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Nigeria At 50: Inside Storm 360, West Africa’s Hottest Entertainment Company (Part I)

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Nigeria At 50: Inside Storm 360, West Africa’s Hottest Entertainment Company (Part I)

There are many powerful symbols which represent the independence of Nigeria from Britain, not the least of which is the flag of the nation and of course its ability to form its own government.

And obviously one cannot forget the image and personality of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the country’s first President.

But 50 years from October 1, 1960, the most iconic symbols of the most populous nation in Africa (150,000,000 strong) beyond political figures and influential kinship group leaders [Nigeria has 500 indigenous languages, two major religions (Christianity and Islam), and over 250 ethnic groups: Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo (Ibo), Ijaw, Kanuri, Ibibio and Tiv among the most influential and populous] – are being produced by an emerging entertainment sector that is capturing the attention of the world.

With major media companies such as Silverbird, Daar Communications, and over 200 radio stations and 200 tv stations, the region might be the largest consumer of Black entertainment and content outside of the United States.

But one brand in particular stands out – Storm 360 – especially when the discussion turns to Hip-Hop, multi-media and how they will evolve over the next decade.

The history of Storm – rapidly cementing its place as the leading entertainment company in West Africa – as provided on the official company website (http://storm360degrees.com/) reads like a list of accomplishments rivaling any record label or multi-media company in the world:

Storm 360 is a new incarnation of a company and a brand that has achieved household name-status in Nigeria. The Storm name has been building buzz in and around Nigeria since it first came to being in 1991 as Storm Productions, engaging in nightclub promotion, music television production, artist management and music recording, launching the first Afro-Hiphop group, Junior & Pretty, who won both critical and popular acclaim upon hitting the market in 1993. After some years of hibernation, Storm Productions re-emerged in 2004, spawning the label Storm Records which has managed the successful careers of such hot artists as Ikechukwu, Naeto C, Sasha, GT the Guitarman, Dare, Jazzman Olofin and Tosin Martins.

Storm Productions branched into television through a partnership with a broadcast facility company IBST Media. Together the companies formed Storm Vision, which went onto produce the biggest budget, biggest name and most watched television shows ever seen in West Africa. Storm Vision production credits include Amstel Malta Box Office (AMBO); Play TV; Big Brother Nigeria; The Scoop; 100% Naija; ILN Teacher’s TV; The Apprentice Africa and Dragon’s Den. In addition, Storm Vision has produced music documentaries (This Day Music Festival 1 & 2), adverts (Heart of Africa) and other audio-visual content.

Now, as Storm 360, which launched officially in September 2008, Storm is presenting the latest and best version of its brand – redefined, reinvigorated and ready to rock! Under the Storm 360 brand, the company has marshalled its strengths, deepened its resources, broadened its scope and is now able to offer clients a one-stop source for customized, creative content solutions through audio-visual, interactive, experiential or music-based platforms.

From this description it becomes clear that when one uses the term ‘label,’ in association with Storm 360 it refers less to a record company, and more like something closer to a conglomerate or even empire.

As a result of my AllHipHop.com piece, ‘Africa, The Next Throne Of Hip-Hop,’ (http://allhiphop.com/stories/editorial/archive/2010/05/18/22225694.aspx) I connected with the Obi Asika, the dynamic young executive chairman of Storm and had the opportunity to build with him, the Storm 360 team and its artists. The conversation is a look inside of a rare family, company, culture, country and continent which maybe more than any other in the world, represents the future direction of music and entertainment – as an industry and even a method of economic development.

In some ways the conversation itself – dealing with business models, African culture, demographics, and marketing – represents the new paradigm the music industry is headed toward, an era that I believe will reward those as skilled in dealing with international politics and technological trends as they are in making a ‘hot song.’

If ever there was a team, label, and group of talented artists that embody the concept I call a ‘Diasporic Personality,’ (http://www.cedricmuhammad.com/%E2%80%9Cbarack-obama-diasporic-personality-cultural-entrepreneur-american-emperor%E2%80%9D-remarks-given-by-cedric-muhammad-at-the-george-mason-university-%E2%80%98fall-for-the-book%E2%80%99-fest/) it might be the unit over at Storm.

