Analysis

Music Ally Startup Files: Freeme invests in Afrobeats’ bright future


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Freeme – pronounced “free me” – is an independent distributor & label services company based in Lagos. Founder and CEO Michael Ugwu has international industry experience: he was previously general manager at Sony Music West Africa, and is the first Black person to be appointed to the Merlin Board.

As a business, Freeme has twin focuses: providing services in the Nigerian market, and acting as a bridge between Afrobeats culture and curious markets in the rest of the world.

Freeme has recently relaunched, with a new platform, Freeme+, providing A&R, marketing, sync licensing and publishing services for independent African rights holders. Freeme+ will operate under Freeme Digital’s new premium label services and distribution arm Freeme Music.

Ugwu’s explanation of what Freeme does is simple: “We offer access to the African content. We’re in Lagos, working with Afrobeats. Our focus is squarely on music of African origin. Our African DNA and roots makes us different, and we educate and guide clients across the industry.”

This education, he says, is at the heart of successful collaboration between territories. What Freeme teaches, he says, “sounds almost spiritual: Nigeria is the heart of the Afrobeats industry. Music that doesn’t come from Nigeria is not the same.”

He adds that artists from other countries that have roots in west Africa are keen to “come to Nigeria, get to the source and understand the culture. I was born and brought up in London, and moved to Nigeria as an adult. I know what it’s like to not completely know your identity. There’s a lot of confidence due to Afrobeats: execs and artists are confident, especially the ones with links back to Africa. They understand their identity and then go back to their territories, embrace them, and they become bridges too.”

What problem is Freeme solving?

Ugwu has sensed that Afrobeats is on the cusp of an international “moment”, and, with Freeme, is building collaborative opportunities across the world.

In 2010 he was running Iroking – an early Nigerian DSP connected to Irockotv, the Nollywood streaming service – and spotted an opportunity in the fragmented licensing market.

Ugwu originally launched Freeme as a distributor. “Apple, Tencent and Deezer weren’t here yet. So I started Freeme digital to fix the fragmentation issue in 2013, and we gathered rights and licensing.”

Licensing was very different to what he was familiar with in London. “You’d have to acquire licence deals from each artist one by one. In the UK you go to the majors and Merlin and have four conversations.”

Now, Freeme is a much more multi-faceted business. “We’ve changed models, developed into the space, and become possibly the biggest label services company in Nigeria right now. We’re investing into the industry and into talent, and two years ago we built the largest production studio in Nigeria – the Freeme Space. Every Afrobeats superstar has visited and done something there,” says Ugwu.

The space feeds content to Freeme TV on YouTube, with regular sessions recorded in their space from artists like Mr Eazi and GoodGirl LA, in partnership with major brands.

What’s Freeme’s role in the industry – and who is it already working with?

In Nigeria, Freeme delivers label services and supports artists by raising their profile and also by advising artists on potential major label deals.

Its work inside Nigeria feeds into the bridge-building work with other countries. Freeme, which has an office in Camden, take Nigerian artists to the wider world, and also help introduce artists into west Africa.

The many West African communities spread across the world help initiate and enhance those connections. “The diaspora communities in Paris and London carry culture across the world. So let’s say we’re trying to blow up a track in Francophone Africa: sometimes it’s easier to do that if we get a big collaboration out of France.”

“We’re working with partners in Paris, for instance, and looking to get their artists a look into the local market in Nigeria. We’re also talking to indie artists in Rio de Janeiro, as Favela music has a lot of similarity in its sounds to the music from Africa – so we’re trying to reconnect the dots.”

Ugwu sees huge opportunities for growth with major labels and DSPs that are setting up operations in the African music market. International collaboration is happening now that interest in the African market is blossoming. So are the majors operating out of London and LA getting the most out of the African market?

“They’re not scratching the surface yet. In terms of the streaming market, we’re just switching on here. Spotify doesn’t work in West Africa yet, although Apple Music and YouTube does. But they’ve only been in operation a few years and building out their subscriber bases. What drives major labels is how important you are in a streaming territory.”

As more Nigerians adopt streaming, more labels are taking note, and Ugwu sees similarities with Latin America, where international music success and huge popularity of streaming go hand-in-hand – with an accompanying flood of investment.

“There have been some of what I call ‘lighthouse signings’, which are indicative of the potential path [majors] are looking at as they try to get into Africa as a market. Universal signed Tiwa Savage, Sony signed Wizkid and Davido – but it’s incomparable to the Latin market, where majors are being aggressive.”

At the moment, a lot of Freeme’s streaming income comes from abroad. But not for much longer, he says. “For us, streaming is largely an export business. We are interested in the African diaspora as they are the biggest consumers on DSPs, but the local market is switching on.”

Ugwu puts the burgeoning African interest in streaming down to three main recent technological arrivals.

“Firstly, smartphone penetration – Chinese companies have flooded Africa with devices. Secondly, the cost of data is coming down. There are still infrastructure challenges. Undersea data cables have only arrived in the last five to eight years and the costs are being driven down, although [mobile] data is still very expensive compared to other markets.” Thirdly, he says, competition has arrived: “when I ran a DSP (in 2010), there were pretty much no other services, but over the years we’ve seen local and international DSPs come into the market.”

The catalyst that will bring the market to life is cultural – encouraging people to pay for music subscriptions. In Nigeria, Apple Music is about 900 Naira a month – just under £2.

“Paying for streaming is a luxury item. Even though the pricing is close to what a young employed African person will pay, we need to grow the culture around how to do it. So we’re constantly educating the artists and consumers about why it’s important to pay for streaming. And that helps all players.”

Previously, Nigerians who hankered after digital music, built subcultures of unlicensed music sharing.

“In the interim from physical to digital, people were sharing from locker services like 4shared, or via torrents and blogs. We had a big blogging culture 5-10 years ago, and artists would send music to the blogs for promotion.”

Having tried to take music down from the blogs – Ugwu describes the DMCA process as “whack-a-mole” – he’s found that as money starts to arrive from streaming, artists enthusiastically spread the word. “We generate revenue for them via Apple Music, so we can explain that by giving blogs music for free, they are giving away income that we can’t capture. And then they influence their fans to stream it instead.”

Coming soon for Afrobeats: worldwide, arena-sized, award-winning success

Ugwu confidently predicts the coming worldwide success of Afrobeats, and is positioning Freeme to be at the source when it happens. He can see the inherent connection between Afrobeats and other cultures, and draws parallels with previous genres that swept the world.

“I think we’ll definitely see some Grammys. We’ll see the impact of the genre across multiple genres – on hip hop and R&B – and the current lineages between Afrobeats and Latin, Grime and EDM – that’s only going to grow. We’ll see major local collaborations and a major Afrobeats hit – the same as how Sean Paul or Shaggy became megastars from the Caribbean. We’ll see a growth in international touring – stadium tours on the level of Pitbull or 50 Cent. And we’ll see big brands buy into Afrobeats the same as they bought into hip-hop.”

Ugwu thinks that Beyoncé’s recent Afrobeats-inspired album, ‘Black is King’, shows the direction of the industry, and also provided international endorsement of African talent.

“Importantly, 50-60 per cent of the creatives who worked on it were African, and that’s hugely important as there is a scene of executives and creative talent coming in full force connected to it.”

Ugwu is especially happy that interest in the vibrant culture he loves is balanced by proper credit being given to the people who made it: “it’s brought our music to the forefront. Majors are super interested now – they’re invested in the genre. Look at Latin music, and reggae before that. The next wave is Afrobeats.”

Joe Sparrow

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