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Sunday 18 August 2019
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Carla Parris and the Business of Carnival

Protecting Caribbean creativity

Carla Parris, entertainment lawyer, entrepreneur and founder and host of the Business of Carnival. Photo by Walk on Water Photography
Carla Parris, entertainment lawyer, entrepreneur and founder and host of the Business of Carnival. Photo by Walk on Water Photography

Carla Parris has always chosen the path of curiosity. She finds it more interesting than living by a set life schedule.

"It is never a straight line for me. It is all about exploring my curiosity, instinct and maintaining an appetite for risk," the entertainment lawyer, entrepreneur and now founder and host of the Business of Carnival told Business Day.

The Business of Carnival, or BoC, is a web series that focuses on what happens behind-the-scenes of the carnival industry from the point of view of band owners, musical artistes, designers, party promoters and everyone in between. Featured personalities include CEO of the Tribe Group, Dean Akin, DJ and party promoter/ planner DJ Private Ryan, recording artistes Fay Ann Lyons and Kees Dieffenthaller, designer Anya Ayoung Chee and founder of Caesar's Army Jules Sobion.

BoC is a self- and family-funded venture – Parris' mother Marguerite and sister Lynmerie are investors. And while she acknowledges the challenges in having a start-up of her own, Parris said her appetite for risks keeps her motivated in an industry that is relatively new to TT and where there are no guarantees. "You have to go out and work, and make yourself marketable and distinct."

Her intention when creating content relates to her passion for educating the region on the importance of strategising within the creative industry and how crucial it is that creative work and intellectual property gain greater respect and protection as there is great potential for revenue for the region through the development of a more structured creative industry.

Protecting regional intellectual property

Her exploration of Carnival throughout the region has highlighted a widespread issue of people in the industry: ensuring greater structure in organisational framework. "Whether it be to emphasise the importance of contracts, trademarks to protect their brand names, contracts which specify the ownership of the design of carnival costumes – the issues are the same"

While creative professionals are consistently producing top-class work, the business and administrative skills are lacking. "The organisations need to be outfitted with a mix of people, with creatives sitting on boards with business minds, accountants and lawyers. I have found that every country I have visited for work, it is all the same in terms of a great degree of misunderstanding regarding the value of intellectual property to the creative industry."

Throughout the region, islands ought to prioritise building a stronger creative industry. "TT has largely been an oil and gas economy, and therefore values that sector, while in other islands there are industries such as tourism. The creative industry has never been seen as a significant generator of revenue in Caribbean economies, and it is not seen as a tradeable commodity. But the reality is, there is research throughout the region that reflects data showing that developing countries are not benefiting from the potential of our creative industries, despite the richness of our cultural expressions, our talent and diversity because of how we view the sector."

This has to change for a number of reasons, including the downturn in the traditional industries and how these affect the economies, such as what is happening in the oil and gas sector. Other shifts include the saturation of professions such as lawyers, engineers and medical doctors, where there is not enough demand to meet the number of professionals available with those skill sets.

"We are now seeing the biggest shift in interest. I have seen so much change in a short space of time – where eight years ago it was not cool to go to university to study fashion design or music but now it is becoming more of an interest."

Carla Parris and Kees Dieffenthaller of Kes the Band. Dieffenthaller was a guest on Parris's The Business of Carnival Youtube series. Photo courtesy Carla Parris

However, for these skilled creative professionals to practice music, theatre, animation, film or whatever creative sector they want to be a part of – it is important that they learn how to marry their skills with business and legal approaches to monetise and protect their talent. "That is my main intention behind the Business of Carnival. We know carnival generates revenue, this is why it has been replicated all over the world. It brings revenue to hotels, event planners and promoters, band leaders and production teams. But what we are not studying and tracking, is the value being lost on what we create. We are just giving away these creations to the wider world."

This, Parris said, is seen in the music industry with calypso, reggae and steelpan. BoC is a call for greater attention to be palced on how to protect intangible resources and cultural expressions.

"Lawyers in the space are generally seen as just wanting to make money, instead of being specialists with the skills to help the creative professional actually earn more money and protect creative output."

Some of the deals she enjoys doing most as a transactional lawyer includes endorsement, merchandising and distribution deals. "Endorsement deals match the artist's or talent's natural ability with a company that benefits from what they have to offer, while distribution deals are about getting music into films, ringtones and video games so our content is more heavily seen internationally."

Carla Parris with featured guest to The Business of Carnival Youtube Series Anya Ayoung Chee.

Intellectual property protection is the missing part of the conversation for many entrepreneurs across the region – owning what is created, even as the focus, though important, remains mostly on refining the creative process and product.

"I think we are not doing enough to protect our traditional knowledge and genetic resources. We certainly need to have more national discussion, involving specialists attorneys as part of the process."

It is important for Caribbean countries to "get their houses in order" and enhance structures to avoid instances of feeling the need to blame other countries and artistes for not giving the region what it is due when the region itself is not doing the work necessary to protect itself.

