N Touch
Sunday 26 January 2020
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Commentary

Minding the artist’s business

Culture Matters

THE VULNERABILITY of artists is never more evident than during large festivals like Carnival.

Hundreds of pan players converge on yards around the country, drilling the song until perfection is achieved. For their commitment, an acceptable remuneration; more of a thank you than a true reflection of the countless hours.

This scene is repeated in the mas camps. Mas lovers, students and teachers creating the portrayals that will dazzle spectators come festival time.

And in the gayelles, stickfighters emerge for a brief moment of recognition. They practise their art and receive some small token, only to disappear from our view and thoughts for another 11 months.

Meanwhile, some bandleaders casually ask for US$1,000 (and more) for a costume, and masqueraders just as casually pay them. The owners of trucks, tents, sound systems and other forms of infrastructure receive payments on time, since their services are perceived as essential for the festival to run smoothly.

Of course, this is flawed logic. Without the calypsonians, dancers, wire benders, stilt-walkers, or traditional mas, there would be no festival; no one would come to our country to immerse in our infectious culture. We have so many talented people in this twin-island nation that excellence is our normal. But while many of us create, not enough artists are entrepreneurs. In truth, we’re not typically built that way.

Even those of us with a more balanced left and right brain alignment have our limits with the language, interactions and world view of business environments. For many of us, the costume is not a means to an end. Rather, it is a representation of a spiritual connection to the masquerade. The pan is not just an instrument, it is an obsession. Performance is purpose.

Developing business savvy amongst artists makes sense. The “global creative economy today accounts for US$2.225 billion or three per cent of the world’s GDP.” In Europe, the cultural sector employs “more persons between 15-29 than any other sector; including more women. Globally, creatives employ more persons in the United States, Japan and Europe than the entire automotive industry.”

Carnival is profitable for TT, so why is there so little filter down of these considerable earnings?

At one level, the existing structures that govern our Carnival remain colonial and antiquated in nature. In the early 20th century, elites developed structures that would, in their view, refine the masquerade and make it more acceptable to “delicate” sensibilities.

Since that time, it is possible to identify an increased shifting of the festival away from a people-oriented spectacle (decommissioning of the North Stand, lack of investment in the local mas-making industry, absence of long-term vision for the festival, etc). Many core artists are thus, by default, relegated to the periphery.

How can this change? Apart from cumbersome bureaucracy associated with the TT Carnival, there are a number of other challenges. Protection of artistic ideas and brand has been an issue for artists from Lord Invader (Rum and Coca Cola song, 1945) to Farmer Nappy, about to sue for use of his music on a political platform.

In this world of open media, artists need to straddle the desire to get their music out to a paying public and protecting their creative output. Unfortunately, there is no one institution that has emerged as a viable advocate for the education and protection of artists.

The issue of financial security is another. There are countless examples of artists either receiving very late payment, or always being asked to reduce the value they place on their work. The inequity in the system is such that business imperatives, cronyism and other sinister motives are increasingly driving who is contracted and who is paid well. Essentially, either you are in the system or you’re excluded.

To guard against this, I raised some time ago the creation of business approaches specifically geared to our community. They would entail the understanding that the largest asset of the artist is that big idea – the inflatable dancing balloon, limbo, Kambule, pan.

The contribution of artists to the global economy is well documented, yet, with an abundance of talent, we continue to lag. Prof Hilary Beckles has noted “the small minority of local artistes who succeed globally.”

Internationally, there are attorneys and other specialists who support artists. If we truly believe in the possibilities of our creatives, then local industry stakeholders must step up. It is more than an opportunity to do something worthwhile. As the rest of the world already knows, supporting artists is good business.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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