Music Producer Kelvin Avon: ‘Yes, I’m A Very Stubborn Guy’ Part 2
Entrepreneur Kelvin Avon a.k.a. Afreex is a platinum record selling music producer, songwriter and mix engineer. He divides his time between London and Hong Kong. Originally from Zambia, he made name working with artists such as P. Diddy and Erykah Badu. Kelvin's production company Chewatribe put together the UK's biggest collaboration album Union Black which won an Urban Music Award for Best Compilation. Currently he's very busy running his company MoFo Music.
This is part two of a three part interview with Kelvin. At the end of part one Kelvin told us that after initially bumping his head as an entrepreneur a couple of times (no plan, no money, no idea), he got his act together. He decided what he was going to do and how he could make money with his companies Chewatribe and MoFo Music. Together with his dad he made the choice it had to be a music production and artist development concept. The plan was to sign acts, develop them and license them onto record labels. Kelvin was going to be a producer for hire. The idea and the business grew very quickly. They started working with a lot of artists. And very soon Kelvin got almost too much work to handle.
"'I never see you. I don't know who you are. You're never around', my girlfriend -now wife- used to say. And it was true. I was working ridiculous hours. If I'd work less than fifteen hours, it was a good day. I was getting so little sleep that it started to affect my health. I really had some problems. And that woke me up. I realized that I had to be more focused on maximizing my time efficiency, because this couldn't go on like this any longer. And it didn't. I turned things around and actually made working efficiently into one of my strengths. I can now maximize output in a minimum of time."
How do you do that?
"It's a mixture. I learned how to delegate. I used to do everything myself, but now I find people to do it for me. Very talented people who are much better than I am at what I consider my weaknesses. I get them to do it. That's pretty much how my business partner and I work as well. His strengths are my weaknesses and vice-versa. As a result we make a very strong, cohesive unit and that's what has helped us to move forward quickly here in Asia. We're a very strong team. Together we have everything pretty much covered."
"In our company we also delegate. There's only five of us here because we don't really need a huge staff. We hire a girl who does all our PR and press. She's amazing at that. I contract all my legal stuff out to a lawyer. I contract my financial stuff out to an accountant. At the moment we're partnering with Billboard in the US to help us with our press and promotion. Especially for a lot of our artists across the West and in Asia. And we're partnering up with a company over here called VS Media who are huge. They represent some of the biggest online talents. They'll be handling all the social media for our artists as well. So for a lot of that kind of stuff that we're not strong at, we find solid partners and contract it out. That way we can actually focus on what we think we're good at, which is getting an artist from zero... it's a horrible saying but 'zero to hero'. Getting an artist from someone who's not known to someone who's known."
How do you know if those external parties are trustworthy? Is it trial and error?
"Yes kind of. With partners we usually start on a trial basis where there's really not much for us to lose. We always try to put ourselves in a position of strength. And when I say strength, I mean - there's a well known saying – that 'content is king'. Personalize the content and only the content is in the position of power."
What exactly do you mean by that?
"We own the content. We own the artist. We own the music. So we position ourselves in terms of 'Look, we have what's going to make the money. Maybe you have the way to make the money or to monetize what we have. But we actually have it. We own it. So why don't you show us what you can do and then we'll decide if we want to go on with it.' That's our mentality really. In the five years we've had MoFo Music we've had a lot of success in this region. I think we're quite well-known here as a very creative company. They know that we do stuff different and that we're quite forward and progressive. A lot of fairly big companies are keen to work with us."
Listen to the whole interview with Kelvin here:
Let's take a little step back. When and why did you move to Hong Kong?
"That's a very simple one. My wife. We were in London together and she'd been away from her family for a long, long time. When she got pregnant with our first child Thalia, she turned around to me and said something I couldn't really argue with. 'Kelvin, your family is here. Your parents have already seven grandkids, our daughter will be my parents' first grandchild. I would really like them to be around their grandchildren as the kids grow up'. I just couldn't argue with that. As much as I wanted to stay in the UK."
