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Reggae Music the State of Affairs: Stan Evan Smith Talks to Pat Meschino, Billboard Reggae Journalist

American journalist Patricia Meschino has been a colleague of mine for a number of years. Her appreciation of, respect for, and knowledge of Jamaica music, especially reggae-dancehall, is deep and sophisticated. Pat has covered the reggae beat for over 20 years. She is currently a reggae writer for Billboard magazine. Meschino began her writing career in the 90’s, the heyday of major label involvement with reggae and dancehall. Her first publication was with American Peggy Quattro Reggae Report magazine. She’s written for The Source, Vibe, The Village Voice, Skywriting, Jam-Rock and Billboard magazines. She has worked with BobMarley.com.

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Reggae Music the State of Affairs: Stan Evan Smith Talks to Pat Meschino, Billboard Reggae Journalist

American journalist Patricia Meschino has been a colleague of mine for a number of years. Her appreciation of, respect for, and knowledge of Jamaica music, especially reggae-dancehall, is deep and sophisticated. Pat has covered the reggae beat for over 20 years. She is currently a reggae writer for Billboard magazine. Meschino began her writing career in the 90’s, the heyday of major label involvement with reggae and dancehall. Her first publication was with American Peggy Quattro Reggae Report magazine. She’s written for The Source, Vibe, The Village Voice, Skywriting, Jam-Rock and Billboard magazines. She has worked with BobMarley.com.   Patricia Meschino took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions from Jamaicans.com Senior Editor and North East Media Coordinator Stan Evan Smith
                                                                                                     
Stan Evan Smith: We have seen a cut down on coverage by some major magazines such as The Source, while longtime publications like the Beat out of California have stopped publication three years ago, what do you think accounts for this drop off, has reggae has lost its appeal in America?

Patricia Meschino: There are cut backs across the board in the music industry, in the publishing industry, in all industries, due to the lagging economy. But music publications have been extremely hit hard and print editions are now more conservative in their editorial decisions with greater accountability to advertisers and may not want to devote pages to artists that don’t have a mainstream presence. It also seems like less journalists are interested in spending quality time writing about the music. That said, I don’t think reggae has lost its appeal at all in America and considering the proliferation of homegrown reggae bands here in the US, I think its appeal has increased.

Stan Evan Smith: It is clear that Jamaican reggae dancehall music continues to struggle the in competitive media market here in the USA, what kind of challenges does that pose for reggae journalists, and how can they deal with this?

Patricia Meschino: The value of the written word has never been priced as it should be and sadly appears to be getting further devalued so there is a very real struggle for journalists; for those who have specialized in covering music from Jamaica, it is tougher than ever to actually get paid for writing about it irrespective of the skill or knowledge one brings to it. These days the line between entertainment journalism and publicity is blurrier than ever due to economic realities. Journalists may have to diversify and write about other things or work in other sectors of the (reggae) business to stay afloat financially.  
 
Stan Evan Smith: There is host of criticism regarding the quality of music coming out of Jamaica, how much of that criticism do you agree with, if any and why?

Patricia Meschino: At any point in the music’s trajectory there has been criticism. I distinctly remember in the early 90s, when I started out, that the era’s music was dismissed by many for being inferior to the 70s and early 80s; now 90s music is considered a benchmark for dancehall. A lot of people who chastised Shabba Ranks back in the day for “slackness” hail him now as what today’s dancehall artists should try to emulate-not just his success but his lyrical approach. What a difference 20 years can make! Media access is very different today than it was 20 years ago before the internet and YouTube. Unfortunately many artists get attention for their outrageous images or personal scandals, not for the quality of their music and a lot of very good artists do not get their proper recognition so unless someone follows the music very closely they wouldn’t know of the quality recordings being released. Also there is a generation who has gotten older and has tuned out Jamaican music altogether, they don’t listen to anything currently being made on the island, yet still see fit to comment on it as terrible, awful, less than what they came up listening to, which does a great disservice to Jamaica and its music. I hear a lot of very good music being made that is deserved of far greater attention but there is also excessive hype surrounding artists whose work doesn’t merit it.

Stan Evan Smith:  You have said that "The dearth of Jamaican music on US charts… doesn't reflect a quality deficiency, but rather a lack of vision of trying to promote it fully through various innovative means” could explain what you mean?

