Andre Jeffers and Andrew Bailey barely had any experience when they approached soca legend Neil Iwer George and offered to be his managers.
Best friends since their days at Naparima College in San Fernando, they both revered the iconic Water Lord growing up and were stunned he even offered to meet them. They were flabbergasted when he agreed to their plan.
The premise was simple, so crazy that it just might work: give them five years and they would win Iwer the Road March title.
And in Carnival 2020, they achieved that goal. Stage Gone Bad, sung by Iwer and featuring Kees Diefenthaller, was the clear winner, played 386 times – 291 more times than the second place winner Conch Shell – and giving Iwer his first Road March title since 2000.
Jeffers, in fact, was the songwriter.
“It’s crazy that our track record was success from day one. I don’t know how but everyone we worked with from the start, anything we had our input in worked,” Bailey said.
Jeffers, 32, and Bailey, 33, are the founders, directors and all-round talent managers at Perception Management, which they started with another high-school friend, Darren Mitchell, in 2013. (Mitchell no longer plays an active role in management.) And what they lacked in experience, the made up for in raw gut-instinct, passion and nerve – they have a knack for bringing out the best in talent that’s already evident but just needs coaxing to be great.
“We had a friend named Jordan Simmons. He also went to (Naparima College) with us. We said to him look, we feel you are very talented and super underrated. So let us manage you and make the most of your talent,” Jeffers recalled. Bailey added: “We re-branded him as DJ Simmo, gave him a new haircut (that he still has today) and a logo, and got him in the right areas and he got ridiculous success. And while that was happening, a young East Indian DJ who was playing in small clubs and weddings contacted us. We met with her, took her on board and did the same kind of things as with Simmo — put her in the right circles and she is now DJ Anna.”
Then there’s Rome, who’s still their client. “We saw this good-looking red man hosting a Lucozade event. He was singing some (forgettable) song but he had the look,” said Jeffers.
And then, their biggest signing after Iwer – Barbados soca queen Alison Hinds. Through some canny convincing they managed to sway her to switch from her former management team based in New York, and give them a try. “She only had one booking that year. We told her we could get her more – and even waived our commission. By the end of the week we booked her eight gigs. She realised we were not just talkers but could get the job done,” said Bailey.
Timing is everything
It’s been a learning curve, but the way they see it, they’re only getting better.
The team focuses on refining entertainment talent. For the last three years, their clients were Iwer, Alison and Rome but in June they parted with Iwer after five years.
“Basically, because from the inception in 2015 we sat with Iwer and told him our goal. He never had a road march title by himself – in 2000 he tied with Super Blue,” Jeffers said.
“It was sort of a mutual split. Iwer is at the apex of his career now, looking to do other things and we are looking for some new, younger talent to manage. It’s the right time to part ways while at the top. He’s been a friend and a father figure and we are grateful,” Jeffers said. Under Perception, Iwer had some of the biggest hits of his career, including 2018’s runner-up Savannah and this year’s Stage Gone Bad, which Jeffers said was written specifically to capture the Road March title.
“As we learn more about the industry, it’s about winning and you have to win in February,” Jeffers said. The team learned the hard way that timing is everything when it comes to winning, though. Savannah was considered the song to beat for Road March 2018. Then out of nowhere, it seemed, Soca Kingdom came and stole the show.
“Sometimes you jump out the gate with a hit and by the time Carnival really sets in people get fed up of that song. When you look at the people who have the most successful seasons it’s the ones who tend to come on later. And for us, to have a hit means you have to be mentioned. If people aren’t talking about your song then (you can’t win)” Jeffers said.
“It’s the type of release and the timing that will create the buzz. We learnt and are still learning. We dropped the ball big time with the Savannah release. We released Boxing Day to big fanfare. We were crazy in January, miles ahead and then Soca Kingdom came out late and beat us in the last two weeks. I don’t even think people realised we didn’t release Stage Gone Bad until February this year,” Bailey said.
Having a big Carnival is important because that can determine an artiste’s income earning potential from corporate backing as well as their tour schedule for the rest of the year – especially internationally.
