Alphonse Karr was a French wit and editor who gave the world an epigram that has become part of the lexicon of the cynical observer: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” which loosely translates to “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” This could be the theme for a review of the music scene here in Trinidad and Tobago if one wants to critically dissect what has happened on both the commercial and creative sides, but to assail the senses so close to the celebration of a new year of possibilities would be irresponsible. But it would also be necessary. Let’s be honest, how many of us can even remember what was predicted at the end of 2014 by the powers that be for the future of the music industry in 2015 and beyond? You don’t need to, it’s always the same: growth.
The facts on the ground are that despite the various forays into expanding the international and local commercialisation the music of Trinidad and Tobago by the State, product development and intellectual property exploitation have not moved significantly even as the business models that define these sectors globally are going through significant changes. CreativeTT and specifically MusicTT, only recently energised with a board, ventured to SXSW Music Conference in March 2015 to gather information; hosted workshops in songwriting and production, making a music video and the business of music publishing; and started anew a strategic plan for the industry.
MusicTT chair John Arnold noted that the company was “focussing on capacity building for the industry.” What they did not do was act as the effective conduit between the government and the creative stakeholders as they are supposed to, so as to ensure that an enabling environment is achieved for the positive results of songwriting, video and publishing to be fairly and commercially achieved. Despite MusicTT-driven stakeholder consultations in August, which spoke to issues affecting the music business environment locally, the draft policy on broadcast is still devoid of any mention of local content quotas, enforcement of the Copyright Act in relation to music piracy is seemingly abandoned, and the draft National Cultural Policy still has not been promulgated. New government, same old stories.
New artists’ breakthroughs to markets have been stymied by the continual “de-commercialising” of the music by the artists themselves who consider the landscape hostile to market forces, and opt for giving their music away, much like a calling card, for the potential to be invited to generate live music fees and royalties at public performance showcases, fêtes and concerts. Unsuccessful attempts were made to get a comment from COTT CEO Josh Rudder on the impact of this changing landscape on music royalty collection and distribution. Local music sales website TrinidadTunes.com went offline, iTunes had a smaller number and less diverse palette of local acts and, if not for the compilation by overseas labels like VP Records, soca on disc or digital download would be a memory. Speaking of compilations, T&T is losing out to foreign compilers in a lucrative niche in the record business. Cree Records compiled Nappy Mayers, and Cultures of Soul Records compiled Wildfire, Defosto, Hamilton Brothers, Patti Charles, Mastro and others. Ozy Merrique Jr.’s compilations are distributed old school, direct sales, with limited to no impact. We need to step in another direction.
The same names are still popping up in the headlines, and significantly, reaching points of measurable success on music charts that track sales, radio airplay and spins in markets that quantify this data, the markets that many musicians are still aiming for. In 2015, Machel Montano and reggae-gospel star Positive both had albums charting on the Billboard magazine’s Reggae chart, Montano’s Monk Monté peaking number 2, Positive’s Stand and Be Counted peaking at number 9. Bunji Garlin’s popular efforts in 2014 in the US market did not hold through to 2015—he remains popular as a featured artist / “raga vocalist” on a number of significant dance tracks on both sides of the Atlantic—and Fay-Ann Lyon’s VP Records’ debut EP fell flat with a video for the title track “Raze” that was mocked and pilloried on social media. Good thing she gained a sense of humour and eventually embraced the scorn by encouraging the best parody of her video.
A curious side note on the Billboard Reggae chart was that sales by Jamaicans were so dismal that when year-end tallies were made, British singer Joss Stone’s album Water For Your Soul was the number one album for 2015 creating a furore in Jamaica. That fact, coupled with the paltry numbers for album sales—in the mid-hundreds for many—is instructive since it points to a trend in music from our region in the global marketplace in that foreign audiences don’t mind the sound, but they seem to be buying from artists “that look like them,” to quote one artist here. Our ability to compete globally when there are no barriers to who can sing soca was called into question at year’s end when social media was buzzing, perhaps sardonically, that Justin Bieber had the best groovy soca with “Sorry” and Meghan Trainor’s song from the Peanuts movie, “Better When I’m Dancin’” could signal what that marketplace wants from soca more so than the offerings of a majority of our artists here.
