Success leaves clues – build a reggae templateSunday, May 09, 2021
THERE is at least one template worth copying here in Jamaica. This template not only has a mechanism to identify raw talent but has embraced a culture of training and development at the highest level through ever-improving and evolving methods. To say it has mined gold is indeed an understatement and if there ever was a case for not reinventing the wheel, this is it.
Right here in Jamaica we have a music industry that, by all accounts, is underachieving and continues to lose international recognition. Track and field on the other hand has been growing and producing champions and world record holders due to the fact that we have an infrastructure, programmes and coaches that can recognise raw talent and provide the proper training programme and development to get to the international levels of performance. This template has been proven successful over and over here in Jamaica, making us the envy of the track and field world.
It is said that success leaves clues, and it does. To hear Usain Bolt, the fastest man the world has ever seen, and the “pocket rocket” Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce constantly attributing their world-beating performances to “Coach” speaks volumes. What a clue!
This is a clue that those concerned about the future of Jamaican music should take seriously because, despite the increasing popularity of the genre, the earnings for most Jamaicans have fallen to unprecedented lows. Music sales are low and falling, and income from performances, which seemed the most profitable revenue stream, have fallen by up to 70 per cent compared to a decade ago. We continue to be lulled into complacency by the careers of a few outliers and constantly have to be looking backwards in denial.
Some of the reasons for these failings which have been put forward and confirmed by booking agents and senior industry players include:
1. Reggae promoters' waning confidence in the ability of the packages to fill venues.
2. Inability of artistes to impress and win new fans.
3. Visa issues, especially the inability to travel to the United States (biggest repeat market).
4. Shortage of new stars.
Reggae shows promise much but too often deliver too little. While there are a few artistes who continue to deliver first class shows, treating their audiences to a memorable Jamaican experience, far too many simply stumble through their performances, with unrehearsed stagings lacking in creativity and entertainment value. Too many young artistes armed with a popular song find themselves on big stages without the coaching necessary to make the kind of first impression that will satisfy fans and promote their brand. Therefore too many never get a second chance.
Meanwhile in most educational institutions, starting as early as primary school, sports day is a BIG thing. Students are placed in 'houses' and coordinated efforts are made to find the fastest boys and girls who will compete to help their houses win on sports day. Parents and PE teachers are crucial to this process as they track the progress of these young athletes throughout their remaining years in school.
High schools are chosen by parents and students not only because of scholastic records but also for their performance in the high school championships known in Jamaica as Champs. The 'house' system continues at high school but in a more organised and scrutinised fashion as the more professional coaching staff start looking out for talent to represent the school. This talent gets up to four years in many cases to be paraded via Champs, not only to Jamaica but to scouts from American universities who flock to the island to offer scholarships to promising athletes.
Imagine with me, if you will. What if something similar took place in music?
What if there where trained professionals were on the lookout for talented youngsters and who began steering them towards the types of programmes designed to develop identified talents in singing, performing and writing? Imagine that instead of just Shakespeare, the iconic works of popular Jamaican artistes were examined and those who showed the talent were encouraged to be writers of songs and plays.
Imagine if the popular and extremely important televised school choir competition, All Together Sing was given the kind of budget and production that Champs gets and instead of just choirs singing, the competition was used to highlight soloists, duets, quartets who stood to benefit from scholarships to further develop their talent.
Imagine if music was taught as a part of the standard curriculum like geography and history, starting in primary schools and continuing through high schools, with educational institutions providing training in voice, songwriting and the playing of instruments.
Gifted children would be recognised early in their development and given the extra training and guidance to become accomplished musicians, if they so desired. Imagine if at G C Foster College of Physical Education & Sport there was infrastructure in place to train coaches for the music business. Imagine if we had performance high schools that would be feeder institutions for the likes of Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, and imagine if there was one in each county, all equipped and funded to provide the elite training and exposure necessary to produce world class music professionals the way track and field has and continues to produce winners.
We have to acknowledge that, unlike track and field where performances are easily measured by a stopwatch or a tape, music requires trained and creative eyes and ears. Nevertheless, as with all fields, people can be trained not only to spot talent but to provide developmental programmes to mentor, coach and develop them.
An Australian cricketing administrator once said that they couldn't expect to find single super talents like Brian Lara and Viv Richards so they were going to have to develop more talent who were just a little below that standard.
We have to get to a place where we demand from our music industry the same high standards we expect and demand from our athletes. But until we solve this problem of training and development we will continue to lower the bar and wait on the kind of natural talent that comes around every hundred years.
Mikie Bennett is a music producer, songwriter, vocal arranger and more. He began his career in the early 80s as a member of the group Home T4. In 1986, under his direction, the reformed group – now named Home T – had its most successful period with hits like Don't Throw It All Away, Who She Love, Pirates Anthem and Spreading Rumours, which all became reggae hits internationally.
He then established a recording and management company which allowed him to showcase young artistes under his wings. These included Brian and Tony Gold and Chevelle Franklin. The sound was sought after both locally and internationally and soon the major labels came calling, wanting their various artistes to try the sound and what they saw as the perfect marriage between R&B and reggae. Billboard hits like Housecall with Maxi Priest and Shabba and Mr Loverman served to improve his status in the music industry.
Among his recent assignments was director of culture for the FIWI Jamaica project at University of Technology where he has been instrumental in providing a one-year programme dubbed Masters in Residence. This programme provides coaching and tutorials in songwriting, performance, sound engineering and music management. In 2017 he received the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association award for mentorship.
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