This week we focus on the executives, the Storm 360 business model, the concept of entertainment as economic development and larger international political issues pertaining to Africa and the world.

*****

Cedric Muhammad : I can’t ever recall a group of professionals and executives at any entertainment company – in Africa or the West – having the kind of impressive business background you all have – Obi Asika, Olisa Adibua, Nkiru Asika, and Tola Odunsi. Everything from journalism, to real estate, to investment banking is covered! How did you all meet?

Obi Asika: Thanks Cedric, well Nki [Nkiru Asika] is my sister and Olisa is family too, Tola was a young promoter at University of Lagos a decade back who kept harassing Olisa for shows, we connected back then and he has been with Storm since we brought it back in late 2004.

Cedric Muhammad: The group is highly educated in many of the best schools in the West. What have travel and experiences from the Diaspora brought to Storm 360? Has it been difficult to manage an African or Nigerian identity through it all?

Obi Asika: Not at all, all Nigerians and Africans are global by nature, we are everywhere, and we are used to people not knowing anything about us or just small facts (in these days mainly negative unfortunately headlines) We however know who we are, where we are from, what contributions Nigeria and Nigerians make and continue to make, so from being the primary country to free Mandela, to being the country which has fought for independence and funded it for over 25 African countries we are comfortable in our skin. From academia, to sports, to music, to business, Nigerians continue to excel inspite of all the very real challenges we all have to confront.

Cedric Muhammad: Who are some of the people and companies that influence your entrepreneurial drive and professional development?

Obi Asika: I think the simple answer here is Russell Simmons, his impact on culture and his support of the black man in business is unbelievable, I grew up in the UK in the 80’s with no black owned brands, no black owned labels, tv stations, sports teams, fashion houses, so for me Russell is the one who has shown everyone that it is possible, and when I was 20, myself and some other crazy young Nigerians flew him and Lyor Cohen out to London for a gig on Concorde (doing it big in ‘89). The show was a flop but I recall he was shocked we were so young and we were tripping when we found out that Tribe Called Quest and De la Soul were about our ages then. Apart from Russell one has to admire the spirit of Richard Branson and so many others in other walks of life and business.

Cedric Muhammad: Olisa, you are a founding member of Storm and perhaps its most visibile face, from hosting TV shows for 21 years to radio to your being well known for promoting major concerts. I understand you have hosted Big Brother Nigeria, promoted corporate events, and various shows, and are also now the host of Glo Naija Sings, one of the largest music reality shows on the continent – created and co-produced by Storm. What do you have to say about your personal philosophy, about the impact of Storm and where do you see the future of the business and region in terms of entertainment?

Olisa Adibua: My personal philosophy is quite simply to be the best at whatever I do. When we first set up Storm we were driven by passion and 20 odd years later that passion still burns. I see myself as a lifestyle engineer because our music is a gateway to a whole new attitude and approach to life and urban living. Storm has always been a leader in the music industry, producing cutting edge songs and videos that have redefined the Nigerian music scene. The talent on the Storm roster have become brand names, taste makers and major players in African popular culture. Storm has been a pioneer in bringing and selling Nigerian hip hop firstly to Africa and now to the rest of the world. I see a very bright future for the music business in Nigeria and the West African sub region as a whole. Not only have we embraced new media and alternate forms of distribution but I see a boom in traditional distribution. With a population of 150million plus and at least 60 per cent under the age of 25, the future is indeed very bright and the storm will not be a quiet one.

Cedric Muhammad: Nkiru, having reviewed your profile and seen you are an award winning journalist with national press club awards in the US, experience on TV and print in the US and UK, and now as a producer and exec producer on many TV shows back home in Nigeria, I would like you to share your thoughts on being a female pioneer in these roles and how you feel your academic journey prepared you for the work you do now. I understand that you also recently kicked off Enterprise Creative. How do you balance this with being a mother, sister and daughter?

