warmly as I was ushered into his stylish office. Chidi is the founder of Mcomm Solutions and Services, a technology driven company offering a wide range of content, mobile technology and music based solutions and services across the African continent.
Chidi, a graduate of Electrical and Electronics Engineering from the Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO), specialized in Communications and thus setting the trajectory for who he has become today. Fresh out of school, he worked at MTech, a company owned by his childhood friend, Chika Nwobi. MTech provided services to GSM companies when mobile phones initially stormed the Nigerian market.
“I started in the industry about 16 years ago. When MTech started, I was brought in to join the networking department,but I moved from that to business development unit and took an interest in music which became my focus”.
Chidi’s career advanced within the company leading to high profile assignments such as the setup of the Abuja office to expand local operations. He then grew to assume international responsibilities in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Within 8 months in Ghana, MTech became the number 1 VAAS provider in Ghana. After his stint in Ghana, he came back to Nigeria to lead the MTech Group as Group CEO after Chika Nwobi stepped down. During his time as Group CEO, Chidi successfully implemented turnkey solutions that enabled MTech halt and reverse its negative growth by focusing on the music industry.
“After a few years as Group CEO, I left Mtech to start Mcomm. I wanted to focus more on the music industry; specifically, how to successfully leverage mobile technologies to deliver value in the industry. Since 2011, when we commenced operations, we’ve masterminded several digital content releases, some of which were revolutionary at the time – such as use of MTN’s mobile radio platform to launch new and exclusive music content.”
“We’ve built relationships with different artistes and have been behind endorsement deals of some of the biggest artistes in the country, including artistes like Davido, Wizkid, D’Banj, Mo’ Hits and so many more”.Mcomm, has successfully and notably carved a niche for itself at the intersection of music and technologyand demonstrated,as evidenced by the various industry awards on display in Chidi’s office.
“My background is in technology, and consequently, this plays a substantial role in the solutions and services that we develop. For instance, our current project, which is still in beta testing, leverages advancements in technology – IoT, data analytics – in music distribution. I may be in the entertainment business, but our work is facilitated by technology.”
Setbacks In The Industry
Chidi is an entrepreneur with significant experience across multiple regions, this enables him to give insights into the challenges in the industry. One of which, is poor access to talent development opportunities in the industry. “In South Africa for example, if you’re talented, you have access to the infrastructure you need to develop and harness your talent. Young, school age children who realize they can sing, can access classes designed and available to help children develop their talent. This is not an opportunity readily available in Nigerian schools.”
In the industry, you have to do the work. People will only support you as an artiste when they see what you have created. “If you come to me as an artiste and say you have talent, I’ll ask you to play me what you have. This could be your unreleased tracks,” Chidi stated. “If I’m able to see that there’s talent, then I can support.”
Unfortunately, to get to that point where the artiste has material, he must have had some money to go to a recording studio, sit down, and pay for studio time. “In Nigeria, it’s hard to get anyone to support you without hearing anything. You need to put one leg forward first. And I know getting this money can be difficult for many.”
Again, because we have a limited number of studios here in Nigeria,a new artiste can decide to record with his devices in his room, which only leads to poor quality of work. “When such aspirants make such presentations, it takes a real expert to spot the talent hidden behind poor quality technical sound. We don’t have the tools, software and infrastructure. But despite this, this industry has still flourished and produced great artists. Now imagine what would be if the infrastructure were in place.The lack of infrastructure also has an impact on established artists, specifically quality of the sound reproduced on stage also affects the audience’s experience.
Chidi believes that this is an opportunity for foreign production companies in Nigeria to invest in the industry.“This is a long-term investment with long term pay-offs,” he stated.“Building a state-of-the-art recording / mixing and mastering studio will cost nothing less than 1.5m dollars for equipment alone. It’s an expensive, but worthwhile venture. We need more studios, purposely built concert venues and music streaming platforms tailored for the local market.”
One of the reasons why some of our accomplished artistes travel to create music is due to the availability of infrastructure abroad.He further stated that international artistes are interested in creating music with us. “They have said to us several times that if we had proper studios here, they’ll fly to Nigeria to record with our artistes.”
Unfortunately, the music industry has not acquired the level credibility in the eyes of investors as for instance, the oil and gas sector or agriculture.It is still perceived by most as an industry of misfits.This is debatable, however, misfits or not, the music industry has substantial influence with commercial value domestically and internationally.
