The average Cameroonian understands a record label to be a business that has as objective to scout, develop, market and promote artists. In a post on my facebook account, I wrote that most record labels in Cameroon are independent, something which got laughs as many took it to be a jab and understood it to mean that those labels are no different from independent artists. The fact is that there is such a thing as independent record labels in contrast to major record labels.
Outfits like Universal Music Group (UMG), Sony Music, and Warner Music fall under the major record label category. There were others like EMI and BMG which have since been absorbed into UMG and Sony respectively. Major record labels have multinational operations and usually have music publishing, record manufacturing (where it is still relevant) and distribution arms. The structure of major record labels can get very complex and it is not an objective of this article to break that down. What you can retain is that very many record labels you know are under the control of one of the major record labels above. Those who are not not affiliated with a major record label are those considered to be independent – all record labels in Cameroon are thus independent.
There are many benefits of being under one of the major record labels, most of which have to do with the fact that those major labels have a wide reach and have a corporate structure with the staff available to handle some of the daunting tasks in the music business such as management of copyrights, marketing and publishing. In exchange for the aforementioned, artists under major labels have to give up a larger portion of their royalty profits and possibly creative liberty.
Worldwide music distribution capabilities was the ultimate leverage for major record labels but with the advent of streaming platforms where just about anyone can distribute their music, that power waned and we started seeing more artists considering going independent. However, major labels still hold much power because they are usually affiliated to a conglomerate with non music portfolios as well. That is where other things like brand endorsement deals for artists come from and into play.
Universal Music Group, for example, is owned by Vivendi – a company founded by Bolloré; a man whose name is well known in Cameroon. Vivendi owns Olympia Production (Olympia Cinemas in Cameroon), Canal+, Daily Motion, Gameloft etc. If you know what the name Bolloré means in Cameroon, you should see how wide the company is stretched. You now see how as an artists under UMG, you can benefit from that network of affiliated companies and brands – benefits which obviously also come at a cost.
Independent record labels are usually artist-owned (Alpha Better Records, Kwata Music, Akwandor, Lionn Production) although not always (Stevens Music, War Machine.) Some independent labels become successful enough that major record companies negotiate contracts to either distribute music for the label or in some cases, purchase the label completely, to the point where it functions as an imprint or sublabel.
Independent labels usually do not enjoy the resources available to the major labels and as such will often lag behind them in market shares. However, frequently, independent labels are able to produce for a much smaller production cost compared to a typical major label release. Sometimes their artists are able to recoup their initial advance even with much lower sales numbers. Added to that, independent labels are often considered more artist-friendly.
We cannot continue without talking a little on how record deals work. When an artist is signed to a label, they are given what is called an advance. In the case of Cameroon, it usually entails money for rent and upkeep and a budget for recording, shooting videos and paying for promotion. Depending on the contract, when the artist starts being profitable, the label recoups this advance and then splits the profits with the artist accordingly.
I have not seen any artist contract in Cameroon to say for sure but from the outside, it seems many contracts are usually not understood on the part of the artists or are not respected by both parties. Based on the label-artist fallouts that have been publicized, one can assume labels hardly have a budget for the artist nor a plan. It seems they go song by song or project by project until the artist can be profitable, which is understandable and also likely to be the cause of the constant contract breaches. We usually see people signing things, which most likely are deals that should stipulate the aforementioned. However, it seems the deals are put aside and the relationships managed on feelings of the moment.
The fact is that many artists do not become profitable in the short run and that is not usually the fault of the artist. Many labels that spring up here do not have experienced staff to do the work. Some want to rely on the popularity of a not so influential blogger who doubles as a PR agent for the record label, then its a cousin or friend joining as a manager. Many label founders also completely ignore the risks associated with not only record companies but just about any other business. The first days of the business are usually glamorous with the press conferences and media coverage and then things become real, work has to be done and all the realities start to set in.
We also have artists that consider the record deal to be the ‘I have made it’ part of the journey not realizing it is the grave they have to fill up or fall in. When you see how some artists go about severing ties with the label, you find that they just want to create a situation where they don’t have to pay back their debts. This situation is rampant because labels micromanage the artists and usually do not do proper management and communication with the artists for them to know how much is actually being spent on them.
When I drafted the contracts for a label I wanted to start with some partners, it carried a clause that said the artist will have to sign and approve all expenses towards them. So for example, if we were going to use a producer or studio time, the artist will know how much it will cost and sign off on it, because it was money that they should know we would recoup before splitting profits and of course all that had to stay within a budget – and the objective would not be to spend all the assigned budget, spending less is always better if it doesn’t mean compromising on the quality of work. So the artist could say “rather than recording at studio A for 30k an hour, I know someone with an equally good studio that can take me for 10k an hour.”
One of the reasons why the label I wanted to start did not take off was because my partners and I were not able to even come up with a budget to set aside. Starting and paying as you go is not always a good way to start with a label. Stevens music I believe has sort of done that but they have been successful because, if I am not mistaken, it is owed by about 5 brothers who at anytime between them could raise the necessary cash. At the same time, it is not always about the cash. We saw Strange Kings that came in with a lot of money but couldn’t accomplish anything concrete with PASCAL.
