How not to build a music industry in Trinidad & Tobago: A Machel Montano Primer

Back on May 15, 2012, soca superstar Machel Montano gave a speech during the annual Caribbean Investment Forum (CIF) as part of the panel discussion on the creative industries and the adjunct entertainment industry. The discussion had as a specific emphasis, music and the visual arts as a growth industry in the region with the question being asked of the speakers: “How does the Caribbean make it to the world stage?” The CIF is a InvestTT initiative along with Ministry of Trade and Investment (MTI), and with the current rumbling of the MTI spearheaded—and dreaded—TTCIC, I think it is opportune to revisit the subject of the creative industries with a focus on the music industry.

Machel posited in his speech:

We also need to build industries around the artistes. Now I’m not saying it’s all going to be about funds and grants because this is a competitive business, so we can’t wait for the handouts…I think if the artistes improve and we make something that is worth selling, somebody will come here looking for it, to sell it. So we have to constantly improve that…It’s not the funds that are going to help us become more popular. It’s going to help us.” (My emphasis.)

Planning Minister Dr Bhoe Tewarie (left) and soca superstar Machel Montano at the launch on Thursday evening of Government's collaboration with Montano on the music album 'Going For Gold' at the Central Bank Auditorium in Port-of-Spain. Author: ROGER JACOB © newsday.co.tt. All Rights Reserved.
Planning Minister Dr Bhoe Tewarie (left) and Machel Montano at “Going for Gold” launch. Photo by ROGER JACOB © newsday.co.tt. All Rights Reserved.

He’s wrong. One genre and one man don’t make an industry. U2 alone is not responsible for an Irish music industry. Barbados hasn’t foregone tourism because of the global success of Rihanna. Money would be better spent on an enabling environment of improved talent and technical incubation, modern intellectual property regimes, and enhanced country branding. Contrast the above statement about funds with the knowledge that the Ministry of Planning, “chaired” by Sen. Bhoe Tewarie, gifted Machel with TT$5M in an effort to create a hoped-for profitable music product, “Going for Gold” CD/DVD package that would yield potential benefits—international exposure and an investment fund—for the local music industry.

The timeline of this development shows Tewarie hinting in February at Cabinet approved sanction for Machel to lead the charge in selling Trinidad and Tobago internationally: “…we should try to support an external thrust led by Machel in the world outside and with other people hanging on to his coattails in a range of products.” A possible follow through from this panel discussion in May led to further talks with the minister to the announcement of the future CD, the contract signing in July to its release in November. Embedded in the CD of soca music collaborations with just about every music artist in Trinidad and Tobago are two song collaborations with international artists—”So On Fire” featuring Chaka Khan and “Lighting the Way” featuring Pitbull—which the Minister himself identified as being among the lynchpins for international success.

History has shown the success of Caribbean artists outside hasn’t been linked to simple collaborations. A producer either tweaking the sound, as a Chris Blackwell did with early Bob Marley, or a Godfather figure such as Belafonte way back in 1957 “liking” the music had greater success in breaking our music. Calypsonians were being booked and US record companies were coming here after the success of Belafonte’s “Calypso” looking for the real thing at the same time Tin Pan Alley songwriters were creating diluted calypso to sales but critical panning which coincided with the ascent of Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll. The rest is history.

The idea of a Godfather figure to take our music international is one that I hold superior to a simple collaboration with a foreign pop star. The home-grown star to make it globally hasn’t caught on yet. Stan Getz blew up bossa nova and opened the door for Jobim, Gilberto and the rest. Paul Simon opened the door for South African music more so than Miriam Makeba with Belafonte’s help. It’s a black and white thing. It’s how America sees things. In the rest of the world, I think we have a better chance. I don’t see either Bhoe Tewarie or Machel as that Godfather. Getting someone, an influential star in their market (colour don’t hurt either!), to like you and your music/talent is better than simply singing on a record with no visceral connection. Kes and Shoop Dogg vs KMC and RedOne is a case in point.

How many collaborations is that now for Machel? The biggest dancehall and reggae artists (Beenie Man, Shaggy, Collie Buddz, Vybz Kartel, Busy Signal, etc.), Latin crossover (Pitbull), hip hop (Busta Rhymes, Lil Jon, Doug E Fresh, Wyclef Jean), and every major calypso, soca and chutney star have all been given the Machel remix or collaboration. The big name producers too. The idea of taking the “energy of soca beyond his island” as Machel has wished for has evaded him. Meanwhile lesser talents, in my estimation, like KMC and Fireball have chart burners in Europe, and Rupee and Kevin Lyttle in the US. I’m still not sure what were the words Machel fed Sen. Bhoe Teware to convince him to part with $5M of the people’s money to put behind Machel with the promise of building a music industry here and take soca music to the globe. I guess everything in time.

