Performing Arts

Money, Blankets & Wine: MDQ shares the insights


Muthoni The Drummer Queen or simply MDQ, the founder of Blankets & Wine festival. PHOTO | POOL

It’s been 30 minutes since taking my seat at Alfajiri restaurant in the uptown market of Kilimani. My cup of double Cappuccino is now dried up and I’ve just ordered another as I continue to wait.

When she finally strides in ten minutes later, rocking a jungle green tracksuit and as always spotting a weirdo hairstyle, her guilty rueful look provides contrast.

“I am so sorry for keeping you waiting. I feel so embarrassed because this is unlike me. I had a family situation,” Muthoni Ndonga explains.

Sometime in 2013, a popular blog then declared the notable rapper otherwise known as Muthoni The Drummer Queen or simply MDQ, the wealthiest female celebrity in Kenya.

It had been six years since she started Blankets & Wine (B&W) festival which returned on December 21st after a two year hiatus.

By that time, 2013 the Coachella like festival had gained popularity among Nairobi residents growing to become one of the most outstanding, talked about music and arts experience events in the country.

Every artist wanted to perform at B&W. To be on the B&W stage was a flex. No sponsor wanted to be left out, Even the late billionaire Chris Kirubi was onboard during the initial editions.

To many, the success of B&W only meant one thing, MDQ was always smiling all the way to the bank. They were right. Or probably not.

“That’s what they call counting coins. You look at someone's growth and assume all that translates to a fortune. If only society understood what the situation was like, then. I was trying to build a business here. Yes, it looked like I was making so much money but truth is, I was just setting up structures to support the continuity of this baby, so every little coin I made, I channeled it all back to the business. Trust me I was broke.”

Broke?  “Look, at the beginning between 2008 and early 2015 we did B&W every Sunday of every month. You need lots of resources to pull a successful back-to- back events. So how was I not broke?” MDQ affirms.

Exploiting crisis

An au courant culture and arts aficionado, it’s evident how MDQ has clearly earned her titular crown ‘The Bauss Lady’ (Boss) amongst her industry peers.  A risk taker and believer in crisis, these are the aspects that Muthoni credits for her entrepreneurial growth.

"Whenever there is a crisis, there will always be a door for an opportunity to exploit.” When a venue she was accustomed to performing at every week closed, MDQ saw an opportunity to curate an avant-garde style of music concert in the country and B&W was born.

At first, when she set out to curate B&W, all she wanted to do is host a Sunday picnic styled event to promote local artistic talent and while at it make money.  All you needed to do was buy the ticket, show up at the venue carrying a picnic basket, your favorite bottle of wine and a blanket and have a good time and enjoy electrifying stage performances from local artistes.

With the growing demand after every edition starting with producing an event for 300 people then 1,000 to 3,000, also came more opportunities to make more money.

It wasn’t feasible anymore for attendees to carry their own bottle of wine to the event because the festival was now popular and as such “there was no commercial sense to it. In the beginning the model was useful,” MDQ states.

Over the years MDQ has produced over 100 editions of B&W with the festival expanding to Uganda and Rwanda.

Uganda marked its 10th year of B&W last month with Nigerian AfroBeats singer Yemi Alade headlining the acts, while Kenya will marked its 14th anniversary on December 21 with the festival set to return to Rwanda in May 2023.

Just like famous Coachella, one of the biggest and most popular music festivals in the world held every year in the desert of Indio, California, B&W shares lots of similarities with key of them being the hundreds of millions spent to organise.

Business Insider magazine reports it costs around Sh41.5 billion ($340 million) to produce Coachella every year.

A large chunk of the cost always goes towards paying performers, security, production, and marketing.

Funding festivals

“The scale at which we are now producing B&W is different. If you are doing a festival at that scale where you are bringing in some Kenyan and African headliners, you are doing programming of the show, you are running multiple stages at the event, you are looking at at least Sh24 million ($200,000),” Muthoni expounds before adding.

