Music Pirates of the Caribbean

Richard Costas investigates music piracy in the Caribbean

  • The New African Group performing at the Plantation Theatre
  • Derek Wilkie of CRS Music in Barbados
  • Barbadian saxophinist Seaman, whose music is distributed by the CRS label

The Caribbean is not the easiest place to earn money by making music, despite the fact that music is an integral part of the region’s cultural life, and a major driver of its most important industry, tourism. The Caribbean’s many carnivals attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, and artists from the islands have made an immense contribution to music all over the world. Nevertheless, many of the Caribbean’s composers, musicians, publishers, and music companies are struggling to survive.

One reason for the poor state of the industry’s financial health is music piracy. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), an organisation representing the international recording industry, says that no fewer than 40 per cent of physical recordings (those on CD, disk, or audiotape) sold in the world are pirate copies — that’s two out of every five. The global market for pirated music had an estimated value of US$4.6 billion in 2002.

As is often the case with trade statistics, figures quantifying the value of pirated Caribbean music are difficult to find. The region may, by global standards, be a market so fragmented that no reliable statistics can be gathered, but this does not mean that piracy is any less of a threat to our musicians, performers, and record companies. In fact, piracy may be proportionately more serious than in the rest of the world, because of the central role that music plays in the region’s economy.

Derek Wilkie, managing director of Barbados-based CRS Music, says that “In the area of sales and distribution in the region, there’s been a tremendous drop-off in the last five years, primarily as a result of piracy, and this is in every single territory in the region. This has resulted in a lot of music retailers closing down, which further resulted in much smaller revenues for independent labels — some of them going out of business, some of them barely surviving on a shoestring.”

In the case of one music production company, Roett/Hoyos Productions, piracy was a prime reason to discontinue producing music for Crop Over, Barbados’ major musical event, attracting thousands of overseas visitors.

“Piracy is the reason we stopped producing for Crop Over,” says Tony Hoyos of Roett/Hoyos. “We did produce material in 1997, 1998, and 1999. In each of those years we had a certain number of hits, but within a week those songs were on pirate ‘greatest hits’ albums in New York.”

Piracy has become so serious that other producers may now be considering not producing material for carnivals. Veteran Trinidadian calypsonian David Rudder did not release an album for Trinidad Carnival 2004, and has the backing of other professionals, such as the internationally popular Guyanese producer Eddy Grant.

Some say part of the problem is that anti-piracy laws are not properly enforced in the Caribbean, but this is not the case in Trinidad and Tobago, says Allison Dumas, the chief executive officer of the Copyright Organisation of Trinidad and Tobago (COTT).

Earlier this year, for instance, police officers and COTT officials raided a house in Trinidad, seizing almost 10,000 CDs and CD-burning equipment. The estimated value of this one seizure was US$81,300. The CDs included many works by local artists.

“The law is enforced. There are about 50 cases pending at the moment,” says Dumas. She adds, however, that enforcement is not always easy. “I think our legislation, and [legislation] in Barbados and the rest of the Commonwealth Caribbean, needs to be amended to make it easier to enforce piracy. It’s very cumbersome.”

Dumas says a major problem is a lack of public understanding of the rights of artists, songwriters, and other copyright holders. She adds that COTT runs anti-piracy campaigns in the press to raise awareness of the problem.

In Barbados, the chairman of the Copyright Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, Antonio Rudder, says the organisation is considering other means of raising awareness. “We are going to see if we can get into the schools with the entertainers and talk to the students about the problem.”

But piracy is only one of the industry’s problems. The Caribbean music sector is highly fragmented, with many small production companies, and talented performers and writers who simply cannot earn enough from their work. The difficulties of regional distribution add to the problem of building a market large enough to sustain the industry.

Greater co-operation within the industry would make these problems easier to address. This would not only help to defeat the pirates, it would enable the Caribbean’s vibrant musical culture to develop into a coherent sector that would attract investors, safeguard revenues, reward the composers and performers at its heart, and enable the industry to maximise its potential as an economic and cultural force.

Sadly, the curse of piracy will remain. But happily, as Derek Wilkie says, “Caribbean music isn’t going away.”

Barbados-based music company Roett/Hoyos Productions maximises the potential of its business by producing primarily for sale at the Plantation Theatre, with which it is associated, and which is popular with tourists and local people. Roett/Hoyos’s products include recordings of the theatre’s Plantation Band and other theatre-related products.

Partner Tony Hoyos says the theatre’s throughput is big enough to make this mode of operation profitable. “The Plantation is not simply a music venue, although that plays a large part. We have cabaret shows, we host corporate events and jazz shows, we have a calypso tent at Crop Over, but we also stage dramas and comedy shows.”

The other half of Roett/Hoyos Productions is John Roett, a respected musician and producer, who is also a member of the Plantation Band.

“A finger-touch and a credit card”

Like many of the region’s music companies, CRS Music, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, knows how difficult it is to make music profitably in the Caribbean. The company has a recording studio, and provides services ranging from production and jingle writing to music publishing, marketing, and distribution.

Managing director Derek Wilkie is more upbeat than many about the opportunities for his industry, especially those that stem from the growth of the Internet.

“The concept of selling music to record stores alone went out of the window a long time ago. You have to be able to offer your music to the world in whatever way possible. The Internet has been very good for us. Our e-commerce site has worked . . . we see steady growth there. Although at this point we only distribute our music physically, we will be providing a downloadable environment in the very near future. The Internet is an area of growth, an area that anyone with a music catalogue should be looking to get hold of and invest in — because that is the way of the future.” Wilkie says the Internet also means “there are no barriers”.

“We have shipped our products as far as Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Russia. It’s becoming so easy to acquire music from your home with a finger-touch and a credit card . . . it just seems as though the Internet was developed for the distribution of music.”

He says the industry should promote indigenous music, and not try to copy what is happening elsewhere. “Most of our catalogue consists of indigenous music — from the Royal Barbados Police Force Band to a guy on a saxophone who blows in small bars and at festivals and has a unique sound.”