Affects Us

DESIGNED FOR TV: How the VGMAs Became the Most Bankable Award Show in Ghana

VGMA

Awards shows are quintessentially an industry event. Majority of tickets for an award show goes to nominees, the media and other industry players. 500 tickets for the Vodafone Ghana Music Awards (from hence known as “The VGMAs”) Main Event are given out for free. That is over a third of the tickets. Awards shows, for that matter, are not a for-profit venture, prima facie. According to Lawrence Hanson a.k.a Bulldog, awards shows make loses. Bulldog’s Bullhaus Entertainment organized four (4) editions of the very popular dancehall awards show, Bass Awards.

“We organized five years of Bass Awards out of our own pockets. We didn’t make any profit. Doing that for 5 years, you run out of money. Our idea was to organize it ourselves for some time and then attract sponsors later. We couldn’t attract sponsors for last year so we couldn’t organize the awards”, Bulldog chided.

He believes the reason Charterhouse Ghana, the organisers of the VGMAs, have been able to stage the award show over the years  is sponsorship. According to Francis Doku, the Spokesperson for the VGMAs Board, Charterhouse Ghana attracts sponsors other award shows haven’t been able to. Mr. Doku cited that some of the biggest brands in Corporate Ghana have been associated with The VGMAs at various points of its existence. He mentioned MTN, Western Union, Star, UT Financial Services and Vodafone as some of the brands who have associated with “the biggest entertainment event in Ghana.”

Francis Doku organized an award show; The Most Popular Entertainer in Ghana (MPEG) Honours, show himself in 2011. He acknowledged that, it wasn’t easy to get corporate brands to sponsor events in Ghana. How then has Charterhouse Ghana been able to do it and do it for Twenty (20) years?

THE RIGHT START

A survey conducted by the College of Community and Organisation Development (CCOD), a Sunyani-based Technical University, reveals that four out of every five private business organisations in the country collapses by the fifth year of its operation. Mr. Jude Atakora Tufour, a private legal practitioner and a Commercial Law lecturer at Central University, attributed the collapse to improper regulation mechanisms, a lack of trust in the business community and an inability or unwillingness to plan for the future.

 “Most companies in Ghana are ran as bedroom companies. It’s a one-man show…Ghanaians are unwilling to enter partnerships”, Mr. Tufour bemoaned.  

People are skeptical of other people and are always of the views that, the next people they bring into the business will oust them. The VGMAs organisers, from the start, were determined not to be plagued by this curse.

“The idea was sold to the industry. The organisers were able to talk to the right people and got them on board.” Francis Doku said.

The first industry group Charterhouse Ghana was able to secure for their first award show was the Musicians Union of Ghana (MUSIGA). In the early years of The VGMAs, many people outside the industry believed MUSIGA was the organizer of the VGMAs and Charterhouse Ghana was an event company hired to produce the show.

“The organisers came to us for a partnership. They had a laudable idea to celebrate musicians for their efforts. The way they sold it to us made us buy into their idea immediately”, Alhaji Sidiku Buari said. He was the President of MUSIGA in 1999 when the first VGMAs was staged.

Both parties agreed to be in a partnership where MUSIGA Executives and other leading members of the trade union would sit on the award board, encourage members to submit their songs for nominations and attend the event as well. MUSIGA was mentioned in all communications as partners of the show. Charterhouse Productions on the other hand made cash contributions to the trade union and provided technical support for MUSIGA events. These days, they also make contributions to MUSIGA’s flagship, Aging Musicians Welfare Fund (AMWEF).

MUSIGA was at the time the biggest music organization in Ghana and it still is. Having their endorsement and partnership legitimatised the award show in the eyes of other industry players and the general public.

