To Hell and Back: Trinidad music bands struggle to showcase internationally¹

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LYNCHPiN memebers (l-r): Jignesh Khatri, Gerard Ferreira, Aaron Maharaj and Sievan Siewsarran,

LYNCHPiN is on a mission. The mission is to get to Germany, specifically the small village of Wacken in Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany. The reason? To participate and perform in Wacken Open Air 2016 (W:O:A) in August, the biggest heavy metal music festival in the world held there annually. Seems simple enough until one recognises the hoops local bands, regardless of genre, have to go through to showcase their music internationally, to tour and to connect with audiences beyond the borders.

LYNCHPiN is Trinidad’s premier deathcore metal band—deathcore is described as a fusion genre of a few more aggressive and abrasive forms of heavy metal characterised by dark sometimes obscene lyrics and a guttural singing style—formed back in 2009 by four alumni of the local rock scene—Sievan Siewsarran, Gerard Ferreira, Jignesh Khatri and Aaron Maharaj—with a two-fold plan to create “heavier” music and to revitalise the attitude and energy of the 1990s local rock scene that was waning in the new millennium. The band’s tag line seems apt: “Lynchpin is a band…an attitude.”

SIDEBAR: SXSW or bust: How to get to Austin in one piece.

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ASK Promotions once again was able to secure a Trinidad and Tobago stage at the annual SXSW Music Festival and Conference in Austin, Texas in March of 2016. Following from the 2015 event where the T&T stage debuted with Mighty Sparrow and Trinidad Jame$ headlining, SXSW Music Fest Programmer / Venues Todd Puckhaber via ASK Promotions selected six acts to get the opportunity to register to showcase at the festival “for over 25,000 industry representatives and fellow musicians combined, plus nearly 3,000 media members and thousands of fans in attendance.” A larger venue for the T&T stage is promised with the spillover increase in potential connections.

sxsw2016-ttBy attrition, four acts are now set to be in a position to go to Austin with headliners Destra Garcia and Trinidadian-German Eurodance artist Haddaway, famous for his 1992 international hit “What is Love”: rock bands Jointpop, 5 Miles to Midnight, Sidekick Envy and hip hop innovators Inzey and DopeskisDaBand. This eclectic mix of talent seems to contradict a sentiment earlier in 2015 by Stephen Howard, ASK Promotions CEO, about the difficulty of local rock and R&B acts to compete effectively in the US within those genres. That said, the additional difficulty on the bands for SXSW 2016 is the funding options that seem to have dried up completely.

In 2015, the Ministry of the Arts funded the artists participation at SXSW to the tune of $1 million plus. In 2016, Ask Promotions decided that the risk was not worth the rewards in terms of business engagement, public relations and personal interaction, so the company has asked the acts to pay for their expenses including travel and accommodation, marketing and PR, some production costs and registration fees, all sourced by ASK. Charlene Belfon, ASK COO told the T&T Guardian that the total figure is close to $1.2 million for 44 persons consisting of artists, film crew, PR, tour manager to go for four days. ASK has a reciprocal arrangement with SXSW where they do not have to pay, and the figure does not include ASK personnel. Any sponsorship gained by ASK would offset any down-payments already made by acts.

Bands have already noted the difficulty in sourcing investments of more than $100,000 for their individual contingents to travel to Texas. Gary Hector of Jointpop admitted that he had two coupons for SXSW, but even with the increased odds, corporate sponsorship is almost closed to his band because of the genre. Rock is shunned locally for practical (small niche market) and perceived (it’s too risky) reasons by corporate investors. (A coupon is the “ticket” to register in the database for the festival. An “invitation to perform” is the desired piece of paper for any act. No invite, no SXSW performance. Guerilla marketing and performances are not allowed.)

Younger rock band 5 Miles to Midnight recognises that SXSW is “where this band needs to be,” according to drummer Rhys Thompson. They have opted to do fund-raising concerts, some corporate solicitation with brands that would be at SXSW as a kind of “branding by association” strategy. They are even looking at barbecues all in an effort to raise their $140,000 tab. Sidekick Envy, so far uniquely, is utilising Indiegogo crowdfunding to raise US$10,000 to pay towards getting to Texas.