Nkiru Asika: If a woman has a creative bent, coupled with the traits women often possess – good people skills, team management skills, ability to nurture talent, passion and commitment to a task – then a career in media and entertainment is a natural fit. I certainly haven’t felt disadvantaged in anyway. However it is true that women have more challenges simply because we have so many responsibilities. A career in media or entertainment is never a 9 to 5 job and this can be very difficult to balance with raising children or being a daughter, sister or fulfilling other family roles. Basically you have to hope for an understanding family and also have faith that God will not give you more than you can handle.

As regards my academic journey, in some ways I feel it prepared me enormously for the types of work I am involved in, but on the flip-side, I now see crucial gaps that were missing in my academic background. I was fortunate to attend some of the best schools in the world – Wycombe Abbey School in the UK for secondary school; Oxford University for my first degree in Modern History and Syracuse University; Newhouse School of Communications for my Master’s in Journalism. This education imparted in me the intellectual curiosity, the ability to analyze and synthesize facts, great research and communication skills and a strong work ethic, all of which have proved invaluable to my career. However, while this classical western education was fascinating – I studied literature, history, latin, even ancient greek! – I had absolutely no training in the core skills that really make a difference to your career . I never took a class in financial management, negotiation, project management or marketing. I had no training in managing people, sales or entrepreneurship. These were all skills I have had to learn the hard way.

I have a very diverse worklife and while that has its own challenges, I wouldn’t have it any other way. As a director of Storm 360, in the same day I could be developing a concept for a multi-media platform, shooting a TV show, planning an event or brainstorming on digital media applications for our content. As the founder and CEO of Enterprise Creative (http://www.enterprisecreative.org/), I have the exciting task of birthing an organization with a vision to be the foremost organization dedicated to building capacity and providing business support services to the Nigerian creative sector. It’s pioneering work, so it can be frustrating but overall, I am blessed to be doing what I enjoy and to be doing work that I believe in. Also I am working in a sector that is only just coming of age, so everything is very dynamic. Nigeria can be a crazy place to work and Lagos is a very stressful city, but once you’ve tasted the energy in this place, it’s hard to let go. New York is probably the closest you can find to Lagos in the West. I spent 5 years working at Smart Money Magazine in New York as a financial journalist when the stock market was the hottest thing happening in America. So again, it was fast-paced, fluid and very exciting. At Smart Money I learned how to get a story no matter what, how to craft a story and how to pitch ideas and sell to a very tough audience.

Questions On Storm’s Business Model:

Cedric Muhammad: What does Storm 360 look for in terms of talent, ‘story,’ and image in the artists it signs and markets?

Obi Asika: An authentic story, real talent, an ability to connect to the core audience and positive messages and images, this is not just in terms of music but in all aspects of the work we have been involved in.

Cedric Muhammad: The Storm 360 artists in terms of sound, look, and style in many ways can’t be distinguished from the kind of Black American artists one might see on MTV and BET. Do you see this as a plus or minus? Have you ever been criticized for not promoting enough artists with a more ‘indigenous feel?’

Obi Asika: This is like the billion dollar question, it seems the world wants to see Africans jumping around in grass skirts lol? All over Africa the music that the young people listen to is heavily influenced by Hip Hop, however in Nigeria and in all the key markets all the music is inflected by our own unique stylings, language, slang, sounds and musical heritage, so we are just as likely to sample Osita Osadebe or Fela Kuti or Hugh Masekela before we dig into the vaults of Motown or whatever. Music is universal and while at first look it might seem similar there is no doubt that the urban African sounds coming out of Nigeria is impacting the world in a major way. I think there is a space for the more traditional African music but much like folk music in the west that is where it will stay. In today’s Africa we have the most eclectic sounds with a typical mix of zouk, makossa, hiplife, juju, afrobeat, and more before, you know, bringing in the fusion of R&B, ragga, reggae, dancehall, soul, rap and hip hop. I hope that in the coming years the world will embrace the thousands of artistes who are sharing their talent, their music, their moves, their energy and their original expressions.

Cedric Muhammad: How do you market your artists throughout the Diaspora?

