By Dr Stefan Walcott
One full year after the establishment of the Republic, the Barbadian music industry is in a moment of reckoning. Much like Barbados, which is trying to find its way in treacherous global waters, the music industry is also faced with a number of challenges which require urgent attention. This article, though limited in scope, looks at what I determine to be its two biggest areas of concern.
The first issue, believe it or not, is whether Barbados’ music industry does in fact exist. Within Barbados, there has been some passionate debate about this. Those in the denial camp insist that there are too many jobs missing and not enough full-time workers for Barbados to have an industry. The positive camp, into which I fall, believes that there is an industry in Barbados. Every year, I engage my students with this question and tell the non-believers in my class that although it is not the industry you see on television, it is an industry nevertheless.
Barbados has an industry because several people who work in it full-time produce products and services that are consumed. It also employs service providers who meet the needs of the artists and producers within the field. The jobs which do not exist, the ones the industry deniers constantly cite, only exist in very few places in the world! So, to say Barbados does not have an industry is like arguing that the Czech Republic does not have a car industry just because it only makes Skodas.
You may be wondering why this admission of existence is necessary because you exist and don’t need to admit it. But for the Barbadian industry, this is crucial because it affects every five cents of the funding that goes into the industry. For example, in the past, thousands of dollars have been spent bringing industry personnel from over and away, telling us how to create jobs in music publishing, jobs in crypto-tokens, and how to establish labels – in short, how to create an industry. But these workshops, which have been supported by taxpayer money in some cases, fail to realise that these jobs cannot exist because Barbados has an industry already that cannot accommodate them! This is especially important at this time because less money is coming into Barbados post-republic, and the country cannot afford to waste its limited resources trying to make this unattainable dream come true. So, the first reality the industry needs to work out is that it does exist and the way it exists is what the country can accommodate.
The first issue that I just dealt with relates to the second one. The Barbadian music industry, especially since the Rihanna event of 2005, has yet to figure out what it wants to be, not just in terms of size or jobs, but in terms of content. The emergence of Rihanna 17 years ago severely interrupted what I call the Bob Marley dream. Bob Marley gained global recognition by performing a musical genre, reggae, based on indigenous innovation. Throughout the 1980s, groups such as Spice and Company and in the 1990s, Square One and Krosfyah took up the Bob Marley dream and tried valiantly, and with some success, to gather international fame using indigenous music. In the case of these groups, soca was largely the tool of choice. Rihanna’s emergence in 2005 completely shattered this because she gained international prominence by not only moving to the United States but by fully adopting and singing Euro-American music. There was no soca, spouge or tuk in what she did, and it was like a meteor crash-landed on the Barbadian music industry. I remember clearly in 2005, a flock of artists who all started just to sing and look like famous American artists. In fact, artist after artist began to come from this assembly line all singing music without a drop of indigenous Barbadian rhythms. Livvi Franc, Hal Linton, Cover Drive and Vita Chambers all broke into the American music industry by making music that was not recognisably Bajan.
The cost of these artists breaking into the Euro-American music industry was considerable and a lot of money was poured into these ventures. Some say there was little investment in Barbados’ music industry, but I can testify there was a lot of it going around post-Rihanna breakthrough. Thousands of dollars were spent on these artists to break into America, including thousands of foreign exchange dollars. So as the Republic moves ahead, should the Government, which is the leading investor in the arts in Barbados these days, continue to spend its limited funds on artists who do not represent indigenous forms? Should they pivot from Crop Over, which has not yielded any hugely successful export content? Or should they look to invest in artists doing indigenous music? In other words, is the Barbados industry an industry set out to make money or is it one catered to its own local needs, more concerned about local forms? Do we need more Amanda Reifers or more singing Mother Sally? The last question is perhaps the biggest one facing the Barbadian music industry moving forward.
This article is not meant to be negative. It was written because of hope. Each year, we receive students in our post-secondary programmes at the Barbados Community College and the University of the West Indies BFA and BA programmes interested in developing their musical craft to a professional level. Each year, we hear and see young Bajan artists capable of singing and playing American music to a high technical level in NIFCA and in school competitions. As the cliché goes, the potential is tremendous. What needs to happen is clarity around them. There is no more space for waste within the music industry and the Republic as a whole. We need to be clear about what we are trying to achieve and what kind of industry we are trying to build and for whom we are building it. Only then can we be successful and move forward in this generation triumphantly as an industry and as a Republic.