Interview November 27, 2017
Stephen Budd: All Aboard the Africa Express
Photo from Wikipedia.
Photo from Wikipedia.

London-based producer Stephen Budd is a rare creature: someone who seems to spend as much time giving back, not just to the music community, but the world at large, as much as he busies himself with commercial endeavors.

His beginnings as a roadie for Motorhead, while still a teenager, is the stuff of legend. After a brief stint running a small indie label in the early 1980s, he began managing David Bowie's producer, Tony Visconti, which eventually led him to found Stephen Budd Management in 1988. He currently represents some of the most successful and up-and-coming producers, songwriters, mixers, engineers, remixers and programmers from Europe and the U.S. In 1999, he cofounded SuperVision Management, which worked with rock bands such as Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs. In 2001, he merged his management businesses with Channelfly and became a director of this group of companies which ran several venues in England, eventually including the Hammersmith Apollo. In addition, he also runs a music publishing business, and has been involved in producing numerous music festivals, including OneFest. But at the same time, he has been passionately involved in bringing African music to Western audiences, as well as spearheading many charitable music events for various causes dear to him. These projects include Africa Express, Passport: Back to the Bars, and Give A Home.

We caught up with Budd via telephone in advance of his delivering the keynote address at the Mundial Montreal world music conference last week.

Ron Deutsch: You just got back from India for the NH7 Weekender Festival. How was that?

Stephen Budd: Good. I'm back in one piece and obviously coming to Montreal next week, then back to India again for the second location of the festival. Quite a lot going on.

The NH7 Weekender is yet another one of your projects where you try to create bridges between Western artists and those in countries who are hoping to reach a wider audience. How did it begin?

Well, it's been going on since 2010, and came about because I had gone to India on the behest of the British Council to judge a competition which was for a “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” award. And once I was there, one of the guys who was up for this award was a very bright young Indian manager/promoter, a guy named Vijay Nair. So we got talking while we were out that night after he won the award to see some bands play in Mumbai, and in the crowd was John Leckie, who was the producer of the Stone Roses. We were watching this Indian indie band and it kind of dawned on me that there was this demand for not quite the traditional music that was being seen there at the time—like the only artists who would stop by over there would be Sting, Def Leppard and artists like that. But actually, there was quite an interest and demand for some of the more indie type of things. And, at the time, our company was managing bands like Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs and such. So I thought we should bring some of these acts over here. 

We got talking and Vijay came up with the idea of the festival, and then he came to London and met with [Glastonbury festival booker] Martin Elbourne, and the three of us decided to go into business. The first had 5,000 people and we did it in Pune, near Mumbai, with bands like Asian Dub Foundation, Reverend and the Makers, the Magic Numbers and also local Indian indie groups like Midival Punditz and Ashu and the Petri Dish. That was the first and now we're eight years into it. There are two three-day events which are in Shillong and Pune, and then this year, I think, there were six other one-day satellite events in other cities. Which is great, and I get to go to India so much. Last year, we had a lot of Western artists playing like Mark Ronson, Flying Lotus, the Wailers and MegaDeath.

NH7 Weekender 2016

Have you seen any groups there that you are interested in bringing to the West?

Yes. For example, Alluri, who's from Hydrabad, I'm helping him get it out there and, in fact, he's playing tonight in London.

Alluri, "Endukala" (Sofar Give A Home, Milan 2017)

Let's jump over and talk about Africa Express. For those who may not be familiar with this project you do with singer/songwriter Damon Albarn [Blur, Gorillaz], how did it all begin and what is it exactly?

Africa Express was partly created to sort of help African musicians escape from the world music box, you know. The world music label was a useful in the '80s and '90s, because you'd walk into a record store and where would you find music from the Balkans or from Africa, and would be "let's go to the world music section." And that's the reason why it was created to give an identity and have a reason to stop here. 

However, Africa Express was specifically created by African music lovers, who were getting frustrated back in 2005 with things like the LiveAid concert in Hyde Park where it was all about Africa and dropping the debt, but Pink Floyd and Madonna played. And while it was phenomenal, there were no African artists represented. So it was like embarrassing, you know? That's not the way it works and it should have been an opportunity for African musicians to escape that world music box and reach a much broader audience. 