All the bands left of the initial six recognise the potential to get to SXSW. “Showcases lead to touring,” says Hector, a veteran of touring on the UK circuit but some 15 years out of a US tour. Thompson say that if the band can’t raise the funds, he will still go to participate in the festival as a means of connecting and networking via the conference route. These responses beg the question, what was the purpose of MusicTT and CreativeTT investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2015 to do a parallel SXSW jaunt with just a reminiscence of the trip as a pair of video excerpts on Facebook? Public sector financing of these showcasing tours was a function of the state enterprise, but the shoddy performance has cast doubt on the efficacy of the business model in the future.

ASK Promotions has upped the game in terms of engagement with music stakeholders by exposing the nuts-and-bolts negotiations and some say wheeling and dealing that exists in modern music industries. There have been grumblings about advantageous contracts, broken promises and perceived opportunism by ASK from stakeholders. Entitlement is something that is no longer on the table from signals from government, and ASK by-passed the easy way out to set up a situation where acts had to do some hard digging for their careers. As deadlines approach for down-payments for the Texas trip, the desire to make these international music showcases an annual rite of passage for the local music sector becomes jaded by the harsh realities of a global music industry that takes no prisoners.

Sievan Siewsarran (pronounced SEE-van), LYNCHPiN’s lead vocalist, explains that “Wacken is the best metal festival in the world and we are the best deathcore metal band in our country so we are aiming for a place at Wacken next year…There has never been a Caribbean band on the Wacken stage before. LYNCHPiN would be the first and it would be an honour to create history on the Wacken stage in the name of our country and our music. The band has grown into its own blend of death, hardcore, progressive and groove metal and has continued to evolve its style. This is a style we aim to share at the Wacken Open Air.

The road to Wacken is not as smooth as it sounds though. To get there, for unsigned bands not on major labels, they must compete in regional Metal Battles. The Metal Battles bring together metal bands from all regions of the world, especially those who have not yet been heard. The finalists of each and every region get to compete at the world finals at Wacken. The Caribbean region will debut its Battle in Paramaribo, Suriname in April, 2016. LYNCHPiN will be among five bands, if picked from submissions, competing in Suriname for the single spot in W:O:A.

The idea of competition for a limited space on a bigger stage is a recurring theme in the music scene globally, and a similar path was taken by local bands trying to get to South by Southwest Music Conference & Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas in March 2016. Getting there is easy enough with planning and skill, raising the money to pay to get there highlights the deficiencies in the business of music in these islands. (See Sidebar.) Economies of scale limit certain business models, and funding patterns in the past are not transferable in these harsh economic times, and for many bands, more so a band in a niche genre like deathcore.

Siewsarran spoke to the T&T Guardian, and noted that despite funding struggles and disappointments, both with the public and private sector, he and his band mates will be going to Suriname on their own coin if selected, and onto Germany if they are the eventual winners of the Caribbean Metal Battle. That dogged determination reflects a spirit that is reflected in the band’s vision for itself. “LYNCHPiN, as a Caribbean deathcore metal band, is a unique entity that demands an attitude of resilience, confidence and intense passion…This band is representing us as a people, we have to be serious.

The band is in a better position than some other Caribbean metal bands that have reached out to LYNCHPiN letting them know that funding for those other bands is in such dire straits that it does not even make sense trying to get to Suriname since the Germany trip, if successful, would be nigh impossible. Siewsarran suggested that about TT$100,000 would be needed for the European trip to cover airfare, ground travel, equipment shipping and accommodation. Ironically the band has never toured outside of Trinidad.

Despite this, the members who all have day jobs, have networked effectively with their fans locally and globally to secure tracks on international metal compilations, accolades in international media and to sell copies of their CDs (a two-song maxi single, Six String Demo, and a six-song EP “God Complex”). They persevere despite it all remaining single-focused: Wacken or bust! From seeing the real thing in 2014 as a spectator to potentially being a performer in 2016, LYNCHPiN hangs in there debating naysayers and cynics who challenge their choice of song topics—“the world has gone too politically correct. We read about death daily here in the press, but to sing about it is wrong?”— and coming to terms with the struggles to move our music, indigenous or appropriated, beyond the boundary.

  1. A version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspapers published as, “Lynchpin on a mission”

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

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