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Thursday 8 February 2024

Steve Stoute: "My Play For Afrobeats and Africa" Nigerian pop music is blowing up across the world. Here's the only businessman not looking to own any of the music.


“You’re just gassing me up,” Steve Stoute says, throwing his head to the side. Sitting across a small table in a meeting room I hired for an hour in his hotel, a member of his staff checks in to ensure “Is everything ok?” 

Of course, everything is okay on this hot December afternoon in Lagos. It’s just the sort of place to find Stoute. The year-end festivities turn Lagos Island into a wonderland filled with buzzing concerts, endless raves, and drunk, overstimulated revellers exploring the city’s carousel of fun. Steve, sitting here in trainers at the swanky George Hotel in Ikoyi, has his sights on the business of it all. His company, United Masters — an American music distributor based in the United States — is making a play for Lagos. The day before, I had co-hosted a press conference, where Stoute reeled out his plans to put boots on the ground in Nigeria, with one mission; making African artists independent again.

Nigerian pop music is blowing up across the world. From the tour circuits of Europe to American radio, Afrobeats has carved a space for itself. Finding homes in communities across the world, the music and its superstars have become a mainstay of global pop culture, with billions of streams accumulating each passing year. That penetration has been impossible for giant music corporations to ignore, with offices springing all around Lagos, to make sense of the business. And as the major labels battle it out for talents to sign and export, Stoute is looking to do the same, without owning any of the music, or a percentage of the artists’ rights. 

“If I can get the next generation of artists here to say ‘I am never selling my masters I am always going to own what I create.’ That’s a contribution that I will take with me for the rest of my life,” Stoute explains. “The people here who have had a history of things being taken from them have created something called Afrobeats, a global sound, that if I can be a part of it, helping teach them and providing a system where they can retain and own what they create and their kids can benefit from it for generations to come, then I have done my job.”

It’s in keeping with how United Masters have operated across markets. Launched by Stoute in 2017 with a $70 million Series A led by Google's corporate umbrella, Alphabet, alongside venture firm Andreessen Horowitz and 21st Century Fox, the company offers label services which Stoute repeatedly qualifies as, “having a record company in your pocket.” Championing indie artists, the company has a litany of wins across music distribution, marketing and brand partnerships including CashApp, Bose Frames, the NBA, Twitch, TikTok and more. United Masters already has its first win in Nigeria. Partnering with superstar producer, Sarz, Stoute says his plan also includes minting new artists from the Sarz Academy, a local talent incubator. The company has also scored its first hit with “Happiness,” a record by Sarz, featuring Asake, and American rapper Gunna. Stoute is also bringing his global partnership with the NBA to Nigeria, while launching a local one with alcoholic beverage company, Diageo.

“Success would be that I came here and did everything that I said, and people will know that I wasn’t another person who came here just trying to extract and go back and enjoy the exploits of Africa,” Stoute says of his ambitions in Africa. “That’s the corny sh*t that I do not wanna be associated with.”

Here’s our conversation below. Slightly edited for clarity.

Thank you for doing this.

I’m happy to be in Lagos City. It has been an amazing trip. The people have welcomed me with open arms. They have welcomed my company and team who I brought out here and I am looking forward to many years of working here and contributing to what you guys are building.

More than ever, in “Afrobeats to the world”, we’ve seen everyone come in here and typically operate in an extractive manner. All of our artists are signed, a huge share of our market is gone, all of our major distributors but we have not seen development in this industry from the ground up.

Well, that’s unfortunate. I would tell you that the first thing we did even before we made the announcement that we would come to Africa, we did a deal with Sarz Academy a year ago. The reason why we did that is because he actually is developing talent. He is investing in developing the next generation of great singers and songwriters and producers. So before we did anything, that’s the first thing we did. We do believe in the idea of developing artists and talent. Secondly, to your point, if you come into a market and you know, the first thing you try to do is to buy the artists, give them money, and take their rights– a lot of record companies do that and it’s exploitative. 

