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New digital music service is a Nigerian love affair

He is the chief executive of new digital music service G.

This link was often nurtured through music from Ugwu's homeland, so it is hardly surprising that he is at the forefront of Nigeria's digital music market in 2012.

Ugwu's Nigerian father was schooled in the United Kingdom and his Nigerian mother left for the UK in the 1980s, a few years before their children were born.

Sitting outside the One & Only Hotel in Cape Town, Ugwu recalled how Nigerian music was constantly played in his parents' home.

"We love our culture, we love the music. We were always playing Nigerian music at parties," he said.

Ugwu said the shift to digital music markets had been great for African music: "You couldn't find the older African music for decades, but it's becoming available again. With the digital music market it's easier to go back into the catalogues.

"My mother goes on to iROKING.com and listens to songs she hasn't heard since she was a child in Nigeria. Now, the youngsters can find out what their parents listened to when they were young."

Spin-off
This revival of archival music on the digital music service is thanks to a deal the company signed with Premier Records, a subsidiary of Polygram, which operated in Nigeria. It allows the service to offer the latest cutting-edge music from Nigeria along with older tunes from the country's rich Afrobeat history.

Ugwu relocated to Lagos five years ago and in February he helped to launch the service.

The site was a spin-off from the parent company, iROKO Partners, the world's largest distributor of film content from Nigeria's film industry, known as Nollywood.

The partners launched with a curated YouTube channel filled with Nollywood content in December 2010. In January this year they launched iROKOtv, an on-demand web-television platform that allows users to stream the latest Nollywood films for $5 a month. The platform already has 500 000 registered users and 5 000 films in its catalogue.

iROKO Partners has more than four million unique users from 178 countries across all its platforms, which shows the huge demand for African content among the greater diaspora.

The company is now YouTube's biggest partner in Africa and is close to being iTunes's biggest partner in Africa too.

"We saw a huge opportunity in music videos," said Ugwu.

Surprised
"We thought, let's use these skills we have developed with monetising Nollywood and do it with music ­videos. So we signed a bunch of really big Nigerian artists, like 2Face and P-Square. Within a few months we were already up to seven or eight million views.

"To date we are doing 16-million to 17-million views a month," he said. "We have pumped hundreds of thousands of US dollars back into the music industry through our YouTube channel.

"Some of our artists were really surprised and it's got us a lot more business, because artists came to talk to us when they realised they could make money," he said.

Ugwu explained how the market works in Nigeria.

"There is a lack of label structure in Africa, so you find a lot of independent artists and they take their music to a marketer. Some people call them pirates, but they are actually marketers.

"The artists go to the marketers and say 'here is my album, you are going to pay me for the rights to make 500 000 copies of my album and distribute it – how much are you offering?' What you find, though, is the marketers press as many albums as they want because the artist has no way of auditing.

"They may also put the content on iTunes, step over their licensing agreement and the artists don't even know. So when we started talking to artists, they raised these issues about their music being on iTunes without their permission," Ugwu said.

"There is huge value being lost on these platforms, and if people know we are going to respect licensing regimes they will come to do business."

The next step for iROKING.com is to get more African content on the service. Kenyan and Ghanaian music is already being loaded on to its database.

"I have been talking to some South African artists," Ugwu said. "We are moving from our slogan 'Nigerian music, anytime, anywhere' to 'African music, anytime, anywhere'."

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Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye is a freelance journalist and one of the founders of The Con.

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