It’s been over a decade for him in the music business and the alt-rock hitmaker is done describing himself as just a singer. Brymo, in the middle of a rehearsal at his chilly Ikoyi Lagos studio, doesn’t mince words in stating that he’s out to redefine himself as a sonic artist with the debut of ‘Mansa’, a project that exhibited at KAP Hub on March 3. For Brymo, who now has a catalogue of 11 albums to his name, transitioning into sound art is part of his resolve to constantly reinvent his music brand.
Sonic art, which makes visual representations out of sound recordings or music, is a growing area of interest for artists, making Brymo’s foray into the niche a thing to look out for in Nigerian music. “Usually, a musician takes an album and puts it on, say Spotify, Apple Music, and the like. A sonic artist won’t do that. They would instead take the album and sell the copy off,” Brymo says, describing what the project’s outlook might be prior to its exhibition.
With plans already in place to do two more such projects over the next three years to be displayed for one-off sale in an art gallery, the hitmaker has his 12th solo album set for a December 2023 release, affirming what has become a consistent pattern of back-to-back album rollouts and a pivotal stage in the overall evolution of the singer’s artistry.
“When I make music, I feel better,” the singer adds. “There are so many artistes in the world. Nobody looks for you. You just have to supply, so people can have enough. Wizkid took over the pop scene when he was releasing many singles every month. The main reason Brymo is also big is that I can churn out the kind of songs I do so quickly.”
Brymo is no newbie in the industry; the music star has been through the thick and thin of the business, surviving a litigious record label exit back in 2013 to release several solo albums as an independent recording artist. He began making music in 1999 while in high school, ultimately signing a record deal with Chocolate City in 2010. By 2013, there were bilateral accusations of contract breach, birthing a court case that would precede his debut as an indie.
Brymo released his first album ‘Brymstone’ six years prior in 2007. His sophomore ‘Son of Kapenta’ came in 2012, the rights to which he would forgo after his rift with the ex-label dragged on until an obscure resolution years later.
“I’m bigger than the label now,” he argues on the sidelines of his studio session. “I’m still in business. It’s a miracle I still make music. I know. That’s the thing about life. It will make a way for you as long as you focus on your plans.”
In a chat with TheCable’s Stephen Kenechi, Brymo discusses his evolution in the music business, his transition into sound art, his plans for brand expansion, and his thoughts about the growth of Nigeria’s domestic music market.
What have you been up to lately?
I’ve been working on the exhibition for Mansa, being my debut in and transition into sonic artistry, the idea of which is to approach music-making differently. Usually, a musician would take an album and put it on Spotify, Apple Music, and the like. A sonic artist won’t do that. They would instead sell the copy off. It’s disrespectful that there’s no copy of, say, a Bob Marley or Micheal Jackson album that only Bill Gates has. It’s like the Mona Lisa. It doesn’t talk; it doesn’t do anything. It’s just a picture. I just feel, there should be a music album in those terms.
And it works how in monetisation terms?
We just have to wait and see. But I hope that Mansa would be a one-copy sort of album.
I think, months before, I’d announced that I was no longer a musician and that I was instead a sonic artist. It meant I was no longer eligible for awards that musicians get. However, AFRIMA nominated my work ‘Esan’, so I forgot all that and looked forward to the event. But in truth, I’m no longer a singer so I didn’t want it. There’s a songwriting category but they shouldn’t nominate sonic artists. I was looking forward to it anyway, and then something happened. I got into trouble talking about Biafra leaving and staying. So I stayed out of AFRIMA and didn’t attack the award afterward. Not winning had nothing to do with the southeast fracas. Everything only just came together.
Soundcity MVP Awards 2023 was held in Lagos and there were concerns that winners didn’t show up to pick their plaques. The Headies 2022 was taken to the US for increased artiste participation. What are your thoughts about this practice where indigenous musicians snub local award events?
Come to think of it, The Headies is the biggest music award in Nigeria, but no minister or governor got involved.
It cited the visibility advantage of doing the edition in Atlanta, a sort of hub of black entertainment.
So the award is no longer Nigerian but black? Then a conference should properly describe the change in branding. The problem is not describing properly what you’re doing next. It makes it look like you just went after the cash. If there’s proper communication about trying to expand and making the award Black-oriented, then it’s beautiful.
