Our first chat was a few days before Burna Boy’s iconic show at the Hollywood Bowl.
Osita Francis Ugeh: The art of touring Afrobeats artists with Duke Concept [Inside By Pulse]
Osita Ugeh talks about Duke Concept, Burna Boy at Hollywood Bowl, the Wizkid vs. Davido beef in 2014, marketing, secondary ticketing and more.
He humbly but confidently expresses, “Nigerian artists are growing at an alarming rate, my brother. That’s why I am excited by this show at the Hollywood Bowl. Nigerian artists have done arena shows in the UK, but this is a first in the US.”
At the Hollywood Bowl, Burna Boy thrilled over 17,000 people. An attendee told Pulse Nigeria that he performed 33 songs in two hours. Rightly, Osita Francis ‘Duke’ Ugeh was excited about this moment and the prospects of Afrobeats, as a cultural currency and perception changer for Africa.
“Burna Boy has been rising up the ladder in the right way. He had to perform the 300-capacity and 1500-capacity venues to get here,” Ugeh expresses. “With Wizkid, Made In Lagos Tour is his first US tour, so it’s hard to gauge. It’s amazing to see these boys touring this madly, but with Burna Boy, we can track his growth by every tour and it was only natural that his next step would be an arena.”
A few hours before our second chat, he announced Olamide’s Carpe Diem tour - their third tour together, while juggling Diamond Platnumz’s tour. He was visibly stressed and sleep deprived, yet calm, cool and articulate. He possessed a sharp mind like any great conversationalist, he remembered details with figures and spoke about his craft with passion.
Who is Osita Ugeh?
A native of Illah, Delta State, Osita was born into a family of four children, His parents schooled in the US and both returned to Nigeria in 1985. While he was growing up, his mom was a teacher. After she retired, they both moved back to the US.
When Osita graduated from Madonna University in the late 2000s, with a degree in Electrical Electronics engineering, he started working for Mobitel. But around 2011, his parents had moved all his siblings to the US with them, and they were persuading him to move with the rest of the family.
Osita was reluctant, because he had started Duke Entertainment, the company that became Duke Concept. Around 2008, he tried to do a show with Djinee in Calabar, Cross River, which kick-started his foray into promotion.
“I had always liked the idea of organized performance, nothing beats it. The zenith of artistry and musical experience is a live performance, which can make an arena pulsate,” Duke says. “I always dreamt of becoming an entrepreneur as well. The idea of freedom and risk-taking, as well as the prospect of solving a problem or providing a service has always thrilled me.”
In 2011, Duke applied for his green card and got it in time for his sister’s wedding in the US. It also came with rules around compulsory usage. Initially, he was meant to be gone for a few weeks, but his dad kept persuading him to stay back. This persuasion came with a job offer at a computer imaging company and he accepted.
Three months later, Duke left that company for Verizon Wireless: a company he’s always wanted to work for.
“At Mobitel, we used to study the models and standard operating procedures of certain companies, and Verizon was always at the top of that list,” he says. “I wanted to go for the best in terms of how they treat their service, salary, company culture and other privileges.”
Still under Duke Entertainment, Ugeh organized a lunch party, which taught him the rudiments of American culture and prepared him for a second show, with D’Prince as headliner.
While he worked for Verizon and lived in New York, Duke Concept was birthed in 2013.
“I would go into the city and see warehouse shows across New York and it changed my perspective about Duke Entertainment,” he reminisces. “I started doing those events, but I was pushing to get into theatres.”
That drive pushed Ugeh into his first theatre show, The Limpopo Show featuring 5-Star Music boss, KCee.
While Duke was working with Verizon, he worked through the day as an Engineer and spent his nights promoting shows, bootstrapping his way through the formation of Duke Concept. Little did he know that those days were preparing him for his current busy schedule as a CEO.
The show which became a lesson
In 2014, Ugeh’s company tried to do an Afro-Caribbean show with Timaya and Mavado in New York. Seven years later, he laughs about the show and calls it a ‘flop,’ but he believes that he needed to experience that curve in order to grow.
