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Music districts —viable option for T&T

Published: 
Thursday, March 15, 2018

With the recent launch of the country’s first official music district by MusicTT, one of the diversification efforts of the Rowley administration is finally to be tested. First announced by Finance Minister Colm Imbert in his 2018 budget presentation late last year, the initiative is one of a series of measures intended to tap into the countries diverse but largely unexploited creative sectors.

The potential of this country’s music industry to contribute to economic growth has never been explored outside of the Carnival season and, even then, the extent of its contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) has never been measured.

On the face of it a live music district—a concept that has been successfully implemented in other parts of the world—should be a natural fit for T&T, the country that gave world the steelpan, as well as calypso and other indigenous musical genres.

However MusicTT, which is spearheading the project with backing from the Trade and Industry Ministry, is testing its viability over a 12-week period when a series of performances will be held at venues across Port-of-Spain.

It is estimated in this initial phase that there will be 700 performances at 30 venues featuring 24 artistes.

It sounds good but this country has a long, sad history of nice-sounding ventures that, at best, enjoy only limited success then fade.

There was, for example, the Pan Jazz Festival of many decades ago, an attractive mix of musical genres, local and imported, which started off well but ran into difficulties. The late Dizzy Gillespie was among musical greats brought in as headliners for shows at Spektakula Forum a venue which, like the event, no longer exists.

Funding and marketing problems led to the demise of that event and seems to be the source of difficulties with the Tobago Jazz Experience, even though the 2018 edition is reportedly still on track to take place next month. Never mind that the headline acts and other key details have not yet been announced.

It is hard to fathom why an event that has featured the likes of Sir Elton John, the late Whitney Houston and, more recently, John Legend now seems to be fading into oblivion.

However, the plain truth is that music lovers from around the world are not descending in large numbers on Tobago for the annual festivities. From the sound of it, even patronage by domestic tourists seems uncertain at this very late stage.

Of course, ongoing issues with the air- and seabridge do not help but, from all appearances, this is not likely to be a good year for the Tobago Jazz Experience which seems to be going the way of other large scale music festivals attempted in T&T outside of the Carnival season.

Put simply, this country has not yet found a formula for transforming its indigenous music into economic success, even though nearby Caribbean islands have managed to build their own musical events into profitable, long-term tourism products. On that score, Jamaica and St Lucia come immediately to mind.

The local festivals seem to be comparable in quality to the ones staged in other parts of the region but there is a key difference which has to do with how those others are consistently marketed and promoted.

In the long run, while those other festivals have become well known and are heavily patronised by music lovers from all parts of the world, T&T’s offerings have managed to remain well kept secrets, even with chart-topping artistes in the line-up.

Will the live music districts fare any better?

That depends on whether the people driving this particular project are making any effort to avoid past mistakes.

At least this time around there is enough motivation to make a proper go of it. T&T desperately needs to move away from its heavy dependence on the energy industry to earn revenue. There is also the matter of this country already having decades of experience in producing original music.

Never mind that music from T&T has only rarely broken into the international circuit—the only successes in recent memory are Bunji Garlin’s Differentology and Who Let The Dogs Out by Anslem Douglas.

However, the latter only became a certifiable hit when a cover was done by group from the other end of the Caribbean, the Baha Boys.

Still, if done right, this concept, could be a much needed boost for T&T’s music industry which, in turn, could become a significant revenue generating sector for the country as a whole.

If MusicTT is able to develop events that draw crowds and prove to be lucrative for the artistes and owners of the selected venues, they might be on to something.

However, the success of the live music districts will have to last well beyond the novelty stage and grow, drawing crowds and developing and evolving into a musical experience as diverse, attractive and unique as T&T’s music has the potential to be.

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