About snubbed awards and artistes prioritising foreign tours while homefront fans watch on TV?
It’s politics. These people didn’t leave before it became difficult to tour locally. It became difficult to tour locally before people left. It just became progressively bad. We were still doing shows in the east as of 2010 and 2011. Telcos took us around the country. But now, there’s an insurgency in the north and talk of insecurity in the east. As we moved from 1999, each region is progressively locking everybody else out of it. I don’t know why it’s like that. And it also boils down to people of Yoruba ethnicity obsessing over arguments that claim Lagos belongs to them.
If there should be a conflict like a coup, the music would first vanish. So we need that freedom to be able to thrive.
On being locked out, how did you navigate the dilemma, having done a lot of local tours yourself?
If you’re deeply interested in something, it’d happen. But imagine there were a dozen artistes who also want to tour locally like me. Imagine if that person is from south-south or is Igbo, then they can open that region for us again, because if they can tour their towns, then others can tour there. So it’s about interest in local touring. Look at what happens. At a young age, we’re fed with so much Hollywood. Superior art sucks in everything else. If you spend 80 hours designing a product and I spend 20 on the same, it’s a no-brainer that yours would turn out much better.
So they spend more time. There’s more quality in the writing and filming. Hence, everyone edges towards that. It’s the same way I get streamed from over 150 countries. I’m independent, everything I do is by myself. And it works. New York is my second biggest market apart from Lagos and I’ve not been there in the last eight years. Even the UK is third or fourth on my streams and I sell tickets a lot in London. Imagine how well I have to be doing in New York.
It’s just how music works. There are over 120 countries on the distribution list for platforms. You can be anywhere and reach the world. Everyone is trying to take Nigeria to the world. I want to bring the world here. Are we not tired of the former? Our kids are gone. When will the world start coming here? Times are changing. I see myself selling 5000 streaming tickets. It’s faster. I see 2000 people in New York buying tickets to see me online perform. What do we have internet for if we have to tour all these cities? Those 5000 streams from New York, they’re no joke.
I get close to 50,000 streams in New York weekly and 300,000 every month. How can that not mean something?
There’s this prevailing idea that Nigeria’s music market prefers danceable songs. Hence you see the bang-bang instrumentation in many releases with not as much creativity in the area of songwriting. But you flout this, releasing mellow tunes with story-rich lyrics. How has this worked out for you?
Entertainers often look out for what the people want, not what they themselves want as artiste. It’s more about what society needs than what people want. If you can balance those two, it creates a more sustainable market. I do not want to be far-right or far-left. It applies to songwriting as well. I like to see balance when I write. One time, I was in South Africa and felt my song ‘Oleku’ was hot then. We were in a club and there was this other Nigerian song that was really big. The girls liked it and were dancing. Then one asked what the song meant. I told her. It was sort of scolding a promiscuous woman. This club girl decided she didn’t like it anymore. She felt judged. It was one of the first lessons I learned. Ever since then, I try to tell a balanced story in such situations. Every artiste knows this.
I actually announced it the year before. We like to think that Hollywood-like success is all about big budgets, even when that is secondary. Timing is primary. Try and recall which Hollywood big picture you know of that the release schedule wasn’t announced the year before. It’s why people would think there was no publicity. I announced ‘Esan’ in 2020/2021. A lot of people must have heard about it but just didn’t know. It would be impossible for them not to because I released the album exactly when I said I would. As long as one is timely, you’d be heard as a music artist.
How would you respond to those who argue that you don’t “push” your projects enough?
After ‘Oleku’, ‘Ara’ was one big song for me. I’d hit my big break since like 10 years ago. I don’t intend to do that all over again. I remember clearly that it cost me ₦500,000 to do the video for ‘Ara’ back then. It cost me ₦1.7 million to do the video for ‘Good Morning’. It cost ₦2.6 million to do that for ‘Omoge Campus’. The more money I spent on those videos, the less I made from them. ‘Ara’, which I shot on the floor of a studio, made the most money, and the video for it was ₦500,000. People were fighting for it to be awarded “video of the year” but I shot the other two and almost nobody saw the videos. These things taught me a lot of lessons. There’s what people like and there’s what you spend on. There are a lot of times when the idea is rich but the budget is bad. I just try to [manage resources].
