Running a record label in Nigeria in 2018 seems like high risk, with little returns, creating a space where label owners have failed to recognise the worth of properly going through the process, while simultaneously understanding that the place of the label transcends just putting out music alone.
Hence, few who started in the 2000s are unable to stand the test of time and have folded in short time, while others have set a pattern that has bastardised the artist and label marriage, making it seem impossible to work.
It is not always about the glamour and the glitz, neither is it about the private jets or the large assembly of artists, there are few record labels who understand this and X3M Music owned by Steve Babaeko feature prominently on the list.
The early days of X3M Music
Most record labels begin by trying to be a part of the current trend and sign a number of artists with a catalogue of club music that fits into present demand with the aim of making instant profit.
But that is not the story with X3M Music which seeks to break from tradition and influence the status quo with a stated focus of primarily developing young talents.
At the helm of affairs pivoting the label to become a leading force in the industry is the amiable and pragmatic character in Steve Babaeko.
From relatively humble beginnings in 2008, when he set up the imprint, one he says he ran for many years with the earnings from his nine-to-five salary, to setting up his operations in a small room in Ikeja as his office.
The dreadlocked advertising and media executive had his mind set on a long-term plan for the music industry at a time when record labels in its traditional form were actually closing shop and sceptical of taking on new artists.
Steve Babaeko has always had a strong view on doing things with the right intention, even when the process may seem slow.
It is clear that in today’s industry, indie platforms are now the order of day, however, record labels remain the engine to pilot a well-structured music scene and his insistence to create a hub for like-minded talents, and foster a developmental platform for them to thrive, seems to be finally paying off, as ten years later, X3M Music boasts a catalogue of some of the best pop releases in recent times.
At the last edition of the Headies awards, alongside Davido, the label also emerged as the biggest winners on the night with its artist Simi winning three awards including the honour for the Award of the year, while Praiz also went home with the plaque for Best vocal performance.
The label has forged its way to the very top with the least amount of hype, but a number of clever decisions and impactful strategy, which is evident in how Simi has been able to roll out singles off her last album, ''Simisola'', and the well-planned releases of videos intermittently to keep her name in the conversation all year long.
The label's early signings came in the form of rapper Overdose, Etcetera and 2008 Project fame runner-up, Praiz who joined in 2011.
Overdose released his sophomore album, ‘’H.O.D’’ in 2010 under the label’s imprint, which scored some mild hits like ‘Alujo’ and ‘Drinks in the glass’, while Etcetera released his critically acclaimed debut project, ‘’Yes I Am’’ in 2009, winning the Headies Award for Recording of the year.
One thing that is consistent when you point in the direction of record label owners is the family bond that ties both the artists and its owner.
When a group of talents come together under one house, they basically look out and support each other to help grow creatively and this is a view shared by the singer Sammy when he joined the label.
‘’X3M Music is more like a family more than a label, if you have a boss that calls you bro, you know you are in a good place,’’ he says.
This Simi also admitted to shortly afterwards, ‘’I joined because of the structure, the team, the drive and financial backing is there and it is a place where you have to break the norm.’’
The general consensus is that the label has enjoyed more winning strides than stumbles in its decade-long journey, but Babaeko is under no illusions regarding the feats that have come the label’s way thus far.
Speaking with Guardian earlier in May, Babaeko explained his decision to set up X3M Music, especially at the time he did.
''Music is a passion for me and it’s not going to stop; there are just too many talented people in this country.
I mean, if I asked you who was Simi three years ago, maybe a few people knew about her. But who is Simi today? She’s known worldwide. In fact, somebody once sent me clips of videos from a wedding in Istanbul, Turkey; I’ve never been to Turkey in my life, but they were playing Simi’s music there.
So, that’s the power of music and we will continue to invest in that.'' he said.
The road to success has not been a straight path littered with ease and hits as he has had to battle his way to the top.
He admits being afraid initially, ''To be honest, with my team, I had no choice but to show confidence because, if I was afraid and scared, how are you going to inspire people to follow you? But as I looked confident on the outside, inside, I was so afraid.
