‘PEOPLE SAY, “IS THAT COACHELLA? I DIDN’T KNOW THEY HAD FESTIVALS LIKE THAT IN AFRICA…”’
Chin Okeke, of Nigeria’s Gidi Culture Fest, reveals how a generation of young promoters are transforming the African market… and why they don’t need ‘saving’ by the West
Chin Okeke – one of the men behind arguably the most important of Africa’s new breed of music festivals – has spoken of the growing appetite for live music in the last major frontier for the international concert business.
Eclipse Live co-founder Okeke, who established Gidi Culture Festival in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2014, has seen great success with what he calls a festival created “for Africa”, by Africans – but which is also increasingly attracting both patrons and performers from further afield, reflecting broader changes in the African market.
Historically, for touring artists, “Africa was always just a big paycheque,” Okeke tells IQ. “You get in, get your money and get out. It was never about the growth potential.”
That, says Okeke, is changing, owing to a new generation of entrepreneurs who are focused on creating a sustainable touring infrastructure in the emerging African market.
“Ten years ago every promoter had connections to either the government or to big brands,” he explains, “putting on million-dollar shows” for top-level acts – often as a money-laundering exercise – while largely ignoring the building blocks of the industry. “But the new wave is interested in building up the ecosystem.”
While Nigeria, and west Africa more widely, still have their share of “brand activations, weddings and corporate events”, Okeke says there is a growing recognition that side of the market “isn’t the core of the business” – although, he adds, it’s still a challenge to persuade artists “not to always go for the highest-paid gigs”, which are largely brand-backed corporate affairs. Gidi Culture has a one-month exclusivity clause; as Okeke explains, “No one wants to pay to see if you if you’ve just played for free at a club or a Heineken event.”
Gidi Culture, often dubbed ‘Coachella in Lagos’, brings together some of the biggest names in African music, alongside select interested outsiders – most notably, in 2017, American EDM superstar Diplo.
“WE CAN’T LOOK AT THE WEST AS A SAVIOUR. WE’VE REALISED WE DON’T HAVE TO SEEK VALIDATION FROM ANYONE”
Selling tickets, Okeke reiterates, is “the sign of a real live music market. With ticket sales, the only risk is the fans: you’re not messing around meeting with brand managers, who can change jobs every month…”
Okeke reveals Gidi is yet to break even, although he hopes it will do so in a couple of years. Part of that process, he explains, is changing Nigerians’ buying habits: “Presales are a big deal. People used to just show up on the day, but that’s slowly changing. We sold just over 3,000 tickets in advance this year, which is a big deal for a market where, previously, you’d be lucky to sell anything before two days in advance.”
“The inability to break even, because of challenges along the value chain, has led us to develop other business opportunities,” he adds, “such as ticketing, venues, et cetera. Using our own ticketing platform, SeatGate, we sold over 40% of presale tickets for all our events in the last year.”
Returning to the topic of Gidi Culture’s international contingent, Okeke says: “Diplo’s doing a lot to drive African music forward. He did an African tour and he wanted to play. This year we didn’t have an international headliner, as [Nigerian afrobeats singer] Wizkid can headline in his own right, and we don’t want the only draw to be international acts.”
That reluctance to rely too heavily on input from outside Africa is a theme that pops up repeatedly throughout IQ’s conversations with Okeke, who says he once saw his and his colleagues’ mission as promoters to “change the perception the world has of us [Africans]”.
“There are a lot of interested and willing parties that see the opportunity in Africa,” he explains.”The fact that we can even have those conversations without me knocking on doors, and having to pitch – that’s a real step forward.
“But it comes down to the right partners. With Gidi Culture we’ve had interest from [a number of the big US agencies], and I say to them, ‘Give me someone who is interested in actually building the market’ – Diplo, for example.”
Ultimately, says Okeke, “it comes down to the artists. Where the artists want to go, the industry will follow.”
“THERE ARE A LOT OF INTERESTED AND WILLING PARTIES THAT SEE THE OPPORTUNITY IN AFRICA”
In addition to Gidi Culture, and the events Eclipse produces for other people, which include Nigeria’s Palmwine Music Fest and Nativeland, Okeke says his focus is on building a sustainable touring network throughout Africa. “They won’t be big arenas and stadia, like in South Africa, but we’re looking at smaller venues specifically for music.
“Some African acts can do 40,000-capacity stadia – Wizkid, Davido – but the production isn’t there: most countries can’t meet the riders for those larger acts. There’s also the safety and security aspect if you’re playing a venue that isn’t designed for those kind of shows, like a football stadium.”
For the next edition of Gidi Culture, Okeke is aiming for 10,000 people (it was 8,000 in 2018), with a long-term goal of 15,000 in the years ahead.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s moving in the right direction,” he comments. “Gidi is the most important festival for African music culture – and as afrobeats, and the African music movement, become more popular, people want to discover the origins of it.”
“What’s important,” Okeke concludes, “is that we can’t look at the West as a saviour. We’ve realised we don’t have to seek validation from anyone. Once we wanted to change how people saw us, but now we’ve changed how see ourselves – and we’ve got a lot more attention as a result.
“People see live streams [of Gidi Culture] and say, ‘Is that Coachella? I didn’t know they had festivals like that in Africa…”
“Look at China ten years ago,” he adds, comparing Africa to another formerly underdeveloped market which is now poised for massive growth. “No one would go.
“And then Lady Gaga said, ‘Fuck it’, and the rest is history…”