Jamaica is world-renowned for several things, including athletics, Blue Mountain coffee and, of course, our music. People in just about every country can identify Bob Marley and will hum at least the title of his global anthem, One Love. He is, without a doubt, our greatest musical superstar and his name can be called in the company of any other international icon. Over the years, Jamaica has produced a number of other brilliant international stars, such as Jimmy Cliff, Maxi Priest, Shaggy, Shabba Ranks, Ziggy Marley, Damian ‘Junior Gong’ Marley and Sean Paul.
These artists represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it comes to the talent pool of Jamaican music. It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say there are hundreds of other talented singers and musicians waiting for a ‘buss’ – that elusive moment of luck that catapults them from unknown to the stratosphere. However, most of them do not have the necessary support system to even get off the ground. Then there are a few who have all the ingredients for superstardom, but still can’t get where they need to go.
So, what does it take to achieve success in music in Jamaica? As with other markets around the world, some level of talent is requisite. Then there is the ‘look’ – potential stars must have an appearance that their audience can either relate or aspire to. There is also is the matter of choosing the right songs. The songs should be catchy and radio-friendly, chalking up steady airplay. All of this translates into a sparkling public profile that can command for the artiste big bucks for concerts, appearances, endorsement deals, etc.
Jamaica’s music industry is structured a little differently, in that album sales don’t really come into play. Perhaps this is due to the small market size (approximately 2.7 million people). The truth is we have traditionally always been an export market. Additionally, we don’t have a strict album culture, where artistes strive to put out solo albums periodically. Some artistes do make albums, but these are most often cherished in the European and Japanese markets, not in Jamaica where the tendency is to get on a ‘riddim’ and hope your song is one of the hits. There is no accurate, established system in place to track record sales locally, so we don’t know how well these albums and singles perform. As a result, an artist’s success in Jamaica is gauged primarily by airplay and popularity in various dances and parties. Based on this popularity, the artist can earn from stage shows – both local and overseas, the cutting of dub plates for sound systems and, in more recent times, corporate endorsements, etc.
However, one of the more important revenue streams for an artiste is sale of the actual songs. With new technologies, the majority of purchases are done online – but the average Jamaican does not have a credit card, which is necessary for these purchases. Global music sales have trended downwards for years because of piracy and our own sales have been especially hard hit as result of this. Walk on any major town street in the country and you will see stacks of burned CDs spread out on pieces of tarpaulin being sold for $300 or thereabouts, some $700-$900 less than the average album costs. The current ‘it’ album happens to be Tessanne Chin’s collection of singles from The Voice, which are available on iTunes for US$1.29 (about $137) each, or US$9.99 (about $1,060) in total. What we can gather from this is that perhaps average Jamaicans are willing to buy music – if it is easily accessible to them.
Whatever the reason, the tendency to not purchase music (legally) especially affects local musicians who haven’t had an international hit. Reggae star Gyptian certainly agrees. “Where in Jamaica has an artiste sold 2,000 albums or even 500? They buy rap, soul and anything else foreign. But ask them if they buy reggae or dancehall. These people are not supporting their own,” he said, in a November 2013 Gleaner article. He is certainly speaking from experience, based on the international success of his gold single, Hold Yuh.
The music industry is notoriously difficult for women to succeed in. However, international precedent shows that it can be done. Amongst the biggest names in music right now are women: Adele, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Rihanna. In a time when global record sales are trending down, these women manage to buck the trend with multi-platinum albums. Jamaica, despite our musical pedigree, has still not given the world a female star, like Barbados has with Rihanna. However, we seem to have achieved a potential breakthrough with Tessanne’s success in winning The Voice, which has exposed her to the international market and secured her thousands of new fans and a major label recording contract.
Jamaicans rallied to help ensure her victory, by calling on their friends and relatives in the US to vote and purchase her singles, so it is hoped that the same kind of support will be shown when her new album is released later this year – especially in terms of sales. And let us resolve to put our money where our mouths are not only for Jamaican artists with an international profile, but for other talented local artists who could really use the boost.
Purchasing music is a tangible show of support for the work of an artist that you admire and whose music you enjoy. Without compensation for their work, artists will not be able to continue to make music. The expenses of producing, marketing and promoting music must be recouped by the artist and the music industry in order for music to be created. Grammy-nominated A&R Rodney Hill, who works with Bob Sinclar (World Hold On) and many top house DJs says, “What if you worked long hours and never got paid? Well, that’s what happens when you don’t buy music. Support the artist that makes the music you love by buying his or her music.”
A country with a rich musical talent like ours should not have to rely on an American reality show to illustrate our abilities to support and propel our artists to stardom. Good Jamaican talent deserves to be nurtured and compensated by our own.