Machel should have gone to Sweden instead of his many attempts at collaboration to break the US market outside of the diaspora! KMC has a contract with a major label subsidiary and is being produced by a major producer with global reach. (Calypso Crazy is a soca star there too!) Sweden is one of only three countries in the world where music exports exceed their imports (the other two are the US and the UK). I guess ultimately, those are the markets we all aspire our music to be relevant in with the belief that our native markets will always stand behind us anyway. I am not sure how much marketing went on in Barbados for Rihanna, but I can attest that when I was there last year, I heard a Rihanna song either on a radio or the Cave Shepherd store sound system at least every 40 minutes day and night! TT music output is dwarfed by imports of style and influences and sounds and product. A Trinbago music phenomenon to replicate the Swedish model would take a lot more than collaborations with outside artists and producers. Indigenous sounds may not be the answer either—Sweden didn’t invent pop/dance music—but a re-imagining of the model of music creation and exchange locally may be a first step.

Jamtech Foundation threw out what they heard from KMC, and put him in a new mileau. Dubstep now with “Forever“, electro before with “Everybody Jump” and “Mash Up The Place“; soca, as we know it went out of the window. Jamtech, and their label boss, RedOne might be the godfathers if they tweak soca for a global audience. Our local production efforts need a catalyst. We have some producers making that effort to connect via the internet with a global audience: Precision Productions, Madmen Productions, 1st Klase Production, LAZAbeam, Beaver Henderson, and others who remain anonymous except for an outside audience.

A sample of Jamtech’s production efforts including those with with local acts Ataklan and KMC are below:

The subjective nature of the popularity of music and its impact on an industry are the kinds of things that keep some people up all night looking for the perfect solution to success. Contact is an important thing for me; it’s not only who you know, but who knows you. Ask Rihanna. Content and creativity are two other aspects for the ear of the foreign market. Plenty product and cost-effective distribution via the ubiquitous social and formal networks are necessary. Good things are almost universally objective; you know it when you hear it. Our calypsonians in the 1950s did not always come up to mark hence their popular demise in the US.  Our pantheon of Caribbean authors, with 2 notable exceptions, proved that location and presence are important as well. The economies of scale may require a larger market than is possible within these islands. Rihanna only comes to Barbados to relax and visit family now. She does not even have the luxury many dancehall and reggae artists have of being home to create, in spite of her relative success. As a consequence of his recent legal verdict, Machel’s passport better be intact and his visa prospects positive if he is to make it abroad.

POSTSCRIPT

Some numbers to add to the above scenario:

  1. “Montano stated the album may be priced at $150.” <http://www.newsday.co.tt/news/0,166175.html>
  2. “Tewarie had said if 20,000 copies of the package were sold, Government would make back its investment.” (This arithmetic does not gel with Machel’s statement of unit cost: $3M [20,000 units x $150] would break-even, or to quote, “would make back its investment.” What does the extra $2M represent?)<http://www.trinidadexpress.com/news/Gypsy__very_saddened_-182917811.html>

Based on the numbers above, the reality of depressed CD sales locally, and the shaky demand for an artist whose fanbase is fence-sitting since his conviction, I would suggest that the ROI for this project is low in the TT market. On the overseas market, the relatively high amount of marketing money needed to break a song or an artist, which is not identified in the overview by Sen. Tewarie, it would seem impossible to generate adequate numbers to realise a profit. I can only assume this package is the calling card for foreign distributors to pick up the tab and break it. One is still unsure where the monies will be deposited, Machel’s account or government’s account.

Bear in mind, of late, Tewarie is suggesting that all profits go to the planned music investment fund and the existing Children’s Life Fund. “Profit” would imply that, these monies don’t accrue after the first sale, but after the 20,000th sale. However, Planning ministry Permanent Secretary Arleen McComie, is saying that, “Montano is expected to make an undisclosed contribution back to Government from his share of sales. Government’s share, according to McComie will be divided again with part going to the Children’s Life Fund and the rest to establish an investment fund for the development of the creative industry.” This would suggest that Machel is sharing in the gross returns, and the government share of profit begins at 20,001 unit sales. My recent conversation with Lauren O’ Connor of TrinidadTunes.com revealed that the CD is not available as of Christmas 2012.

Below is a playlist of tracks released from Going For Gold as of Christmas 2012:

© 2012, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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