I think those days need to end. The other thing that they do is put foreign artists like Selena Gomez on a record that is already big. It doesn’t need Selena Gomez. Selena Gomez needs the record. Selena Gomez is not an Afrobeats artist obviously, she’s trying to jump on Afrobeats so that she can get hot. They need you. I just need people here to understand that we need to be more of who we are. The culture has spoken. The culture has been chosen. The sound has been chosen and the world wants it. We need to be more of who we are and not let them exploit us and we start becoming who they are.

How long have you had this dream for Nigeria?

I had a dream for Nigeria 15 years ago honestly or maybe even longer like 20 years ago. I approached a beauty brand called “Carell’s Daughter” many years ago and I was trying to bring the African-American-owned beauty brand here. And what happened was that the cost to ship it here would have made the price of the product way too high. So you would have to manufacture it here and figuring out the manufacturing logistics here twenty years ago was very difficult for me. But that was always my dream to bring business here.

What was the problem then?

So we were manufacturing it in America and if I had to ship the product here, the cost to ship and still sell at an affordable rate was too high.

Why didn’t you think of manufacturing here?

Me back then, as a young entrepreneur twenty years ago, I didn’t have the network to figure out the manufacturing here and I regret that. I should have done that. I mean, I regret it and I should have done it. But the fact of the matter is that twenty years later, I am here with a product that is right on time. My dream of being in business in Nigeria goes back to the beauty business twenty years ago.

Since you dropped by here, everyone has been buzzing. In the industry, everyone is like “Oh God, United Masters are coming” They are announcing it. Meanwhile, the people who aren’t connected to them are like, “Steve’s here” and you can see the light just go up in their eyes. Have you felt that?

I know that, Because look, much respect to the people who have been here. There is a lot of respect for the guys who have been here like Don Jazzy and what he’s built. There is a lot of respect for that, sure. I’m not talking about them. But the record companies and distributors who came from America, come in, set up their little companies and leave. They know that I am not doing that. They know that I have something to say. Some of them who came in here are not even black. Of course, they are concerned that they are not black and probably because they are not committed. They are in it for the short term. We are here and we are deep. I am not running, I love it here. I have friends here and relationships that are deep here. I have connections that I have had for many many years so they should be concerned.

And with United Masters, what are looking to achieve here in terms of the culture? You are bringing a solution that has both culture and tech.

What am I looking for to achieve? My contribution, first, is to educate artists on the business itself. If I can get the next generation of artists here to say “I am never selling my masters I am always going to own what I create”. That’s a contribution that I will take with me for the rest of  my life. The people here who have had a history of things being taken from them have created something called Afrobeats. A global sound, that if I can be a part of it, helping teach them and providing a system where they can retain and own what they create and their kids can benefit from it for generations to come, then I have done my job. That’s the first thing. 

From a business standpoint, to give everybody access to technology for an opportunity to get a shot to live out their dreams, have success, and do what they actually want to do, create music and develop a career. To be able to create software and provide tools that do that, partner with brands so that the artists can get more opportunities. We have partnered with the NBA. Did you see the NBA announcement that just came out? So now we have independent artists whose songs are going to be sent to the NBA footage. You have this artist who made a song in his house and then two weeks later, his song is behind a Lebron James Tiktok or a Lebron James ad on social media that has 1.2 billion in reach. That’s awesome man. That’s an opportunity.

Co-working with Coke Studios and Diageo and brands who have come in and said, “You know what? We believe in what United Masters is doing and we want to partner with you in the market.” That partnership is going to provide opportunities to local artists.

These partnerships with Coke studio and Diageo, was there a specific reason why you chose these people?

You first wanna see who is in it with you. You go into Nigeria with a mission and a purpose to see who is doing it with you and then the NBA raises its hands and we love that.