Of course, every album sort of finds a way to outdo the last one. I don’t know how come, because ‘Theta’ is doing better than ‘Yellow’. ‘Market Square’ happens to be a more stand-out song than every other song on ‘Yellow’. I don’t know come. It could have been ‘Ararira’ but 2020 was a lockdown year and the clubs didn’t get to catch that.
Most artistes release a project, touring and riding on the buzz for up to two years before releasing another. What are your thoughts about spacing albums and how have they worked out for you?
I don’t know. What I know is that, when I make music, I feel better. When we’re on stage, we feel like inanimate things. The longer I perform, the more it feels dead. And you lose your voice. It’s tedious and pointless work. That’s why you hear artistes call off their tours. But we’re in it for different reasons. There are so many artistes in the world today and nobody is looking for you. You just have to supply, so people can have enough. Wizkid took over the pop scene when he was releasing so many singles every month. At some point, he was the most published artiste. That’s how he built his takeover. That’s how he became big. The main reason Brymo is big is that I can churn out the kind of songs I do so quickly. That’s all. For everybody, the volume of supply is still very important.
We’re talking about Olamide and it’s about the number of albums. It’s always about the volume of products you put out to catch more patronage for yourself. So, if you’re going to space your albums by two or three years, then I don’t know because the volume is the real job. The fact that artistes tour on a calendar is one of the big problems with touring. I prefer to take money, go to New York, book and hall, sell my tickets, and do my own show as we do in Lagos. It’s fun. You have no idea. Entire master’s process becomes between me, my manager, the concert producer, and the band here. I speak to Kunle Afolayan to give me his hall, and we strike deals and sign papers. We’re selling tickets and broadcasting live. We have a streaming service. I made all the phone calls. So it takes me up to three months to put one event together. I prefer to do that than spend three months touring on behalf of somebody else.
You had this media interview, where you argued that the music business is dying globally while also referencing labels who, so to speak, “control the market” to favour their interests. I want you to speak more on this, especially as to what obtains in the music distribution space for Nigeria.
Distribution in Nigeria doesn’t exactly exist and this doesn’t mean we don’t sell music in this clime. We do. There’s no market in which the music is riding as ours. Boomplay is Chinese-owned. Deezer is French. Spotify is more or less British, I think. And Apple Music is American. We think it’s business but it’s not. It’s about data and everyone is taking care of themselves. If you go to China, Apple Music is not even in the top-three streaming service there.
We think it doesn’t but it matters. We keep playing catchup. We tried to catch up with the CD market. When CD players became widespread here, we packed up and jumped into distributing via the internet. The problem with both CDs and the internet is piracy. You see artistes give their songs to blogs to publish for free, the same way they gave to the Alaba guys. A lot is changing though and that’s good. I hope that Apple, Spotify, and other platforms that come go further into the Ghettos. There was this system the Spinlet service had that let market women use their airtime to download songs. Perhaps somebody can improvise on this because, the more people can use these services, the better for everyone. Our streaming numbers here may be organic, but for which market? It matters.
What was it about being an only child that pushed you into music?
My parents are music lovers, especially my mum. They knew the meaning of the talking drums in Yoruba songs. I often asked my mum how she knew what the drummer was saying. She would just keep going on and on. She loved music so much that she would re-compose many songs to praise her husband or diss him whenever they have a fight. I’d like to think I learned a lot of rudimentary elements from my mum. There’s the part that sheer curiosity played too. I liked to read and ask. I meet adults who don’t know but I keep quiet, so it seems as though they do know. Nothing irked me in my life more than it. It’s that pride of not being able to admit that they didn’t know.
Your path to stardom, what was the most challenging aspect of it?
There are certain things that, if I had known how difficult they would turn out to be, I wouldn’t have done at all. Like the court case with Chocolate City and some events of the last three years. But I don’t think it’s up to me to decide how smooth or not the journey turns out. It’s the same way I don’t get to decide how it all starts and ends.
So what’s been the nature of your relationship with Chocolate City since your litigious exit?