Being able to secure the support of the industry, the next thing the organisers needed was the public support. The media was the key to reaching the masses. In the late 90s, Ghana was a growing democracy. It had organized its second successful national election in 1996. Private media organisations like Peace FM, Joy FM, Groove FM, TV3 and Metro TV were emerging at the time but none of them had the reach the state broadcaster, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC), had at the time. The CEO of Charterhouse Productions, Mrs. Theresa Ayoade, had worked with one of the emerging media houses, Joy FM, but believed the VGMAs brand needed to be communicated to Ghanaians on a bigger platform.

Charterhouse had an existing relationship with GBC as a producer of popular game shows like Agoro and It Takes Two that aired on GBC’s Ghana Television (GTV). Prof. Mark Duodu, Director of Television at GBC, was easy to convince. He had an interest in entertainment because his education in the United States had exposed him to how television stations there were built with entertainment content. He was open to innovative ideas that will keep GTV ahead of its competition. GBC agreed to partner with Charterhouse Productions on the Ghana Music Awards.

THE RIGHT CREW

In the early 90s, Graphic Communications Group’s daily newspaper, Daily Graphic, and weekly newspaper, The Mirror, were the only newspapers in Ghana that had pages dedicated to entertainment and hence had reporters who were strictly entertainment writers. One of such entertainment reporters was Nanabanyin Dadson, a graduate of University of Ghana’s School of Performing Arts.

Uncle NAB (as Mr. Dadson is popularly known) travelled around Ghana with the organisers of the Miss Ghana and Pleasure Dance competition to report on the regional pageants and contests. Uncle NAB shared his ideas on the running of the regional shows on these trips. The organisers, Media Whizz Kidz, were so intrigued with his ideas and made him the Artistic Director for the Miss Ghana finals in Accra. He played that role until Media Whizz Kidz sold the Miss Ghana franchise to Sparrow Productions.

Iyiola Ayoade, the CEO and Chairman of Multiple Concepts Group, parent company of Charterhouse Productions, was introduced to Uncle NAB when he started asking around for the best show director in Ghana. Mr. Ayoade wanted the Ghana Music Awards to be the best produced show in Ghana so went out looking for the best people in production in Ghana. Uncle NAB was appointed Artistic Director of the show. Uncle NAB was to make sure the show ran smoothly in the auditorium.

Moses Gyapong was tasked with producing the show for television audience. Mr. Gyapong, member of National Film and Television Institute (NAFTI) pioneering batch, had been working with GBC since 1974 and was the then the Director of Entertainment.

Mr. Gyapong and Uncle NAB had previously worked together in similar capacities in the Miss Ghana finals.

“Charterhouse is committed to hiring the best people. I remember they hired me to direct Miss Malaika for television even though it was airing on TV3 and I worked at GBC. While they were doing all this, they were also hiring younger people to understudy us so that they can start producing the show in-house”, Mr. Gyapong explained in an interview at a workers’ canteen at GBC.

THE FIRST SHOW

“Charterhouse had paid for two days for setup and rehearsal. Being the first show of its kind, they didn’t want anything to go wrong so took steps to make sure nothing was left to chance. By the morning of the show, we had set up and already had the rehearsal.

Around lunch time, I received a message from GTV that airtime has been allocated for us to go live. As the director for TV, I was asked if I could produce a live show. I asked for a few minutes to confer with my technical crew. I was excited. I loved live shows. With live shows, the energy is different because everybody is on their toes. From my experience in TV, I knew people were more alert and sharp when the show is live because they know they can’t make mistakes and edit later”, Mr. Gyapong reminisced.

He sold the idea of a live show to the technical crew. The technical crew bought into the idea, their only concern was making sure the videos they will be playing in the audience will be shown on television simultaneously, “once we figured out that part, the show was good to go”, Mr. Gyapong recollected.

The next hurdle was the organisers, whether Charterhouse will allow GTV to advertise that they were going to air the show live since tickets were still on sale. Mr. Ayoade agreed immediately to allow GTV to advertise that they were going to carry the transmission of the Ghana Music Awards live from the Ghana Music Awards.

“We want more people to watch the show on TV because the National Theatre can’t take the crowd we want”, they settled.