They had Afrobeats at the all-star game two years halftime. They are all in on NBA Africa and basketball in Africa. Coca-Cola has been in Africa for many years and it has been a very important marketplace for them. What is happening in Nigeria is amazing and they were interested in being a part of it and supporting it. And it is the same thing with Diageo. When you have a reputation like I have or my business has, you are saying, “This is what we are doing and what we wanna get done. Do you wanna go on this ride?” The first people to raise their hands are the people you end up working with. The services and opportunities we provide were more for overtime and that’s what we are supposed to do. As the market changes, we are expected to adjust. I am not going to sit here and tell you every single detail specifically of what is going to happen. All I can tell you, most importantly, is that commitment is going to happen.

You are taking a huge bet on a culture is still a baby in the global framework. Why are you betting on us?

The bet isn’t on Afrobeats per se. The bet is on one of the fastest-growing countries in the world. What do you think all the Chinese and Indians are doing here? Why does it have to be them? So let’s put that to the side. I mean, it doesn’t have to be them. Secondly, the bet is on the Youth market. The most vibrant youth market in all of the world is here. When you put together the population, growth of the youth market, and the fact that culture is emanating out of Africa, it always has. It is the OG, the motherland. It is a fact that popular culture is emanating out of Africa. These 18-year-old young adults in America, in December, you would ask them 10 years ago where they wanna go and they be like “Oh we wanna go to Cabo or Lome.” Now they say that they wanna go to Lagos, Nigeria. That’s so beautiful. 

In my generation, whether it was the way it was put in our heads, truly or the way the airlines were routing it, Africa just seemed so far and I do not know why. I think it is a combination of social media and the beautiful art coming out of Ghana, the music itself; the combination of those things has just served well to put in perspective the power of Africa and specifically the cultural connection we have as black Americans to Nigeria. I feel like I am in New York City. Even in New York City, as a New Yorker, I say New York City but I am talking about Queens and Brooklyn. So when I say I feel like I am in New York City, I understand that there are different changes and landscaping, attitude, and personas as you move out. But it is like New York City. It is busy, there are entrepreneurs, there are hustlers, everything is open till late when I get in at 6 o’clock every day and I love the people there.

Do you ever think you would stretch that beyond Lagos?

Well, you see that’s the beauty of the application. Having an application, I call it the record company in your pocket, because we develop software that took seven years to develop. Seven years of modifying, making sure you get the payment right across regions, and adding services like education, and data analytics that could be beneficial to the artist and it is user-friendly so that anybody can read, understand, and act on it. It took time. But now, people outside of Lagos if they have a phone — which is one of the most dominant mobile countries in the world — can upload their songs on their phone directed to the United Masters Studio application. 

If you download the United Masters on the Apple Store or Google Play Store, what have you, upload your song and you are ready to go. Your song is up on 120 different DSPS like Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, Deezer, and all the others whatever it is. That is going to give everybody an opportunity to be able to submit music and get in the game. If record companies are only based in Lagos and you only have to meet someone in a record company, and if you are on the outskirts, it is very hard for you to have the same opportunity and access as someone in Lagos.

I have an artist friend who says that he has been using United Masters even before United Masters. How did that make you feel?

You are asking questions. I had heard that people were using United Masters with a VPN so it wasn’t surprising to me. It confirmed what I knew I had to do. I had to come here. Like anything else, you open up something, you know, the information you get back is from things like that. You have people logging in from Africa and I was like “We need to be in Africa. They shouldn’t have to go through a VPN. We should be able to be in the localized markets.” That is kind of the insight you get from reading the data and paying attention to what is going on.

Nigeria lacks critical music infrastructure. Do you foresee yourself being involved in infrastructure building in Nigeria? Not just on the talent pipeline?

Yeah, I understand. You know, I am learning that part. I had another conference yesterday and I started to really understand the issues with venues. Live is very important. And we have such big stars who need to be performing, and they cannot even find the right venue to perform here. And not only the performance venues, but the mics and LED screens. You have Wizkid and Davido and artists who perform in these spaces around the world. There is a certain level of expectation to present themselves in the best possible way and it is a shame that they cannot have the same level of perfection at home. We are aware here and we are looking at talent, mostly focusing on professionals. We are looking for the right executive team here in the market who have credibility, are artist-friendly, and care.