The main issue in Cameroon is the lack of structure and that is not only in Cameroon. It is rather an issue faced by independent labels. Major labels have a network of companies they work with like I explained earlier. So if part of your promo plan is going to some radio shows, that will happen even if the host of the show does not like the artist. Major labels probably have contractual agreements that are not based on personal relationships per say but rather on a corporate agreement for mutual profit.
In Cameroon, marketing and promotion is more of a ‘man know man’ affair before it being a business – which can be a good thing but more often than not, it is a bad thing in a society as ours where a personal problem with one person develops into a problem with an entire gang (also probably not only in Cameroon). Otherwise, the costs are high without any actual metrics for evaluation of effectiveness. I have the contacts of who is who in Cameroon’s entertainment industry but that is completely useless for the most part because I have no personal relationship with most of these people. Building those relationships in such an unprofessional environment is not easy either. That is why corporate structures exists – to make it not personal. Creating those structures take not only time and money but also a culture.
So of what use are records labels in Cameroon?
We must first realize that most of what people call record labels here are just there as a official business entity. That is why we have many one artist record labels. Many artists register a record label just to have a business that they can use to operate legally.
As of what use is a record label in Cameroon, it starts with who owns the record label, and those can be split into four categories.
A. Owned by not so popular artist (Kwata Music)
B. Owned by popular artist (Lionn Production, New Bell Music)
C. Owned by influential entrepreneur (Big Dreams, War Machine)
D. Owned by not so influential entrepreneur ( Akumba Music, ATM)
These divisions are meant to show how I believe each operates and what artists should be looking for or expect to get from such labels.
A – Owned by not so popular artist
This is a record label owned by an artist that is not popular countrywide but has a considerable fanbase. Artists joining such a label should not even get into contracts that talk about a budget, advances, and a timeline. This should be more of a partnership deal with no financial agreements. Artists under such labels should be each financially responsible for their career. Management can be collective.
The benefits here include cost pooling (for organizing shows for example), resource sharing, and tapping into a core fanbase that already exists. Mutual respect is what keeps this together. Artists that join such labels should be sure their lifestyles match those who are already part of the label. This is something for people who basically enjoy the same things in life besides the music.
Artistic freedom is possible here but it helps when all are doing the same genre of music.
B. Owned by popular artist
This is a record label by an artist that is popular nationwide with or without a core fanbase. Artists joining such a label should not sign contracts that talk about a budget. If they can get an advance, that will be great but the artist must be part if not henceforth fully financially responsible for their career. The artist must also split profits with the label. There should be a timeline of not more than two years in my opinion. Artists should bring their manager with them.
The benefits here include using the network of the established owner artist to get features with other popular artists who might be friends with the owner of the label. Lifestyles must not match but the genre of music must be the same so they can also benefit by getting the popular artists to help them in the songwriting process.
Artistic liberties will be there but to succeed, you must follow the artistic direction of the label owner.
C. Owned by influential entrepreneur
This is a record label owned by someone who is not an artist but has a history of working in the entertainment industry. Artists joining such a label should not expect an advance or a budget. Under such labels, you’ll have no timelines, you’ll just have to be patient and let the owner work his magic.
This is also for artists that have no money of their own and are not otherwise resourceful in being able to raise money – basically, people who are artists and nothing else. This is also the most difficult label to be part of. The owner might care about you enough to make sure you eat and have a place to stay but don’t bank on it, you’ll be on the streets till the moment you blow, or in your parents house where you’ll be the talented failure. If you raise some money, you may have to give it to your boss who may use it to first pay his rent. If you are tough, you can get him/her to let you go hand the money to the service provider yourself.
This is the hardest label to be under. You have to basically do whatever you can to keep making music and record as many songs that your boss will be carrying around to his circles to brag about this talent he has until he finally meets someone that will put some money on your head.
Artistic liberty you might have but your boss will always be waiting for that one he knows is a hit before he plays all his cards. This is also a place where you can get really lucky because your boss is really connected and when you hit here, your industry connects will be deep.
As soon as you hit, you have to leave and go independent or sign to a major label. How you pay them back will depend on the person. It can be sour if your going independent but if you are going to a major, that major can pay off your boss.
Trying to get a lawyer here might just turn the boat upside down.
D. Owned by not so influential entrepreneur
This is record label owned by an entrepreneur who has some ‘free’ money and is passionate about music or just wants to be someone in the entertainment industry. Shouldn’t have put the two characters together but lets try are say they are both passionate about music.
Usually, these people don’t know what they are doing and they can either become pacesetters or a total disaster. In the beginning, it will be hard to tell, all you are taking is a chance. It will be good to have a 2 year renewable contract, have a budget and get an advance. You also need a lawyer for this one, someone who knows what he is doing and not your cousin who studied law at SOA.
Your boss will want to give you artistic liberty but at the same time, they will be looking for a hit. You will have to compromise. If they have good business sense, you can get something good out of this, otherwise, you may only leave there with a body of work.
- Norbert Foy