MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfil. Inspiring Women is supported by Ingrooves.
Nigeria-based Mavin Records has broken out of its home market this year with a huge hit by Rema, Calm Down, which charted in the UK (No.10), US and across various European territories.
The track was boosted by a remix featuring Selena Gomez and Rema has since collaborated with British talents AJ Tracey, Jae5 and Skepta, as well as US rapper Offset of Migos.
Mavin’s Ayra Starr has also been garnering attention across the globe, with a MOBO nomination, support from Spotify’s RADAR and chart movement in the US.
The two artists are examples of where Mavin’s Director of A&R, Rima Tahini, wants the label’s entire roster to head in future.
“We have a roster of eight artists right now so six more to truly break out onto the global stage. That’s what we want to work on,” she tells us, as part of a wide-ranging interview below.
As Senior Associate at Kupanda Capital, Tahini has been working with Mavin since 2016, officially joining the Lagos-based music company in 2018. Prior to working in investment, her career spanned roles in business and energy.
“I’ve always been a creative person and wanted to work with young people to [help them achieve] their dreams,” she says.
“Working with the artists at Mavin sparked that creative side to me that I was putting aside for a bit. A&R is not just about the music, it takes empathy and care and a desire to make things happen.”
Today, Tahini leads an A&R team of 10 people and has seen the company — which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year — grow to around 70 total employees from less than ten.
Here, we chat to Tahini about lessons learned across her career, the role of A&R and the challenges that come from working in the Nigerian music industry.
What have you learned about what it takes to be a good A&R in the four years you’ve been doing the role?
My job has always been to bring structure to the artist’s work life and make a plan with them for the year. It was such an impossible job at the beginning — bringing structure to creatives is really tough to do. I had applicable skills from working in investment but I had to learn how to communicate with creatives and help them understand there’s this other side to making music. Having empathy and understanding who they are is really important, as well as knowing what motivates them.
I’ve also learned how to take an artist’s raw talent and expand that to reach a wider audience beyond Nigeria. We want to make money and our industry is still quite small, Afrobeats is the overarching genre that everybody knows and we don’t always sign straight up Afrobeat artists. So it’s about making sure artists have the self confidence to maintain what they’re very good at, but also being able to find the narratives and relatability to expand their appeal.
“Giving artists feedback, without making them feel like you’re criticising them or that you’re not supportive, is a very delicate process.”
There’s a very thin line in that process that, [if crossed], can result in moving artists away from what they know best, making them confused or lose their confidence. Giving them feedback, without making them feel like you’re criticizing them or that you’re not supportive, is also a very delicate process. You have to have a high level of emotional intelligence.
I’ve also learned that an artist is beyond the recordings. What people see is very important and building the brand is part of the A&R function. Ayra Starr was one and a half years in the making before she was launched, we crafted every single and image that we wanted people to [hear and] see before she got out. You don’t want an artist coming out looking like they don’t know what they are doing. Especially in the age of social media, artists need to be convincing and have a story. That’s all part of what I do with my team – down to style guides, brand bibles and interview training.
What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned across your career?
As someone who now leads a team of 10, I’ve learned that people are people at the end of the day. No matter what you’re paying them, no matter what work you think they should love and do, you have to appeal to their human side. You have to like each other to work in a professional environment. Especially in the work that we do, which is mainly about passion and giving 110% because it’s not a nine to five, it becomes part of your life. So it’s very important that you’re considerate. When you can get your team excited to do the work, you’ve won because they will go above and beyond. Having a sense of ownership and feeling like they’re part of building something is also key to that.
“As a leader, you have to lead by example. I get down and do the work with you. I don’t want to be a figurehead, I like to be in the details, which helps me keep on top of what’s happening.”
As a leader, you have to lead by example. I get down and do the work with you. I don’t want to be a figurehead, I like to be in the details, which helps me keep on top of what’s happening. Making sure that you’re thorough for me has worked — the tiniest details can cause issues. Everything is timely, if you waste a few hours it could have a ripple effect. That helps me be very organised and efficient.
Working on the continent, I’ve learned that I’d rather be on the end of creating value. When I came into music from the investment side of things, there wasn’t much to show for it — there weren’t a lot of numbers or structure. Afrobeats wasn’t the coolest thing then. Looking back now, the guys I worked for focused on what they could create, they had that vision to know that while the numbers don’t make sense right now, they wanted to create value. I really admired that and it’s something we do constantly at Mavin. We always start with brand new artists. We’ve launched six now in my career and seeing someone like Rema going from this young kid with no career to the level he’s at now… it just takes that leap of faith.
What are the challenges that come with working in the Nigerian music industry specifically?
It’s still very young and that comes with a lot of challenges. A lot of things have not been established so the build around the music is still very much a struggle, although it’s better than it was a few years ago. On the live side, we don’t have enough venues to do live shows, they’re not big enough or they don’t have enough infrastructure for it. And ticketing platforms are very limited. For publishing, the collecting body doesn’t work so you either have to sign to an international publishing arm of [a company] or artists, songwriters and producers are just not signed.
“[The Nigerian music market] is still very young and that comes with a lot of challenges.”
People still [illegally] download music and there aren’t strict laws to help with copyright issues and protecting IPs. The subscription fees to music streaming platforms have gotten cheaper but data is still expensive. There are all these difficulties with upping our streaming and touring numbers and making sure we’re not losing money constantly. The ease of doing business in the country is not always the best and the support the Government should have for the industry is still being discussed and worked on.
What would you like to see happen that would improve all of those issues?
More support from leadership in the country for the entertainment industry. Really sitting down and thinking, ‘This is a gem, people really care about Afrobeats in the world right now, we’ve never been in this position before, how do we capitalise on it? How do we build and make it permanent?’
Hopefully the world doesn’t move on anytime soon but that happens — different genres come up, become the thing and after a while, they aren’t the thing anymore. So we have to make sure that we capitalise on the moment we’re having and build and we need the support of Government and other businesses and brands to make that happen. I don’t think there’s that care right now.
The industry is bringing in a lot of money but most of our revenue comes from abroad. So how do we make data cheap, how do we partner up with Apple or Spotify to make sure that people are able to stream? There’s a lot of things that I feel can be worked on from a policy standpoint.
If you could go back to the beginning of your career and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?
I would tell myself to trust the process and believe in myself a bit more. When you’re younger, you’re anxious and sceptical and think you need to plan out the next five years of your life. I moved countries, studied economics and accounting and then went into business and energy, and can now join the dots of all the things that have led me to this place. So trust in the process because not everybody will have a linear path.
“You just have to work hard at what’s immediately in front of you.”
You just have to work hard at what’s immediately in front of you. Right now, this is what I’m doing, I’m going to be the best at it and I’m going to work hard. I can probably have a bit of foresight and vision into a year or two but getting overly anxious about planning can make you lose confidence and get distracted.
How about future plans and ambitions for Mavin?
Global domination! We want to continue to build and build more global stars. It’s great that we have Rema and Ayra Starr, we have a roster of eight people right now so six more artists to truly break out onto the global stage. That’s what we want to work on. We want a roster that’s robust, we want to discover new talent in the industry, grow Mavin into a global label and be part of building the systems, the infrastructure, around the music [in Nigeria].
“We want a roster that’s robust, we want to discover new talent, grow Mavin into a global label and be part of building the systems, the infrastructure, around the music [in Nigeria].”
Eventually, we want to go into other verticals in the industry. If no-one does it, you have to do it yourself, and I feel like the opportunity is there. We want to focus on music first but I see us branching out into [areas like branding and touring] in the future.
MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfil. Inspiring Women is supported by Ingrooves.Music Business Worldwide