Jamaican music and musicians are not where they need to be when it comes to numbers, access, and credibility. We talked to several reggae and dancehall artists and insiders to discuss what the hurdles are and how artists can establish themselves in the music eco-system.
The little island of Jamaica has produced some of the best music known to man. And yet, the business of selling Jamaican music is riddled with problems. Those problems include: no major record labels on or dedicated to the island’s two main genres, reggae and dancehall; restricted access to international and regional digital service providers (DSPs); no adequate way of counting or making earnings off of records; and the fact that reggae is the least profitable genre according to statistics.
What makes this confounding is that Jamaican music begets the formula, frequency, beats per minute (bpm) rate, energy, and flavor that generate chart-topping records. We’ve witnessed pop stars use Jamaica’s sauce countless times, from Rihanna and Drake’s “Work“ to Justin Bieber’s “Sorry“ to Ed Sheeran and Bieber’s “I Don’t Care.” Additionally, what makes the country’s music extra special is its direct influence on hip-hop, the most popular music genre in total consumption. Hip-Hop is cited to be birthed out of the Jamaican music sound system culture, which was brought to the states and heightened by the founding fathers DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa, who are all of the Jamaican descent. At heart, there’s no doubt there is something magical in the melodic style that hails from Jamrock. But as a whole, Jamaican music and musicians are not where they need to be when it comes to numbers, access, and credibility.
Last month, the Jamaica Music Conference took place in Kingston, Jamaica at The Courtleigh Auditorium. The conference drew out some of Jamaican music’s finest to discuss the business of the music industry and the issues that plague Jamaican musicians. Artists from Shaggy— one of the only Jamaican artists with international acclaim and multiple international number one hits— to Walshy Fire of Major Lazer to Tuma Basa, director of urban music at YouTube, engaged in a four-day conference that identified problem areas and spoke on the actions needing to take place to uplift the Jamaican music industry.
Okayplayer was in attendance at the conference. While there were able to talk to Jamcian industry artists and insiders to discuss how Jamaican artists — who are some of the most influential artists in the world — can finally establish themselves in the music and business eco-system. Topics discussed included the artists’ behavior, producer leverage, management unprofessionalism, and access to DSPs and digital platforms.
Shaggy, Grammy Award-Winning Jamaican Musician, Singer & DJ
I don’t think half of [Jamaican artists] know what publishing it is. I don’t think half of them grasp the idea of what work ethic is. Work ethic is the biggest component even more so than talent in making it and that needs to be taught. We have a brand that is very prominent or stands out or is a forward force to be reckoned with. The cool factor is there in the mainstream, yet whether we are competing is another thing. Numbers are telling us that we’re not competing. Dancehall is the lowest streaming genre out of all of them but yet still it’s the birth child of every other genre. Every other genre is the birth child of dancehall. I was even talking to a friend of mine, Sean Paul, and he kind of broke it down to me. He said, “Hey, you know there is reggae and then there is dancehall, but dancehall, within a short space of time, has moved and inspired other genres. Reggaeton is from it. Afrobeat is from it. That’s how colorful it has been. That’s how dynamic it has been.”
What is lacking in it becoming mainstream is the fact that a lot of the players involved aren’t educated enough and a lot of the artists involved weren’t dedicated enough. The organization has been our biggest killer and it has kept us back. What we need to do is to make sure that our young artists are a part of the game. When these guys come and say they want a Popcaan on a record and they want this artist or that artist on a record they are looking for that cool factor because Jamaica music carries that. They’re in the video for two minutes but they’re not on the tours. They’re not getting the look. They’ve got to start insisting on getting certain things and getting certain things written in. There are no major labels here: there are just boutique labels. You need to have a major label out of Jamaica that sign an administrates for artists and all of that shit. That’s missing.
Diego Herrera, Reggae/Caribbean/World Curator and Music Programmer for Pandora Music
I’m observing that more reggae artists and producers are being brought in as part of the creative nuclei that powers the biggest hits in the global market — which means that they’re part of the pulse of music worldwide in a significant way. Translating those experiences and learnings from those interactions back to the local Jamaican industry will be really important to the elevation of the genre as a whole, especially as reaching new audiences through streaming services accelerates, increasing their opportunity to create music that connects with people beyond the island.
[Jamaican artists need to] learn who their core audience is and activate them, and get smart about how to expand their audience via social media and marketing tools like Pandora’s AMP. Also, putting themselves into as many conversations about the industry as possible is another great starting point. Attend conferences like JMC, SXSW, Tech Beach, and more. Correspond with other professionals, seek advice and be open to feedback and critiques. Also, there is almost nothing more powerful than flexing your professional network and being a collaborator on a peer’s project. You never know how that favor you did for someone may come back as a big opportunity in the future.
Walshy Fire, Grammy Award-Winning Jamaican American DJ, MC & record Producer as 1/3 of Major Lazer
It’s a fact that Jamaican artists don’t know the global music industry and that’s something that has to change. There are no workshops, there are no mentors, there is nobody that is coming to the artists with this information and makes money on a global stage. But, at the same time, no one cannot deny that nine out of 10 of the artists are horrible to work with. It’s just too much and Jamaicans have a right to be like that. They have the best music in the world. They have the most influential, most inspirational music in the world. What happens is a person like myself or other people, we don’t have the time. We don’t have the time to coddle or pamper somebody to be the best them.