Charterhouse had originally pitched the Ghana Music Awards as a live show to GBC and GBC thought it was too risky to transmit a first-time production live. The compromise was that the show will be recorded, edited and played back at a later date. GTV finally agreed to let the show run live because of the excitement around the show in town. Mr. Ayoade bought into GTV’s original apprehension about going live. He started getting nervous after agreeing to let the show go live. GTV advertised the live telecast in their primetime news bulletin.

DESIGNED FOR TV

 “It was the fastest-paced production I have ever been a part of. I was on a high and so was everybody backstage. From when the show started till when it ended, there was a high adrenaline rush. That rush affected the entire auditorium. After the show, I couldn’t sleep for three days.

On the Monday, over 24 hours after the show, I was still on that high when I ran to the late Kofi Ansah (legendary fashion designer)’s house to tell him about the success of the show. I was working as his publicist as well at the time. When I got there, the first thing he said was he had seen a music award show on TV on the previous Saturday and felt like it was the best thing Ghanaian he has seen on TV. I told him I was part of that production and he joked that he didn’t like it then. For Kofi Ansah, whose pet peeve is Ghanaian mediocrity, to say he liked something Ghanaian, I knew it was here to stay”, Paa John Dadson reminisced in a phone interview. Paa John was the first publicist for the Ghana Music Awards.

According to Paa John, the Ghana Music Awards was designed to appeal to a television audience from the start. He said, the organisers because of their history in television production and advertising knew what corporate sponsors will be willing to buy into and that was a show designed for TV. With TV, the corporate sponsors know their product will be communicated to more than the 1,500 people in the auditorium.

Last year, between six and ten million people were projected to have watched the VGMA live broadcast on television and another ten to fifteen million watched it online. This is according to Mr. George Quaye, Publicist of VGMAs.

There have been other award shows staged in front of a live audience and meant for television. The Radio and Television Personalities Awards, Ghana Journalists Association Awards and Jigwe Awards have been awards that were televised. It is very obvious there is a breakdown in the coordination between show in the live auditorium and the television broadcast.  

“With the Ghana Music Awards, we are very conscious of time”, Uncle NAB said in an interview in his office at African University College of Communications (AUCC) where he is the Head of Journalism Department. Adding, “We can’t have breaks where nothing is happening because it won’t look good on television. I remember there was a year VIP won awards and I refused to let them perform because they were late. If we had to wait for them, the show would have dragged.”

Uncle NAB believes running a successful Award show for television takes visionary leadership.

CORPORATE GOVERNANCE

“Entertainment in Ghana is not regulated because it produces little taxable supply”, Mr. Tufour stated, adding that, that places the onus of regulation of any showbiz venture on the part(ies) to that venture. Regulation of showbiz business in Ghana in general falls on corporate governance, Mr. Tufour was quick to add.

“Bank of Ghana sit in their offices and issue licenses to banks and other financial institutions without ensuring the people they give license adhere to their regulations. That accounted for the high level of indiscipline in the banking sector, which led to the issues we are experiencing in the financial sector”, Mr Tufour said, in making a point the lack of corporate governance in business is not exclusive to the entertainment industry.

“At Charterhouse, we understand that we are a creative company and that duality is not lost on us. We (the staff) are encouraged to take risk and be innovative but must remain professional and pay attention to detail,” says Irene Palgrave Boakye-Danquah, who was been a staff of Charterhouse for over a decade, leaving in 2017.

In 2010, this writer was a reporter for an entertainment newspaper, Hi. He went to Charterhouse on the Monday morning after the award show for pictures for his report on the show. The then Public Relations desk, which has just received the photos from the camera crew, went through over 500 pictures to find a photo of Hon. George Andah,  then Marketing Manager of MTN, then title sponsor. Halfway through the search, the lady manning the desk screamed, “There is no picture of Sarkodie holding the award.”