The Business of Carnival

She started BoC to raise awareness and perhaps, recoup lost opportunities by educating creative professionals on how they can best benefit from their talent while educating others on the value of creative ventures. Creative people do not always get the appropriate respect, remuneration or protection of their intellectual property, she said.

"I think when I decided to self-produce these interviews, I had no idea I was really entering the world of film and production. I did not decide, 'okay I am going to be a content creator.' It was completely organic."

Parris for years had what she called an intellectual property sensitisation drive, where she would go on radio stations or TV, talking about the value of carnival and seeking to sensitise people on the various things which needed attention in terms of the law. This involved ownership of carnival designs, songs, even names, names of carnival bands. "In late 2017 I remember saying to my sister, who is a part of my company and support team, that with all the information I have gathered I could do a show." She pitched the idea to a local network, but it was not picked up.

Carla Parris with DJ Private Ryan, featured guest on The Business of Carnival Youtube Series. Photo courtesy Carla Parris

Instead of giving up on the idea, Parris decided to do it herself. She pulled together a small team, which included videographer Andre Pierre, for season one, and a brand manager. "I had that small team, and I got to use my aunt's house in Maraval. I sent out invitations to guests, and I was shocked that every single person said yes. From Fay Ann Lyons, to Dean Akin, Kees Dieffenthaller and Anya Ayoung Chee and Jules Sobion." It was while filming on set one day that she made the connection that it was an actual production, not merely creating content and sharing it.

That realisation took her by complete surprise. "The videos were all finished and the raw footage came in. And I found myself having to go through hours of footage to determine what the story would be. That was such an excruciating process. We shot the first season completely in 4k, which is among the highest quality of video. These are extremely large files which take hours to be processed, rendered and exported from one device or programme to another."

This she said was another process of learning through experience. Sifting through content which allowed her to specifically guide the videographer found her awake until 3 am going through videos – things she could only do during the hours away from working in her full-time capacity as a lawyer.

"I enjoy talking to guests and having the ability to help people tell their stories." She sees the BoC product in two distinct, but interrelated lights. On one hand, it serves as a legal, business and educational product, focusing on the creative industry. It's a product that fills a gap – while also telling the stories of TT's great creative entrepreneurs in a novel way. "It helps to demystify people's success – instead of assuming people become successful merely by virtue of their connections, are lucky, or 'come from money,' it instead allows their stories to inspire."

Parris enjoys receiving feedback. One bit of welcome feedback she received was regarding the episode featuring DJ Private Ryan. "The viewer said she had no idea he plans his parties two years in advance and visualises the concepts for his fetes using mood boards. People then got a glimpse into the effort, time and conceptualisation that goes behind the brand. I seek to give people some of the tools for gaining success."

Asked what prompted the Hollywood edition, Parris said she heard about Hollywood carnival and was as intrigued as anyone interested in Carnival would have been. "All the top conferences in entertainment law, intellectual property and emerging areas of digitisation take place there. So when I saw there was a Hollywood Carnival, I saw it as an amazing opportunity, not only to demonstrate the value of carnival to the economy in California but also to see for myself what Hollywood is all about."

The most interesting part of Hollywood carnival for her, was how things fell into place regarding funding. She made efforts to get investors on board using the success of season one as evidence of the value of the product. "I had success. I had views, and the show was being shown on Caribbean Airlines. So I thought – I need external investment. Funding it all on my own was not making sense from a business standpoint."

Before any investors expressed willingness to support BoC, Parris said she was contacted by a potential client seeking legal advice. While in conversation, the client, who saw BoC episodes online, said she was amazed by the concept and wanted to support the venture in any way possible. "She said she thought it was absolutely amazing, but imagined how hard it may have been for me to get such an innovative concept to life in TT. And that is how the Hollywood edition was done."

She had a week and a half before Hollywood carnival to book flights and finalise interviews. It was a rush, she said, but it happened.

For this edition, Parris said her intention was to focus on entrepreneurs. "The Hollywood space is not like the carnival in other spaces where there are well-known personalities at the helm of it. It is only eight years old and is one of the newest North American carnivals, unlike Grenada carnival for example."

Revenue generated by her legal practice is what currently keeps BoC afloat.

Where will she explore next? "The sky is the limit. I have certainly gotten a lot of interest from Eastern Caribbean countries, where I would feature celebrities and powerful players in their carnival industries. The show is also seen as a tourism opportunity by many."

Parris said she plans to stay within the region for now to teach Caribbean people the value of what opportunities are on offer.

"It should show people who sound and look like we do. Growing up, we did not have a lot of that, it was all foreign content and the imitation of foreign accents, which speaks to a lack of a sense of self. I am not sure I am finished telling the story of the Caribbean. But then again, who knows?"