Patricia Meschino: Regarding the charts, if you look at this week’s Billboard Reggae Album chart Etana’s “Better Tomorrow” sold 56 copies and it is no. 20, a very small number for a very good album. But that means moving less than 60 units to reach the top 20! I know that moving such a small amount of units is within the reach of most every Jamaican artist especially those with busy performance and touring schedules as both are key platforms to driving sales numbers higher; those sales need to be recorded through SoundScan Live Venue Reporting, for inclusion on the charts. It’s a bit of an effort, yes, but it is worth it, especially if the industry is serious about an accurate reflection of whom is selling what.
I mentioned innovation because artists should not depend on their label (if they have one) to get the word out about their music. The artist and their publicist, management, marketing team, whoever is close to them, have to come up with campaigns targeting all forms of media and various events, physical as well as virtual, to spread the word about their music and keep it in the limelight: that could mean anything from contests on their Facebook page to distinctive artwork that appears suddenly, piquing curiosity, its up to the artist and his/her team to figure out what approaches work best for the artist and his/her music, then proceed with it and keep at it.

Stan Evan Smith: You have also written “I think editors are looking for good stories whoever they come from, even if they are not familiar with the subject." Your statement suggests that you think reggae music is seen by editor to have mainstream audience interest, is there enough good stories being written by reggae journalist?

Patricia Meschino: It depends on the editor and the magazine’s target audience but I believe the interest is there provided the story is well written and has an interesting angle. There is definitely a need for more stories to be written reflecting the amount of reggae albums from Jamaican artists that are released every month and the many singles released every day. From singers to deejays, veterans to newcomers, there’s a lot of music, each with it’s own story. It is the journalist’s job to figure out how best to present these ideas to editors and then tell those stories in ways that hold the readers’ interest and keep in mind the publication’s target audience.

Stan Evan Smith:  In your Billboard piece you wrote  “Reggae Grammy Nominations Honor Veteran Acts, Snub Emerging Talent', you argue that the Reggae Grammy Nominations process favors veterans at the expense of contemporary acts nominated for the Best Reggae Album category. What can contemporary Jamaican reggae/dancehall acts do to reverse this bias as you see it?

Patricia Meschino: As I mentioned in the piece it is not just the young Jamaican acts that are overlooked, it is the American reggae bands as well…Soja, Rebelution, The Green, just to name three American reggae bands, all released well received albums in 2012, all have large followings across the US and all were overlooked for Grammy nominations. The only way to change the nominations bias and the eventual winner is to become a Recording Academy member and vote. Academy members are urged to vote in the Grammy categories they are most familiar with so that they make informed choices but since there is such small representation of the Jamaican/Reggae music industry in the Academy, votes are usually cast by members that are not very familiar with the genre, on the basis of name recognition. If qualified reggae industry personnel become Recording Academy members and vote for the reggae Grammy nominees, obviously that is going to shift the nominees towards releases that have had the greatest impact in any given year.  I think the Academy got the winner right this year-Jimmy Cliff deserved the victory, Rebirth is a great album, but most of the other nominees didn’t really reflect the records that resonated the most with reggae fans throughout 2012.

Stan Evan Smith: What do you see as the most significant challenges facing contemporary Jamaican reggae/dancehall music in the USA today?  

Patricia Meschino: It is unfortunate that the lyrics of a few have tarnished reggae and dancehall, although the offending lyrics were only in dancehall songs, but that is a reality that the Jamaican reggae business hasn’t fully rebounded from and part of that problem is due to media preoccupation with negativity and their lack of focus on the positive things taking place within the music. Another major challenge is some artists’ lack of interest in learning more about the music business in order to make informed decisions regarding their careers and the acknowledgement that it takes a team to sustain success; no artist can do it on his/her own so employing competent people is more than worth the investment. The US is a big place, comprised of regional markets and many artists could do better if they researched the markets they are attempting to impact and then strategized accordingly.

Stan Evan Smith: As this headline “Americans dominate Billboard Reggae” contemporary Jamaican Reggae/ dance hall artists with regard to touring, air play and major media are less successful in the US than their American counterpart like Groundation, Rebelution and Soja could you explain why this is so?  