“There’s a monetisation spike locally for Carnival where you have a condensed, maniacal tour of two months where promoters are interested in finding the artistes with great songs. Corporations are interested in aligning themselves with (the most popular) artistes. It’s a crazy scramble.
“The money comes primarily from bookings; secondly, from competitions if you are successful; and then corporate, if you are able to strike a partnership – for a jingle, for example,” Jeffers said. The more lucrative part of a successful soca artiste’s year is really on tour – which is from March to November to all the other carnivals and concert events around the world.
“The carnival culture is so global now that if you have a successful Trinidad Carnival – like a top five song, you will be booked almost every weekend somewhere else for double or triple your local price. That’s just the nature of the game,” he said.
There are also specific marquee events that foreign promoters would attend, Bailey explained, so whoever is on those line-ups has a higher chance of booking international events.
“It all culminates into the last week of Carnival, with Soca Monarch and Road March – win that and you’re set for the year. In fact, we were booked until the end of October with Iwer all over the world until covid19 happened.”
Survival of the fittest
Despite the covid19 disruption, having a big Trinidad Carnival meant that the team had a financial buffer to offset some of their losses and remain afloat. They also believe in diversifying income streams. (It helps that at his day job, Jeffers works in financial planning.)
“Fortunately for us, we had the best season we could possibly have had, although we joke that we haven’t been able to capitalise on that momentum. We chose 2020 to have our biggest song and yet we can’t cash in on it the way we would have liked to,” Bailey said.
A huge chunk of the soca market, though, isn’t so lucky since artistes are unable to secure bookings.
“Cash app (crowd funding) isn’t part of the Caribbean culture so I know while a lot of people are trying the virtual concert model they aren’t making a lot of money from it. Now is the time where they would realise that they should have focused on their brand. A long-term corporate contract, for example, could have been a buffer. There are a lot of soca artistes who don’t have that,” said Bailey. The industry then, is fickle.
“One day you’re on top of the world, and the next you realise all your work and investment could disappear overnight.”
Said Jeffers: “Talking to other creatives, I think the ones who would have made it better are the ones aligned with corporate brands because corporate is actually now increasing its investment in personalities and entertainers because of social media. The ones who are affiliated with brands are right now being asked to put out new content. Yes, it’s a gig economy primarily but diversification of income is never a bad thing, even in entertainment.”
Corporations are finally understanding the power of social media and preferring it to traditional media because it’s easier to track spending that way, Jeffers said. There’s a lot more opportunity, then, to get corporate sponsors for music videos and other content to get that visibility.
“When you have songs getting millions of views on YouTube, as a corporate entity, you will try to find a way to affiliate your brand with that number of eyes, so to speak, versus trying to go on TV or radio and guesstimate who’s paying attention,” Bailey added.
Carnival 2021 will go total local
While covid19 has upended some plans, the Perception team is raring to get back into the game. And they believe the carnival culture is strong enough to weather the disruption. “I don’t think there’ll be a fundamental change to the carnival culture and the way the Caribbean does carnival. I think Carnival 2021 will still happen but it will be altered, especially if masks are still mandatory – there might be masked parties, for example,” Jeffers said.
Mas on the road might also become more minimalistic, with sections pared down in size and style because of disruptions to supply chains globally.
“I think it will be a toned-down Carnival and a very local one, which might not be a bad thing. But I think by 2022, once we have a vaccine, I don’t think things are going to change much. Maybe the online monetisation and social concerts might continue. Maybe this was what was required for corporate to understand the power of that. But largely, it’s going to be a fete culture where hundreds of thousands of people come out to enjoy it.”
Artistes will have also adapted, learning to diversify income streams and using this time create new music and other content if possible to come out stronger next Carnival and beyond.
“It’s about how you keep people interested and engaged without the typical parties, et cetera. Social media is really the tool. Almost every single artiste of repute has done an online concert to remain relevant. On the other hand, scarcity provides a level of value, especially for more established acts. In the industry there’s going to be pent up demand for parties for artistes and hopefully they can monetise that in 2021.”
Perception is also preparing to unveil some new talent signings soon. “We’ve dipped our toe in the water and found a lot of success,” said Bailey. Added Jeffers: “We enjoyed the break but we are ready to roll.”