Music industry in crisis

Within the first year of my returning to live in Guyana in 2008, I set about recording an album of new material, in the established Tradewinds format, at Krosskolor Studios in Campbellville, using local musicians.  Entitled ‘At Home’, the album was soon on the market and the initial reception was strong.  It was in several downtown stores, and I was frequently getting calls for more stock – “bring 45”; “bring 50”; “we need them today”.  But after the third day of that rush, the calls suddenly dried up.

It didn’t take me long to figure out what happened; the pirates had gotten hold of the album and were burning copies to meet the demand in town.  The question of CD piracy has been a hot subject in Guyana for several years, and to put the subject squarely, after the third day of that initial flood of sales I have not sold a single ‘At Home’ CD in Guyana.  Not one. Consequently, in the intervening years, I have been involved, along with other record producers here, such as Burchmore Simon of Krosskolor, in efforts to combat the piracy of musicians’ work, and we have heard promises of copyright enforcement from succeeding governments, but the piracy continues unchecked and out in the open.

Unexpected communications or encounters that appear suddenly in one’s life can bring sudden focus to an issue that has been there all along, albeit in somewhat of a secondary position or something pending.  This week, for instance, I was coming out of the Bounty Supermarket on Alexander Street in Kitty, and a man came up to me on the sidewalk asking if I was “the guy from Tradewinds”.  He told me he was in the music business, as well, and almost in the same breath, he casually told me, “Your music is popular. I burn CDs and sells them.”  I stepped back from the man, surprised by his effrontery, and said, “You realize what you’re telling me?  That you’re one of those people in the business of taking my music, selling it for profit, and I don’t see a cent?” The man smiled and said something that came like a slap in the face: “Well, you do what you do, and we make money from it.”  He said it with no compunction whatsoever.  I stepped away from the individual and walked away.  I had never heard it put so baldly.

Sitting in my car, ruminating about what had just happened, brought the copyright issue into full flower before me.  The remark showed me how far the situation had deteriorated. The piracy practice has seen no intervention in the eight years I’ve been here, and furthermore the general public also sees nothing wrong in buying what they know to be stolen, and the seller himself clearly saw nothing wrong in copying someone else’s work for sale.  Indeed, his comment came with the implication that it was something that should make me proud.

There are some behaviours that are crying out for government regulation and intervention in this society – I’m not about to take up space here with a list – but this abuse of our artistes’ Intellectual Property, is an absolute disgrace on this nation, and I continue to be astonished that it is allowed to continue.  Outcries have come from a number of local musicians and record producers and there is not even a ripple of official response.  The consequence for the music industry here, if one pays only passing notice to it, is that musicians and producers have simply, as we say in Guyana, “gone out”.  The recording I released in 2008 cost me over US$5,000 and with sales drying up after only three days, I have not come close to recouping my original investment, never mind making a profit on what is a business enterprise for me.  I have not done another album since, because to go into the business of producing recordings for sale in Guyana in a legitimate manner is simply to go into debt – and depending on the scale of the enterprise, considerable debt.  To further add to the bleak picture, even negotiations with foreign music distributors (North America, Europe, etc) are being affected because such companies are reluctant to enter into deals with music entities from a country where copyright laws and royalty payments are not enforced.  Persons in the music industry know what I’m talking about – the repercussion is not just here, with CD sales; it is also abroad in distribution agreements for recordings.

There is a huge amount of education, I would even say, transformation needed among Guyanese on this subject and our successive governments must take the lead in this realignment. We are at the stage where a man who is in the business of copying someone else’s art and selling it for his own advantage actually sees that as a legitimate undertaking.  We have taken stealing and made it into something acceptable, and, indeed, even admirable.  I don’t know his name, but that’s how the man on Alexander Street sees it. I say transformation is needed, because the man on the sidewalk who spoke to me is not going to do it on his own.  He is beyond redemption; his thinking is warped.  Regulation and control must be introduced for this total abandonment of order and systems that runs through our music industry like a river at flood. Those who steal must be made to stop this fundamental aberration.

In recent months, there have been easily over a dozen occasions where people on the street have come up to me, fans of my music, asking “When we hearing something new from you?” When I have the time, I tell them the story of my ‘At Home’ recording and the loss I endured there.  When I’m in a hurry, my response is short: “Not this week.”

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