Carnival does not lend itself to social distancing. In fact, it is the opposite of social distancing. But since the days of Canboulay, the industry has contributed to TT’s GDP, developing into a source of income for not just artistes but caterers, security workers, bartenders, broadcasters, hosts, and a plethora of others.
So while it was expected that covid19 would be equally devastating to Carnival it was still a blow to promoters, creators, and patrons alike when the Prime Minister announced in September last year that Carnival was “not on.”
But there are promoters doing everything they can to keep Carnival alive – if not for the patrons locally and internationally, for the many creatives who depend on income from Carnival events to live.
That drive is happening online, with many fetes coming to the patron’s home, since they cannot gather in numbers.
Promoters are now calling on stakeholders everywhere, from lovers of soca, calypso, steelpan and carnival internationally; to local feters and carnival lovers, to sponsors, and public and private bodies; to help save the Carnival for 2021, by paying to see shows online.
TT always had digital mas
While the concept of virtual mas events seems new, TT always, in one way or another, had digital coverage of Carnival and Carnival events.
If you think about it, events like Dimanche Gras, parade of the bands and International Soca Monarch all had large viewerships over local television as well as packed venues for as long as one can remember.
“Online interactivity was always around,” said BP Renegades president and head of Digicel corporate communications, Colin Greaves. “With the advent of the cell phone and data and all these other things we have a lot more outlets and accessing digital content is more convenient.”
That digital coverage was always part of a network of industries which collaborates each year for Carnival to make it one of the greatest shows on earth.
Last year, according to the Ministry of Tourism, TT accommodated more than 35,000 visitors, with each visitor spending an average of TT$10,661. In 2019, TT made more than US$27 million (TT$183.6 million) from visitor expenditure, with an average of TT$10,925 per visitor.
But the same conditions that makes for a good Carnival also makes prime conditions for covid19 to play ole mas. Mass gatherings, whether it is Carnival, a private party on a beach or a general election, result in spikes in cases, and perhaps even spikes in covid19-related deaths.
In September last year, Dr Rowley said it would be “madness” to consider talking about Carnival while still in the peak of the pandemic. On Monday, Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith warned in a TTPS release that patrols focused on events during what is still being considered the Carnival season. He pointed out section four of the latest health ordinance, which disallows people from gathering at a pool, beach or any other body of water, or gathering in groups larger than ten without a justifiable reason.
The commissioner also said the police was investigating whether Sekon Sunday, a soca concert at Queen's Hall last Sunday, breached these rules. Soca artiste Nesta "Sekon Sta" Boxhill told Newsday on Tuesday the concert was an attempt to make a rubric to which events could be held and managed in a safe and profitable manner.
The event, he said, mixed physical distancing and hygiene practices with record keeping and information gathering to adhere to the public health and theatre guidelines. “We are working on something so that we could exist as artists the same way that groceries and other places are – but it’s a work in progress," Boxhill said.
The industry is suffering
Artistes, musicians, performers, artistes, stage managers, caterers, security, and others who work in the industry benefited the most from the season and in turn suffered the most when Carnival was shut down.
Greaves said Carnival was always an important part of annual activity for BP Renegades, but added that the brand expanded past TT Carnival. He said last year a Renegades contingent was on tour between January and February and returned on Carnival Saturday. One of their events in France sold about 117,000 tickets.
It was the same for local performers in the soca circuit. According to a Newsday count on last year’s events by the 15th of this month, TT would have already had 15 events including Soka in Moka, Passage to Asia and Tribe Vice 2020 fetes.
But then covid19 came, and everything changed.
Beach House all-inclusive fete organiser Paul Charles said they took a decision that unless there was some clear indication Government would re-open the borders before February his organisation had no intention of putting on any events, digital or otherwise.
“About 60 to 70 per cent of our patrons come from outside TT, and with the airports being closed and the pandemic affecting people in London and the US, the vast majority of our customers would not be able to come,” Charles said.
Perception Management founder Andre Jeffers described the industry this year as “non-existent” and said things may get worse as actions by certain people prompt authorities to intensify their enforcement of the covid19 rules.
