From declining record sales and piracy, to reduced production quality levels, to lack of access to mainstream media, to copying of the genre by other cultures, to reduced access to overseas markets by Jamaican performers to the anti-gay movement and more, reggae is under siege.
Some of the problems are beyond the control of the local music industry. Declining record sales and increased piracy is a worldwide problem affecting all genres with no obviously solution in site. Other problems are entirely the fault of the industry players whose shortsightedness has paid off in spades.
At the World Music Expo, WOMEX 10, European booking agents gathered hoping to "sell" the acts they represent to music buyers for concerts. WOMEX is arguably “the largest music trade fair on the planet,” as reported by The Guardian. The music market attracts thousands of delegates from nearly 100 countries to meet, greet, present, perform and make deals over the course of the five-day exhibition.
There were only six Caribbean nationals in attendance including four Jamaicans. The previous year, the Caribbean delegation was 25 persons strong with 12 persons representing Jamaica thanks to support from Caribbean Export and the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JARIA). Without the financial support of these two organizations, music managers, artistes, agents, industry practitioners were simply unable to make the trip to Copenhagen, Denmark.
The lack of representation at WOMEX is a significant loss of an industry that needs to remain relevant in a global music environment. Indigenous reggae is considered problematic for European buyers verses European reggae and other music genres. Jamaican reggae performances in Europe require a travel party to acquire visas, cross the Atlantic and hit the ground. Each step has its own set of challenges that simply does not apply to European based artistes singing reggae.
"There is no real central figure representing some artistes," noted Walter Laurer of GLP an Austrian based booking agency. This is a sentiment echoed by many European agents and buyers who have been burned by unscrupulous local representatives falsely claiming to represent artistes. In other related cases, two many people legitimately represent the same artiste and create confusion in the market that ultimately hampers bookings.
"It is everyday a challenge working with Jamaica artistes," declared France based Gregory Jacqmain of Skinfama agency. In particular, he noted that the visa process is labourious, time consuming and expensive. Indeed, Jamaican artistes have faced difficulty in getting non-immigrant access to the Schengen states, a situation many hope will be helped with the proper implementation of the European Partnership Agreement (EPA). As it stands now, Jamaican artistes must apply for a visa for every entry into Europe.
The shear cost of the travel is another prohibitive factor. Jamaican artistes have responded by reducing the size of their entourages, but concerns abound regarding the impact the smaller crew size has on the quality of the performance. Especially in a market where "live" performances (with band) and preferred to "showcase" performances (on tracks).
While facing strong opposition and protests, several Jamaican artistes signed the Reggae Compassionate Act effectively promising to stripe their performances of all anti-gay lyrics. Then some acts broke that promise and continued to chant their pro-heterosexual position with conviction and occasionally violent references. This hurt the credibility of the genre. But the backlash against "murder music" may be more political than ideological according to Laurer. Booking agent Michel Jovanovic of Mediacom took the matter to court defending his rights to stage a show with Jamaican artistes regardless of the lyrical content of the performance. Not many buyers are willing to take the issue to that extent, instead opting for acts with far less controversy.
On island, dancehall is the dominant reggae sub-genre taking over from roots reggae. This evolution is natural - ska took over from mento, roots reggae took over from ska, and now dancehall reigns supreme. But in Europe, the evolution is still at the roots phase. The net effect is a disconnect between supply and demand. Jamaica is producing a glut of dancehall stars that are not simply salable in Europe. And, if there is a sale, fees are significantly lower than expected and therefore unsustainable.
Setting it all aside - the anti gay movement, the visa issues, the lack of demand and the access to cheaper European reggae - the artistes themselves add to the negative perception of reggae music with their behaviour. To some, unprofessional, is a word that is synonymous with reggae.
Despite the obvious challenges and even more complex landscape, reggae is still very popular in Europe. There is still a lucrative market for reggae. But do not take this for granted. Steps must be taken to maintain the rise of reggae and prevent the slide. Are you ready, to step up?
Reggae was a hot topic at the 2010 World Music Expo (WOMEX 10).
The market for reggae is complex. On the one hand, anti-gay and anti-immigration forces seek the quell the genre aided by undisciplined artistes. On the other hand, demand for the art form made famous by Marley and Cliff and sustained by Shaggy and Sean remains strong.
Reggae: Rise and Slide presents the complicated scenario as seen through European eyes as they gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark.
See the extended version with bonus footage and insights on media access (or lack of) for reggae music and reggae artistes at: http://gallery.me.com/ontheboom100103