The Music Industry in T&T: Part I – The State¹

The State wants an exportable music industry. One that creates sustainable jobs, earns foreign exchange and ultimately develops the intellectual property stockpile for future and continuous economic exploitation. It was not always so specific: in the 1990s it was the catch-all “entertainment industry” that was the buzz-word. Through the Vision 2020 period of consultation for diversification away from the energy industry in the 2000s, “music industry” was neither recognised or quoted. In 2007, it became a titular talking point in the jargon of industries targeted for provision of administrative, financial and technical support by the Ministry of Trade, the line ministry tasked with the ongoing plans to transform the non-energy sector of the economy. Music was a kind of bastard child, known but not always recognised loudly. investt-magsThe publications of the investment arm of the current ministry since 2012 also spoke of “entertainment” and speaks to international investors of opportunities in film, animation and fashion outside of the grand Carnival industry with its allied linkages to music, events and entertainment in general. Change was slow, but it did come.

A music industry is made up of people, creative as well as technical, in areas as diverse as songwriters to entertainment lawyers to steelpan instrument builders to stage lighting riggers and repairs. Readers are aware that there are persons in these categories, but the threshold level of quality and quantity is not enough to satisfy the desired outcome of contributing increasingly and significantly to the GDP. Former Trade minister in the PP government, Vasant Bharath, whose ministry is responsible for the music industry along with film and fashion, said in 2014 to a Standing Committee of Parliament that, “the sector was in a state of inertia and there were people who did not want it to become commercialised…At some point in time…the State would have had to put up seed money to create an enabling environment to ensure that the creative industries become commercially viable and attractive to the private sector, so the private sector would take over.”

creative soes

Since the 1990s, the music and entertainment industry was identified as a sector for investment and diversification. The success of this diversification, according to the IADB in one instance “has not paid off.” One State solution is the continued model of a state-owned enterprise (SOE) as a vehicle to implement policy decisions. Historically, the State has used this model with limited success outside of the energy industry, and in the music and entertainment sector, various iterations of alphabet soup SOEs have come and gone: TIDCO, EIDECO, TT Ent. The current SOE, CreativeTT was formed in 2013 “to stimulate and facilitate the business development and export activities of the Creative Industries in T&T to generate national wealth.”

mtii media releaseMinister Bharath noted, “for the local music industry to grow and develop, there must be a better understanding of the issues and obstacles that continue to plague the industry, with a view of implementing practical and effective solutions to these barriers to growth.” As such, and considering the country’s limited resources, historic lack of accountability and duplication of efforts, the Ministry of Trade undertook a rationalisation of the music and entertainment industry resulting in the conclusion that the former company, TT Ent, should be dissolved to make way for the new company.” The T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce calls it “rationalisation by merging and re-branding” and notes that that it is “simply not enough.” Stakeholders in the industry also protested the resulting rationalised company. By the time of public consultations in late 2013, CreativeTT was a fait accompli having been incorporated in mid 2013, and already allocated finance.

The minister later said that “CreativeTT was born out of Government’s firm belief that the Creative sector has the capacity to become one of the most important sectors of the economy in terms of investment, revenue, trade and employment generation.” MusicTT, a subsidiary company, is the operational arm of CreativeTT specific to music. In fiscal 2013/2014, $6.5 million was allocated to music. A similar amount was allocated for the current fiscal year, but the dip in oil prices forced the government to cut budgets for all ministries and their respective SOEs.

Vasant Bharath with TT Chamber CEO Catherine Kumar. Photo courtesy T&T Guardian.
Vasant Bharath with TT Chamber CEO Catherine Kumar. Photo courtesy T&T Guardian.

In addition to the cut in budget, CreativeTT was plagued with the dismissal of its board earlier this year by the ministry and the replacement in the last few months of the fiscal year before a general election with a new crop, still untested. This move mocks the previous stated position by the minister that

“…what we’re [the Ministry’s] trying to do is strengthen it [the creative industries] by putting some commercial sense and commercial acumen into developing the sector with people who have succeeded in those areas…who have been there, who have done that, who have been successful, who know what to do, who have the international contacts, who have the network. Who better to lead these sectors than people who have already done it in their private activities and businesses and are now willing to give back to the people of Trinidad and Tobago?” (My emphasis.)

There were desertions, resignations and firings of the CreativeTT board. The failure to transform the sector as well as the reported profligate spending without desired results by the previous board is a harsh reality that was not widely reported by the ministry!

Despite the discouraging results in the short terms, the State has implemented some policies that point to laying the effective ground work for possible diversification. The founding of UTT in 2004 to be a centre of training in specific skills required for the creative sector—music performance and technology, animation, fashion—was, according to some observers, the government’s main investment in diversifying away from energy.

Currently, MusicTT has put out a request for proposals for the development of a Strategic Plan for the Music Industry of Trinidad and Tobago. The research, including stakeholder consultations towards a strategic plan continues a method that harkens back to the beginning of the millennium. All the critical questions are being asked. The focus on the industry to create sustainable jobs, earn foreign exchange, and create national wealth is assured. The cost-cutting and streamlining of the state agencies and investment profiles are noted. The reality thus far is a mix of competing agendas, missteps and negotiation of a steep learning curve. We have seen Ministry of Planning investing millions behind one artist—admittedly the most successful locally-based one—to create unrealised profits and a resulting Music Investment Fund from a mistimed project that was out of sync with the reality of the modern music business.

We have seen the Ministry of the Arts invest unknown amounts (possibly in the high hundreds of thousands) in album production sponsorship of one artist with the hoped-for spill over of getting into the World Music market dominated by the collaborating legendary South African trumpeter. Legal and business checks and balances were not done to the detriment of the taxpayer. That ministry also held a showcase event involving European label heads and booking agents that has not netted any publishable positive results. An Artist Registry in a separate ministry from that responsible for the music industry appears to be a fragmented strategy, but one that Cabinet will account for.

The goal of an expanded music industry that is sustainable is the wish of both the creative sector and the State. The success of the policies over the years at arriving at that state of development has not been effectively tallied by statistics. The current flux of the state-owned company mandated to lead the charge to increase in the export capacity and competitiveness of value-added music goods and services in line with current trade policy is signalling a pattern of evolution in line with global patterns of the evolution of the music industry. Ad hoc changes and strategic moves that happen with change of government over the last couple of decades signal either an industry in transformation or a State in a state of disarray.

  1. 20150921A version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspapers published as, “THE BUSINESS OF MUSIC: Part 1, Music and the State”

© 2015, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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