Jeffers said since March last year, several performers and technical staff have been without work. But online shows have been able to employ several of them over the past year. Digicel, for one, has provided virtual shows for local consumers with content like Digicel Cameo concert which has a list of top-shelf local performers in various genres ranging from soca to gospel.
In October, Digicel also hosted the One Love concert to celebrate its re-organisation into a digital service provider. That concert paired local artiste Patrice Roberts with regional stars like Stephen Marley, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man.
“We wanted to have a wide cross section of artistes,” Greaves said, “We’ve been supporting the artistes as much as we can, from giving them paid support to having content available on the video and on demand channels.”
As far as Renegades is concerned, Greaves said it had a complement of concerts and performances throughout 2020.
“We did a BP pandemic series which ran for 17 to 18 weeks,” Greaves added. “Each week we would have invited the public to view a concert.”
They also streamed a rendition of Michael Jackson’s Heal the World with pan players, not just in TT but in Japan, the US and in the region.
“We have been experimenting and exploring,” Greaves said. “No one knew what was going on at the time so we said let’s do something, even if it was virtual so people could at least hear songs they love and we could keep our international brand.”
He said it also helped pan players who would have gone a year without any practice.
He added that for all these events the performers, set designers, lighting operators, hosts and everyone else involved were paid. With the assistance of their sponsor company BPTT, they also launched assistance programmes and drives during the year to help their performers most in need.
But while BPTT is focused on supporting the band, more has to be done to support the players as the pandemic continues.
In the meantime, Renegades continues to think outside the box to maintain revenue for creators and technical staff. Greaves said the band's online gift shop, which sold Renegades merchandise, was “extremely successful.”
He said this year their first concert will be free, after which they would consider pay-to-view concerts. However, bands like Hadco Phase II Pan Groove have concerts available for less than US$10.
You can’t jam and wine online
A Carnival event is not something that you can easily replicate online. A fete is a visceral experience. You can’t just see – you have to hear the crowd cheer, get the smells and the tastes of food stalls at the concession stands or feel the energy of the crowd.
“We like to feel and touch and hug up a partner in a fete. You can’t get that online even though you get to see a good show. This is one of the deterring factors to buying online tickets,” Charles said.
“(Virtual compared to live) are two completely different experiences. That is you in front a TV with two people behind you versus you in front a stage with thousands of people behind you. One can make the most of it in the absence of being able to come together, but they have to do the best show possible, and I guess that is the challenge to which many are trying to raise.”
While several online concerts have seen big numbers, most concerts have been free. The fact is, concerts online are good for the consumer to continue to have a taste of Carnival but it doesn’t compare to the real thing.
Another deterrent is the simple fact that Trinis are not accustomed to buying streaming content online. In fact, in the Caribbean, which is known for online piracy, people make it a point not to pay for online content.
“As far as online content is concerned, we like freeness,” said CEO of Randy Glasgow Productions, Randy Glasgow. “We are not expecting Trinis to pay one penny for online content.”
But he hopes sponsors will step in to support if only to continue to pay artistes, and provide another year’s worth of quality local music. Glasgow hopes they will assist him in the production of several shows that will be broadcast online and on TV at no cost to the consumer.
“You can't have an entire year pass and performers not earn any money. We have to think about them in times like these.”
He said he hoped to have shows like Alternative Comedy Festival live online with the help of sponsors, as well as a virtual chutney concert.
“We are approaching Angostura to have it called A White Oak Taste of Chutneyland. We are trying to find creative ways to involve our sponsors.”
Ultimately, what is needed is a paradigm shift. TT needs to get accustomed to paying for online content, if not for their own love of the culture, to support local artistes as TT and the rest of the world goes digital. While some are sceptical about the veracity of people consuming performances in online events, others believe that online events will become a key part of carnivals of the future.
Greaves said Digicel with its suite of online platforms including SportsMax, PlayGo and others it intends to provide online content for every minute of each day, not just for Carnival.
“We have Go Loud for live listening, Sportsmax for sports content and PlayGo for online streaming. We have already realised that this is the direction the world is moving.”
But it will still take some getting used to especially for local consumers.
“People will have to embrace this,” Charles said. "Those who are really patriotic and really love the culture will support the artistes. We need to sustain the culture.”