Sarkodie had won the Artist of the Year that year and his fans stormed the stage with him to take the award, hence no photo of him holding his award. The lady manning the PR desk asked the camera crew to go through the video footage to screenshot the scene where the award was presented to him. The next year, a special security team manned the stage to prevent fans from storming the stage.

“Iyiola (Ayoade) worked in the financial sector (he worked as an investment and financial analyst) before starting his company. He understands how numbers work. He also has a good relationship with the staff. He has a personal inside joke with each member of his staff and his doors are always open to new ideas. If any of his staff members want to move on to other things, he still maintains his friendship with them and they know they are always welcome back”, said Paa John, the former Publicist of VGMAs who has maintained his friendship with Mr and Mrs Ayoade.

“As for Theresah (Ayoade), I don’t think the word criticism exists in her dictionary. She’s so unfazed and focused”, he continued.

CONTROVERSIES AND CRITICISM

“By the fifth year of the show, the attacks and criticisms had turned personal and vicious. People started looking into the background of the organisers and board members to find things they could use to criticize them. Some people registered companies with the sole aim of rivalling Charterhouse. Sometimes it got so brutal that Iyiola, when he was dropping me off at home after work, we will both agree that it was time he stopped staging the awards. I will wake up the next morning, and he will call acting like we didn’t have that conversation the previous night”, Paa John reminisced with laughter.  

Mr. Ayoade’s nationality became a major target of criticism. Mr. Ayoade was born a Nigerian. However, in a suit filed against Shatta Wale in 2014, he said he was a Ghanaian. Many people had a problem with the fact that the award scheme was started by a Nigerian. They stopped calling it Ghana Music Awards. Some started calling it, Charterhouse Music Awards and others started calling it The Nigerian’s Music Awards.

In an interview with Forbes Africa, Mr. Ayoade said that while Ghanaians accept foreign companies doing business in our country, they resist Nigerians.

“Meanwhile, they stand to gain more from Nigerians because we are one of you, our cultural and geographical affinity should be a plus. There is plenty is plenty of opportunity for us all to grow and try to unify the West African market. We need to do more (business) between ourselves. That’s the only way we will develop and grow the region.”

In one particular year, the first nominee mentioned in each category won that category. Critics seized on that and pointed it out as proof of bias. Artists started calling for the boycott of the show since the winners were predetermined.

According to Uncle NAB, who had been moved from being the Artistic Director to being a member of the Award Board, “It wasn’t deliberate. We just wrote down the name of the nominees based on who was the most popular and it turned out that year, the most popular nominees won.”

To prove his point of lack of bias, Uncle NAB narrated an incident when he wanted the event statisticians, KPMG, to give him the list of the winners, as the show director so he could plan ahead which video and song was to be played if a winner was announced. They refused.

In 2005, the Award Board didn’t nominate Samini (then Batman)’s Linda over its explicit lyrics. It nominated Obour’s Konkontibaa, which people believed was equally explicit. The roars of bias grew louder.

Charterhouse has taken steps to coopt some of their critics into their organization.

INNOVATION

From 2010, blogs and streaming apps and websites have become the main avenues for people to access music. Social media have become the main avenues for communicating music. 2016 was when the Grammys recognized this fact and started accepting songs that are released exclusively on streaming sites for Grammy consideration.

The VGMAs started accepting the change in 2012. From 2012, the VGMA recognize that artists are no more releasing albums but releasing singles on SoundCloud and GhanaMotion and sharing the links on their social media platforms. A lot of the hit songs in Ghana for the past decade have been released that way. The VGMAs caught on with the trend early on, when the Grammy were not even ready to have the debate.

“They (the organisers) are not static, they are open to new ideas”, Paa John reflected.

  • Nenebi is a poet, scriptwriter and freelance arts and culture journalist. He was a Communications Assistant to MUSIGA President, Bice Osei-Kuffour (Obour). Currently, he interns at 1st Law, Adabraka by day while reading for a law degree at Central University by night. He tweets at @HisNeneness.

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