‘Putting Music First’: Etching Jamaica’s Road Map to a Viable Industry

By Sonjah Stanley Niaah, Ph.D.

Steppin Razor Book Cover

Did you know that Jamaica is the only country to have given the world eight distinct genres of music in the latter half of the C20th? I move around my home country asking this question in a variety of fora and many still don’t know. ‪Did you also know that there is no genre of music since the 1960s which has not been influenced by Jamaican music? ‬It is awareness of the enormous wealth of Jamaica’s musical contribution through mento, ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub, nyabinghi, dancehall and EDM, buttressed by aesthetics and technological innovations of the sound system (Jamaica’s national instrument), which has sustained my intent to educate people about this musical legacy. Regrettably, the investment in the preservation and development of this musical wealth is in direct opposition to the way in which Jamaica has stamped its creative work in music on a global scale. There are serious challenges therefore, and Jamaica cannot truly say it has creative industries. Rather, it has creative sectors which have at various points competed on an international scale. These include film, fashion and music. But there is much more to be done. 

In March 2014, I had the opportunity to speak to industry insiders at a University of the West Indies (UWI) shaped initiative under the theme – State of the Music. The inaugural symposium was organised and well attended by music sector professionals. It was conceptualized based on a number of conversations over the past three years with Jamaican music business insiders about development of a music industry based on an urgent need to address negative factors including emerging music and artistes, lack of standards, lack of an effective governance structure and current research. The time has come for Jamaica to put music, its most impacting and largest export, first. The need for key players to be involved in the process of charting a course and building a vision for this sector was therefore seen as crucial. The rationale for staging the symposium, and the proposal for a ‘Way Forward’ based on presentations and discussion over two days, are thus documented below.


Additionally, the State of the Music symposium was conceptualized as a means by which to identify and document the current status while highlighting clearly the markets, players and partners to grow the music industry. As an annual two-day event to close the Reggae Month calendar for reflection, visioning and forecasting, the State of the Music Symposium is intent on bringing private and public sector to the same table, ultimately toward capacity building and transformation of the business using the workshop model. The organizers acknowledge that growth has to take place based on solid local efforts with a focus on generation of research, dissemination of information, education, and partnership, without stifling creativity, and while nurturing income generation. UROY

While the Caribbean Export Development Agency, International Labour Organization, Inter-American Development Bank, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, United Nations Development Programme and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, among others have funded projects for advancement of either the Jamaican or Caribbean music industries, there is much more funding and work that is needed. One immediate goal is the update of research done by Witter (2002) and Nurse et al (2006)[1]. More importantly some of the lessons learned from past initiatives include the fact that there has been inadequate follow up on many projects which has led to frustration and fatique among stakeholders; lack of a coordinated and sustained approach taking intersectoral linkages to sectors such as tourism and education into account is lacking and compromises the success of vital initiatives; as well as the legal and policy frameworks lag behind real developments in the business of music thus reducing the capacity for developing an enabling environment.

Among other things, the dialogue over the course of the State of the Music Symposium revealed that a holistic approach is vital. Comments on best practices from other sectors have lead to inquiry about whether initiatives within the sporting industry can offer building blocks or solutions for music business development. For example, what’s stopping Jamaica from having ‘music championships’ that draw on primary and secondary school talent? Could a combination of the early talent shows such as Vere John’s Opportunity Hour, Jamaica Festival Competition, Teenage Dance Party, Rising Stars and the Tastee Talent Show give Jamaica a viable model for implementation of music appreciation / participation as a key component of the education system? Could music become a catalyst for social transformation, purging a crime-ridden society of the ‘gun over girls’ mentality? Can Jamaica replace guns with musical instruments in the minds of Jamaica’s youth? One of the strong sentiments from the Symposium was the need for censorship the content produced important especially for youth. Why don’t we have a music industry for the youth in Jamaica? Could artists be seen as mentors for youth instead of a bad influence?

We identified in that Symposium key components of a way forward:

1. The Jamaican Music Economy (Old/New Creative Economy Initiatives)

Need for Research – On what basis do we put Music first?

  • Demonstrating the importance of putting music first requires research and the use of existing research to generate new research. Studies such as that of Witter (2004) and Nurse et al (2006) need to be updated as a matter of urgency.