Earlier in the year, I wrote two parts of an expanded series on the Business of Music highlighting what the State wants and what the artists want from the sector respectively. A third part was to be, “What does the marketplace want?” What seems obvious from tracking movements globally is the “EDM-ification” and remixing of soca and local music generally as a signal for increased uptake overseas. In August, young music organiser, Karrilee Fifi and her team launched the first Caribbean Dance Music conference which highlighted the confluence of modern soca and EDM. At that event, digital music executive Dana Shayegan showed how collaborations with popular EDM acts like Major Lazer and Jus Now are having an impact, financially, commercially and stylistically, on the sound and commerce of “our” music. Major Lazer with Trini member, Jillionaire, whose sound is “mashing house and electro with the warm Caribbean rhythms of soca and dancehall” is the conduit for local artists to achieve millions of views on YouTube. (See Table 1 below.)
The remix of “All My Love” by Arianna Grande featuring Machel has over 3 million views on Lazer’s channel tripling views on Montano’s channel. Their own “Lean On” is approaching one billion views! Jillionaire’s label Feel Up Records is a home for Jus Now with Keshav Chandradathsingh in the US market. Jack Ü (Skrillex & Diplo) with “Jungle Bae” and French DJ duo Lumberjack with “Drop on the Ground”, both featuring Bunji Garlin, recreates the soca artist as vocal chanter for beats and squeaks. (See Tables 2 & 3.) How we define soca may not be how it is defined outside now, so we will see what 2016 brings in terms of traction in the outside marketplace.
From John Dial in the sister isle, Joel Murray aka Positive had another breakout year debuting in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Reggae charts further emphasizing that gospel is a genre that is under-reported in the mainstream media. With 3 genre-defined radio stations, this music will be a focus for this writer as a gauge for the potential of any music from these islands. Positive’s fusion of the message and the music had fans dancing and singing, by the thousands, at his album launch! Those numbers are not generally seen in other genres, including soca. Cross-over seems to be his destiny outside. This seems to be what the market wants in these islands, words and music, not clichés and dynamic shows.
The live music scene saw a continuation of efforts by young promoters—Gerry Anthony with New Fire, Mark Hardy and Yung Rudd with Unplugged and Chill—to showcase un-recorded artists as well as under-promoted ones. Christmas season saw sold-out performances by Lydians, Marionettes, and seasonal débutantes Etienne Charles and Brian MacFarlane marking a return to live in a grand way despite the shuttering of NAPA in Port of Spain. Tobago completed the Shaw Park Complex with a 3,700 seat main auditorium as a venue for potentially adding to the existing event options that mark the calendar in Tobago. In Trinidad, in a small way, soca icon Carl Jacobs cemented his Kaiso Blues Café as a venue for live music in the capital of a country that was boasting to investors that it is “on the cusp of becoming the entertainment hub of the Caribbean…The opportunities include showcasing local talent, marketing our nightlife as a premier ‘must-do’ in the Caribbean.”
Critically, our capacity in these islands to increasingly engage commercially with music is what will signal to anyone, government, international lending agency, music journalist or academic, whether the creative industry diversification thrust is happening. The ad hoc manner of local data collection by artists, artists’ groups and the commercial trade, as suppliers and the CSO, ministries and academia, as collators has played havoc with any information that could be used by investors and the State to make informed decisions that work. Our ability to spend, and the state’s ability to count that spend will decide whether music remains a commercial hobby with some lucrative benefits or whether an industry can take root and make a decent living for the hundreds of singers and musicians producing music live and on record, singing in bars, casinos, hotels and corporate events, and the many promoters and all the ancillary providers making sure that those services are excellent, sustainable and profitable. 2016 is around the corner, and this writer is monitoring the movement towards a viable industry. We shouldn’t accept more of the same any longer.
- A version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspapers published as, “Mixed Fortunes”
© 2015, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.