Soca as a Grammy category: Is this possible or necessary? What’s being done?

soca grammyThis was the topic for a panel discussion that was supposed to take place at the recent AMMBCON 2014: THURSDAY, 21 August 2014. 09:30 – 10:45. Unfortunately, that panel discussion did not take place, but I publish my presentation, enhanced with graphics and data for discussion.

The simple answers to the title questions of this discussion are yes, no and not much. Despite the fact that we have a lot of work to do as an industry locally, it is possible to obtain categorisation of an award specific to Soca. I however don’t feel that it is necessary for a few reasons:

  1. Soca is now regional and we know deep in our hearts that this is chauvinistic appeal. If the Ministry of Arts from Trinidad can do this in addition to the previous forays by others for soca categorisation, we know that there is recognition at the political level that the industry is not holding its own.
  2. The global spread of soca won’t be tied to one award. Reggae’s spread isn’t tied to the Award for Best Reggae recording. Bunji was right when he sang, “Time for we come put soca pon top/ Billboard chart me nah know about that/ Grammy award me nah know about that/ Wah me know is ah music for one hour straight/ Could keep bout 60000 hands up
  3. Market forces seem to be against us. The combined strength of online media merchants, music business’ most influential periodical, Billboard magazine, and the digital music services have settled on a narrow definition of “our” music for the global market.
  4. There are alternative awards that would be easier to obtain and more relevant to our global push to spread the music. Canadians and Brits don’t mind receiving a Grammy, but their own awards seem to satisfy their achievement goals. It would be in our interest to enhance the awards that we can own and be proud of.

I: What do the Grammy Awards represent to us as Soca/Calypso artists?

Grammy Awards banner

The Grammy, an award to “honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position” was established in 1958, a year after the “calypso craze” in the US. Calypso did not warrant a prize in that first year.

How relevant is polka? A lot, until recently.

In 2007, Trinidad Carnival Diary asked a valid question regarding a Soca Grammy category: “If they can have a nomination for Polka music at the Grammy Awards why not for Soca/Calypso?” Two years later, that question was moot! Polka was a category for 24 years with one man, Jimmy Sturr winning 18 times alone or as bandleader.
“…the polka category would be eliminated, saying in a statement that it had been cut “to ensure the awards process remains representative of the current musical landscape.” To many in the polka world, that read as a kind of industry code meaning that their genre — once capable of supporting artists with million-selling hits, but long since relegated to micro-niche status — had slipped off the mainstream radar entirely.”
—Sisario, Ben (June 5, 2009). “Polka Music Is Eliminated as Grammy Award Category.” New York Times.

Over the years, it has been accused of not being culturally relevant, being “mired in the past” and out of touch with “new media” and trends among music listeners” and “for generally awarding or nominating more commercially successful albums rather than critically successful albums.” The US music industry is criticised by the same artists that utilise that industry for distribution of the music and protection of their intellectual property. That dichotomy can’t always be explained by logic.

International validation of our music is considered to be critical for the growth of the local music industry via sales, accolades, and media presence. Many people remember that Anslem Douglas composed the track “Doggie (Who Let The Dogs Out)” for Carnival 1998, which was covered by the BahaMen all the way to Grammy glory in 2001 in the Best Dance Recording category.

Baha Men backstage with Grammys for Best Dance Recording at the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center in Los Angeles Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2001. Photo By: Scott Gries/ImageDirect

In the interim, we have had wishful thinking, chauvinistic pride and nostalgia along with some assertive action to make it a reality. The soundbites that are remembered are oft fanciful. Superblue said in 2013, “Although I may not be the one to do it, I have asked God to allow soca to be in the Grammy’s (Awards).” Earlier this year, Minister of the Arts & Multiculturalism Dr Lincoln Douglas admitted that his ministry’s commitment to the elevation of the arts and culture persuaded him to begin talks with NARAS to a similar end as Superblue’s. 588 signatories were attracted to a simplistic online petition in 2007 [now offline] sponsored by the Soca/Calypso Recognition Inc. lead by Beverly-Anne Williams in a “grassroots effort” to have a Soca/Calypso Grammy category by 2009. We discover in this last episode that the Recording Academy’s Awards & Nominations Committee turned down a similar request in 2005. Coincidently, the International Soca Awards committee embarrassingly announced in 2004 that a Soca Grammy was a done deal for the 2006 season. Kevin Lyttle was riding the pop charts with “Turn Me On” and rumours were abounding.

As noted before, blind chauvinism without reasoned action or simple action for that matter was the posture for Trinis at home and in the diaspora. A Grammy Award in a narrow category would inspire development of the nascent music industry. The hard work to get there was never outwardly considered.