An appetite for risk

Carla Parris learns by doing, not by reading or listening to lectures. "It is so boring getting information that way. I have to get out there!" Remembering distinctly in her third year of studying law at Cave Hill, she said, "There was this one subject everybody said you had to do, called trust." Trust is an area of law that addresses holding and transferring property for the benefit of another person or party.

"I said, 'There is no way I am doing this,' because I could not see how it would have benefited me in the long run."

In spite of discouragement from her friends, she opted to do a less popular course, intellectual property. "My friends thought it was lame. It had three students enrolled. But I thought it was cool. And now, here we are." Intellectual property is the area of law dealing with intangible property that is the result of creativity, such as patents and copyrights.

She cannot say she thoroughly enjoyed school, but with hard work and being led by her innate curiosity, she continues to find ways of living what feels like her truth. "I didn't realise I learned best through doing until I went to London in 2010 to do my masters in entertainment law."

Asked if she always wanted to become an attorney, Parris said there was an interest, but it was more due to the encouragement of her family. "I am from a family of lawyers. My grandfather, Isidore Smart was a chief state solicitor, I have an aunt who is a judge and an uncle who still works in a family firm."

Reflecting on her days as a student at Maria Regina Grade School and St Joseph's Convent, Port of Spain, Parris said she was not always the best academic performer. "I was okay. I was not doing badly, of course, but I wouldn't say I stood out academically. I was never a straight-A student, and I even repeated CXC maths, after which I got a grade two. I started liking school when I started doing more – being a prefect and being part of something more than sitting in a classroom."

Apart from exploring the less popular options, which seemed naturally more interesting to her, in the final year of studies at Hugh Wooding Law School she was the editor of the school magazine. This gave her an indication that the trajectory of her life may have been different from the typical.

Parris continued being led in the direction of destiny by curiosity after she completed her studies at law school. "One day I came home and ran into a neighbour and we had a conversation. She had just come back from a two-year holiday working visa in London. She got the visa as a commonwealth citizen which allowed her to work and travel." After that conversation, Parris was inspired. Three days after being called to the bar in TT, she moved to London. " I did not
practise law for almost three years. It was an 'Eat, Pray, Love' journey."

While in London, Parris said she did a host of random jobs, from being an administrator in a hospital, to working in a freedom of information department within a government ministry for a number of months. This job, she said, added to her interest in data protection and intellectual property. She then worked as a magazine writer and editor for a cultural magazine in Brixton without pay, which she balanced with another job. "I had a day job, and at night I worked for that magazine. I would travel all over London to cover events. I would write stories, and that is what I did to explore how good I really was at this thing that I found so interesting." Eventually, she moved on to working as a paid editor for a tech magazine.

After her visa came to an end in 2007 she returned to TT, working at CNMG – now TTT – as an entertainment news reporter. "I was hired as a researcher, but asked to be given the opportunity to be a reporter, because that is what I really wanted to do."

This is where she got her footing in entertainment and news – giving her the opportunity to explore other ways of telling stories. "I did that for a year, and that is how the idea of doing entertainment law came together. I met a lot of people in film, fashion, music, sports."

During her encounters, she realised many of them were unaware on the extent to which they could monetise their talent or maximise their earning potential – and there were no lawyers who focused on representing clients in that area of law.

It was also while working as an entertainment reporter that she got the first idea for the Business of Carnival. The absence of information and coverage on the business aspect of industries stood out to her. "It was a lot of regurgitation, not from the view of promoting the economic value of our creative industry. And that is what I wanted to do from back then, even before I started practising as an entertainment lawyer." She shared the idea at CNMG but said no one saw the value in it. "It got shelved," Parris said.

After leaving CNMG, she went on to work in the Intellectual Property Office in the Ministry of Legal Affairs for two years in a regulatory environment where she was part of committees that drafted legislation including amendments to the Copyright Act and committees that looked into the regulation of film and music.

"With all the experience I got from doing my many jobs, something still felt missing." She felt like there was room and potential for her creating a bridge between the laws and those in the creative industry who are directly affected by the laws being created. She decided to do a masters in entertainment law in 2009. "The lawyers who had gone before me were no longer practising in that area and others were leaving their practice."

Parris, who said she is a strong believer in vision boards and visualisation said a lot of her goals have been taking shape. She said she will continue to dream as she seeks to help the region understand why it is important to invest in local products, why it is important to protect these products from being stolen by first-world nations who do not attribute it to the region, nor pay revenue – benefiting from what she said is a space in disorder.

Asked how she has energy to even stand at the end of a work week, Parris laughed before saying, "I don't know how I do it. Balancing work at the firm with the Business of Carnival is a task." She said she has not been able to return to yoga or the gym since January, but intends to do so. However, she attributes her capacity to manage stress to the the majestic space in which she lives in Cascade – surrounded by vibrantly coloured trees and plants, and birds chirping throughout the day. A space with a idyllic view of the capital keeps her at ease.

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