Obi Asika: Well we are a small company but we work with various media, radio, blogs, tv, social media and of course traditional media especially tv, in Lagos alone there are over 30 specialist music shows on tv, so servicing music is a major issue. As broadband gets better we hope to be able to just ftp content to broadcasters but as of now we maintain relationships all over the continent and work them on a regular basis to keep out stuff out there.

Cedric Muhammad: When I first learned of Storm 360 I thought it was a record label but upon greater familiarity it’s clear it is a very serious and successful multi-media entertainment empire. Could you describe how much of what you do is music-oriented? How much is visually-oriented (in terms of live production, TV programming)? What else?

Obi Asika: Music is our passion and it tends to drive the brand but from day one we have always had a 360 approach in the sense of multi-purposed content, we work mainly in tv and events, we have produced several international formats, we have created and produced original programming and we are constantly troubleshooting for new ideas and new content. Our work ranges from tv specials to event specials to major dramas, reality formats and we hope to do more and more original programming.

Cedric Muhammad: How has Storm 360 navigated the demonetization of music in the era of mixtape and file-sharing? Has Africa been impacted differently in the way that music is sold?

Obi Asika: Well in a funny way the absolute lack of investment by the major labels when they were here meant we were already demonetized. This country was a top 6 market worldwide for music. If you read Richard Branson’s autobiography you will see where he talks about being saved from bankruptcy by receiving a royalty cheque for sales of a Yellowman Album in 1978 in Nigeria. The thing is the majors never invested beyond talent, so when they left Nigeria they left no distribution which gave our market over to the street traders, so informal distribution has now become the primary channel through which content producers across music and film – including Nollywood – have to use to push their content. This has caused an imbalance where the cd and dvd plants make money, the distributor makes money and the content owner and talent do not see the real numbers. In Nigeria right now we are finally emerging from years in the wilderness and our collection society is now fully legal and endorsed by the Nigerian Copyright Commission. Nigeria is now very well regulated for rights admin and copyright and this will lead to international rights holders, film studios, publishers, record labels doing deals in and out of Nigeria. These are just some of the fundamental reasons why it has been so difficult for our huge pool of talent to break into major international markets, we simply do not have the right level of access, relationships and we need to build trust. We are all dealing with demonetization but there is a thriving corporate circuit which pays the very top artists and of course a few brands have endorsed top level Nigerian talent.

The thing is with a population of over 150m and most of them being under 24 we have a massive youth market who are voraciously consuming these products. What we are all working on is how to fully monetise this market, so we are all ears for any smart ideas.

Cedric Muhammad: How is a record ‘broken’ in Nigeria/West Africa/Africa?

Obi Asika: The traditional way, through radio and clubs, but now the blogs are gaining power. Here you have to have the elite audience on board but you also need the streets to certify the record and really make it mass market. Without a video it is almost impossible in 2010 to break a record massively. There will be the odd record that will make it through without a visual but now to me that is critical.

Cedric Muhammad: How would Storm 360 compare its business model to say that of Live Nation?

Obi Asika: Live Nation to me is primarily a touring company which is part of a larger group which owns media assets and venues, and we would love to be in such a favoured position, the only comparison would be in aspiration but not in fact. Our philosophy at Storm 360 is not about the often-touted music industry 360 deals although those kind of deals are prevalent here because of the demonetization. Our ambition is to build a strong and stable business which will outlive its founders and which will continue to project positive content from Africa to the world. This content will of course include music as well as live performances, in Nigeria we are working with others to build national touring platforms for talent, across music, comedy, dance and theatre. There is so much untapped potential here, many come to Nigeria for her natural resources not realizing our real strength is our human resource and the youth of our population.

Cedric Muhammad: Much of what Storm 360 does is Self-Contained, yet you have strategic alliances and private-public partnerships. How do you balance the desire for ownership and internal control with the desire to work with the best talent and technology the world can offer?

Obi Asika: It is a function of finding partners who share our passion for our country and our content, who are ready to understand that we are not some 3rd world players, our perspective is global, our work levels are global, we work and live in a challenging environment but that should just make you respect us more because it is not easy. However we continue to push, reach out to new markets, new partners, new opportunities, until the world knows about us. Listen, less than 10 million Jamaicans sold patois to the world! With over 300 million West Africans speaking pidgin English, its time for the world to engage, or rather for us to engage the world. The truth of the matter is that we believe fundamentally in convergence and collaboration and from Africa through Asia to the west we believe this is what works.