Leveraging Positivity In The Industry
“Our Nigerian artistes are doing well. In Africa, Nigeria arguably produces the best music content. Our artistes are popular across the continent,” Chidi stated. “We’re getting the attention required. The next frontier necessitates that we develop capabilities to improve the quality of the music (sound) to meet international standards.Our music has good melody, but for some of our songs, foreign engineers usually have to re-mix because they’re not mixed and mastered properly, so they don’t sound right there. This also limits the growth of the industry.However, access to the right infrastructure is not the only challenge. There is also a paucity of the skill and “know-how” required to operate the types of equipment I have been describing.”
Having said this, despite the challenges, African music still has something unique to offer the world. “You may recall that D’Banj at a point was signed to Kanye West’s label. What you may not know is how that came about. D’banj and I met Kanye at the Dubai International airport and D’Banj gave him tracks to listen to. He listened to five different tracks and was immediately impressed with what he heard,” Chidi stated. To him, international artistes have covered a lot of ground and are looking for something new. We have Afrobeat, which is what they’re looking for.Artistes need to stay true to their local sound.
In summary I see three key things that need to be addressed; access to state-of-the art recording and sound equipment, purpose-built venues for shows/concerts, etc. and digital music streaming platforms.
The Importance of Structure
The reason why artistes love working with Mcomm is because of the structure provided. A lot of artistes want to simultaneously be the performing musician and manage their careers single-handedly, but it is impossible to execute both roles simultaneously.
“One of the reasons why D’banj flourished and was so successful is because he always had a solid team of professionals supporting him and whom he allowed to manage the ‘business’.”Mcomm was part of this team and was responsible for delivering business development objectives.
Similar to any successful business, music is no exception, a multi-functional team is a prerequisite for success. Finance, legal, management are essential to ensuring that there are enough unencumbered resources to operate – in this case make music. “A friend of mine used to say, ‘ensure you surround yourself with people smarter than you’. It’s wrong for me to be the smartest guy in my company. If I am, then I’ll be in trouble. I may be good at somethings like sales, but I need someone who is the best in technology, Finance etc. I cannot know everything, and this goes for everyone else.”
Every big player in the industry needs to be structured well enough so that artistes can focus on their talent and how to make their music better. A professional who is trustworthy can handle the business side and other parts. It’s never possible to effectively do all because eventually, one part will suffer.
The Role of Passion When Challenges Hit
I firmly believe that passion should be at the fore of whatever you do in life. Not every venture will be profitable, with some projects, you’ll only manage to recover your cost and some projects will just consume all of your investment. However, if you are driven by passion, the experience will be worthwhile and if you’re fortunate, prove a useful learning experience. “Mcomm has executed projects that did not generate as much profitability as we had planned at the onset, however, I believe that we have grown and improved as an organisation through those experiences.”
In our environment, it is possible to be swayed by necessities rather than passion. That’s why you hear statements like, “I just want to make money so I can eat”. This kind of thinking does not engender the staying power required to be successful in the long-term. New artistes may succeed in creating one good hit, but if the passion for music isn’t present, sustaining the career will be impossible because of the challenges that’ll come.
According to Chidi, when he talks to new Artistes who want to be bigger than our established artistes, he looks out for the story behind what they want to do. That’s how he judges their motives. “You can be 17 years of age, but have a story that spans 7 years in music.”
A Future For New Artistes
Streaming would power the music industry’s growth in Africa. As smart phone penetrations continue to rise and cost of data continues to dip, an artiste can create music content, upload on the available streaming platforms in the territory and if the audience likes it, he or she can generate significant revenues. So now the onus lies on the said artiste to create good content.
“There are numerous streaming platforms available in this territory,Boomplay, Music plus, Cloud9, iTunes, Spotify and even YouTube. I would always advise an upcoming artiste to endeavour to get their music uploaded on all unless they are getting a special deal from one.”
“In other developed countries, artistes generate revenues when their songs are played on the radios, shopping Malls, clubs, etc. Anytime a song is played someone is making money. But in this part of the world we are still catching up but clearly there are changes in the right direction.”According to Chidi, the first thing is to discover yourself and package that talent in a way you can show someone ready to help. Spend your time developing your talent and always show that through the content you create.You need to have a story because there are no overnight successes.
As the revenues generated in the Music Industry continues to rise, more investors would be attracted to the sector. The industry would only get bigger.
Free Recording Deal for One Talent
“To me, youth empowerment is basically the process of providing an enabling environment or providing ways the youth can be encouraged to take a hold on their lives better by using either their talents or resources. But to make this easy, the infrastructure has to be in place and the talented person has to be educated enough about what he or she wants to do,” Chidi advised. At this point, he requested for one of his books to be brought to his office.
“I’m looking out for raw talent,” Chidi stated. He is looking to help one young music artiste reach greatness.
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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read other articles.