The Rise and Fall of Alaba – eLDee

 

I started my professional music career in 1998. At the time, there were barely any functional record labels that catered to contemporary urban African music in Nigeria. There were also no physical nor digital distribution channels for music in Nigeria that could support our original content in a commercially viable way. The only structured industry was the traditional music circuit and their channels were limited to specific genres and small regions. We pretty much had to navigate and pave our way through non-existent infrastructure as music creators.

 

The first step for me was to start my own independent record label, then we had to figure out how to distribute the music nationwide. With my group Trybesmen already catching a wave and contemporary urban music showing signs of commercial viability, we needed structure and very quickly.

 

 

Alaba market was an electronics market at the time that had begun taking advantage of the availability of duplication technology using the double cassette deck aka boombox. They bought original music or sourced DeeJay mixes from popular local DeeJays and were duplicating illegally for sale. It made some kind of sense because they were the nationwide distributors of cassette decks, CD players and recordable media.

Why sell a blank CD or cassette if you can record some popular music and get some hawkers to market it on the streets for more money. It was a brilliant idea that soon became a nationwide hit. If you grew up in that era, you’ll remember the lone hawker with a boombox walking down the street playing music and hawking cassettes. It was one of the only ways to buy music for the average Nigerian outside of paying a DJ for a “latest” mix, and it was becoming very popular. The mixtapes were called “latest” as they contained mostly new releases.

 

 

I realized very quickly that in order to penetrate nationwide with our music, we would have to take advantage of these pirates and their network. It was not going to be easy as they were very secretive about their business, knowing their practices were illegal. To get them on board, we would have to earn their trust, and convince them on how they could make even more money if we marketed legally licensed products for them. The vision was clear so I made a move with my close friend and record label manager at the time (Babajide Familusi aka FAB) and approached them with our proposal. That’s him in the image to the left of Olu Maintain, another good friend. Fab used to suggest when we were younger that he looked like Taye Diggs…yeah right. lol

 

 

I remember FAB and I sitting in on a cassette retailers association meeting (mostly Alaba electronics merchants and their staff) on a cold Sunday morning, 6:30am at Tejuoso market in Yaba, in a bid to better understand the piracy network and meet with the key players. Our pitch was very simple, to license the music to them in order to guarantee nationwide penetration. I wrote up a distribution agreement (from some templates I found online) and met numerous times with a gentleman named Tochukwu aka Tjoe. He was the only one at the meetings that seemed smart enough to understand our play and was receptive to the idea of going legal. It worked! Tjoe agreed to distribute and we drew up a marketing plan. We also had to figure out how to market CDs (which were still relatively new technology at the time). Our biggest challenge was how to make the CDs cost effective for the average consumer of music. Blank CDs sold for between N100 and N150 but the jewel case was going to cost an additional N30 to N50 per CD.

The only way to guarantee decent profit was to retail for N200 to N250 which was still expensive and was “not going to move” according to Tjoe.
So we came up with a less expensive packaging alternative, the cardboard paper sleeve. The paper sleeve only cost N5 (if we printed in bulk) and it  guaranteed a more affordable retail price of N150. We designed our art, printed and got CDs made and the first official Alaba release hit the market; Trybesmen’s “LAG Style” repackaged and re-released with new single “Plenty Nonsense“.

 

 

In the following months, Tjoe and some of his Alaba associates struck similar deals with other artists and over the next decade, Alaba electronics market merchants went on to become the largest official distributors of music and movies in Nigeria, I dare say West Africa.

When you hear about Alaba today however, the story is different. Unlike Tjoe in 2001, many of the merchants got greedy and it was only a matter of time before most if not all the distributors began ripping off their content creators. They went legal for a few months, but soon went back to being pirates. They figured out ways to produce more than they declared to the creators, sometimes up to millions of extra copies of music and movie works.

Seized CD duplicators from Alaba merchants by law enforcement.

I remember visits to the Nigerian copyrights commission office to discuss possible ways to protect and enforce creators’ rights by regulating the distribution channels that Alaba marketers controlled, but I was told by officers of the copyright commission that they were too poorly funded by the federal government to engage in such enforcement.

 

 

What had the potential to become the largest legal distribution network of physical media in Africa was staring its demise in the face and didn’t know it. Content owners lost confidence and millions, greedy merchants and marketers got cocky and cheated rights owners with impunity, they even declared battle against copyright agencies and anyone who attempted to disrupt their operations. There were multiple raids on many Alaba stores by content owners and the police and then portable mp3 technology began changing consumer habits. Numerous Alaba marketers who were once capable of paying content creators distribution advances of up to N50,000,000 can barely pay their store rents at the market today. The Alaba market is still alive today but they have been reduced mostly to pirates, selling “latest” mixes once again.

My name is Lanre eLDee Dabiri, I am NOT a writer, I just love to share 🙂

 

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