II: Criteria for getting a Grammy: What we need to do?

To set a standard group of five nominees, a category must receive at least 40 submissions, which usually come from record companies. If 25 to 39 entries come in, the number of nominees drops to three, and if there are fewer than 25 submissions, that award will be suspended for a year. After three consecutive suspensions, a category would be eliminated. (After music is submitted academy members vote to determine the nominations; a second round of votes picks a winner.)
—Sisario, Ben (April 6, 2011). “Grammys Cutting More Than 30 Categories.” ArtsBeat: New York Times.

Soca/calypso would have to have”commercially released” in the US, 40 plus submissions for voting members to consider. Too few songs have entered the consciousness of the US market which determines Grammy relevance. Universal appeal may not be a criterion for inclusion of a genre in the Grammys, but it helps as implied by its statement that NARAS wants to stay “relevant and responsive.” The polka example above is noteworthy.

A Reggae Perspective

shaggyListen to Shaggy after a Grammy snub for Hot Shot:
“For a long time I was sore about what happened with Hot Shot, which was the biggest record of that year. We didn’t get nominated for Best Reggae album or any other Grammy that year. We were totally snubbed by them. But then I went over and found out there are a lot of things that need to be done on the part of the artist where voting is concerned. So a lot of people that got nominated are people that are very proactive on their part.” (SOHH)
Shaggy said that there is more to winning music’s most coveted award than simply dropping a popular song….
“I think people not only in the Reggae genre but in the music industry as a whole, I took the initiative of actually going down to the Grammy Association and educating myself on how the process works. It’s voted on by a lot of people, but if you don’t have representation or you’re not active in it you won’t know what’s going on.” (SOHH)
— “I Took The Initiative Of Going Down To The Grammy Association…” Dec 28, 2011.

Martin “Mice” Raymond, Assistant Professor of Music Technology at UTT,  celebrated producer/ engineer and NARAS voting  member, noted to me that he “began talks” with the NARAS in 2010. Several points to note:

  1. “It will take a successful lobby to create a new category – it’s even harder now that they have reduced the number of categories.
  2. “You need to make a case that the current categories do not serve your needs by attempting to get nominations in other categories. The Recording Academy recommended that calypso and soca artists seek nominations in the World Music, Dance, Reggae, Urban Alternative and Video categories. It would also pay to lose a couple time to make the case for a specific category without unnecessary competition.
  3. “Artistes and producers need to join the Recording Academy and become voting members; you need 6 credited works [physical tracks, 12 digital tracks] to become a voting member. As there isn’t currently a Caribbean Chapter, the closest one is the Florida Chapter – artistes and producers from the Caribbean can join this chapter. I discussed this with many, many artists and producers. The only artist that responded is Machel Montano.”

The most important thing would be for the number of T&T citizens becoming NARAS voting members to increase rapidly! As I understand it, only Machel Montano and maybe one or two other nationals regionally are creative professional voting members, with “Mice” being a voting member in the technical professional field.

The music we create called soca is now regional and international. Caribbean islanders have created mega hits that have charted in the US and won a Grammy! Parochialism and insularity may not be the trends anymore, but a united effort at “owning” this music would suffice.

III: Genre Classification: What is soca?

Genre classification took its cues from retail. In 2014, the global digital music marketplace would be the area to first make an impact since Grammys are ultimately tied to commercial releases. Both the proliferation of tracks on retail pages and the sales of those would be key elements, allied with the campaigns for re-classification. I understand that a Grammy committee person suggested the name “Traditional Calypso” and “Contemporary Calypso” since calypso was better known to US audiences than soca.

A recent social media conversation begun by noted producer Ming asked a pertinent question: “What is and what is not soca, and if not, why not?” The idea of “the combination of beat and melodic pattern” was assuredly offered up by “Mice” Raymond; “Syncopation of the melody is what separates soca/calypso from everything else – not the beat.” Another conversation pointed to the use of “geographic indicators,” a tool used in trade to designate where a product is from: “champagne is only from the Champagne region of France, all else is sparkling white wine” ergo “Soca is from Trinidad/Caribbean, therefore anything else is Caribbean-flavoured dance music!” That could tragically end up like the years’ long process to define a work of mas at the level of WIPO/IGC!

As much as the push for soca categorisation in retail is liminal to making the case at Grammy level, there is the unintended consequence of opening up the globe and limiting T&T or even Caribbean dominance in the genre. Like the parallel request for “local” content quotas legislation, the market normally decides to the detriment of regulation. Americans Buster Poindexter (Hot, Hot, Hot) and Kid Creole & The Coconuts (Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy), all the way back to Harry Belafonte have benefited from “genre invasion.” Minmi from Japan too! Beware of what you ask for if you can’t defend it in the global marketplace.