So, the way we figured out doing it was this experiment to get major Western and African artists to collaborate. I mean, if you're a fan of David Bowie, and you see that he has collaborated with somebody, you're going to want to know who that person is. So that was the basic premise of Africa Express. So that was the idea—to break down musical barriers that way. I think we were part of a particular zeitgeist moment—and maybe we helped create that zeitgeist moment—where we took artists like Amadou and Mariam, Fatoumata Diawara and Baloji and introduced them to a much wider audience than just the world music audience. 

We first set it up in 2006, with Damon Albarn as the musical curator, alongside journalist Ian Birrell and others, and since then we've had many, many trips to Africa, taking Western artists there, and always with Damon. It's a musical collaboration project. We take Western artists, well known and up-and-coming, out to Africa, get them to collaborate with local musicians in places like the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Mali, and see if we can get creative collaborations going by making albums, movies—we've put on very significant large concerts bringing everybody back over here in the U.K., France and Germany, and quite a few different projects have come out of it. So it's a very varied project. 

Can you run down a few of those projects for us?

Well, in 2012, we got a train—which we made a movie from—and took it around the U.K. for seven nights and did pop-up shows all over including in prisons, factories, and schools, and had 40 African musicians and 40 Western musicians rehearsing all day on the train, then getting off and putting the music out in front of an audience on stage in front of a couple of thousand people every night. It culminated with a concert behind King's Cross station with Paul McCartney and John Paul Jones [of Led Zepplin] playing with Baaba Maal and Amadou and Mariam. 

On board with the Africa Express

We also made an album in 2014 in Mali, we took over Brian Eno and Damon—he does all of it with us, of course—Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Ghostpoet and a whole bunch of others and we made an album with 10 young Malian artists including Songhoy Blues, Kankou Koyate and Lobi Traore.

You wound up managing Songhoy Blues, didn't you? That came about from making this album, correct?

Yeah. We discovered them when they were refugees in Bamako from Timbuktu. They were literally living in a one-room shack when we met them and ended up with one of the tracks on the album with them. Then we went back to Mali and recorded a whole album with those guys and put them on tour for three years and are now one of the biggest African acts around. 

Songhoy Blues, "Soubour" (produced by Nick Zinner) 

That's the kind of thing that Africa Express aims to create, which is to reach a different audience. So we put them on tour with Alabama Shakes, and playing at rock festivals rather than world music festivals, and they now have a substantial audience behind them. To me, it's like when you're 13 years old and you hear a record that you're absolutely insane about and you want all your friends to hear it. You just want them to hear how amazing this is. It's that spirit which runs through the center of Africa Express. It's a not-for-profit organization. It doesn't aim to make a profit out of the people. It's there purely to support and nurture those artists and give them a sort of wider exposure to the wider world... break some of those barriers down.

Last year you were involved in a project bringing some Syrian refugee musicians for a concert as part of Africa Express.

It was a very ambitious project where we reunited an orchestra from Syria, effectively the Syrian National Orchestra, who were displaced in refugee camps dotted around the world. We managed to bring them back together and did a half a dozen shows with them, such as the main stage of Glastonbury on the morning after the Brexit vote, the Royal Festival Hall in London, and we made a double album out of it, along with artists like Paul Weller, Damon Albarn, Rachid Taha and many others. We made a concert film out of that, as well. 

Excerpt of Syrian National Orchestra Concert, featuring Bassekou Kouyaté and Seckou Keita

We've got some plans afoot, like in January we're going to South Africa to Johannesburg to make an album. We're bringing over 10 English and American record producers to work with 10 more electronic and house music from both Johannesburg and Durban.

[While Budd was in Montreal, he announced they are dreaming of doing an Africa Express in the U.S., that would take a group of Western and African musicians on a riverboat up the Mississippi River, though at this point it's all dependent on finding funding for such an undertaking.]

Speaking of releasing albums, I'm wondering if you had any thoughts about how this new digital era of streaming and downloading has affected musical artists in Africa, for better or worse?

There's always been an awful lot of bootlegging in Africa. It's been that way for quite a while in Africa, so people never relied on record sales since the end of vinyl. It was all very much geared towards generating revenues by playing live. That was always very important. But if you're talking about acts that are related in Africa, or India, as well, funny enough, the way things are going, the streaming market has actually opened things up. There's a gold rush going on right now in Africa where the majors are starting to open up offices again.