Honestly, if I have to do it again, I will do it the same way we did it in 2012; to go out fearlessly and make it happen.''
Steve Babaeko is said to be quite surgical with the selection process concerning every artist he brings on board his label and he explains what inspires any signing of his;
'’I don’t know, but if I hear it, I will know it. So, I listen to music with my guts. I’m so passionate about music, but I don’t want to sign the usual suspect.
All those guys singing mainstream form of music, so many people would sign them; I’m not interested in those guys. I’m interested in originality and some kind of uniqueness. Music is a lot of craftsmanship and if I don’t see that craftsmanship, then what are we discussing?'' he added.
Artists on the label
The project fame alumni joined the label in 2011, and released his double album, Rich and Famous, an album containing two sides to him, his RnB and Pop personalities in 2014.
Praiz bagged the award for the Best African Artiste (R&B/Soul) at the 2015 Afrima Awards and Best Vocal Performance at the 2018 Headies Award, and also hold major endorsements deals.
Signed in 2014, she spent her early years developing her art and four years later, Simi is the crown jewel of X3M Records.
The singer who released her sophomore album ''Simisola'' under the label's imprint won major awards at the last Headies including Album of the year, Best R&B single and Best Recording of the year, and recently became the first artist to hit a million streams on music platform Boomplay.
Simi has also won the Best Promising Act at the 2015 Nigeria Entertainment Award and the Most Promising Act of the Year at the 2015 City People award.
She had 2 nominations at the 2015 Headies for Best Alternative Song and Video of the Year (Jamb Question) and 2 at the Nigerian Music Video Award for Best Soft Rock/Alternative video (Jamb Question) and Video of the year (Tiff).
The label’s latest recruit is the 18-year-old Dapo, who finished as the fourth runner-up at the season nine edition of reality TV show, Project Fame and has acted as a backup singer for top artist Adekunle Gold.
He caught the eye of Praiz, who was one of the judges on the show, and Dapo is currently in his developmental stages, and has released a couple of singles to announce himself after putting pen to a three years, two albums management deal .
X3M Music's success has been intricately linked to how well the owner understands the music business, which has helped shape it into becoming a major player in the industry.
In an exclusive interview with Pulse, Babaeko speaks on the point X3M Music began to generate profit during the course of its 10 years journey.
‘‘Yes, it has been 10 years,'' he stated, ''It has been rough, we lost money year on year from the first year till until 2014.’’
He then explains the turning point for the label, ‘’Praiz started to do well, so we started making some revenue in terms of endorsement deals, record sales and some of the plugins we did for him even in SA, a couple started to yield revenue for the company and then Simi blew up and the combination of Simi and Praiz now we are in not such a bad place anymore.
X3M Music can fund themselves shooting videos, promoting the artist and whatever else they are required to do.’’
He addresses some of the challenges facing record companies in Nigeria,
‘’There is no structured money from the banks coming into your business, I don't think they actually believe in the entertainment space, because they have not really supported much, so funding is still a problem.
Another problem is self-inflicted problems, you can't afford more than three to four talents at the same time... Here, you find a situation where labels sign 15-20 artists on their roster and it creates problems.’’
The Nigerian industry has been riddled with a number of artists versus label battles, that have at some point ended up in court and he explains how it was important to create an enabling environment at X3M Music to avoid such situations.
‘’We have kept our rooster very small, sometimes two, three, at the very most four, it is easier to manage four people than 15 to 20 people.
Again, when we sign these talents, we make sure that they understand our value, our value is about transparency, carrying the artist along, giving the artist creative freedom and just general nurturing of an individual beyond just business, so that extent, we have been able to create a special bond between us and our talent to keep that harmonious relationship going on.’’ he concludes.
It is fair to say in the last decade, X3M Music has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams anyone could have foreseen at the time. Not only has it eloquently projected the creative aspirations of its artists, it has also provided a model, an actual workable template for every subsequent label to pattern their set up with.
The first 10 years may have seen it become a force, but with this episode well executed, it looks well positioned to evolve into a movement in the years to come.