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‘Music Is Money,’ Do Dancehall & Reggae Artists Need Record Deals?

Photo: Donovan Watkis


July 28, 2020 | By Donovan Watkis |

Jamaicans have participated in the development of music since the invention of the phonograph and the beginning of the music industry. Harry Belafonte was the first to sell one million recorded albums under the title
Calypso. Throughout the Harlem Renaissance and, Motown and Philadelphia souls era Jamaicans such as Marcus Garvey who was a leading intellectual, influenced the sounds of music in America. Thom Randolph Bell, who penned some of the biggest hits in music’s history, is also part of Jamaica’s rich cultural and musical legacy.

Even with such a rich legacy, modern Jamaican artists are finding it harder to adjust to the international music scene as the sales, and streaming numbers pale in comparison to other genres and artists from other countries. Buju Banton’s recent album Upside Down 2020, released under the Roc-nation label debuted at number 2 on the Reggae Billboard Chart after combined streaming and sales of over 2900 units, according to Nielsen/MRC Data. Gold selling Reggae singer Gyptian ranted on Entertainment Report that record labels such as his former label VP Records

are useless in promoting Dancehall and Reggae Music. He said they are a “tag along with the team”.

He insisted that while they might have the resources, they are not marketing and promoting the reggae bands and brands like they should to compete on the world stage properly. He insinuated that this is why many artists are not selling more units. He said no other label knows how to market the Reggae and Dancehall acts either.

Across the Atlantic, more artists are finding it difficult to maneuver the traditional music industry format. They are moving away from record labels because they find it easier to go directly to the fans with their music.

Prince, Radiohead, Russ, Chance the Rapper, and Tech N9ne, who plays over 100 concerts every year and earns over 8 million US dollars independently, have all charted independent pathways in music.

Earning inequalities in the music industry
An 88-page report by Citi Bank, titled “PUTTING THE BAND BACK TOGETHER; Remastering the world of music”, showed that the music industry in the United States, one of the largest music markets, made over 43 billion dollars last year. Of that sum, the artists only made 12% according to the report. Dancehall and reggae artists are also left out of the majority of the revenue streams in the industry, although the artist and culture have contributed much of the financial and cultural capital to the music industry.

Music Maven Steve Stoute said on Bloombergthat he believes out of this pandemic legacy record labels are a thing of the past. He boasts being able to sign direct music deals with ESPN, Apple Music, which allows artists to get their music heard across platforms.

When The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklyn, died at the age of 76, Forbes Magazineestimated that she had a fortune of 80 million dollars. She sold over 73 million records during her lifetime and is one of the most licensed singers, but according to Forbes, her yearly earnings in the three years before she died added up to about $265,000. They reported that she lost a lot of earnings because she did not do many tours due to her fear of flying. To many people, her earnings might seem like a lot of money, but that should be compared to the other megastar Kings and Queens of Music of her stature, like Barbara Streisand. She sold 72 million records and has a net worth of nearly half a billion US dollars. Had Queen Aretha Franklyn owned the rights to many of the songs she sang or owned the masters, her earnings would have been significantly more.

How money is made in music?
Not many artists understand how to make money with their music. A lot of the money generated from music comes from royalty payments. According to the Citi music report, a total of 43 billion United States dollars were generated from music in the United States alone in 2017. Mechanical royalties come from streams and downloads with each royalty per stream approximately $0.0007 per download depending on the platform. Even more is generated from physical sales of CDs, performance royalties, and synchronized royalties.

Before Sizzla’s presentation at Reggae Sumfest 2020, he shared a video showcasing his Youth Foundation and community contributions, and in the video, he said, “Music is money”.

Music is indeed money because US$4.9 billion was generated on recorded music royalties in 2017, and 85% of this sum went to record labels and the few artists who own their masters. If Reggae and dancehall artistes should make any of this money from their music, the essential requirement is to own their masters. Their future is dependent on whether they make good deals by finding long term value contracts.

A key finding in the report by Citi Bank showed that music sales are a thing of the past as supporters are now streaming music. For Reggae-Dancehall most of the artist’s earnings come from touring. Artists in the genre subsidize their earnings with corporate endorsements. However, their image or name on a poster, on a billboard or on a product is not of significant value to them, as it is to the corporation.

The corporation leverages the popularity of the artist with brand ambassador deals but popularity alone does not make money. It is through proper business arrangements that value is added to an artist’s career. In any negotiations for endorsements, Dancehall and Reggae artist should insist that in exchange for their talent and popularity, the company purchase and stream the artist’s music and get it to the fans.

This may include bundle sales with the corporate product whether it is cosmetics or electronics, a copy of the artiste’s album or latest single should be part of the sale.

Jay-Z negotiated a similar deal with Samsung when he released his Magna Carter Album in 2013. One Million Samsung handsets got a copy of the album. This guaranteed Jay Z’s platinum status upon release and Samsung got their endorsement from Jay-Z’s brand through advertisements.

Own your Masters or your master owns you
As much as possible, Dancehall and Reggae artist should own their recorded masters whether or not they are in a record deal. In addition to their brand as an artiste, it is the most valuable portion of their music career. Owning a catalog transitions you from just a simple artiste to a business person. Michael Jackson was a priceless pop star, not only because he was a great performer but because he negotiated and purchased ATV music. He later sold 50% of ATV to Sony for 100 million dollars in 1995 to form Sony/Atv music publishing a company that Jackson owned 50% which contains the Beatles catalog, Elvis Presley, Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen.

When Michael made his initial purchase of the company he made a US$47.5 Million investment after having a discussion about the value of music publishing with Beatles member Paul McCartney. Recently, Sony bought his remaining interest for just under 1 billion dollars after his death.

Use YouTube and live streaming.
Reggae Sumfest and Verzuz are proving how powerful Live-streaming with social media and YouTube platforms can be for Reggae-Dancehall artists. Building audiences and distributing content directly has become commonplace for successful artistes. Swizz Beats and Timbaland leveraged what started as an Instagram Live showcase into a brand partnership on Apple Music. Verzuz is clash culture on showcase- the essence of Dancehall. More artistes are finding YouTube to be the place of choice to distribute their musical content as it is the largest streaming platform with over 1.8 billion users.

Become Dancehall and Reggae entrepreneurs.
All Dancehall and Reggae artistes should think like entrepreneurs. It is one of the hardest thingS for people to use their left and right brain, but those who apply themselves to the business of music won’t need record labels to think for them. At the same time, Dancehall and Reggae artists are recording the music, they can put in place an independent plan to sell their music.

The first thing to do is set up a website with their products available for sale easily and conveniently like amazon. Streamline your independent operations by making good music and providing a rare experience. Fans will appreciate this, and you will create and maintain a cult-like following, and if you want to get a label deal, with this, you would have leverage and gain respect.

Donovan Watkis is the creator and host of World Music Views.
You may email feedback worldmusicviews@gmail.com

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