The variables to add to the value of Research

  • Sales
  • Festivals and Events
  • Market Share for and of Jamaican Music
  • Geographical Distribution and Spread
  • Corporate Investment
  • Viability of the product as it relates to heritage, economic value, social value

The Role of the Interpreter

  • Bridging the Gap between the Creative Worker and the Policy Maker
  • Distinguishing between the viability and the crucial indicators
  • Identification of the differences and the gaps

Collate existing documentation from, among others

  • Vanus James
  • Sonjah Stanley Niaah
  • Donna Hope
  • Dennis Howard
  • Carolyn Cooper
  • Keith Nurse
  • Michael Witter

2. The State of Music Education

Development of a music business in Jamaica needs to be buttressed by solid music education. While the music business is much more than playing music, there is need for support in the form of dedicated music teachers at the primary and secondary levels, as well as the focus on music being used to mobilize community arts centres throughout Jamaica, alongside in-service training for music students.


  • Use of Jamaican Music Forms to teach
  • Activating systems of apprenticeship
  • Additional research into Musicology
    1. Defining periods
    2. Defining genres
  • Curriculum Development generally and around audio engineering and sound technology specifically.
  • Greater music integration into school curricula mandatory in early education
  • Innovation
  1. Professional Recording Facilities, Home-Studio Technology and Music Production –

The Studio as a living space

  • Studios are living spaces, each having their characteristic ‘sound’. Among factors such as audibility and decipherability, a major challenge has been sound engineering which has impacted the quality (among others) of music productions. There’s a space for, and continued relevance of, traditional recording studios. There is a difference in tools used across studios.
  • There is space for both professional and home studios, and with recording now democratized, processes of apprenticeship have been somewhat removed while appreciation and experience have been severely compromised.
  • It is believed that the instances of artistes sending sub-standard products, including demos, which are not properly recorded or mastered, will be reduced, and ultimately record sales would be impacted if the role of studios, apprenticeship as a fundamental training mechanism and quality sound engineering are understood and / or achieved.

Representation for Studios

  • As a music business, studios have no associations and are not strongly represented in any degree, in the current music associations including JAVAA, JACAP, JARIA and JFM which all need a stronger voice to be effective.

The Multi-format Person

  • The multiformat person is now most suited for music as a zone of work. The value chain for activating a song is vast, hence the need to fully understand the creative process around social authorship, primacy of the instrumental riddim or beat, pursuit of the hit, and a ‘singles’ oriented market.

3. The State of Legislation: Media and Music

Who is responsible?

  • Everyone is responsible for ensuring that the content of music produced is disseminated via appropriate channels and the vulnerable are protected.

The Effect of Payola

  • Payola is of great concern, a matter on which artistes are divided, but ‘pay to play’ is generally not seen as right. Payola affects the industry in many ways including in the making of hits. Based on billboard data Jamaican music is selling in large quantity from mature, overseas and deceased musical acts from Jamaica and not young or emerging acts. Radio station standards are also compromised by pay for play. Fines beginning at JA$5 million have been proposed by the Broadcasting Commission, Jamaica (BCJ), reflecting the seriousness with which they think this phenomenon should be treated.

Legislative reform / other recommendations

  • The preparation of playlists to be made available for collection by the regulator, and rights collection agencies.
  • Management of all music played on air being facilitated through a music library from which music is properly assessed and approved for broadcast.
  • A mechanism for establishing charts should be available for inspection.
  • A quota system for local music to preserve music and reverse outflow of royalty payments.

Does criminalizing payola really help?

  • There is a view that ‘pay for play’ without disclosure is the real problem and that criminalization of payola will not solve the problem. There is need for sensitization about the role of radio as it is not for selling songs made by artistes but rather advertising as a major revenue stream.

4. The Business of Music Events, Festivals and Promotion

Concept, Budget, Team

  • Festivals are expensive ventures which need facilitation from government in respect of venues and funding. Sponsorship is an area that has become increasingly challenging in a context where no good festival, costs anything less than $20 million.
  • Promotion of live events has to be seen as driving force in the music business and Kingston has taken a leading role with Kingston Music Week and other initiatives around locations such as Wickie Wackie, Countryside and Puls8. As a means to drive employment, live music needs to be seen as central generating its own calendar and culture for renewal in the music business.
  • There is need to focus on live music as part of music tourism and heritage tourism.
  • Corporate sponsorship is crucial, as much as roles of event managers, and promoters, in maintaining integrity of event and sponsor brands.

5. Artiste Management and Music Business Personnel Development

  • The artiste is not an individual but a corporation. Personnel and product development are therefore important, as well as managing the artiste as product for consumption, which needs to be packaged.
  • The business of artiste management is about understanding the artiste as selling not only a product but a way of life, a brand, and therefore a need to manage and develop personnel holistically.
  • Understanding ‘who consumes reggae and how do they consume?’ becomes an important part of the equation in the product development.
  • Management team cannot be haphazardly chosen, it is a hub with various dimensions including the business manager, artiste manager, booking agent, tour manager, lawyer, publicist, accountant etc. The manager is leading a team.
  • Some artistes have made themselves unmanageable and this is also an area of concern. There is need for training and development in the area of artiste management.