Kelvin tells the switch was quite the struggle in the beginning. He fought the idea of moving to Hong Kong. Basically because he didn't want to. On top of that his management and producer in the UK didn't like the idea either. ,,They were like 'What are you doing? You're having great success here. You've just had some big albums released so why are you going?' I said, well, I have to choose my family. In the end of the day my wife's not happy and that's not OK.' But I did fight the idea. And the first year was actually very tough. I'll admit."
Despite his doubts, Kelvin had already been in Hong Kong. So he knew what he was coming into. But he also knew that he didn't know anything about the music scene over there. He describes his situation as being a little bit blind. He barely spoke the language. Just enough to basically order some food or get around town and ask directions. But it was a long way from holding a business meeting in proper Chinese. That changed when he met his future business partner Jun Kung in 2012.
"Many, many hours. And during that time, either you're working or you're bullshitting."
"We got in touch with each other here in Hong Kong. That was after my first year. Jun is an musician actually. He's a very well-respected, independent artist. We met and not long after we went to the studio where we played some music to each other. Immediately I was like wow, what he's doing is fantastic. This guy is a great artist, very talented. And he said 'Hey look, I'm doing my new album. Could you produce it for me? I don't have a huge budget but I love what you do.' I was quite desperate for some cool work at that time and I was impressed by what he did. So of course I was on board. I did it on a very small budget, we made the album and we started selling the songs. All of it just happened very organically. After about six months his album came out."
"It felt good and it was a success. So we were both like 'Maybe we should start a company.' I'll tell you, that's literally how it began. It was very organic. That's what I like about it. We got to know each other very well before we even came up with the idea of starting a company. We spent a lot of time together in the studio. Many, many hours. And during that time, either you're working or you're bullshitting. You always talk about your past, your family, your experiences. So we already had a very strong relationship before we started MoFo Music together. A strong friendship based on very similar experiences. Like being burned in the music business, we both had our moment. But especially based upon our mutual love for music. We felt like very kindred spirits.
With Taiwanese superstar Vanness Wu
The beginning of MoFo Music went very organic, would you say it was your big break in Hong Kong? Yeah. And Jun played a very big role in that. He's always been a very respected artist and songwriter. And because of him certain doors in Hong Kong opened for me that otherwise would have stayed closed. I was known as the producer, but over here people were a bit reluctant to work with me because I didn't speak the language. They were like 'How can this guy produce for us when he can't even communicate with us?' It was an issue for them. But I never saw it as a problem though. I've worked with Spanish artists, with Swedish artists, German artists, Egyptian artists. I mean I've done loads and it has never been insuperable. But they seemed to find it a challenge and Jun opened that door for me. Once people decided to check us out and see how we worked they were like 'Oh, actually it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter he doesn't speak the language. He still knows what he's doing.'"
Can you always surpass language barriers with music?
"Yes, I think it's always possible to surpass whatever barrier with music. I think music actually is the language you're communicating in first. Whenever you're speaking to each other directly, a language is second. I think if someone can just tell me what the song is about and can explain the important parts of the song, I can work it out. If the artist is good and they can sing with emotion, you know you can work it out. That's the power of music. It's only hard when you deal with an artist that's not very talented, I will be honest. That's a problem."
"The fact that I was one of the first few Western producers who was actually in Hong Kong producing with local artists also opened doors for me. That, and my way of working. We do things differently. We always make sure the artist is present in the studio when we're writing the song for them. The artist has to come and sit with us because we've got to know the person. Otherwise it won't work. And that's something they weren't used to over here. They never did it that way before. Most of the time, they would just buy the song off a producer in the West and get a local guy to work it out. In that sense I think we've changed how things are done over here. And people enjoy it. I wouldn't say we were pioneers in that. We did it the same way back in the UK and in the US. But they didn't do it here. No one did it like we do over here."
In part three: Never ending itch & Chili Sauce Success