Cedric Muhammad: How important is the cell phone becoming in the delivery of content and adding value for advertisers?

Obi Asika: We have something like 70m cellphones in Nigeria so for all in business and life the phone or the digital economy is absolutely key. What we are all hoping on now is that the advent of real broadband (we have been suffering from very slow Internet speeds) that will allow us all to usher in the Digital Age here and across most of sub-saharan Africa and I believe this will help to unlock vast opportunities way beyond the field of entertainment or media. The phone is very important and in Africa it is the first screen not the 3rd screen as it is in the west. Before people have a home pc or a laptop they will have a phone.

Questions On The Concept Of ‘Entertainment as Economic Development’

Cedric Muhammad: Much has been studied and discussed regarding the potential for entertainment to become an engine of economic development in Africa. Two references among others are:

1) the “Research into the Impact of the Arts and Creative Industries on Africa’s Economy” report which highlights Nigeria: (http://www.creative-africa.org/CREATIVE-AFRICA_2008/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=49&Itemid=109)

2) The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and BEMA effort, “Promoting West African Music in Regional and International markets” (http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/files/40911/12735838909BEMA_factsheet__eng.pdf/BEMA%2Bfactsheet_%2Beng.pdf)

What is your approach to this possibility? Do you see Storm 360 as an engine of economic development – is that part of your vision/mission?

Obi Asika: Storm 360 has always and will always support these type of iniatives. On a personal level I have worked for years on policy and strategic issues for the creative industries and I believe Nkiru who launched a non-profit called Enterprise Creative is best positioned to speak about this issue. There is a huge opportunity and in working with the National Economic Management Team led by the Minister of Finance, it seems that after all these years they are finally going to let us into the room.

Cedric Muhammad: Do you believe government can foster this? Is it a ‘friend’ or ‘foe’ of the concept, ‘entertainment as economic development?’ As you know history shows that entrepreneurs with risk-finance are often seen by governments as a threat to their power (because they can’t be ‘controlled’). In addition, there has always been a fear (and fact) that artists and music spark revolutions (that can be positive) and also have the potential to be ‘subversive.’ The Wall Street Journal published an interesting article on this recently, “Why Dictators Hate To See Us Moved By Music.” (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704017904575409221080857124.html?mod=rss_opinion_main)

Has Storm 360 ever run into the kind of issues with African governments that many entrepreneurs experience? I describe some of these dynamics in my review of Moky Makura’s book ‘Africa’s Greatest Entrepreneurs’:

http://www.africaprebrief.com/pages/posts/the-most-important-book-on-african-economic-development-28.php

Obi Asika: Ignorance leads to Fear. In Nigeria like everywhere else there are those in power who wallow in their ignorance and therefore are afraid of change, one of the key reasons why Nigerians have embraced nollywood and Nigerian music, cuisine and fashion in such a huge manner is because they have overcome their own insecurities about being Nigerian. There are bottlenecks all over Nigeria and for the creative entrepreneur this is always an issue but in truth as long as you have the will there is always a way.

Cedric Muhammad: Specifically in Nigeria, how important is entertainment to bringing economic development to a country with enormous talent and resources but which has wrestled with its lack of what Dr. John Henrik Clarke called an ethnically ‘homogeneous structure’ – can music bridge the divide and inequality among kinship systems (tribe, religion, ethnicity and ‘gang’) in terms of identity and wealth distribution in Nigeria?

