16 November 2010

Why the Soca Music Business is Failing

Everybody has heard it; there is no money in Soca, Reggae, Zouk ect. You're better off doing R&B, Hip Hop, Pop, World. But that's all nonsense. There is not a form of music on this planet that cannot generate an economy around itself. And Caribbean music has done just that. Caribbean carnivals are amongst the largest vacation destinations in the world. Reggae itself has generated a world wide audience since The Wailers and Soca (through share migration of West Indians alone) has spread to every corner of the globe. So why is it that most artist and producers involved in Soca music are still broke for the most part? I can sum it up in one word:Free. Everybody expects something for free.

Let me clarify and see if their is a logical beginning I could start from. I remember a time when, as a DJ, you either had to be extremely good or extremely popular to be in a record pool. This would get you new music on vinyl. That means, if you did not fall into those categories, you had to invest in your craft/career. This normally meant a weekly (or more) visit to the DJ Church. Some of you might remember it as a record store. Does anyone remember the last time they saw a record store? I still see frames of them around town. But they have turned into the proverbial western movie scene with tumble weed blowing through and unvegetated ground into a prairie of nothingness. At that time, because of the large investments, DJ's used to respect themselves enough to properly market and treat their craft as a business. When they did get work, they commanded a decent salary for the night. This in turn, forced promoters to only hire AT MOST three DJ's for their event. DJ's played for more than 20 minutes, and had ample time to get well into a set, playing all they could from their record case. Hell, then spent hours in the record store screening this music and found it fit enough to buy. Hence it was fit enough to play. He also wanted time to show off his sound system, which is something almost every DJ aspired to have. Conversely, the party goers would usually get exposer to new music during these parties and once in a while by radio. (Back then their was only one large format radio station in New York that played Caribbean music. Now we have none..or should I say no legal stations..just adds to my death theory) They would then visit the same record stores that the DJs were frequenting in and buy an album. Yes I said it..AN ALBUM.

At that time, I can also remember there was a lot less music in circulation. This is because you had to rent a studio, hire a producer, engineer, musicians and equipment to make a record. If you wanted it to be a hit record, ALL the talent associated with the record had to be top notched. You know...EXPERTS in their field. Also, because of the cost of the equipment, it demanded a significant amount of money to produce a record. That meant you either had to care enough about your career to invest it, or someone had to believe in your talent enough to invest on your behalf. In those days it seemed that artists understood that the record was the actual product that was being sold. They also understood for the most part, if the product wasn't good a ton of money would go down the drain.

These things that I previously mentioned did not come without their downsides however. Being an avid soca lover outside of the Caribbean usually meant that you did not hear new music until it was already going stale back in its country of origin. It also meant if a local artist or producer did not have enough funding or connections, his music would only be a local hit, because he would not be able to get distribution outside of his island. Of course, we Caribbean people always have a solution. Many people started bringing back mixed tapes from DJ's when they went back to their native lands. These mixed tapes would then be copied and either given away for free, or worst, sold without any permissions from the actual property owners. This was the first introduction to the Caribbean bootleg market.

There were other more prosperous solutions that became available however. Following in the footsteps of America and the UK, we started to see the emergence of the record store/record label model throughout the Caribbean. VP Records, Straker, JW Records and Crosby's are just a few names I could remember that started a heavy and regular influx of soca music into the American market. This increase in circulation led to more sales, bigger profits and best of all..more world recognition of our indigenousness music.

As time went on however, technology also improved. With any technological improvement, if their is no unity amongst manufacturer's, salesmen and technology specialists, the market beings to fail due to easier availability to the layman. The mixed tape introduced young hustlers to an important fact..They could buy one record in the store, play it on their record player, record it to tape..and sell copies of that tape for a profit. This meant back in the Caribbean, people were no longer supporting the record stores, because they could get the same album on the street, or even better...the best songs on a number of albums, on one tape for half the price. But the good side was more people were buying music. It also meant more local music would reach abroad.

Technology continued to improve, and we continued to abuse. When CD became the standard format of music delivery, we were back in a good place. Right up until the time when consumer CD duplicators became affordable. Then the bootlegging resumed in a bigger way. Bootlegs were able to be done cheaper, faster and on a less expensive medium. That meant the price of a normal album over a bootleg one wasn't even comparable. Technology improved in the studio as well as in the DJ market. Production became more affordable, entry level DJing became essentially free. The studio format began getting smaller and smaller and we began to hear more music from every genre. Then came the black plague of the music industry in general; MP3 format.

By now you may be asking yourself how is this particular to Soca music, as most of the things I have said in this rant have affected the music world in general. Well let me tell you. We Caribbean people seem to enjoy taking shortcuts. So when technology became cheaper, we started short changing one of the most important things about our culture: the music. Because it became so easy to get, people no longer visited the record store. They don't even visit the bootleg guy anymore. They just download it and burned a CD! Of course you do not have to invest any money to be a DJ anymore, because you can just download the music off the internet, load it onto a laptop and go play on someone else system with someone else's Serato box. So Soca DJ's became a dime a dozen. Once that happened promoters stopped respecting the DJ career. Dj's who were dying for exposure were basically begging promoters to play in their parties for free. The market became saturated and the price DJ's were commanding dwindled to just about drink money these days.