To shift market forces isn’t something we have a lot of experience or success doing. To make Angostura Rums a global brand and the Caribbean the centre of rum commerce as we know cost hundreds of millions of US$, and that financial effort for soca is beyond the pockets of music entrepreneurs, and the small budgets of Trade and Arts ministries of government.

When metrics are added to the analysis of music categories, long-held assumptions are overturned. As we know, Alvin Daniell together with Geoffrey Dunn have promoted a successful initiative to designate soca and calypso as official musical categories in the internet marketplace including Apple’s flagship iTunes Store at this time. There are 42 sub-categories of the World category in iTunes. Soca and Calypso are among these 42.

Service Soca category?/World Category?/# sub-categories
Download Stores Yes, stand alone
iTunes Yes, as a sub-category of World / 42
CD Baby Yes, as a sub-category of reggae / 16
Amazon Mp3 No/Yes (Caribbean & Cuba sub; reggae is category)  //12 No/Yes (Reggae is category, no related genre for “this” at the moment)
Music Guide Service
All Music Yes, as a sub-category of Reggae / 18
Subscription Service
Rhapsody Yes, as a sub-sub category of World/Caribbean 10/3
eMusic No/Yes (Caribbean and Reggae sub of International) 40
Deezer No/Yes (Central American/Caribbean separate from World) 14

A number of options among the global consumer digital music services are not offered officially in T&T or the Caribbean, among them Slacker and Pandora among interactive radio, and Spotify, Beats Music and eMusic among subscription services. The dilution of soca in a mix of dozens of genres, normally  laid out alphabetically coming after pop, R&B, and reggae, does not make an economic case beyond pride.

A recent example of the dynamic flux in categorisation occurred when VP Records Soca Gold 2014 debuted at #1 on the Billboard Reggae charts, and Fay-Ann Lyons recent Carnival song “Catch Me” is on the same label’s Reggae Gold 2014 compilation! Doing a little research on Nielsen SoundScan—the information and sales tracking system that is the sales source for the Billboard music charts including the reggae charts that begun in 1993—and I saw this definition of the genre of reggae: “songs, often of Jamaican or West Indian origin, contain elements of calypso, rhythm and blues, and may feature repetitive bass riffs and off-beat guitar riffs as well as regular chords.” We were doomed for inclusion from the start!

Soca and calypso also have to get over the critical panning that is attached to it. Pandering to simplistic partying background music, “novelty” song, or just downright cataloguing the song among the “worst” or “most annoying” song in entertainment media are obstacles to overcome. Reggae was always marketed as conscious music from the early days, with dancehall later being panned in Jamaica at least as a far cry from reggae, but to wide and popular acclaim. In the beginning of soca, there was a similar reticence towards the soca and its relevance. Well, as they say, the rest is history.

IV: Alternative Awards: Should we embrace these instead?

The validation of our awards or alternate awards to enhance the prestige of soca would be worth considering. In a borderless music marketplace, the more accolades may be more beneficial. The previously referenced International Soca Award, the COTT Awards, the Sunshine Awards, the “late” Caribbean Music Awards, even the International Reggae and World Music Awards have all served to focus excellence, sometimes influence, sometimes popularity onto this music called soca. The idea of valorising these awards is not one to be looked at cynically. Critical media recognition of these awards serves as a signal that there is an industry that reports and rewards on achievement. The World Music Awards, MOBO Awards, Songlines Music Awards are some of the other achievement awards that soca can be accorded. So too, a Soul Train Award!

Potential awards: International Soca Award, MOBO Award, International Reggae and World Music Award, World Music Award and WOMEX Award.

A Grammy is the ultimate award for musicians in the number one market in the world. The rules for categorisation indicates that simply achieving popularity at home or in the diaspora is not enough. The business of music distribution, physical and digital, is tied to any recognition from the Recording Academy, along with significant lobbying by a cohort of influence. At present, label VP Records is singing the praises of soca in the retail trade in the US. A combined effort of retail, effective lobby, country branding and significant award recognition would present a significant accolade for soca. A local music industry award with the backing and acceptance of all including media and policy makers like a Juno or a Brit award for Canadians and British respectively would be a fillip for a decline in industry organisation among artistes and creative entrepreneurs. A Grammy would just be more icing on the cake. A Grammy Award for Best Caribbean Recording would be the cherry on top.

© 2014, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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