“Several factors affected that situation, and the first was timing. The second was wrong data analysis and the third was expectations. At the time, I was still a one-man business with one or two people helping me here [laughs],” he reminisces. “I didn’t have somebody else to rub off. Then, we over-estimated the artist because we had just done Davido, which was massive.”
His small team thought that they were combining African and Caribbean audiences, but one week earlier, the Miami Festival held in Florida and all the viable showgoers attended. Ugeh also notes that his team didn’t have the technical know-how to market the show.
“There is a way to market Caribbean shows and there is another to market African shows. It evolved overtime, but guerilla marketing is a core part of Caribbean culture and it works for their shows. We’re talking posters and flyers on the street and stuff,” Ugeh analyses. “With African shows, you can do digital marketing more than guerilla marketing and be fine. I don’t think we considered the marketing models.”
Ugeh also notes that cultural alliances might have played a role.
“I don’t think my business name was as much of an attraction for the Caribbean audiences at the time,” Ugeh adds.
Coupled with the rise of social media, that show contributes to how Ugeh now perceives social media as a marketing tool. These days, his team studies social media based on demographics. Some artists are stronger on Facebook than Twitter or TikTok while others are bigger on Instagram. Some artists are also big on the four.
An artist’s audience determines social media marketing and engagement is a key metric for measurement. While Ugeh admits that social media has aided event companies, he admits that social media phenomena should be taken with a pinch of salt.
What’s the process of organizing a show at Duke concept?
Duke Concept has evolved into a 360 event and touring company, which has toured some of the biggest African artists. During the recently concluded Made In Lagos tour, Duke Concept catered to Wizkid’s needs and serviced his shows. The company has also toured Flavour, Omah Lay, Adekunle Gold, Davido, Stonebwoy, Fally Ipupa and more.
Over the next few months, Duke Concept will tour a major artist from Francophone Africa. He or she will also play at an arena and visit Canada.
After eight years as an engineer, Ugeh quit the corporate world to solely face his business, which has grown into a full-fledged company with dozens of employees and strategists. Every year, they set a target for the type and number of artists that they aim to tour. They then start approaching artists.
“Usually, it’s about established relationships these days. But we look at artists that match the right profile and artists that make sense for the brand and business,” he says. “If we plan for a set number of venues based on type and capacity, we look for the right artists for our plan and try to work on the best plans, venues and marketing for them.”
Sometimes, unplanned artists also approach the team through their booking agents The team then uses a data-driven approach to see where the artists can sell and whether Duke Concept would be willing to tour those places. These days, the events happen in mid-range markets to big markets. It’s unlikely that Duke Concept would take an Afrobeat artist to a small and predominantly white market like Milwaukee, Wisconsin at this time.
However, Ugeh thinks that certain smaller markets will become feasible stops over the next few years.
“Bigger cities have a higher possibility to achieve multi-ethnicity. As much as Afrobeats is spreading, we also have to look at the demographic consumption of the genre and of the artist,” Duke says. “Bigger cities also tend to have better purchasing power. Don’t get me wrong, small markets can surprise you and Afrobeats touring will eventually get to them, but they might be too risky right now.”
It makes sense. The attitude of a city like Boston to touring and nightlife would be much different to that of smaller markets. The pulse of young attendees also matters as much as their priorities. It's more likely that a 21-year-old, who was bred in New York would be willing to spend $200 on a ticket than his equivalent in a smaller market.
Ugeh offers it from a perspective of comparative analysis, not with factual totality.
As much as urban culture influences pop culture, the rising state of Afrobeats suggests that the racial spread of America must be taken into consideration while planning an event for an Afrobeats artist.
“I’m currently building an artist and I’m matching data from how their music is consumed with the location, venue, capacity and the type of venue that they might need,” Ugeh adds. “We try to gauge. Sometimes, the profile and track record of the artist would determine if we over-budget on capacity or under-budget.”
