Towards a formal music business
As promised last week, today we look at some reasons why what passes for the Jamaican music industry should move towards a more formal structure. While the topic is always relevant - and always thorny - this time around, it is prompted by a State of the Music Symposium at JAMPRO's New Kingston offices, which I attended a few weeks ago. Immediately identifiable with Dr Sonja Stanley Niaah of the University of the West Indies' (UWI) Institute of Cultural Studies (ICS), part of its purpose is to inform policy which gives structure to a cultural product which we have stumbled on.
However, during the time period I attended on the final day of this year's annual conference, the issue of why formalise, at all, came up. Even as I understand the reasoning of those who believe that the way in which we have approached making money from musical intellectual property works, I believe in formalising an ad hoc industry which has been at critical points in its development, a glorious accident. Still, I can understand the perspective of those who come from a tradition of substantial income already being generated. Naturally, the argument is why adjust what has been working so far? How can the input of persons who were nowhere to be seen when a now-acclaimed performer was struggling be even justified, much less accepted and trusted?
Plus - and let us not pussyfoot around the issue - how can those already involved in making homegrown Jamaican music be sure that the process will not result in taxation? And it must, as the sector is notably and woefully not exactly rushing to the tax collector to file returns.
Lack of accounting
And let us not forget that there is no legitimate accounting for much of the capital which funds Jamaican popular music projects. This is not unique to the country; music is notoriously easy for money to be unaccounted for, both on the funding and profit sides. The private sector and government have not rushed to put money into Jamaican popular music, despite recent developments, and the initial cash for the recordings and events which we enjoy so much has to come from somewhere.
Still, I believe that much of the resistance by some persons invoked in making music in and from Jamaica, not so exalted, figure in a much larger pool. To put it another way, I believe many of those who resist a more formal structure for Jamaican popular music have a highly inflated sense of self and cannot comprehend a scenario where they are not the 'big man', and would rather preside over a market of a million dollars than have a 10 per cent share of 50 times that amount.
Further, there is this matter of 'paying dues', which I find to be very often a nice way of saying that someone must endure abuse and exploitation before they are allowed to 'buss' - make good money from their craft. Abuse is a contagious thing, many times recycled in full by those who suffered it. So many of those who have paid their dues of exploitation will be quite happy to pass it on to the next generation of music hopefuls.
It should not be so. How things have been in the beginning do not have to be how they are in the end.
Music is a business
All this aside, the major reason why we should have a formal structure to this business of music is because it is just that - a business. And if we do not get our act together, it will increasingly become something that we used to be the best at. Instead of bemoaning how few of the top albums on the Billboard Reggae Charts are done by Jamaicans, we should be facing the hard facts.
We once had a monopoly on producing Jamaican popular music. Other people liked it and started to not only consume, but also produce it. They have done well, so now we groove to Rude, by Magic! While we have the stamp of authenticity (the Made in China branding won't work on this one), the product can be replicated, and it is being done.
Talent is not enough. Look at C-Sharp and Raging Fyah, among other bands, which have come out of the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts, under the strong guidance of Ibo Cooper. They are part of reviving a band tradition in reggae from Jamaica which had faded terribly. Uprising Roots and Rootz Underground, not out of Edna Manley, have contributed significantly also.
There was a time when the West Indies cricket team was king of the hill through sheer talent and individual pride. Australia started a cricket academy and have won a handful of limited-overs world championships.
Formalisation does not only mean schooling in the art for practitioners, but an entire structure from legislation to making the singers and players of instruments aware of the history of what they are engaged in. It is vital to the sustainability, diversity and progress of this thing called Jamaican popular music.
Those who believe that 'studiration beat education' and that their dominance over a tiny pie is an achievement, should be wary that they not become a footnote in music history written by persons outside the country who take seriously what we take for granted as our birthright.