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Songwriters should get their own shine - Oftentimes shown little respect, recognition

Published:Friday | April 28, 2017 | 12:00 AMShereita Grizzle
Gussie Clarke

Jamaica has a rich tradition of songwriting geniuses, dating all the way back to the mento era of the early 1950s, extending to the present dancehall period. However, songwriters have often been forgotten for their contributions in the music industry.

The career of many a successful entertainers has more often than not come down to the lyrics of a well-written song that manages to connect with the masses. With that said, songwriters are perhaps the most important players in the music industry, but they are oftentimes the least respected, as many of them remain relatively unknown. Whenever a recording becomes a hit, it is usually the singers and the musicians who are thrust into the spotlight. This caused many songwriters to take on the mantra of performers and this has raised concern, for some industry players who fear that the switch will be to the detriment of the music industry.

In an interview with The Sunday Gleaner, Dean McKellar, music rights analyst and board member at the Jamaica Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers (JACAP), expressed that the quality of songs coming out of Jamaica has decreased significantly and it is due partly to songwriters making the transition to artistes/performers.

"Some of the artistes today that have become prominent started out as songwriters. Kartel for example, when he just went and joined Bounty Killer, he was writing songs for other people until he decided to step forward and become an artiste, because it is more lucrative to be an artiste. Bugle is another case, because I know him personally and he was actually writing songs for Elephant Man. In an interview with Elise Kelly, when she asked him what motivated him to shift from being a songwriter to a performer, he noted that when Elephant Man's album, Log On, was released by Greensleeves records, he wrote seven songs on that album, and he didn't see his name credited for one of those songs."




"Songwriters do not get the kind of respect that they rightfully deserve, and so they are making the switch to the areas where they are recognised, and the craft itself is going to suffer. The quality of the writing has deteriorated over the years. When you think about a Beres Hammond when he was emerging in the early '80s or a Bob Andy or Dave Kelly (from a dancehall perspective), these people have dedicated a vast amount of time to writing songs and developing the craft. What you see happening now is the industry being flooded with artistes who are not writers."

Gussie Clarke, veteran producer and member of JACAP, agreed.

"More music a come out, but I do not believe that the current crop of songwriters are as good as those back in the days, nor is the music as good as it previously was," he said. "A song makes a singer, a singer don't make a song - That means that it's all about the song and the songwriter. One of the stupidest things I have ever heard, is when someone writes a song and goes to an artiste, whether established or not, and that artiste is going to tell him say 'me nuh sing people tune because me write my own thing'. Everywhere else in the world is different because the biggest artistes in the world have had some of their biggest hits written by somebody else. It's not about wanting to scrape everything up for themselves in terms of rights and royalties, it's about getting the next big hit."

McKellar made a similar observation.

"I call it the 'jack of all trade, master of none-approach.' Somebody needs to introduce to many of our practitioners the concept of division of labour, where each particular person undertakes a specific task in order to improve efficiency and overall productivity," he explained. "Ego and pride has caused us in Jamaica to lose sight of the bigger picture. There is nothing wrong with going to the man who can write and getting a song from him. Whitney Houston has never written a song for herself and she is one of the most adored female vocalists in the world."

While McKellar and Clarke would love if more songwriters are recognised for their work, they do not foresee that happening anytime soon. Both have pointed out that too few songwriters understand their rights, and as a result, set themselves up to be exploited by those who do.

"The songwriters and composers are really the first link in the music supply chain and oftentime because of their weak bargaining position, they end up with the smallest share of the revenue pie because powerful intermediaries insert themselves in the value chain between the songwriters and the end users. If you survey the history of Jamaican music, many songwriters were cheated out of their rights," McKellar explained. "It's going to take determined initiative on the part of the current crop of upcoming songwriters to really bring about the kind of revolution and recognition that I think the art form deserves."

"Songwriters are perhaps more important than everybody else in the industry put together. It is from their creation that everybody else benefits and we need to protect these people, because without them there would be no music industry," Clarke expressed. "Everybody wants to ride on the backs of music creators. They want to say how great this music is but do not want to adequately compensate the creators of the music for their work. Exploitation with adequate compensation is akin to slavery, but unless these songwriters put themselves in a position where they are in the know when it comes to their rights, change will be slow in coming."