MOBO Organisation: Kanya King

MOBO Awards founder Kanya King gives us the word up on global branding and the music industry

Take a venue. Throw in dressing rooms, make-up artists, the hottest music talent around, a backstage celebrity ‘retreat’, top-class catering, diva demands, security to turn away blaggers, all backed by a prolific advertising campaign – and you might get a glimpse of what goes into organising the Music of Black Origin (MOBO) Awards…

Why do I put myself last all the time?” laughs Kanya King, after revealing that she usually leaves planning her MOBO Awards outfit until the day before the event. When you’re responsible for putting on one of the most prestigious shows in the music industry calendar for a global audience of 250 million, dresses might understandably fall pretty low on your list of priorities. But if organising the event wasn’t time-consuming enough, managing the MOBO brand has bestowed on her shoulders responsibilities she never bargained for.

MOBO as a beacon organisation

When the first MOBO Awards screened in 1996, the brand took on a life of its own. King soon found she was a role model for budding female entrepreneurs, and an ambassador for both urban music and black issues.

“We became very quickly a beacon organisation,” she says. “We’d get inundated by calls from people wanting practical advice on employment opportunities, career development or business. They saw us as an umbrella organisation they could trust to give advice without any vested interest.”

So what was it about the MOBOs that touched so many people? Let’s not forget it was a landmark event. At the time King felt passionately there was a lack of recognition for urban music in proportion to the revenue it was generating for the music industry, and wanted the imbalance redressed. The record labels took some convincing, and many were unsure there was an audience for the MOBOs.

But King was resolute. Ever since she could remember, she had wanted to attend a show like the MOBOs, and she was certain there was a similarly hungry audience out there. She had a vision for the awards that would embrace diversity, and as the child of a Ghanaian father and an Irish mother, King wanted to create a space where fusion was celebrated and a white artist singing ‘black music’ could also be honoured.

“It was always music of black origin, never artists of black origin,” she says. The name was of the utmost importance to this vision. “It’s short, memorable and it sounds quite ethnic, yet also inclusive,” observes King.

She also wanted urban music disassociated from the ‘unjust’ press it was receiving at the time. “Even though we didn’t have the same budget as the more established award shows, I needed to kind of pretend and make our resources go a long way,” she explains. So she drew on her experience organising gigs as a student.

Making it happen

First of all, she whipped up a media frenzy around the event by holding a launch at Ministry of Sound, gaining coverage in national newspapers and on local TV, as part of a tireless campaign to attract sponsors. This groundwork led to a meeting with Carlton TV.

“This was 1996, and we were hoping to get a TV slot the following year,” King recalls. “But they wanted to broadcast the show in six weeks’ time and only had a limited budget.”

Although the timescale was tight, it was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. But with only a vision to sell, there was no time to arrange sponsors. Relying heavily on ticket revenue (unlike these days, when the brand is established, so sponsors are usually willing to pay upfront), King squeezed 1,000 people into a 500-capacity venue – the New Connaught Rooms in London. Among them was the then leader of the opposition Tony Blair, who cleared his schedule to be there.

The lack of sponsorship money meant King had to pay for much of the first event herself. Remortgaging her house raised most of the £60,000 needed to make it happen.

But it certainly paid off. The first show was viewed by around a million people and since then the awards have continued to grow. The second event went to the 4,000-capacity Royal Albert Hall; the biggest to date was held at the former London Arena, which held 12,000 people; while this year’s event took place at the 02.

The first show was not profitable, but this was expected. King had a long-term vision for a brand that could grow through sponsorship, the sale of broadcast rights and the syndication of clips.

After a four-year stint at Channel 4, King’s now with the BBC, as part of a five-year deal which ends next year. Although she’s staying tight-lipped about how much that was worth, she does reveal that the broadcaster’s global reach was part of the appeal. “But also we still wanted to be able to develop and nurture new artists,” she explains, “and we knew if we went to too commercial a channel that might be a problem. It was important to keep the integrity.”