“That’s on the lower side when you have called in favour (sponsorship). The right amount is about Sh30 million ($250,0000).”

According to the Nai Niya Who? hit-maker, what this means is, one will need to fund raise. “You need to get sponsors very early, demonstrate value for them to consider partnering. Such decisions take months to be approved because most corporate sponsors have a lot to protect for their brands. Besides, it has to make returns.” MDQ says with the right curation of the event, especially with getting the artists right, there will always be a lot of money to make.

“A festival has multiple streams of income. The sponsors will give you money to produce the event,  that means paying bills. You will make your money from ticketing and could be lots of it when the artists on the line up are hot. This will depend on how well you market the event.”

Another avenue where B&W makes money from is selling spaces to vendors of food and drinks at the event. The sale of merchandise at the event is another money stream.

For the 14 years she has been doing B&W, she has been trying to explore yet another lucrative stream that to date she is yet to hack.

Elusive project

“Syndication of event content is still a very under explored streaming avenue in Kenya and this is because it has multiple rights holders. Think of when Beyoncé played at Coachella and we watched it on Netflix. Multiple partnerships have to be built amongst content right holders for that to be a success. As B&W we are working on this but still we have yet to crack it. Hopefully next year we will have.”

Like any other business, B&W has also had its fair share of setbacks. MDQ picks two when she was left licking her wounds.

At the beginning of 2014, MDQ and her team hosted a two-day event to celebrate the milestone of producing 60 editions. The event was super successful. To celebrate the achievement, she brought to town the South Africa siblings Mafikizolo who were riding high at the time, DJ Black Coffee and Sauti Sol among other local acts who were topping charts then.

Costly lessons

For the next edition, having realised B&W had now become popular because of the foreign artistes it brought, MDQ opted to revert it back to its initial concept where only Kenyan artistes would headline.

“That didn’t turn out so well for us. Unfortunately, it’s the double edge of Kenyans, we are very exposed and I tell you this as an artist who has played in several stages around the world. Kenyans didn’t show up in numbers for that edition. They overwhelmingly rejected it.”

The other one was a spin-off of B&W, the Africa Nouveau festival, a two-day festival with multiple stages at the same event showcasing innovative visual artists, literature, film and fashion designers which Muthoni started in September 2015.

“What I didn’t know was that with this new experience I was curating, I was supposed to find a new audience but I instead tapped the B&W audience. The idea was to tap into Gen Z because I had realized we were having an inter-generation moment. So I tried marrying the event into B&W and it backfired.”

With the setback came the loss of millions. “It was depressing, I lost over Sh5 million and put a lot of people in jeopardy. There were multiple things that went wrong besides the poor turn out. We had the wrong price point, we hadn’t raised enough sponsorships. The way the event was presented had dissonance. We lost a media partnership we had built for years.”

However, MDQ who is currently sourcing for a CEO of the franchise, says she doesn’t regret the falls, they have only made her understand the business better.

And it's a business she hopes will outlive her just “like the Johnnie Walker Whiskey brand which has been walking since 1865.”

Business structure

Because she is building a legacy, B&W is a company with structures, an advisory board, a governance board and employees with medical cover privileges.

“An advisory board, these are high level thinkers with experience enough to analyse trends business models then offer guidance. Governance board manages and runs the business.”

Of the employees, MDQ heads as the Creative Director. “We then have somebody responsible for building partnerships, another one in charge of the brand. We also have someone in communication then you have the lead producer who is the bolts and nuts of the festival. There is a Community manager, a publicist as well as the Booking and Inquisitorial in charge of booking and managing artists. Then obviously the accounting manager for the books and head of legal. The only missing link here is the CEO who will be driving the business.”

Even with the return of the festival,  the mother of one is still chasing a dream. The dream to see Blankets at par level with the likes of Live Nation and AEG Events.

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