Had there been a Billboard Chart back in the 1920s into the 1940s, the music of Trinidad and Tobago would have been topping it regularly. Calypso was the pop music of that era, with the superstars being among others: Attila the Hun, Lord Beginner, Lord Caresser, Lord Executor, Mighty Growler, Wilmoth Houdini, Lord Invader, Roaring Lion, King Radio, Growling Tiger, Duke of Iron, Macbeth the Great, Mighty Destroyer, Chieftain Douglas and Gorilla.
These bards ruled the roost from the 1920s into the 1950s, with Lord Kitchener coming on the scene in the 1940s. In 1944, the Andrews Sisters's cover version of "Rum And Coca Cola", composed and originally sung by Lord Invader, was the first seven-inch (45) vinyl record to sell more than one million copies. In fact, it sold over seven million copies.
Everyone knows the first music album to sell one million copies was a collection of calypsoes interestingly titled Calypso, by Harry Belafonte. Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and other popular singers of the day recorded calypsoes.
Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum, who fell in love with calypso when movies he starred in, Heaven Knows Mr Allison and Some Like it Hot, were filmed here in 1957. Along with calypso being featured in the movies, Mitchum went on to record an album featuring calypso titled Is Like So.
Fast-forward 50 years following Independence, and the pop music of Trinidad and Tobago is soca, along with other derivatives of the calypso art form such as ragga soca, chutney soca and the newest variation island pop.
Local producers and artistes have created great music of various genres over the years that we have embraced and made major hits here and even across the region, but apart from West Indians living abroad and a few non-Caribbean people, the music of Trinidad and Tobago has not made any significant breakthrough.
People will argue that people all over the world are embracing soca, chutney soca and other local music, with some of our artistes performing throughout North America, South America, Europe, the Pacific and other places. Yes, but these performances are mainly in clubs as part of music festivals and other such events.
We are not yet headlining at stadiums or such major venues. Also, what are album sales like? No one has yet sold, let's say, 500,000 units, which on a global level is not even impressive. Soca and other genres recorded by local acts are not being played on radio unless it's a Caribbean-oriented station or a world music segment on a conventional radio station, and the same goes for the music videos.
How many times have you heard a new soca song or other style from a local artiste and said to yourself and others that that song would be an international hit, then end up wondering why it never broke through borders? Well, in most cases, it's not because the quality did not meet international standards or the song was not good enough because our artistes have produced much world-class music for decades. It's because the right resources have not been employed.
Simon Baptiste and his partner, Carolyn Pasea, of Question Mark Entertainment, have guided several of the artistes signed to their company to success for over the past decade. Acts like Kes the Band and Maximus Dan from their stable have done quite well locally and are making strides internationally. They have not yet sold tens of thousands of CDs or are commanding global airplay, but Baptiste and Pasea have secured deals with international companies such as EA Sports and working arrangements with top international producers for his artistes.
The real brass ring of success, however, eludes even Question Mark Entertainment, and Baptiste believes it all comes down to one link that is missing in the chain—money. He told the Express that many artistes, and the public in general, are greatly misinformed about the business of music, and this is one of the main reasons why there has not yet been the measure of breakthrough everyone is working towards.
"There is a lot of misinformation about how the international industry runs, and we are, for the most part, wishing for a miracle scenario. There is still no proper distribution network between Trinidad and the international arena, and honestly, in order to build this, it requires the investment of a lot of money, which the producers and artistes don't really have to put out. To break a pop single costs about US$1 million. A rock single is less, at about US$300,000. Who here is prepared to invest that? So even with a good song, there is no going further than where we are at the moment," Baptiste said.
Baptiste said while artistes such as Kes the Band, Destra, Bunji Garlin, Fay-Ann Lyons, Machel Montano and Shurwayne Winchester are putting in the hard work and creating inroads into new regions where soca had not been heard before, there is still a lot of work needed to be done in the areas of securing distribution networks. He said Trinidad and Tobago just does not have the extensive network of radio DJs, club DJs, distributors and more that can see the type of airplay that will lead to the sales, which will spark everything else off.
"What it comes to is what do we have as a network and what strategies we employ. The Internet has helped us in great ways, but that is just a one-man show for the most part and only takes us so far. What happens when people online want more? That's when the money and networking come into play."
"This is a time to look towards distribution networks that are not record labels. Look at companies that play music at the stadiums across the United States. The Northwestern football team's mascot is a dog, and when they played "Who Let The Dogs Out", 80,000 people heard it all at once. Search out other ways to market the music like product endorsements, in movies and video games. Don't be down or offended that our music has not yet broken through in a major way; there are many alternative ways to break it, but support is needed," Baptiste said.
Baptiste said the Government can lend support by creating touring packaging that will take local artistes to universities throughout the United States, Europe and even South America. This will not only promote the artistes but also the nation as well. Artistes should also continue to do collaborations with international acts as this always introduces them to new listeners. There is much hope for local musicians and artistes to finally break out at the level they need to begin earning the amount of money they deserve to.
"It all comes down to the team that you build to market the product. You have to act as your own record label now and have a corporation that has the manpower and the tools to attract and gain some sort of listenership and momentum. It's called the music business; you have to spend money to make money."
" The approach we need to adopt is to never give up on a track because you never know when it will be picked up. You may release a track now, and two, three or four years down the road, it suddenly becomes a hit. That has happened many times. Just don't give up," Baptiste said.