By Onome Amawhe
Without Olivier Laouchez, there would be no Trace, the media group dedicated to afro-urban music and entertainment. The French media group which has helped to pave the way into the mainstream for black urban hip hop artists demonstratesLaouchez’s ability to reach across the divide with strong representation through a range of entertainment programming. That has also emerge him as a significant figure in the globalentertainment industry.
As leader of TraceGroup which owns and operates 21 paid TV channels, 4 FM radio stations, over 30 digital and mobile services, and develops content production and syndication activities reaching 59M paid subscribers and 200M viewers, listeners and mobile users in 160 countries, Laouchez has helped the company make the difficult transition from its humble beginning as an advocate of French speaking urban music — which was seriously under-represented in the French TV landscape at the time of its founding.
Few years after launching Trace in 2003, Olivier changed course and morphed Trace intoa full blown entertainment network modeled on the American BET Channel. This time, he’s on a mission to “support, nurture, cherish and nourish afro-urban culture and music and bring it to the world”. In subsequent years, Trace rapidly became the home of the “most engaging, innovative, disruptive, edgy, chic and narrative driven brand and digital content related to afro-urban entertainment”.
A statement from the company’s website says that: “With in-house development, production, financing, media, digital, distribution and branding capabilities, combined with the subversive spirit of independent creators, TRACE collaborates with both emerging and established talents to generate premium afro-urban content and leading digital platforms for a potential captive audience of 400M super fans in its priority markets”. While music remains the core business of Trace, it recently ventured into the sporting arena with the launch of Trace Sports Channel which will showcase the private lives of global sports stars. Trace Sports is expected to bridge the gap between sports and entertainment channels. As Trace continues to grow exponentially, with Africa topping its priority radar, its ultimate objective is “to build a global footprint that doesn’t rely on the more developed countries.”
Where did the idea for TRACE originally come from?
I conceived the Trace idea in 1998 in response to the under-representation of black urban music in France. In those days, France had the second biggest hip hop scene in the world, but because the artists were predominantly black, they were hugely underrated and were never shown on TV and so I thought that creating a French speaking urban music television network modeled on the BET in the United States was the way to go. And here we are.
What were you doing before starting the company?
I have always been a serial entrepreneur in finance, media and music. My first companies were a finance company helping project owners to find investors, a local television channel (ATV) in the Caribbean and an audio-visual production company (Kanel’) which I created in Martinique back in 1993. A few years later I became the manager of Secteur A, a major hip hop label in France in the late 90s. And then in 2003 I launched TRACE.
How would you describe TRACE and your vision in a couple of lines?
TRACE is a global broadcast and digital media company specialized in afro urban music and lifestyle. Today we have 22 pay TV channels, several FM and digital radios, online and mobile services, content and events which allow us to connect with a 200 million multicultural audience in more than 160 countries. Our vision is to make TRACE the leading afro urban media brand in the world with a focus on Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and the African and Caribbean Diasporas.
What would you say is the main thing that makes TRACE different from other players in this space?
We are the only media group to target an afro-urban audience across Africa and in diaspora countries like France and the Caribbean. So, since its launch in 2003, TRACE as acted as a cultural bridge between these different regions, which makes it quite special.
TRACE is particularly successful on the African continent, which is the company’s priority growth region. We believe that our success there is in large part due to our honest, open, humble and respectful approach to local cultures. The key is to be glocal: to have both a global and local vision to make sure to adapt our Global view to local realities. That is why created localized African TV channels including TRACE Urban, TRACE Africa, TRACE Naija, TRACE Mziki, TRACE Kitoko and TRACE Toca. Through these channels, TRACE has managed to break through thanks to our business model which combines a clear format, in-depth musical expertise, entrepreneurial risk-taking, diversified revenues, tightly controlled operational costs, and localized services rolled out across the world through new technologies to do more, better, faster.
TRACE is quite visible on the African continent indeed. For a French company, what was your strategy in Africa that enabled your exponential growth?
In Nigeria, we made sure that Trace Naija benefits from the same resources as our US or French channels. We are certainly one of the few entertainment company that’s constantly researching the interests of our users. But on top of this, I decided 7 years ago to personally move to Africa with my family. By being based on the continent, I can spend more time with African creators and understand them better, and I can also better integrate into local systems to work on strategic media such as radio, mobile, and local channels.
What do you consider Trace’ biggest accomplishments for 2017?
2017 and 2018 were very exciting years for TRACE. We launched TRACE Play, a digital player which allows users around the world to access all TRACE live channels and radios as well as thousands of hours of on-demand content on any device. TRACE also organized a TRACE Live concert with the Queen of Afropop Yemi Alade in Paris. We organized a major initiative with artists to help the Haitian and Caribbean victims of the hurricane Irma.
We’ve also taken part in the Group of Public Interest (GPI) created by the French President to build the French Foundation for the Commemoration of Slavery that will be launched this year. As the great-grandson of a slave, it was more than an honour to be involved in such an initiative, it is a duty. Knowing and understanding the history of slavery and its human, social, economic and cultural consequences is a necessity for all of us. Most recently, we launched
TRACE Kitoko, our new channel dedicated to Congolese music. 2 new channels; TRACEAyiti (Haiti) and TRACE Latina (Latin Urban beats), are in the pipeline. These will particularly strengthen our presence in the Caribbean and the Americas. A major highpoint is the organization of A Celebration of African Culture, a historic cultural event that took place on July 3rd at the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, with French President Emmanuel Macron as special guest. It was an extraordinary evening during which President Macron interacted with some of Africa’s and Nigeria’s best artists and announced the official launch of the 2020 Season of African Cultures in France.
Can you describe your experience in negotiating the visit of the President of France to the New AfriKa Shrine?
This experience can be summarized in a few words:Challenging, Exciting,Stressful ,Extremely complicated,Extremely rewarding. With our Nigerian team, the challenge was to perfectly execute our vision of a multidimensional cultural event with music, fashion, visual arts, dance and Nollywood segments while aligning the interests and constraints of dealing with more than 50 artists, the security, the Shrine venue, the French Presidency, the Governor of Lagos, partners such as Ecobank and Pernod Ricard, Lagos tourism board, more than 120 journalists, a full live TV production etc.I walked 10 kilometres in the Shrine the day of the event and I totally lost my voice the day after. But eventually it went very well and we had massive positive coverage. The French President loved the event.
How would you evaluate what is being described as the “African media boom,” namely in television?
The African media boom is linked to the development of cheaper, high quality digital technologies that has made it easier to produce and distribute local content, which is what audiences really want. Research into Africa’s media landscape has shown that new technology and innovative thinking have allowed the continent’s broadcasters to attract larger and more diverse audiences than ever.
A key element to sustain the African media boom is the investment in co-production and education for creative industries. African media industry faces permanently competition from giant US companies such as Disney or Netflix. These giants invest billions of dollars in talents and can bring skills, special effects, massive storytelling capacities to their projects.
What are the one or two big things that you want to accomplish to transform TRACE for the future?
Innovation is part of Trace DNA. My priority isto build Trace into a leading glocal (global and local) brand and media platform for Afro Urban music and lifestyle.
We are now leveraging the strength of this media asset into new services and products related to music, digital, mobile, events, content and education. This is a complex task but this is asked by our passionate audiences who want to engage deeper and closer with Trace.
Beyond this vertical integration, we also have great projects to offer our brand and vision to the Brazilian and American markets where lived about 160 million people of African descent.
All these initiatives will totally transform Trace as a company. We are ready to accept this transformation because it is in line with our ambition to bring a positive contribution to Afro Urban creation and to the world.