Music Producer Kelvin Avon: ‘Yes, I’m A Very Stubborn Guy’ Part 1
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, a music publishing company based in Hong Kong. This is part one of a three part interview with Kelvin. Check out part two and three.
Because he's got such a diverse background we first off asked Kelvin to tell us more about how he went from living in Lusaka in Zambia, to Boston, moving on to London, ending up in Hong Kong. ,,Well it's a very odd story as you can imagine. Zambia is where I was born. My mother's from Zambia and my father is from the UK. He'd traveled to Zambia as a young man and met my mother there. They had five kids. My twin sister and I are the youngest of the five."
"I spent the first two years of my life in Lusaka. So I don't remember that time really, to be honest. But I do remember my dad applying for a job in Hong Kong. We moved over there pretty quickly. So I lived in Hong Kong as a kid. After I finished high school, when I was 18 or so, I moved to London where I studied business and finance. I hated it, so I dropped out after a year to find a way to get into the music business instead. I found a course in Boston at the Massachusetts Communications College, which it was called back then. Today it's called The New England Institute of Art. I studied for a Recording Arts degree. And I graduated! For the first time in my life I actually did very well at anything considered academic. I was second top of my class."
"I hated working for someone else. I hated having a boss. That's why I started my own business."
Kelvin couldn't get a visa in the States after graduating, so he had to go back to London. And that's actually where it all started for him. He began working for a music promotion company as their student engineer. After a while he ended up as their production manager. ,,But the thing is that I was never satisfied. I hated working for someone else. I hated having a boss. That's why I started my own business. The job was very technical and didn't give me room to be creative. I really just struggled. And that's when I thought 'Why am I doing this for someone else? Why am I making all this money for a company? Why don't I do something for myself? So I left to start my own business, Chewatribe Productions. This was around 2001 and I started with very little money. I bought the studio equipment with a loan.
Listen to the whole interview with Kelvin here:
Are you a stubborn guy, Kelvin?
Is that a good thing for an entrepreneur?
"Yes and no. I would say you do have to be stubborn and stay true to yourself when it comes to negative advice or input from others. For example, a lot of people have told me me 'Oh, don't do it Kelvin', or 'No, this is wrong. You should do it differently.' If I'd listened to those people, I wouldn't be where I'm at right now. From that perspective I think it's very important to be stubborn. But at the same time you need to be open for ideas as well. I know that along the way there have been many people that gave me good advice. And I should have listened a bit closer to what those people were saying to me. Maybe that's where the stubbornness lets me down once in awhile. But to be honest, I wouldn't change how I am in that sense because I think me being so stubborn has really sort of driven me. Actually, the thing that drives me the most is when somebody tells me I can't do it. That really triggers me. At that point I have to prove them wrong and show them that I can do it. I'm very headstrong in that sense."
What's the biggest lesson you've learned from that?
"I used to be quite hot-headed. Not aggressive in terms of violent or angry, but I would speak my mind. I was very forward and that got me into trouble quite a few times. To give you an example; there's still one record label in the UK, I won't mention the name, that even to this day will not work with me. Simply because I told them what I thought about them straight up. And it wasn't positive. So I guess the biggest lesson I've learned over the years is to 'think before you speak."
Isn't keeping your mouth shut something everybody learns as they get a bit older (and wiser)?
"Yes, exactly, very, very true. Now I think I've learned that very well. I think I've gotten a little bit more diplomatic. I'm a little smarter in terms of that. Especially after coming to Asia where things are very different. They do not like aggressive behavior here. They don't like that at all. That's partly why a lot of Western companies struggle here. They, especially the American companies, come here with that very aggressive -in your face- attitude and the Chinese really don't like that. They won't say anything to you though. They'll just have a meeting with you, nod and smile. But they'll never work with you again. It's not how they do business."
At work in the studio
Kelvin started Chewatribe in South London. In a very tiny apartment that he converted into a studio. It was a studio and a apartment fit together in a little box. ,,I lived and worked there and I started with literally no money. I took a loan from the bank just before I quit my job and it sort of all went from there. I was 24, I think. And I just went in with a very headstrong 'I can do this' attitude and yeah, I learned very quickly that I had made a huge mistake by not making any proper plans apart from getting a loan and getting the equipment. I was like 'Oh, how do I make money? How do I pay the bills? How do I pay rent?' I didn't think it through. So I'll admit that's one of the first and biggest mistakes I made. I didn't go in with a plan."
That soon changed as Kelvin fixed his initial mistake and, more importantly, realized he was somebody others weren't. He was 'the guy'. The guy with a very eclectic musical ear. The guy who dares to do it differently. The guy who connects artist and label. The guy who decides what a label should do with its artists. In short: the guy a lot of people in the music business at that time were looking for. ,,I put myself in a role as the guy who could help make your artist have a sound and a musical vision. When I did that for a couple of people at record labels I already knew, I realized that was where my main strength was. Coming up with a sound for someone by talking to them and knowing their personality. I was able to come up with something that suited them, that suited their voice and suited their music."
"Dad, I need to work out what's my company."
Kelvin managed to position himself in a very sought after role. It payed off, but he had to find out the hard way that things weren't always all good. "Business wise, I will say at the time I was naive. I was still a little arrogant thinking I knew it all. As a result, I got burned. I mean I started working with artists without contracts. And of course people took advantage and took many, many songs from me. You hear these stories about the music business, I can tell you they're true. Many songs and things have been stolen from me. Some were very successful."
"But I learned from it and told myself 'OK, you know what? I need to change things up business wise.' So I went and spoke to my dad who's a financial director. I said to him, 'Dad, I need to work out what's my company. How am I going to make this work?' We literally sat down over a long period of time. On and off for a year or so. Formulating what I was going to do and how I could make money. We decided it had to be a music production and artist development company. The plan was to sign acts, develop them and license them onto record labels."