Why is it important that they care?

Because you are not going to do anything without commitment. For you to wake up every day and think about something, you have to care about it. In order to be successful at what you are doing, you gotta wake up every morning and that’s like the thing on your mind, “How am I going to do better and move this forward?” and that comes from care. I want a team of people who care because that’s the differentiating factor. It is not ‘the idea’, everyone has the idea and very few people have the idea and care.

In this market, this is new for us and we are still finding our feet and sorting out a lot of things. But at the same time, Afrobeats is doing its global thing. I like to think personally, that we have plateaued on a certain level because we have stopped having our firsts anymore. It used to be “the first person to do this, first African artist to do that.” This year, there were very few firsts.

I hate that. I hate the ‘firsts’ thing.

Why do you hate it?

Because everybody wants a first, so then they start making up shit — like the ‘first person to do it who is left-handed.’ They start making up things to be first. Keep moving forward. If you keep moving forward, you may be first. But your job is to be first, open the door, and leave it open so that everybody else can come in, right? I hope that when we get to the Grammys this year and Afrobeats gets it just due, the artists go on stage as one and talk about Nigeria and Africa, and use that stage to help everybody. There is obviously a light that is going to be shined on them. It is for them to take that light back and shine it on their home and country.

You have built in a more developed economy and music market and now you are coming to the frontline. What parallels are you drawing so far?

The parallels that I am drawing are not necessarily what I see today. It is what I have seen come up in hip-hop in the mid-80s. It was the same kind of situation where people were sampling and not getting cleared, but no one cared. It was the Wild Wild West of copyright laws, and stealing somebody’s rap without getting permission. And what it meant, the underground of the way music was being distributed and shared. And back then it was VHS tapes that were just shipped all around. And then over time, when the business started to make money, lawyers got involved, structures were put into place, business people got involved, professionalism got involved and those things helped shape it as a genre of music in an industry with a solid foundation. 

So I am looking at where Afrobeats is today to where the market was in hip-hop 25 years ago. And given technology and the ability to collapse time, we now understand what we have learned from what we have seen before. For a person like me to come in, use my learning, and help accelerate the market curve here, we will quickly eradicate some of that stuff that makes it wobbly and not necessarily as stable as it should be.

Education is a major part of everything. Are there any Africa-focused initiatives in that department so far? Because we need a lot of that.

Oh, that is critical. Part of education is leading by example. When I was in there talking on live television about what it means to own your masters, there was a famous artist here who passed away…


Yeah. Bless his soul. And the fact that his works have been celebrated, and yet the work is going to a record company and not his family, is such a shame. Shining the light on that as to why artists should own their works because that could be them is education within itself. Supplying the solution for that is critical. There is that kind of education. Just by taking what we stand for and believe in and leading by example. And then there is formalized education in which we are teaching the business. And we have a program within the app called “Blue Print” that has education. And we are going to bring a conference here that I will not delve into any further. But we will bring a conference here that will be all about that. So it is all the commitment stuff and what we do, that I do not want to make a big deal out of. You know, because when you say and do something you are committed to, these are all of the things that are a part of it.

Just before we go, you’re here and blowing hot and the market is shaking…

It’s not, you’re gassing me up…

I am not, this is what I have experienced because everyone is like “Steve Stoute, Steve Stoute.” When you look back at this time, judging by your intentions so far and how much you are empowering people and the industry, collapsing time and accelerating growth and development, what would success be to you on the macro level? What would success be to you based on your efforts here?

There is a certain amount of success that is going to have commercial implications. You wanna be the number one distributor in the market or have the most artists, that kind of thing. There is a commercial part of it. And I would say that that just has to happen because we have a business. But most importantly, success would be that I came here and did everything that I said, and people will know that I wasn’t another person who came here just trying to extract and go back and enjoy the exploits of Africa. That’s the corny shit that I do not wanna be associated with. The fact that we can bring something, invest in, partner with, and leave a mark that we contributed versus taking is the most important to me.

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