Obi Asika: The funny thing is I actually believe our diversity is our power, born of 400 languages and tribes, the source of civilization if you believe the oracles at Ife, the source of the Bantu who now populate Southern Africa. This is the real Africa, over 38% of all the slaves that left Africa left from Calabar port. Where Nigeria goes is where the Blackman goes and the sooner people realize it the better. There is no doubt that entertainment fosters national unity, pride, and especially football (soccer) has been one of the key elements to bring us all together as Nigerians. We have many issues as a people and as a country but I am a proud Nigerian and I have no time for those who would expect me to deny or harangue my people. I do not believe music or entertainment can solve deep lying issues but they certainly give us an impetus to be better, to do more, to be stronger, to achieve the heights that our founding fathers had in mind for us. My late father shared similar sentiments with Nigeria’s first president Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, who is the one who went through that sojourn in the states, and with W.E.B. Dubois, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Senegal’s Leopold Senghor, laid the foundation for African Independence, with all three men being the first presidents of their countries.

Larger Geopolitical Questions:

African Growth:

Cedric Muhammad: As you may know, I have written to the Financial Times (http://www.cedricmuhammad.com/e-letter-to-william-wallis-and-the-financial-times-re-the-road-to-integration-proves-grindingly-slow%E2%80%99/) about my view that until Africa abandons the ‘Least Developed Country’ (LDC) model of economic development prosperity won’t come. Much has been written of the ‘growth’ in Africa. I agree that the growth potential is exciting (and undeniable in some respects)but I also have concerns regarding how growth is defined and measured – often leaving out how African traditions and customs are destroyed and ignoring that some forms of economic growth are not sustainable

(http://www.africaprebrief.com/pages/posts/whatrsquos-next-for-african-economic-development-and-investment-q-a-with-cedric-muhammad-founder-africaprebrief-25.php).

Do you have any thoughts?

Obi Asika: Well I believe culture has to be dynamic, it does not need to be on a shelf or a museum, so in Africa we have to modernize our customs to fit into the modern world, but Nigeria is one of the most culturally rich places in the world. We wear our African clothes to work or western, we observe our traditions, we eat our food, we have our own fashions, and our own way of embracing each other. There is no doubt that with modernity one might lose some of one’s ancient customs, but frankly some have to go, some have to adapt and the key issue is in knowing what to keep and what to jettison. In Nigeria I believe we are only interested in working with those who will partner with us not in those who are only interested in remote business or in a rentier philosophy.

China Investment?:

Cedric Muhammad: Where do you weigh in on the subject of increased Chinese investment in Africa?

Obi Asika: The Chinese have embraced Africa strategically for a number of reasons, primarily for access to natural resources, especially oil, gas and power in Nigeria and Angola, diamonds and precious metals in South Africa and Botswana, infrastructure projects all over the place. I think the Chinese take a longterm view of things and as such they have decided to embrace Africa and have been throwing money all over the place. The Europeans have been upset because this is their traditional sphere of operations, however we are all being eagle-eyed about the form and nature of Chinese and Indian investments into Africa. However the truth is I personally welcome anyone who is engaging Africa, investing in Africa, promoting Africa, what is there to complain about? Yes they will make money but then so have the Europeans for over 400 years with minimal investment. The Chinese attempt to colonise Africa is business focused and much less violent than the European one of the past 400 years. Chinese, Indian, Arab, BRIC (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BRIC), bring them on lol.

World Cup:

Cedric Muhammad: What do you think this event meant for Africa – culturally and economically?

Obi Asika: It was a great event for Africa and for the world, for South Africa especially, a country where Storm has many friends, we also sent down two of our premier talents into the world cup for the entire month. The World cup was a huge win for Africa and for South Africa, even the other 51 countries are all thankful to the South Africans and proud of what they achieved. I believe Nigeria did not do enough to leverage off the event, we lacked a strategic focus, we lacked a plan and we lacked a decent team (very painful). However for all those blind people who imagine Africa is all about suffering it was nice to show them some of the positive.

Next Week, In Part II: The Storm 360 Artists

Cedric Muhammad is a business consultant, political strategist, and monetary economist. He’s a former GM of Wu-Tang Management and currently a Member of the African Union’s First Congress of African Economists. Cedric’s the Founder of the economic information service Africa PreBrief (http://africaprebrief.com/) and author of ‘The Entrepreneurial Secret’ (http://theEsecret.com/) . His Facebook Fan page is: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cedric-Muhammad/57826974560?ref=ts and he can be contacted via e-mail at: cedric(at)cmcap.com.

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