One of the biggest grievances I always hear from artists that they won’t eat food outside of what they eat. And of course, as we all know, you go to a certain country, there is no jerk chicken and rice. It just doesn’t exist. Literally, I don’t think not one of them has not raised hell about the food. But ignorance has to be dealt with. It has to be addressed. Jamaica probably has more artists per capita than any other country in the world. But how many of them go out into the world and just don’t know how to act? And it really fucks the whole thing up big time. So if I were to suggest for them to invest time and money into something it would be in a business manager, and a lawyer. Invest in a person who can teach you the world. Invest in a person who is well-traveled, who can show you that when you land in this country you can’t say this, you’re not going to eat that and that’s that.
Candice Kay, Founder of ThePoshRebel LLC, Co-founder Palisadoes Music Management
Understanding publishing, understanding the basics so the difference between the publishing on a song and the master of a song and most importantly understanding how royalties work and how they can collect their royalties [is what needs to be taught]. What I mentioned at the conference is that a lot of people don’t know that you get performance royalties from performing. If you’re performing at a show and you register your setlist — and if your songs are also registered — you will get royalties from those performances. People are missing out on money for simple things like performing at a venue and not registering your setlist or not ensuring that the venue even has a setlist, not registering their songs, and not signing up with performing rights societies such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC in the US or the equivalent in Jamaica which I think is JAMPRO or JAMMS. [It’s about] making sure that every time the song is played that they are collecting royalties. I find that a lot of people are creating music and putting it out there and just waiting for it to get radio spins, just waiting for it to be played in the dance halls and in the club, which is fine, but that is not the way that you are going to make a living off of your music. There are so many other avenues to make money and understanding the mechanism of royalties is one of the most important ones. Make sure your songs are properly registered, that they are properly copywritten.
Kabaka Pyramid, Jamaican Lyricist, Director of Bebble Rock Music Member of JAMMS, JARIA, ASCAP, Recording Academy (GRAMMY) and affiliated with Ghetto Youths International
It’s important for [Jamaicans] to know the impact of our music globally. Listening to DJ Kool Herc speak [at JMC] was very eye-opening and inspirational. Each Jamaican should know the value of our culture and music. It’s also important to learn more about the different roles in music, outside of the more popular roles like the artist, producer, manager. Artists [in Jamaica] typically don’t show up for anything unless they think it’s beneficial to their careers, and for the most part only when they are specifically invited. The business side of the music industry is not at the forefront of most artist’s thinking unless there is a short term reward, i.e. money. So it’s important that their managers and team members either show up on their behalf or try and get them to see the bigger picture and attend, learn. We need to start thinking collectively about the music industry, support the JMC and organizations like JaRIA that are trying to consolidate the industry on a macro level and steer it forward into the future.
We all benefit if the music grows and becomes more professional and standardized. It only works if we all buy into it. We definitely need to sort out the publishing laws so we can enter the streaming market properly. I think we need to collaborate more with each other to make greater songs, and also collaborate with African and Latin American artists so we can tap into those vast markets. A lot of us are decent to great songwriters but not many have great voices, but everyone wants to be a lead artist. We need to highlight the other roles in the music so that different paths can be illuminated. We need more research and data so that we can convince the private sector to invest in the industry and hopefully; if a major label is born then it can be Jamaican owned and run.
Tanya Lawson, Director of Caribbean and Afrobeats (African Music) at Audiomack
Dancehall, reggae, and soca are not a major genre for [AudioMack]. We don’t stream huge numbers so we have to do more work to get the staff on board or excited for an artist project. The funny thing is they’re capable of doing excellent numbers but don’t know. The good thing about Audiomack is that we want reggae/ dancehall/ soca on the platform. [Jamaican artists need to know that] it’s good to meet with the people at the DSP so they can have a better understanding of who you are. We actually remember the artists that take the time to meet with us. When I know artists are in (NYC), I reach out to them to try and get them to stop by the office so they can meet the staff and get a better upstanding of what we’re about. It means a lot when an artist comes into town and builds with the staff. The problem is when the artist doesn’t find it useful to meet. There are times they will say yes and don’t show up. They don’t think it’s that important to meet, they just don’t show up or call to cancel. For me, it’s a bad look when I schedule an artist to come by the office and they don’t show. It appears as if they don’t care. We have series like like Fine-Tuned, Trap Symphony, and 20/20. We would love reggae/dancehall/soca artists on them but the problem is getting artists involved.
Jesse Royal, Jamaican Vocalist, Songwriter &Reggae Revival Leader
In terms of artists not showing up to meetings with DSPs and media houses, it may be their reality. I want to guess that it is just the lack of knowledge and not truly understanding the importance that comes with being an artist and the responsibility that comes with everything that you do. As an artist, it is really your duty to maintain your brand and continue to find new ways of growing it and partnering with individuals to grow it. I don’t know what would be the reason that some artists think like that but I know there is a whole new wave of artists who are trying to change that record and that tone of conversation where Jamaican artists are concerned.
Noel Cymone Walker is a music, beauty and lifestyle journalist in the NYC area. She has written for the likes of Marie Claire Magazine, Billboard, The Fader, Essence, Allure, Glamour and more. You can catch her on Instagram @thefurstnoel.