International Reggae superstar Shaggy threw down the gauntlet and declared his 'freedom' at a press conference hosted by JAMPRO (Jamaica's Trade and Investment Company) on Tuesday 23 January at MIDEM 2007, Cannes. The Blue Room on level one of the Palais des Festivals was packed with international media (none from the mainstream Caribbean media sadly) as Shaggy, whose MCA
Hot Shot album sold over 10 million units worldwide, signaled the way forward for the Caribbean music industry as he addressed a whole new wave of events that is turning the global music industry on its head. That he made his statements at MIDEM, which is the "premier arena for music moguls who are serious about inking business deals, sealing distribution arrangements, and exploring technological innovations", made it that more astounding and especially relevant for Caribbean artistes and those responsible for shaping their careers.
From the get go, Shaggy dispensed quickly with the usual hype that follows an international superstar. He played the role of big brother as he kidded about and urged the media to engage with the other up and coming Jamaican artists at MIDEM for the 'Sounds of Jamaica' concert. Funny, engaging and
the consummate entertainer, Shaggy, born Orville Richard Burrell, did not disappoint an adoring media but when he launched into an insightful account of life with a major label even the industry veterans in the room had to applaud. It was no longer questions and answers as the media present became an enraptured audience not unlike that at one of his shows. Shaggy had come full circle and as he declared that he was now master of his own destiny, no longer 'sewn up' lock, stock and barrel by a major label, he dispensed a wisdom quite rare in artists or music business experts in this region, one notable exception being Eddy Grant.
Switching seamlessly between his native Jamaican patois and US-influenced twang, Shaggy urged artists to take back their power. He spoke about the power of the World Wide Web and noted that today's artistes have technological tools which allow them to interact more directly with their fans without having to go through a major label. "The industry is very different now and we (artistes) have a chance to get back control. De big bwoys dem (big record labels) nu have de powa dem used to have ova wi", he declared.
But the writing was on the wall as earlier in an interview with MIDEM Magazine, published before the actual event, Shaggy indicated that it had not been an easy time for him and his marriage to Universal. He was quoted as saying that the period following Hot Shot had been like pulling teeth particularly because of all the changes taking place (at Universal). While he has not ruled out signing again with a major label, he said that it would have to be on his own terms. "Whenever I've had a big hit on my own, the labels have wanted to cash in on it", he told MIDEM Magazine. His pronouncements could not have come at a more opportune moment with the International Indie Music Summit in full flight at MIDEM 2007. Just three
days before, the Worldwide Independent Music Network (WIN) and its sister entity, MERLIN were launched, the latter being the first global rights-licensing agency for the independent music sector. Headed by IMPALA (European music industry trade association of over 3000 independent record companies/labels) and the Association for Independent Music, UK (AIM), WIN has now galvanised support from music independents from around the globe and MIDEM 2007 is where they came to debate issues of music, money, media, rights, technology and of course the majors.
Did Shaggy tune in to some special frequency being transmitted by the independents at MIDEM that allowed him to understand better this business of music and how the game is changing? The reality is that he has lived it. In 2002, when he received the CME Award for Excellence, he said then that given all the accolades he had received, including a Grammy nomination at the time, that award held pride of place in his heart because it was recognition from his own. Five years later, Shaggy has delivered aclear message at the heart of which is building and supporting our own Caribbean music industry. Shaggy knows we don't have a problem with talent (raw material) but the truth is that the value chain (production and
distribution) is controlled externally. Shaggy now understands this and he knows too that he is one of the lucky ones. Artistes like David Rudder, Machel Montano, Kevin Little and a host of Jamaican artists in the early to mid-nineties including Shabba Ranks, all had 'major' deals that some would contend actually set back their careers and by extension the Caribbean music business.
On the business side, local creative companies have suffered and continue to suffer from a lack of access to financing, fiscal incentives, robust public and trade policy, affordable and accessible bandwidth and a slew of other problems including rampant piracy. Given that we live in a region where shapers of the Caribbean economies and stalwarts of our private sectors are still largely contented with an economic model that economist Lloyd Best describes as the 'mall model' - satellite firms that are huge consumers of foreign exchange attached to off-shore enterprises - as is the case of most Caribbean media houses - which really do not have a life of their own. Shaggy's statements before and during MIDEM 2007 are that more
important to artists and cultural enterprises as a whole. Creative/cultural industries are the new and fashionable economic buzz words in the region, therefore we have to resist our gate keepers moving forward with approaches to building our music, media, film and other creative sectors with models
that are being dismantled elsewhere rapidly and which have never really been in our interest.
When the microphones and lights were switched off finally in the Blue Room, the world had been told by Shaggy that he is in the best place creatively he has ever been. As he told MIDEM Magazine, "I'm now in a better mood. I can also do what I like ? things like MIDEM- without a man in suit saying,
'No, that can't happen.'.." Shaggy's conversation with the media at MIDEM 2007 is a must see for anyone
who wants to know from an artist, a successful one at that, where we in the Caribbean should be heading. And by the way, his stage performance later that evening showed that he continues to be a class act!
Useful references: Midem: www.midem.com; IMPALA: www.impalasite.org
Shaggy: www.bigyardmusic.com; www.myspace.com/shaggy;
Eddy Grant: www.eddygrant.com; wwwicerecords.com