Universal, Sony and Warners have all opened several branches throughout Africa, which is kind of pretty interesting—Nigeria, Ivory Coast, where Universal's West Africa headquarters are located, and South Africa. But also, key entrepreneurs like OkayAfrica have moved into doing deals with artists in many countries in Africa for their digital rights and are helping to make sure they are represented on Spotify, Deezer and all the different streaming services, because they recognize it as a massive area of growth, as mobile is more and more prevalent in Africa. 

Doesn't this also have to do with the fact that over the past decade or more there's been quite a diaspora of Africans relocating around the world?

I agree. Certainly, the Nigerians, for example, in Montreal want to hear what's happening on the streets of Lagos. Absolutely, and they are tuned to it. In London, there's quite a few Afrobeats artists coming over and playing. In the last month, we've had Wizkid selling out the Albert Hall. We had Mr. Eazi selling out the Roundhouse. There's that connection between homegrown artists in Nigeria and the diaspora is pretty strong.

A new project you were involved with this year was the Sofar Sounds' “Give A Home” series. Can you tell me about that and how you got involved?

The Sofar “Give A Home” series was nine months out of my life, completely. So yes, the genesis of that was that in 2004, I came up with an idea of doing some shows where I was part of a group of companies which owned some live music venues in London—the Barfly, the Borderline and the Garage, and also we ended up with Hammersmith Apollo. I was trying to find a project which would unite all the different parts of the business that we had, including the management company. I thought about doing some charity gigs for War Child and I was thinking we could get major artists and get them to play in small, little venues. But how do we make any money out of that? And then I sort of had a light bulb moment which was that we would sell lottery tickets. So if you wanted to see the Darkness or the Cure in front of 200 people, you'd have to buy a lottery ticket. Then if you were very lucky, you'd get to be one of those 200 people, even if 10,000 or 20,000 people bought tickets. So we tried that out in 2004 [called Passport: Back to the Bars], and it worked extremely well. We had everyone from Amy Winehouse, Elbow, Craig David, the Pet Shop Boys in one week in London—21 major artists. It was extremely successful with the money going to War Child. We then rejuvenated that again in 2015, again for War Child, and started a concert series which continues to this day. We do it like one week a year. 

One of the most successful shows we did through this was having Bastille play in somebody's living room, courtesy of Sofar Sounds. I was talking with the Sofar guys and they'd been talking to Amnesty International and, by this point, Sofar had grown into an organization putting on shows in over 350 cities around the world. 

Rafe Offer, who runs Sofar, and Tom Lovett, their commercial director, had spoken with Amnesty who were looking to create a program to support refugees called “I Welcome Refugees,” which was to put pressure on governments in 60 countries to guarantee safe passage for refugees. At the time it was so traumatizing to have all those people drowning the Mediterranean. So the concept came about to see whether we could do a global series of gigs in 300 or more cities on the same day, but featuring major artists playing in people's living rooms. Given that the experience doing the Bastille gig with War Child had been so fruitful and raised a lot of money and had zero cost involved. It was just setting up in someone's front room and playing for 50 people who bought a lottery ticket. So we took that mechanism and applied it on sort of a worldwide scale. 

So this year, we did it on September 20th, but we started communicating to people at around the end of January, beginning of February. We managed to get an incredible array of artists. Everybody from Ed Sheeran who played in Washington, to the National who played in someone's front room in Edinburgh, Moby who played in Los Angeles, Gregory Porter, Laura Mvula and all these incredible artists who did these shows for us. It was enormously successful. One of the key reasons behind it was to lower the age demographic for Amnesty and reach out to a whole new generation of people which Sofar Sounds could supply. In the end, we had over 1,000 artists on the same day—200 you'd call major artists, and it was 24 hours around the clock. We started in Auckland, New Zealand at like 8 a.m. U.K. time, and then went all the way through to Honolulu in the end. It was all right around the world.

Sauti Sol, "Lazizi" (Sofar Nairobi/Give A Home 2017)

So was "Give A Home" a one-off or will it continue into the future?

I think we're in talks about it now to do it again next year. Now that the concept has been proved, there's a great desire to do it. Hopefully, we won't have to reinvent the wheel now that we have created the template and make it happen again. People should keep an eye out at the website

Thank you so much for your time, Stephen.

Thank you... and see you in Montreal. We'll be having the North American premiere of the Africa Express film during Mundial Montreal, so make sure you come for that.

Will do.