What is the savior for dancehall amid COVID crisis?

Most artistes and musicians have found that their livelihoods have come to a screaming halt, their high-flying careers grounded as closed borders and spooked populations triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic have reshaped the world. The new normal equates into cancelled shows, returned deposits and there are no upcoming gigs in the pipeline, not even the annual Reggae Sumfest.

The upcoming summer will be a wasteland of lost income for several reggae artistes who look forward annually to fat cheques as they tour the season’s show circuit in Europe. Only thunderclouds – financial and otherwise – lie on the horizon.  

Many are committed to “weathering this storm” and have expressed confidence that the local and regional music industries will survive the shutdowns. 

“Artistes and selectors depend on payouts from gigs for the majority of their income so they’re wondering what’s next for them. They are staring at a situation where they simply don’t have a place to play, and I really feel it for the younger artistes who are just coming up; the established artistes at least have savings. But for most, there is no income. Dub plates have been cut to half price, all sorts of gigging musicians and dancehall selectors are feeling squeezed, but we have to weather the storm,” producer and industry insider Vivian Thomas told Loop News

Thomas said he was upset that, in a time of crisis, the ‘bean-counters’ from Jamaica Association of Composers Authors and Publishers (JACAP) have warned selectors that online parties and events are still required to pay over royalty fees, as they are still utilising the work of others.

“Many selectors tried to take the music online to do sound clashing and keep the culture alive yet now JACAP wants to step in and regulate and dampen hope. Music is not strictly dollars and cents, many selectors do it out of love, they are using their savings to do dub plates now to keep the wheels going but the number crunchers and accountants want to run in and kill that, right now, every step come in like a hurdle,” Thomas said. 

Over the last couple of weeks, several artistes have embraced live-streaming performances on their Facebook and Instagram pages. But there is no income from these performances, so more and more artistes have to rely on the ever-reliable dub plate special for a steady income stream. But even that stream is drying up under the steady glare of a global financial meltdown. 

Taj ‘Panta Son’ Johnson, one of the major dub plate service providers locally, pointed to a positive, revealing that the COVID-19 crisis has made artistes more willing to negotiate their prices.  

“Right now, the good thing is that every artiste is willing to bargain, dub plates is the only stream of immediate income. No one is buying music. Yes, there is streaming but that sometimes takes three months to collect and no landlord nah wait three months for their rent. There is no income for selectors right now, most are doing dub plates from their savings, they, like me, are doing it for love, and for the sound clash culture,” Panta Son said. Panta Son operates the soundclashculture.com website where he champions the sound system culture.   

Streaming is a relatively new revenue source for dancehall and reggae artistes. According to statistics calculated by YouTube, for the first quarter of 2020, the ‘Worl’ Boss’ Vybz Kartel amassed 12.5 million views, making him the most streamed artiste out of Jamaica. Chronic Law came in at number two with a total of 6.05 million views, while Alkaline came in at number three with 5.09 million views. Last year, Koffee had the most streamed single, the infectious smash hit “Toast” which racked up 85 million views on YouTube, 40 million streams on Spotify, and more across countless other places all over the world. 

The streaming service Youtube pays roughly US$0.00069 per stream which works out to US$1,750 per million streams. You can do the maths. 

Sean Paul is the top streamed artiste out of Jamaica on Spotify with 17.6 million monthly listeners, followed by Bob Marley with 12.3 million and Shaggy with 7.8 million. Omi and Damian Marley round out the top five with 6.04 million and 3.4 million respectively. Kartel, who is arguably the most popular musician in Jamaica, only has 1.4 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

But musicians still aren’t getting a fair shake. Here’s the math: Spotify pays about $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream to the holder of music rights. And the “holder” can be split among the record label, producers, artistes, and songwriters. 

“In short, streaming is a volume game, you have to do major numbers to generate a decent income, it certainly cannot replace gigs and live performances. The top touring acts in dancehall and reggae are taking a beating in 2020,” Thomas said. 

Plus, empty IG boasting and braggadocio aside, Jamaican artistes don’t command mega streaming numbers.

“Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran is the most streamed song on Spotify with over 2.4 billion streams.  As of April 2020, The Weeknd has the most monthly listeners on Spotify with 63.77 million, and Ed Sheeran has the most followers with 60.93 million. Since 2013, Spotify has published a yearly list of its most-streamed artists, which has been topped by Drake a record three times during the years (2015, 2016, and 2018). There are no Jamaicans in the top 50. 

Full-time professional musicians who depend on income from gigging are feeling the brunt of the pandemic; they can’t rely on streaming, or dub plates. Despite all the free time, not many artistes are rushing to put out albums.

Publicists are also feeling the squeeze. 

“Once the pandemic is over things should go back to normal and everyone will begin to earn again. However, there are some important lessons to be learned from what’s happening currently.  I’m sure that a lot more artiste will begin to take advantage of streaming as a revenue stream. Hopefully they will also become more responsible with their earnings. Some might even think of investing some of their money in other ways,” publicist and industry insider Ralston Barrett said.

“On another note I believe that our music industry needs to be more organised. We don’t even have a music union or some kind of association,” Barrett continued. “I think lack of organisation increases the fragility of our industry and there’s nothing in place to protect us in a time of crisis. I hope we’ll all learn from this and begin to move forward in the right direction once this terrible pandemic is over.”

—-Claude Mills Loop Jamaica


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