Well, they took me to court. You expect us to stay friends? Friendship is gone. You take someone to court, you can’t be their friend anymore. But, of course, the musicians would always make friends. I’ve been in DMs with MI Abaga, Jesse Jags, and Ice Prince despite the case. The case was kicked out of court. It was removed from the court and we went back to our work. The court ruled that the case be moved to another judge. But after the sitting, the lawyers tell me, “We’re done. The case is over.” That’s not what the judge said but what happened was that they crushed it.
So there was no definite resolve?
The then-CEO Audu Maikori called my ex-manager Lanre Lawal, saying they wanted to announce that the case had been removed from the court. I preferred that they kept quiet. Just leave it. If you go public and say “we removed the case”, are you implying you freed Brymo now? Should we celebrate? People would hit you more for that. It was better that we kept quiet. The judge is the one who is supposed to say that, but no. He insisted he would pass the case to another judge because Brymo accused him of bias. You ask me if there was a resolution. I have no answer.
Don’t you fear there’s a risk that the issue might resurface in the future?
It should then. Be that the case, I would fight to take my album ‘Son Of Carpenter’ back from the record label. I just gifted the album to them, based on the fact that we worked together. That’s a best-selling album they have in their custody. Chocolate City messed up big time and without any remorse. I just decided to keep quiet about most of it.
How did your premature exit from the label impact subsequent deals that came your way?
Well, I’m bigger than the label now. What I can say is that, since 2013, I’ve been around. I’ve been doing business. It works. That’s all we need to know. Trust me, it’s a miracle that I’m still around making music. I know. But that’s the thing about life. If you have a solid plan, life will always make a way for you as long as you focus on your plans.
I was listening to this spaces talk you had where you described yourself as the most courted artiste by record labels. Talk to me about some offers you’ve had since exiting Choc City.
Between 2015 and now, I’ve gotten a dozen deals. I took one with Boomplay and AQ. I took another with TMG. I turned down Universal and Sony. I turned down one in Philadelphia that came with an Infiniti car and ₦25 million. Another came with Ford and ₦20 million in Lagos. They were recording deals. I turned down maybe five deals in Lagos and another seven offered to me by international labels, one from Oklahoma. I had like maybe a dozen deals.
Beyond your primary audience in Nigeria, how do you look to expand your brand?
What I’m looking to do is to put a good chunk of money into a global campaign. I just want to introduce 50 million people to Brymo’s music and see if we can keep 25 million of them. So far, I have 50 percent listenership retention. This means that, when 100 people find my songs, 50 will stay for at least three months. It’s good business. So I look to introduce my work to 50 million people through ads and see if half of that figure will stay. That’s blood money.
Nigerian music has grown incredibly. What do you think is the next front to conquer?
We must entrench peace in our policies so that it is easier for us to access the southeast and the north. Insurgency must go. Nothing can work if there’s no peace and the politics itself is not accommodating. If we have more access to parts of the country, ideas will start to spring up. There’s not much I can say right now. If I decided I want to put together something in Kano and I’m told it’s not feasible, what do I do? I’m building a chain of stores and plan to open shops in Kano selling pork. I’d have fun doing it. It could help my business because people will ask questions.
I have 15 other stores in Lagos where I want to sell pork. So I can generate PR from that. It shows how one can use politics to solve a problem and sell a product. But it’s not like that with music. Now, my assertion with the southeast earlier might even mean I may not be able to perform in the region for the next ten years. If you’re doing a regular kind of business, you can say something alarming to get attention and they’d like the product. But in entertainment, people expect us to be nice and cordial with fans. In music, there’s not much you can do without stability and peace.
We don’t see you do a lot of collaborations, with big-name pop stars. Is this about your niching or it just hasn’t happened yet?
It’s partly everything. For instance, last year, I decided I wasn’t going to take features again. This is so I get to focus on my rebirth as a sonic artist, launch ‘Mansa’, and start another sonic collection. I probably want to make three sonic collections in the next three years and put them all up in galleries. But I’d still be back to features anyway.
So what more do you have in the works for 2023?
There’s the Mansa launch coming on March 3. There’d be ‘Blasphemy’ and ‘Order’. So I can promise three events this year. Then there’d be appearances around the country, maybe London and New York. I can’t say yet. It depends on how much say I have in that. There’d be ‘Macabre’, my 12th album, having reggae, lofi, and a bit of everything.
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