Exclusive interview with Cobhams

Tell me the story of how you got started in music

I hope I have managed to maintain the story the same way every time i tell it (laughs). I started by puffing my cheeks and playing the 12-bar blues and whistling in a bathroom just because I liked the reverberating sound. then I moved from there to playing the tiny little keyboard a friend of mine  had brought to me that belonged to his sister, and he wouldn’t let me play it outside for fear that she might collect it from me and i’d have nothing to play. I then played the tiny little Casio that I got from my godfather, which we eventually moved to church, and that became the church organ – that was when I was about 9…then playing in primary school, joining the school band, and then playing small-time jazz when i was 14.

Yeah, I think for me, that was pretty much how music started.

What are your thoughts about the Nigerian music industry…where its coming from compared to where it is today?

I think the Nigerian music industry has evolved. I think it has experienced many different dimensions. We’ve had the days of the Christy Essien-Igbokwes and the Onyeka Onwenus of this world when you know a lot of great music was made. I think Nigerian music has also suffered its own blow as a result of successive military regimes. It had its time when it also suffered – but it was given a boost with the likes of Remedies and Plantashun Boiz and Kennis Music and all that.

I think that, that era of the Nigerian music industry is what we see still continuing to manifest till today. I think it’s growing. I think it’s an industry that has its foundational issues. It has its issues with regards to structure, how we respect and how we value intellectual property, but it is definitely exposing a lot of talent, its definitely becoming more viable. Although I am of the opinion that not every one is taking advantage – a lot of engagement in the music industry is more reactionary than strategic where corporate kind of determine how musicians function and how musicians make money.

You’ve raised three great points I would like you to talk about a bit more: the influence of military regime on Nigerian music, the poor structure, and the role and power of corporate organisations over musicians. 

The Nigerian music industry suffered a blow during the military regime especially towards the tailed-end of the military regime. The engagement with the international community in Nigeria was very heavily controlled and I think it affected the structure that had been built over time. and I mean you remember that Nigeria had the likes of Sony Music and all these other guys – they were present in Nigerian space. But as we progressed, a lot of these guys began to pull out because obviously a lot was controlled in terms of freedom of information and speech and what have you. And that affected the business of music in Nigeria – so a lot of these guys began to pull out. and what that left us with was the lack of structure – because they pretty much controlled the structure in terms of how Nigeria music was distributed and all of that.

And so a lot of the music that was made after these guys pulled out, was the music that got played on radio, but they didn’t necessarily sell records. They didnt make sales. This of course would be sort of re-instituted after the military regime with Kennis Music and all. But even then, they didn’t have the prerequisite structure to run music as a business in Nigeria, even though they sort of pioneered music as-we-know-it-today with a lot of Nigerian influence.

If you think about it, there was certain times in military dispensation where a lot of foreign music filtered into Nigeria because those were the guys who made the dollars and cents in music generally. So I think the successive military regimes definitely had its effect on Nigerian music.

The structure…

The structure in the Nigerian music industry is something that has continued to suffer because its like building infrastructure anywhere else in the world – it takes years and years to build tunnels, good road networks. If these things have been built for instance, in an industry such as music in Nigeria, and not maintained, of course it’s bound to suffer. And i think that that’s what has happened.

There is a huge challenge with regards to distribution – especially distribution of physical CDs and so on in the Nigerian space. No business is sort of investing in creating those outlets. Of course the church is easily the most integrated structure that anyone can use for that, but obviously the church has its own differences and its own guidelines which don’t necessarily tally – and for that reason you can’t say that the church can be a formidable or sensible distribution outlet. I mean it should have been but it isn’t.

That’s one thing that we struggle with. Of course the internet is sort of changing things because it creates a levelling platform. However, for so many reasons we cannot exactly monetise the situation in using the internet as much as we ought to be able to – because internet data in Nigeria is still gold dust. People manage their data. In addition to that, it is a culture that we are going to need to grow and we haven’t grown to that extent yet. So we still struggle with those structural issues.

I think that the internet sort of helps the industry move along though – especial as they introduce fibre optics and make the internet more accessible in Nigeria, and people embrace the culture of listening to music on their devices. Of course if they can manage all this free file sharing websites and all that. If we can actually put a value on intellectual property and see the need to pay for it, then we can deal with some of the structural issues.