Now all you need is a laptop and a mic to be a "studio." So we see the uprising of thousands of new producers and artists. This would normally be a good thing, especially in soca which is known for being seasonal to each island's carnival. But what it did do was introduce unseasoned, unpracticed and unlearned people to the masses. Most did not take time out to study their craft, improve at it, and release a record when it was GOOD. Things went from a studio full of specialized talent in each part of the process, to the producer being a one man army. Don't believe me? Check the credits of a normal soca release these days (If you can find the credits). The music is composed, produced, mixed and mastered by one guy! In a BEDROOM. Not a space specifically designed to capture beautiful sonic landscapes. A BEDROOM. This has lead to is a lot of noise being on the soca market scene.

Noise is not good for a genre as small as the soca market. The buying base is already tiny as compared to world standards, and the culture in the Caribbean is very unforgiving. When the masses began to hear all this noise, it disheartened them even more and they now refuse to buy anything in fear that it would all be terrible. They do not support anything because of a long history of being disappointed. And when they do actually like something, they know they can get it for free. The culture of freeness since the mixed tape has grown into an all out monster.

With absolutely no buying base the business began to fail even more. The product (album) no longer had a viable consumer base and artist began doing away with recording an album. As a matter of fact I would go out on a limb and say the art form of album making is just about lost in soca. It still survives in reggae because the music has become popular worldwide and has been embraced as a year round music. But even reggae sales are in the toilet. Need we talk about the opening sales figures of both Movado and Vybz Kartel albums?

With no more album production and more singles coming out, the decline of the large format studio and hiring of professional studio hands, the increase of bedroom studios and basement producers, and the influx of terrible artist and no monetary entry DJ's, we have gotten to a point that our music is of the lowest quality ever. It is no longer attractive for promoters to fly bands half way around the globe, because most bands and artists just do not have enough material to put on a show or sound really terrible. And now, because most Caribbean artist depend solely on show money to survive, they overcharge for stage performances. Most DJs cannot play past 20 minutes anymore because the culture has changed into having 6 or more DJ on one cast. Essentially, the profit is gone from our music.

So now what happens when you need to increase profit and lower costs? You look for things for FREE. (You know whats worst than hiring half talented artists and DJ'S? Hiring terrible artists and DJ's.) Artists don't want to spend money with producers and studios because they are seeing no sales and don't know where their next meal is coming from. Most do not do an album because no one will buy it, and even if someone would, they have no idea of how to effectively market it and sell it. Artist are now relying on stage shows, dubplates and friends couches when they travel overseas to make a profit. They get free beats from upcoming producers who are unproven, untested and just want to get their name out. So now instead of doing one good song, they do 50 bad ones and hope some antics in their music catches the attention of the masses. Producers have to either play in bands or have a day job to survive. They send free beats and do free recordings in hopes that they will get a hit under their belt to attract future business. DJs have been undercutting each other for so long its just not viable if you understand business to even try to network for a gig. (Essentially most networking efforts will leave you at a lost, not profit, by the time you get the gig). Promoters refuse to pay what were standard prices to Artists because its really just not worth having an artist with one hot song on stage for anything above MAYBE a couple hundred dollars. And of course, the listening public just steals the music off the internet, or get it from DJ's in mixed CD's for free.

The spiral continues. Those who have actually been able to cut above the noise now realize that it is more important to spend their money on marketing, because if they are the only ones with money and can out-market everyone else, it really doesn't matter how the music sounds. In the soca music business, saturation, visibility, familiarity and trends make a hit. How many times have you listened to a soca song and asked yourself what the hell is that! Why is this so popular. Then by the following month you are in the middle of the dance floor with a drink in your hand singing it word for word at the top of your lungs? MARKETING!!! How many times have you listened to your "favorite artist" new song for the season and thought it was just ok, then it ended up being your favorite? FAMILIARITY!!! Guess what the artists who cannot afford those marketing strategies do? They give their music away for free! All over the net, on the streets..everywhere..FREE. All in hopes of it catching in so that they can get hired for a stage show. You're better off playing craps at the casino! This "freeness" has become so embedded in our culture I don't know if it can ever be changed. It has single handedly ruined what could have been a viable world wide economy for a genre of music.

The worst part in all of this is I am just scraping the head of the beast. It goes far deeper so I will have do blog this in segments. This is a problem with no easy fix. Monetarily, being a soca artist just doesn't make sense if you like any kind of regular lifestyle. Life is expensive, and when your making $300 to $500 US a show (hopefully profit), that's not gonna take you very far. When you are making a product that you have to give away for free in order to try and sell, the business has become completely illogical. We need to support our own, which is something we aren't very good at as Caribbean people. I do have a solution to the problem, but unlike everyone else, I would not give it away for no gain just to make a name of myself. Sorry folks, no free meals here.