With acts like Wizkid or Burna Boy or Davido, you don’t need to do a lot of convincing, you just price reasonably. But with the new guys, you price as low as possible, especially if it’s their maiden tour. It helps Duke Concept understand what these artists can and can’t do.
“Overall, we try to keep the prices as reasonable as possible because ticket prices determine what we pay to artists. We do versus deals with artists: this means that artists get a share of ticket sales or profits,” Ugeh enthuses. “We open our books to artists to see the transaction for full transparency.”
But pricing also depends on the format of the venue. As much as Duke Concept might charge $250 for front row seats in a seated theatre, the people at the back might pay as low as $30.
While ticketing is already booming, secondary ticketing has grown a life of its own.
Market Watch reports that, “The global Secondary Tickets market size is projected to reach USD 2755.5 million by 2027, from USD 1502 million in 2020, at a CAGR of 9.1% between 2021-2027.”
Ugeh believes that there is nothing anybody can do about it. He believes that the best way to fight it is to encourage people to purchase their tickets early enough, discourage hoarding of tickets and to always make tickets available at the venue.
“The problem with secondary ticketing is that these sellers end up pressuring people into purchasing tickets for ridiculous prices,” he says. “I saw a Wizkid ticket that went for as high as $19,000 and this thing is legal [laughs]. We can find a way to monetize it, but tracking those tickets will be a problem.”
Proper show, proper venue
In September 2014, Wizkid and Davido took the same flight to New York, US to perform at different shows. Davido was going to perform at a show in Canada while Wizkid was performing at a show in New York.
Three months earlier, Davido had performed his own New York show and it was organized by Duke Concept. It was so successful that the people outside were more than the people inside. At the time, no contemporary African artist had ever sold out a 2,000-capacity theatre, so there was no precedent for Duke Concept.
A few hours into the show, there were more than 3,000 people outside the 2,000-capacity venue, clamouring to see their fave perform. The New York Police Department then stepped in to quell the madness.
Speaking with Olisa Adibua on The Truth in 2014, Davido said, “After my show, naturally Wizkid was the next choice for them to bring to New York. So when we left the airport, you know I’ve been in America all my life, so we spoke about hooking up later at night and just hang out with friends [to] show them that Naija boys can do it too.
“Only for me to get to the HOTEL and the next tweet I saw from him was “proper shows, proper venue,” and I was like come on.”
“I moved to the US in 2011 and three years later and I was doing Davido. When a new guy steps in to break normalcy, there is a frown from the existing promoters,” Ugeh says. “I was chastised for paying Davido $22,000 in 2014 [laughs], so all the promoters didn’t like that and they ganged against me. They also held several meetings against me. They felt like I was overpaying the artist.”
“This was Davido’s first show in America, so it wasn’t an AEG or Live Nation venue, so it was packed to the rafters,” he reminisces. “When the other show promoters went and got Wizkid, they started subbing my show with ‘proper show, proper venue’ to distinguish themselves from me and they did the Wizkid show in a Live Nation venue [laughs].”
“But I don’t think Wizkid even understood what was going on at the time. He only used the tagline that they were using to promote his show and Davido took it as a sub due to the history between them [laughs],” he continues. “Both of them didn’t understand what was going on. That wasn't a beef between Wizkid and Davido, that was promoters’ beef that they inherited [laughs].”
In an article about touring, this writer noted the importance of local touring to the Nigerian ecosystem and the importance of using this moment for that purpose. Already, it feels like bigger Nigerian artists build their fan base here and go to monetize outside the country. Smaller artists can’t also monetize because show promoters take a foolish risk and grounded economy.
However, Ugeh has hope. Local touring is an interest for him and his team is starting to look towards building a touring structure in Nigeria over the next few years.
“There are tons of logistic bottlenecks before we can do that,” Ugeh says. “I believe that in the next few years, we can provide venues and be ready for such a risk.”
Right now, Duke Concept is funded by bootstrapping, but they might seek venture capital funding soon.
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