Sunday, February 19, 2006

Free Market Reggae

It is eleven pm at the two-story headquarters of Headline Entertainment in Kingston, Jamaica. But the only person sleeping is a haggard security guard at the bottom of the stairwell. The hills overlooking Kingston have long grown dim, yet Jerome Hamilton is on speaker-phone making last-minute bookings for a tour featuring Shaggy – the barrel-voiced, Gulf War and dance hall music veteran.

Hamilton lounges in an oversized jersey and jeans, gathering strength for his Friday night appearance at a nearby club. Hamilton runs a prominent talent relations agency, promoting artists whose faces grace the covers of glossy magazines – like Sean Paul and Damian Marley. He also represents lesser-known talents who scramble for overseas gigs to make a meager income.

Hamilton’s experience paints a schizophrenic picture of the global music industry. “With 8…artists on major U.S. labels, you’d hope to get a good deal for everyone,” says Hamilton. “Things still have to change.”

In Jamaica, reggae is ubiquitous, rising above the din of traffic as it blasts from boom boxes and car speakers at Mobil gas stations, fast food joints and storefronts. Almost any night of the week, you can sit in an open air café or club and witness the lyrical and musical prowess of young MC’s at an open mic’ event.

But as for recorded reggae and dance hall, Jamaica has not fully reaped the rewards of its thriving musical tradition. In 2000, estimates of overall worldwide earnings from exports of reggae music were as high as $2.5 billion. But Jamaican earnings from recorded reggae music were estimated at only $300 million. The numbers translate into poverty for many popular dance hall artists, despite the commercial success of a few.

However, recent legal and business developments in the music industry could help to plant the seeds of economic growth for Jamaican artists and producers hungry to cash in on their own culture.

Changes in the industry have been long-awaited – since the 1950’s and 1960’s, when ska and early reggae pioneers recorded their music on a work-for-hire basis for coveted Kingston producers like Coxscone Dodds of Studio One. When the home-grown music sprouted a following in Britain, savvy producers began selling the songs (part and parcel with their intellectual property rights) to overseas distributors and producers, and eventually, to labels like Island Records, Greensleeves, Atlantic and Virgin.

Early Jamaican artists faced a quandary like blues artists such as Leadbelly or Muddy Waters, stripped of the publishing rights to many of their songs. But Jamaica’s small island status magnified the problem. Without access to major-league capital or markets, Jamaica’s recording industry and its artists made little progress while the United States and Europe advanced.

Today, the main demand for reggae lies outside of the Caribbean, so the industry remains underdeveloped on the island. “We don’t have the populous or the liquidity to support the superstar lifestyle,” says Steve Golding, Chair of JACAP, Jamaica’s equivalent to the United States’ Association of Songwriters, Composers and Publishers (ASCAP). As proof, Jamaica has only one major record label, VP Records, which functions as a New York based production and distribution house, and does not formally represent artists.

Golding believes that building up the industry’s legal and business infrastructure could foster its development. Success “is all about positioning the product,” he says, sounding like a marketing executive for Pepsi rather than a one-time guitarist for Peter Tosh.

Like ASCAP in the United States, Golding’s JACAP serves as an intermediary between composers and publishers and the listening public. Acting as a middleman, JACAP documents the ownership of its members’ songs, collects statutory royalties from radio airplay and license fees from live performance venues, and administers payments to songwriters and publishers for their intellectual property rights. Unlike ASCAP, JACAP does not yet handle mechanical, i.e., reproduction rights.

In 2003, following a trend towards regional integration taking place in the Caribbean, Europe and Africa, JACAP pooled its resources with Barbados, St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago to establish the Caribbean Copyright Link (CCL). CCL has created a music clearinghouse that is a snapshot of what the future could look like for artists in the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), a proposed market space along the lines of the European Union that would remove trade barriers among 14 nations in the region.

CCL’s database, launched with the help of the international community, holds close to 2.4 million registered musical works from the Caribbean and around the world.

With better documentation, royalty collections, and thus distributions to artists, should increase. CCL projects that distributions to Caribbean artists have already increased by 30 percent since its inception. JACAP’s execution of agreements with ASCAP, BMI and London’s Performing Rights Society (PRS) – which will allow for reciprocal payments for songs played across international borders – should also increase collections.

Not only could increased collections put an estimated $60 million in Jamaica’s coffers; it could create incentives for Jamaican artists to sign on to JACAP instead of foreign publishing societies such as ASCAP, says Carol Simpson Robinson, Senior Program Officer for the Jamaican Intellectual Property Organization (JIPO).

“Unless you are selling millions of [record] copies like a Sean Paul or a Shaggy, there is not much you can make initially,” she admits. On the other hand, “JACAP has signed licensing agreements with all of Jamaica’s radio and television stations” as well as its major music venues, says Robinson. “So if you’re joined to your national society and you have just about made it, chances are it will be possible for you to earn [royalties]…at home.”

Still, the transition to JACAP feels risky for many artists. Yogie, a self-producing, Rastafarian chef cum reggae performer and producer, is currently a member of England’s PRS, which handled most local royalty collections prior to JACAP’s formation. Yogie hesitates. “Royalties are the only thing that I have that no-one can take away,” he says. “You need to give me a good track record…in order for me to turn that over to you.”

Artists’ concerns about their intellectual property rights reflect the uncertainties of the digital music arena. Like the Internet – which has propelled dance hall into unchartered territory while leading to piracy – the growth of digital recording and listening technologies represents both a boon and a barrier to industry growth.

Oswald James, a Jamaican born, Canadian-raised attorney who has represented artists like Beenie Man and Elephant Man, believes that the legal and business changes in Jamaica’s industry show signs of hope despite the growth of a fast-paced, competitive global industry. With “proper contracting” and “sound marketing,” artists can be successful in the international market, says James.

To do so, artists and advocates like JACAP may need to obtain greater support from their government – a gargantuan task, according to James. “This is a music that emanates from the ghetto,” he says. “So the government must go down to the ghetto, to Trenchtown and Tivoli, and talk to the people on a level they can understand.”

Jerome Hamilton agrees that the government should create more initiatives to support the industry’s growth. But many public officials perceive dance hall as “uncontrollable and risqué,” he says. “They appreciate its value; however, their current association with it is limited.”

For James, the fate of reggae, dance hall and the island hold in the balance. “There is a fundamental change occurring” he says. “Our future lies in entertainment.” But, he says, “it depends on which direction the government is prepared to go.”

For Hamilton, “regional integration is ultimately the way to go.” But, first, he says, “we must …build a more viable industry at home.”

© Nyasha Laing 2004

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