The Caribbean mu­sic in­dus­try has come to the fore in re­cent years as the re­gion’s lead­ers fo­cus on eco­nomic di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion


There’s an­other el­e­ment to the Caribbean’s time-hon­oured tourism for­mula of sun, sand and sea — sound. Whether it’s car­ni­val cow­bells, rau­cous Soca or the Saint Lu­cia­born beats of the Den­nery Seg­ment, the re­gion’s mu­sic, like its his­tory, is a unique blend of in­dige­nous, Euro­pean and African in­flu­ences.

It’s also a valu­able com­mod­ity at a time when is­land economies are di­ver­si­fy­ing into cul­tural in­dus­tries and recog­nis­ing the im­por­tance of de­vel­op­ing home­grown tal­ent.

There are no ma­jor record la­bels in the Caribbean but the is­lands are full of small pro­duc­ers nu­tur­ing lo­cal artists. Given that 40% of global mu­sic sales come from in­de­pen­dent record com­pa­nies, lo­cal record com­pa­nies may have more power in the mar­ket than they re­alise. How­ever, if they are to reach cus­tomers and turn the vi­brant sounds of the Caribbean into a thriv­ing ex­port, mu­si­cians must over­come a wealth of tech­ni­cal and fi­nan­cial ob­sta­cles.


Tra­di­tion­ally Ja­maica has led the charge when it comes to pro­mot­ing and ex­port­ing Caribbean mu­sic. The feel-good vibe of reg­gae stuck a chord all over the world, fu­elled by the rise of leg­endary artists such as Bob Mar­ley and the mod­ern-day per­form­ers Buju Ban­ton, Bee­nie

Man and oth­ers who led the genre’s evo­lu­tion into dance­hall.

But there’s more to the is­lands than reg­gae. Soca stars have been gain­ing au­di­ences since the 1990s as car­ni­val cel­e­bra­tions spread beyond the re­gion. Heavy hit­ters such as Machel Mon­tano, Pa­trice Roberts and Bunji Gar­lin helped put Trinidad and Tobago on the map but the sound soon spread and now soca singers are break­ing through in Bar­ba­dos, St Vin­cent and the Gre­nadines and Saint Lu­cia where a pop­u­lar sub­group, the Den­nery Seg­ment, has been carv­ing out a niche.

Caribbean mu­si­cians may be find­ing cre­ative new ways to de­velop their own sound but it takes more than tal­ent and inspiration to be­come suc­cess­ful. Vanesta Mort­ley, Op­er­a­tions Man­ager at the Eastern Caribbean Col­lec­tive Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mu­sic Rights (ECCO) says mu­si­cians need to be more busi­ness­minded if they are to con­quer their in­dus­try. “”Most of the mu­si­cians do not treat this as a busi­ness and do not ap­prise them­selves with in­for­ma­tion that would help them bet­ter man­age their busi­ness,” she says. “Treat­ing their mu­sic as a busi­ness, up­dat­ing them­selves on trends of their mar­ket and net­work­ing with dif­fer­ent stake­hold­ers would as­sist. We have a few mu­si­cians who do this but they are in the mi­nor­ity.”


Ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Phono­graphic In­dus­try (IFPI) Global Mu­sic re­port, world­wide mu­sic sales grew for the third con­sec­u­tive year in 2017, hit­ting US$17.3bn. More than half of that came from dig­i­tal rev­enue with stream­ing au­di­ences surg­ing to 272 mil­lion users. Stream­ing is now the lead­ing source of in­come for record com­pa­nies, gen­er­at­ing over 33% of all mu­sic sales.

That’s a huge po­ten­tial mar­ket for Caribbean artists — ac­ces­si­ble sim­ply through an in­ter­net con­nec­tion. “Only a few of our mu­si­cians utilise the dig­i­tal stream­ing chan­nels ef­fec­tively. It would seem that the ma­jor­ity have not seen the value of on­line mar­ket­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion,” says Mort­ley who wants to see more tech­ni­cal work­shops to help mu­si­cians get to grips with how tech­nol­ogy can en­hance their brand. “Stake­hold­ers can have more ed­u­ca­tional ini­tia­tives, pos­si­bly some cur­ricu­lum for per­sons in­ter­ested in the busi­ness of mu­sic, not just fo­cus­ing on per­for­mance but a holis­tic ap­proach to in­clude man­age­ment, in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights, mar­ket­ing.”