6. Operations and Associations: How to make them more efficient and effective?

Organizations need revitalization to gain a strong voice

  • Organizations such as JAAMS, JACAP, JFM, JARIA, JAVAA, JIPO, and RIAJAM now defunct all implicate music. JARIA for example arose as a call from industry insiders to deal overall with industry matters.
  • Public education is necessary in terms of relevance of organizations as people are ignorant of the laws which exist, either to protect them or for sanctions in relation to the music business.
  • It was strongly felt that the time has come for us to stop discriminating against the five indigenous music forms we have created at international standard and which are internationally accepted. When compared with Europe which has only produced the waltz some 100 years ago.

7. The State of Music, Film and Publishing

  • There is little protection for people in film. Understanding Issues around rights and legal ramifications are crucial in order to move forward. For example, there is need to resolve the issue of rights where filmmakers get nothing from play of music videos in perpetuity.
  • The fact that Jamaica doesn’t have a film school challenges the capacity of the country to produce highly skilled filmmakers.
  • Paucity of local content, especially entertainment at the turn of the millennium led to the emergence of entities such as Hype TV when Television Jamaica’s ER was the only solid 30mins of entertainment journalism on local television.
  • Online platforms are open for exploitation and organizations such as Jamaicansmusic.com engaged in digital distribution of the music experience give people the service and train people to do this themselves. They are also launching a new app as well as games through which artistes and their products can be distributed via such platforms.
  • Music memoirs are selling very well but there is a disparity because there are 100,000s produced internationally versus 3000 for Jamaican bestsellers. It is important that we begin to tell our stories especially as many of the pioneers have / are transitioning.
  • Artists are brands who don’t have books as products and this is an area to be exploited.

8. Creation of a template for structure – Hybrid Template

  • An organic structure currently exists but needs infusion of a relevant structure;
    • One which identifies ways and means to get into an arena that isn’t traditionally ours, but will allow us to shine;
    • One which develops ways and means to do what it takes to be functional in an international context;
  • Creation of standards at all levels –
    • Production
    • Writing
    • Sound
    • Marketing
    • Promotion
    • Publishing

Some clear programmes which are to be initiated –

  • Professional and Extended courses on
  • Sound Engineering
  • Music Production
  • Music Business
  • Digital Production
  • Packaging and Marketing the Music Product

There are some additional topics to be explored to solidify some of the work already done –

  • Corporate Support of Jamaican Music
  • Venue Assessment and Needs
  • Changing Business Models
  • Role of Radio
  • Payola and the streamlining of broadcasting legislation
  • Roll of other media forms
  • Media Regulation and Broadcasting
  • Role of the recording Studio

What should emerge from this for continuity?

  • Immediate update of the studies done on Jamaican music by Nurse et al (2006) and Witter (2002)
  • Professional Training / Workshop Series on writing / singing / performing / sound technology / digital distribution and promotion, artiste development among other areas to move to at least three other locations islandwide
  • Talk Series – telling the Jamaican stories
  • Legacy of Jamaica’s Music
  • State of the Music Book Series
  • Support for establishment of an artiste registry / artist guild and certification of artistes
  • Support the work of the Jamaican Music Museum and its drive to establish a formidable Jamaican music collection / archive

Target Audience

  • Performers
  • Entertainers
  • Technical Personnel
  • Promoters
  • Producers
  • Marketers
  • Attorneys
  • Agents
  • Programme managers
  • Radio disc jocks

The way forward has to be engineered through partnerships including JAMPRO, the UWI, JARIA and the Government of Jamaica more broadly. The implementation phase will see the development of a State of the Music Talk Series as well as intervention regarding music education and capacity building within studio spaces and formal programmes developed by partner organizations.

References / Additional Reading

[1] See Witter, Michael (2004). ‘Music and Jamaican Economy’, http://www.wipo.int/export/sites/www/about-ip/en/studies/pdf/study_m_witter.pdf, and Nurse, Keith et al (2006). ‘The Music Industry’, in ‘The Cultural Industries in CARICOM: Trade and Development Challenges’, http://www.acpcultures.eu/_upload/ocr_document/CRNM_Cult%20Ind%20in%20CARICOM_2007.pdf pp. 28-52.


2 thoughts on “‘Putting Music First’: Etching Jamaica’s Road Map to a Viable Industry

  1. Greetings, your writing is so very comprehensive and indeed provides depth on the subject. What you said there about music in Jamaica could easily be extrapolated to our music here in Trinidad and Tobago.

    So, I am seeking permission from you to reblog this piece on my blog:voicetonemood.

    Thanks in advance.


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