Learning the hard way

Of course King has also faced challenges, and when a deal fell through at the last minute in the second year, she learned the hard way not to put all your eggs in one basket. “We’d introduced a new event called the Dance Star Awards, as dance music was massive at the time. We managed to do a £3m deal with an online company to sponsor a number of events.”

But two weeks before the awards were due to take place at the Alexandra Palace, the sponsor pulled out – it had been bought out by another company that didn’t want to stay in music.

King borrowed more money to get through it rather than axing any staff. “I didn’t want to let the team down, so we were put into a position where we ended up negotiating a deal,” she says, “but, of course, we didn’t end up getting the entire sponsorship.”

These days she has learnt to “always have a contingency plan”. Despite a major sponsorship agreement with Western Union, the company sensibly has a number of other deals in place. Mobile phone company Celtel looks after joint interests in Africa, for example.

“We also work with various partners/sponsors in different ways,” she adds. “We provide tailor-made packages comprising of award category sponsorships, advertising and sampling opportunities and VIP packages. More and more organisations recognise the great benefits of being involved with our target audience.”

Striking a balance

After being one of the first to reach out to this audience, charities and not-for-profit organisations also started beating down her door asking her to consult and sit on boards. King rose to the challenge, and found herself on the government’s music industry task force and a spokesperson for black issues, female entrepreneurs and the music business. King’s outlook has undoubtedly helped to cement her position as role model and mentor. She is refreshingly positive. When asked whether she has encountered racism or prejudice in business, she says:

“To some extent it is a fact of life and there are elements of it at times. However, I don’t really let negative perceptions affect me that much. I think becoming better and building a positive profile is a good self reliant coping strategy.”

Similarly, far from viewing her gender as a barrier, she sees it more as a blessing. “I feel it has worked more for me than against me. In a lot of meetings I attend I’m usually the only woman of colour, so people don’t tend to forget you however briefly you’ve met.”

However, she admits to allowing her role as mentor to take over in the past, which in hindsight was bad for business. “In the beginning, I wanted to help everyone and try and do so much. But I had to make a decision on the organisations that I could help and support. It was a big learning curve.”

The future for MOBO

These days the MOBO Awards is one of the hottest music events of the year. The show is made available to some 60 countries and is the largest urban awards show in Europe.

Logistically, it’s a huge balancing act, which includes sourcing a venue that can cater for artists’ production demands, so when someone asks for a Formula One car on stage at the Royal Albert Hall “you have to try and facilitate that”.

There are also media partnership deals in place and a nomination launch to arrange. An academy decides the nominations and the public then vote through media partners, such as MTV and Bebo.

But the MOBO brand is still growing and King has always had big plans. Various countries have shown interest in organising their own version of the awards, and this is being incorporated into the business plan.

The brand now encompasses a magazine, 100,000 copies of which are distributed through music store HMV each year in the run-up to the awards, and King is now looking to launch a quarterly version.

The site will soon re-launch, with more of a social networking focus, and a clothing range is in the infancy stage. A soft launch of the online MOBO shop is imminent.

For the flagship event, she hopes to grow numbers by 20% for next year’s event in October 2008 through early bookings and sales, the formation of long-term partnerships and website developments. She is already in discussion with major venues. “With the date and venue confirmed it’s easier for potential sponsors to step in,” she reveals.

King still takes her mentor seriously, and her achievements demonstrate her clout in the music industry. Having been awarded an MBE, she is also a visiting professor at the London Metropolitan University. She often speaks to budding entrepreneurs at the British Library and appeared on ITV’s Fortune: Million Pound Giveaway to back young talent.

MOBO also runs a community interest company, The MOBO Foundation, which encourages entrepreneurship and generates diversity in music and media.

No wonder King is busy. But she’s aiming for a more strategic role in the business. She’s looking to take on VC investment and expand her senior management team – which currently includes a ‘sponsorship guru’, a chairman, a business development director and a steering committee. But she still hasn’t quite mastered the whole work-life balance thing.

“I probably put myself last,” she says. “I’m learning to change, so I have a better balance – but when you’re very passionate about something, it’s beyond work.”


(will not be published)