So­cial me­dia is also an im­por­tant tool for artists. With the po­ten­tial to dra­mat­i­cally in­crease their au­di­ence both at home and abroad, the most suc­cess­ful per­form­ers are those who are most en­gaged across a va­ri­ety of plat­forms in­clud­ing Face­book, Twit­ter, In­sta­gram, Vine and Youtube.

Un­lim­ited ac­cess to a vast mar­ket has its down­sides how­ever. While cus­tomers are lis­ten­ing, it’s also hard to break through the noise and drown out the com­pe­ti­tion. Self-pro­mo­tion is an ex­pen­sive, time­con­sum­ing and re­source-heavy busi­ness. Ac­cord­ing to the IFPI, it can cost artists from US$500,000 to US$2m to break into the main­stream. “There are fi­nan­cial chal­lenges,” says Mort­ley. “Pro­duc­ing mu­sic is costly and mu­si­cians are not al­ways able to get a sub­stan­tial re­turn on their in­vest­ment.”


In Fe­bru­ary, the Caribbean De­vel­op­ment Bank (CDB) held a two-day work­shop in Bar­ba­dos to ex­am­ine ways of ex­pand­ing and de­vel­op­ing the re­gional mu­sic in­dus­try. Re­gional and in­ter­na­tional con­sul­tants weighed in, pin­point­ing is­sues such as the gen­der gap in the sec­tor — fe­male artists aren’t as well rep­re­sented as their male coun­ter­parts, and they tend to have lower earn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. The work­shop is the lat­est ef­fort from the CDB to reach out to mu­si­cians, fol­low­ing tech­ni­cal train­ing in Bar­ba­dos and Ja­maica in 2016 and 2017.

Mort­ley wel­comes this kind of sup­port, which wasn’t al­ways so read­ily avail­able, say­ing: “Mu­sic falls di­rectly into the [re­mit of our] cul­tural in­dus­try as most as­pects of our cul­ture in­volve mu­sic. In the past, there has not been a fo­cus on the mu­sic in­dus­try but in re­cent times there have been ef­forts aimed at im­prov­ing the prod­uct in the var­i­ous coun­tries, es­pe­cially in the tech­ni­cal as­pect of the in­dus­try, in the form of work­shops and sem­i­nars.”

Tra­di­tional in­dus­tries such as fi­nan­cial ser­vices are in de­cline in the Caribbean and while tourism re­mains a sta­ble source of in­come, it is vul­ner­a­ble to nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and heav­ily de­pen­dent on the global econ­omy. In­vest­ing in the cul­tural arts can help the re­gion build a di­ver­si­fied, sta­ble and re­li­able econ­omy.

Recog­nis­ing this, de­vel­op­ment groups are now com­ing to­gether to of­fer mu­si­cians and other artists more routes to fund­ing and sup­port. The CDB is set to launch its US$2.6m Cul­tural and Cre­ative In­dus­tries In­no­va­tion

Fund (CIIF) later this year and Caribbean Ex­port is cur­rently de­vel­op­ing its own sup­port net­work, man­aged by the up­com­ing Caribbean Cre­ative In­dus­tries Man­age­ment Unit (CCIM). At its launch, Gayle Gol­lop, Caribbean Ex­port’s Spe­cial Ad­vi­sor in Trade and

Le­gal Af­fairs said: “We still face the chal­lenge of the lack of strate­gic and fo­cused man­age­ment in the de­vel­op­ment of the re­gion’s cre­ative and cul­tural in­dus­tries. This lack of a co-or­di­nated re­gional ap­proach has hin­dered the sec­tor’s abil­ity to con­trib­ute to sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment in the re­gion. The big­gest gap has been the ab­sence of struc­ture that ad­dresses the mon­e­ti­za­tion of the cre­ative in­dus­tries in the re­gion.”

Ac­cord­ing to the IFPI Global Mu­sic re­port, world­wide mu­sic sales grew for the third con­sec­u­tive year in 2017, hit­ting US$17.3bn. More than half of that came from dig­i­tal rev­enue with stream­ing au­di­ences surg­ing to 272 mil­lion users

Caribbean mu­si­cians may be find­ing cre­ative new ways to de­velop their own sound but it takes more than tal­ent and inspiration to be­come suc­cess­ful

Trinida­dian soca artist Machel Mon­tano has cre­ated global aware­ness for the in­her­ently Caribbean genre . . . but will more artists be able to fol­low his act?

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