Where their contemporaries release singles and expect overnight success, these young creators are using access to claim their place.
We have a tendency to disrupt, whether in how we express our deepest emotions or how we earn a living. Where those before us waited for the end of the educational journey to make their entry into the real world (or the labour market as they prefer to call it), we care little for conventions on when, where or how things should happen.
In recent times, nowhere is this more evident than in music and how a new generation of artistes is launching their careers and attracting the kind of attention that good music deserves.
Nigeria’s music scene is as respected for its talent and potential as it is reputed for its lack of structure. Ironically, before the events of the last two years, there was an established path that every artiste had to follow to make the transition from hopeful dreamer to national star.
It went like this: First, he had to record a couple of songs, not many, two or three would suffice. Then, he would put those songs out in his local community, most times this was the university where he was trying hard to focus and get a degree, or the area where he had found a roof over his head after dropping out because he couldn’t find focus. This was the first test of his viability, he had to be accepted by his own before others.
Next, if the song was big enough, it would make its way, mostly by word of mouth, to a sponsor, someone with money who could afford to ‘push’ it. Then, after signing a very sad deal, the song would be given to DJs and radio and television stations (if it had a video) who had the task of playing it until the entire country had no choice but to listen.
The label would also provide the artiste with accommodation, a car, if he was lucky and allowances to support the superstar image. And thus, a star was born, sometimes.
But thanks to platforms like Soundcloud and Twitter and musicians in the mold of Odunsi the Engine, GMK and Lady Donli, that formula is quickly becoming useless.
On the small chance that you don’t know what they are, here goes — Soundcloud is a ‘free’ audio distrubution platform based in Germany that you allow users to post and share (mostly) original audio content. The platform, now 8 years old, can accessed by visiting soundcloud.com. As of July 2013, it had 40 million registered users, and 175 million unique monthly listeners as of December 2014.
Twitter, on the other hand, is Twitter. It is an online social network that allows users to interact through posts known as ‘tweets’ that are restricted to a limit of 140 characters. Thanks to its conversational nature, it is now used for anything from planning protests to matchmaking or like Dusten Truce puts it, seizing the bae.
In an age where the internet of things is king and everything is just a smartphone away, a unique crop of Nigerian millennials are using access to bend things to their will so much that the men at the gate have had to pay attention.
The transition was a long time coming. In the early days of internet access in Nigeria, it was not uncommon for artistes to put their songs and projects on platforms like Hulkshare or 4shared and share links with fans in the hopes that someone that mattered would hear.
One thing was missing though; the ability to build a community of fans and create fixed channels where they could find their stuff and new listeners could be made into converts.
This is the gift that SoundCloud gave them.
Where previously they had to hope to impress a big wig who could sign them or raise enough money to convince an OAP to accept their promo CDs, Soundcloud has provided a platform where they can share and curate their work and target those who are interested in what they have to offer — their generation.
Because they’re not alone in this, it has also given them access to listeners outside their home turf. Soundcloud’s 40 million users are not all Nigerians, so when the artist puts his work on that platform, he is putting it in a space where Anker from Turkey can find his sound, vibe to it and connect with him.
One of the biggest success stories (and it is still in the works) is Odunsi the Engine, an afro-fusion singer, songwriter and producer.
Thanks to the success of his debut project, 2015’s ‘Time of Our Lives EP’, singles like Situationship that features AYLO and his latest, an alluring, sensual RnB cut titled ‘Desire’, he has managed to draw the spotlight and inspire a conversation around himself and what artistes like him are doing.
When he spoke with Pulse’s Abiola Solanke, Odunsi had something very important to share. A significant number of his numbers on Soundcloud and Spotify come from outside Nigeria, from countries as distant as Canada. As his name grows within Nigeria’s shores, he is also building a community without.
That widespread access has already begun to reflect in the success of his work; in December, Odunsi’s ‘Situationship’ was listed among Spotify’s 10 most viral tracks of 2016, a feat that is commendable for any artist, more so for an independent 20-year-old from Lagos.
Still, it is one thing to make the music and share it and another thing to have the necessary conversations that drive interest in the sound.
This is where Twitter has provided a bridge across two sides of the creative experience. There used to be a wall between artists and those who consumed content but now, within the space of 140-characters, this new crop have used this social network to express their personalities, tell their stories and connect with those who enjoy their music beyond what their songs give them the liberty of saying.
According to Dusten Truce, a rapper signed to X3M Music, “it has bridged the gap, helping us target and engage our audience effectively”.
Dusten should know. Since being featured on ‘Prime Exhibit A’ from Mode 9’s 2012 project, ‘Occupy The Throne’, he has chartered a storied career that has seen him drop two strong projects - ‘The Truce Shall Set You Free’ and last year’s ‘EDEN EP’ - and a handful of loosies inbetween.
Last year, he launched ‘Young Kulture’ with fellow rapper Jamal Swiss, a series of live shows that they are using to get on the road and connect with the fans they have made online and had conversations with on Twitter.
“I remember when I first started promoting my music on twitter …”, Dusten told me in a conversation we had on Twitter, of all places.
“Then there was no soundcloud, but it made me realise that the saying “a prophet is never valued in his homeland” was true, because I met bare strangers online that have been supporting and still support me till date. I mean I just dropped an EP last November and I’ve been on tour and we’ve done great numbers at every venue. .. and who are the people that come out? The same people that listen online”
Beyond just connecting with fans, it has also helped the artistes to connect with fellow creators and music makers. Nowadays, for any vocalist feeling the newest BankyOnDBeatz joint or a Remy Baggins verse, a collab is usually just a tweet or dm and a vibe session away.
The result is that great relationships have been forged, projects created and in some cases, entire collectives have been formed.
Some of these collectives; Bantu, made up of brothers Tay and Sute Iwar, Preye Itams among others and the retro-crew, 90s Baby have gone one step further to host their own shows and sell merchandise - earning the funding that is necessary to sustain their creative prusuits.
It’s what Mr Eazi chooses to call the ‘Outdustry’, a section of outsiders that is gradually redefining the convention.
It will be naive to say the gatekeepers are completely irrelevant - a big part of the mechanisms that make a musician's career viable in the long term (radio airplay, media hype, show rosters) are still within their control.
Still, these artistes are showing that there is more than one way to do a thing.
They also understand their reality - that these Soundcloud numbers and Twitter converstions are a small part of a bigger picture that might include signing to a label and taking advantage of the resources that it offers at some point.
What we have are creators that are as interesting as the influences they reflect; and it is hard to imagine a future that does not include Lady Donli or GMK or a time where culture afficionados will look at Tay Iwar's ‘Renascentia’ or BankyOnDBeatz's 'Fuego Senoras' as classics that were ahead of the pack.
When these guys become your mainstay, remember that the gatekeepers did not lose the key. A couple of young guys broke the gate down.