And then even musicians themselves, do we see music as a sustainable business, so that we are putting in place structures that would run it as a sustainable business, not just a means to an end. Because what music does for the most part is tackle the issue of poverty – so you make music so that you can meet your immediate needs. The hierarchy of needs things again. So those are just some of the areas I think we need to deal with. We need to structure music such that our children and children’s children can enjoy the beauty of royalties.

The place of corporate organisations in the Nigerian music industry… 

Now, linking that to the whole corporates situation, they are helping to build a structure -such as telecos and what have you. The challenge however is that because they have the infrastructure to manage how that goes, they set the standard and dictate the pace. Also, with endorsements and all the other things that they do, it’s every musicians dream to get one because it is your surest means of getting bulk money to just pursue your other endeavours.

But the challenge with that is, like I said, we are being reactionary. What then happens is that as musicians, we are not necessarily creating value in response to these opportunities – however, we are just sort of jumping on the opportunity for what it is worth – wanting to get your own piece of the pie pretty much, and winging it.

Having said that much, it is an industry where there’s a lot of hope and potential. It is definitely one of Nigeria’s biggest export right now – even you know among Nigerians in diaspora. Its our sense of culture, it’s our sense of nationality – it’s a lot for us, and I think there is room for improvement and growth, and there’s definitely room to make a lot of money.

Music is an art, but it is also an enterprise. I know you’ve been in the States for a while – do enlighten us on the peculiarities of the music in Nigeria compared to what obtains abroad. 

Like I said, we definitely have our struggles with distribution.

Music as a business is made up of many different moving parts and when one or more of those parts fail to move it becomes rather cumbersome to get music, ideas, whatever, from point A to point B.

In the States, many other places for instance, those parts are forced to move. the industry is dependent on all of those parts functioning in sync. In Nigeria, those are some of the parts we struggle with. We struggle with distribution; we struggle with awareness in terms of how musicians value the material that they create; we struggle with awareness in terms of how the audience value the materials the artist create; we struggle with the need for alternative because the system is largely controlled by a certain kind of music.

While I agree that that kid of music is great for what it’s worth, there’s also room for many different genres of music. In Nigeria, that seems to be a bit of struggle. Whereas in the States or in the UK Jazz music has its place, Classical music has its place, Country music has its place. So I think that those are some of the interests that we need to grow in Nigeria, because what it does is it also grows the value of music as an industry in terms of how you monetise it. That way, people who are willing to out down their money for all these different genres of music – if only it got the right publicity, the right exposure, and if its valued correctly. Yeah, i think that these are some of the differences between the music industry elsewhere and what obtains in Nigeria.

I also think that royalty system is definitely something that we need to get our hands on. Also, appreciating music on the legislative level. Anywhere else in the world, there are certain considerations for people who are involved in creating music or in the creative arts generally. I don’t know that we as a people have an understanding of why we should value music or creative arts and push its interest at the legislative level. but it is until we are able to do that and kind of create laws that govern or protect the interest of people who create music and people who market music, that we can actually make music a viable contributor to national economy.

Nigeria definitely has numbers. For instance, they say that CD sales have dropped worldwide, and CD sales have dropped worldwide – but if you check it, church for instance still continue to sell CDs to their congregation. I think there is potential to do a lot in the Nigerian music industry with regards to sales, as opposed to the rest of world. It is just about creating the right structure. We have numbers! If we are able to regulate how music is purchased and consumed, we can actually still use our numbers. We are not exactly where America and everybody else is with regards to that.

For anyone thinking of going into the music industry as an artist, what would your one word advice be? 

I would say, it is important you are sure that this is what you want to do, and there are number of factors that determine that. It is important that you are patient enough to see this through, because it is not instant success. It hardly ever is.

Be sure that you have talent, because a lot of people have passion and want to do this, but don’t necessarily have the prerequisite talent – and so you are just sort of running in the wrong direction.

Be sure you have the skin for it. Be sure you are ready to dot your Is and cross your Ts. Be sure you are ready to lose sleep, be sure you are ready to understand and ready to consider music as a business and not just an art form.

Just be sure you are ready for what you are are getting into is what i’ll say.

Thank you so much Cobhams. It’s been awesome chatting with you. 

Thank you.

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