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Mixed fortunes

Published: 
Thursday, December 31, 2015
Tobago-born gospel-reggae singer Positive had a brilliant year with his album Stand Up and Be Counted reaching the Billboard charts.

Alphonse Karr was a French wit and editor who gave the world an epigram that has become part of the lexicon of the cynical observer: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” which loosely translates to “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” 

This could be the theme for a review of the music scene here in T&T if one wants to critically dissect what has happened on both the commercial and creative sides. 

The facts on the ground are that despite the various forays into expanding international and local commercialisation of T&T music by the State, product development and intellectual property exploitation have not moved significantly, even as the business models that define these sectors globally are going through significant changes. 

CreativeTT and specifically MusicTT (only recently energised with a board) ventured to the SXSW Music Conference in March 2015 to gather information. 

MusicTT hosted workshops in songwriting and production, made a video on the business of music publishing, and started a new a strategic plan for the industry. 

MusicTT chair John Arnold noted that the company was “focusing on capacity building for the industry.” 

What they did not do was to act as an effective conduit between Government and the creative stakeholders, to better enable a fair, commercial environment for songwriting, music video and music publishing.

Despite MusicTT-driven stakeholder consultations in August which spoke to issues affecting the music business environment locally, the draft policy on broadcast is still devoid of any mention of local content quotas. Enforcement of the Copyright Act in relation to music piracy is seemingly abandoned. And the draft National Cultural Policy still has not been promulgated. 

New artists’ breakthroughs to markets have been stymied by the continual “de-commercialising” of the music by the artists themselves, who consider the landscape hostile to market forces and opt for giving their music away, much like a calling card, for the potential to be invited to generate live music fees and royalties at public performance showcases, fêtes and concerts. 

Unsuccessful attempts were made to get a comment from Cott CEO Josh Rudder on the impact of this changing landscape on music royalty collection and distribution.

Local music website TrinidadTunes.com went offline, iTunes had a smaller number and less diverse palette of local acts, and if not for the compilation by overseas labels like VP Records, soca on disc or digital download would be a memory. Speaking of compilations, T&T is losing out to foreign compilers in a lucrative niche in the record business. 

Cree Record compiled Nappy Mayers, and Cultures of Soul Records compiled Wildfire, Defosto, Hamilton Brothers, Patti Charles, Mastro and others. Ozy Merrique Jr’s compilations are distributed old school, direct sales, with limited to no impact. We need a step in another direction.

In 2015, Machel Montano and reggae-gospel star Positive both had albums charting on the Billboard magazine’s reggae chart. Montano’s Monk Monte peaked at number two, Positive’s Stand and Be Counted peaked at number nine. 

Bunji Garlin’s popular efforts in 2014 in the US market did not hold through to 2015—he remains popular as a featured artist on a number of significant dance tracks on both sides of the Atlantic. Fay-Ann Lyon’s VP Records’ debut EP fell flat with a video for the title track Raze that was mocked and pilloried on social media. Good thing she showed a sense of humour and eventually embraced the scorn by encouraging the best parody of her video. 

Earlier in the year, I wrote two parts of an expanded series on the Business of Music highlighting what the State wants and what the artists want from the sector respectively. A third part was to be, “What does the marketplace want?” What seems obvious from tracking movements globally is the “EDM-ification” and remixing of soca and local music generally as a signal for increased uptake overseas. 

In August, young music organiser Karrilee Fifi and her team launched the first Caribbean Dance Music conference which highlighted the confluence of modern soca and Electronic Dance Music (EDM). At that event, digital music executive Dana Shayegan showed how collaborations with popular EDM acts like Major Lazer and Jus Now are having an impact—financially, commercially and stylistically—on the sound and commerce of “our” music. Major Lazer with Trini member Jillionaire, whose sound is “mashing house and electro with the warm Caribbean rhythms of soca and dancehall”, is the conduit for local artists to achieve millions of views on YouTube. 

From John Dial in the sister isle, Joel Murray (aka Positive) had another breakout year, debuting in the Top 10 of Billboard’s reggae charts—further emphasising that gospel is a genre that is under-reported in the mainstream media. Positive’s fusion of the message and the music had fans dancing and singing, by the thousands, at his album launch. Those numbers are not generally seen in other genres, including soca. 

The live music scene saw a continuation of efforts by young promoters—Gerry Anthony with New Fire, Mark Hardy and Yung Rudd with Unplugged and Chill—to showcase unrecorded artists as well as underpromoted ones. Christmas season saw sold-out performances by Lydians, Marionettes, and seasonal débutantes Etienne Charles and Brian MacFarlane marking a return to live in a grand way despite the shuttering of Napa in Port-of-Spain. Tobago completed the Shaw Park Complex with a 3,700 seat main auditorium as a venue for potentially adding to the existing event options that mark the calendar in Tobago. In Trinidad, in a small way, music veteran Carl Jacobs cemented his Kaiso Blues Cafe as a venue for live music in the capital of a country that was boasting to investors that it “is on the cusp of becoming the entertainment hub of the Caribbean...The opportunities include showcasing local talent, marketing our nightlife as a premier ‘must-do’ in the Caribbean.” 

Critically, our capacity to increasingly engage commercially with music is what will signal to anyone— Government, international lending agency, music journalist or academic—whether the creative industry diversification thrust is happening. The ad hoc manner of local data collection—of artists, artists’ groups, the commercial trade, suppliers—by the CSO, ministries and academia as collators, has played havoc with any information that could be used by investors and the State to make informed decisions that work. 

Our ability to spend, and the State’s ability to count that spend, will decide whether music remains a commercial hobby with some lucrative benefits, or whether an industry can take root and make a decent living for the hundreds of singers and musicians producing music live and on record, singing in bars, casinos, hotels and corporate events, and the many promoters and all the ancillary providers making sure that those services are excellent, sustainable and profitable. 

2016 is around the corner, and this writer is monitoring the movement towards a viable industry.

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