Patricia Meschino: American acts have the home court advantage, so to speak. They live here so they likely have a larger infrastructure of friends and family to facilitate their hitting the road, driving to different gigs to get their music out there and build an audience, gig by gig. But I have seen too many artists coming from Jamaica given opportunities to come up here for shows and don’t do anything with it except the bare minimum requirements, and some do less than that-there isn’t any desire to go to radio or talk to media, beyond what is absolutely necessary. Regarding touring artists have to be more realistic in their terms and possibly accept less money in certain areas of the country than what they might have command in NYC or Miami but use each show as an opportunity to build and connect with whatever city radio personalities, promoters or journalists that they can so the next time they go out things will be that much bigger and better, But there are also some Jamaican acts that have taken the initiative and are doing things on their own and are reaping great results. DubTonic Kru comes to mind as a Kingston based band that tours the US constantly and plays to larger audiences every time they touch down in the US. Interestingly, their music isn’t played much at home and Jamaican American radio here in NYC ignores them too…their strongest fan base is west of Ohio.

Stan Evan Smith: Do you see any artist coming out of Jamaica who can spear head a revival of Jamaican reggae dancehall music, what should that artist do to be successful in the US mainstream market?

Patricia Meschino: I have heard consistent quality music in my 20+ years of writing about Jamaican music, traveling there etc so I would not use the word revival-that implies that good music has been dormant and I disagree with that. I would say though that too often mediocrity is elevated to great status and the media spends far too much time on the scandals that just seem to surround some artists at the expense of reporting on those who are doing great work. But regarding artists success in the US market, talent and on-stage charisma, while important qualities have never been enough for sustained success in the music business, which to paraphrase James Brown is 10% music and 90% business. But reggae industry should be working towards insuring that the Jamaican singers, deejays, bands, musicians regularly come to the US and other markets have as strong an impact when they tour as possible. Journalists assist in this process by writing about the artists, their events etc; radio assists by playing these artists’ music; promoters assist by putting them on shows. Each sector of the industry needs to take greater responsibility to present new talent to their respective audiences and not just focus on the latest hyped acts. Corporate Jamaica should play a role in this too. Jamaican reggae has proven for decades it is a viable export; at home artists are spokespersons for everything from soft drinks to telecommunications companies. Where is that support for the artist when they leave Jamaican shores, when they are truly playing the role of a “brand ambassador”? I would like to see artists negotiate tour support or support for some other aspect of their career assisted by whatever company they are representing in these commercial endorsements…such arrangements can in the long run be far more lucrative than just the paycheck cut for the endorsement deal.

Stan Evan Smith: 2012 was one of the worse years in decades for the Jamaican brand of Reggae/dancehall in the USA from the standpoint of touring, sales and having presence on radio and charts, can this decline be stemmed, if so what has to be done, if not why not?

Patricia Meschino: People consume music differently today than they did even five years ago, it is often streamed on demand, rather than downloaded so that is a very real factor in sales. But as I mentioned earlier there is the potential for sales at shows that isn’t being maximized and sales that are not being recorded cannot be factored into chart positions: why would any artist want to waste that opportunity? Having a song on radio, if we are talking mainstream radio is a great achievement but the listening landscape has changed so much there are so many platforms now where people listen to music, those should be explored and targeted by reggae artists as that builds an audience that will come out and support the artist’s live shows.
Regarding touring, as I said earlier artists have to sometimes accept less than their standard fee to build fan bases in new markets. There are a few Jamaican bands who are touring regularly in the US but their primary fan bases are non-Jamaican and they are relatively unknown in the Jamaican-American hubs like New York and Miami. They are building loyal audiences, slowly but surely and that will sustain them for years to come.

Stan Evan Smith:  As former member of the Reggae Grammy committee could you talk about what the contemporary Jamaican reggae/dancehall acts need to learn about how to succeed in the US market, using institutions like the Grammy Awards and to ensure that the Reggae Grammy category improves and become more important?  

Patricia Meschino: To reiterate, the most important thing artists and others working in the reggae business can do to improve the Grammy nomination process is to become a Recording Academy member and vote. Certainly it is great to win a Grammy and I would like to see the Best Reggae Album Grammy category recognize the year’s best releases but just how significant is the award to the reggae genre? The category isn’t even part of the televised broadcast! Winning a Grammy is an honor but not a necessity for a successful career as many great artists have never won Grammys or even been nominated. I would rather see artists concentrate on learning the business, knowing their rights as performing artists, songwriters etc and how to maximize earnings from those things and negotiate the best deals possible.

Stan Evan Smith: In closing do you have any advice, or predictions for the future of reggae music?

Patricia Meschino: Certainly there have been periods when reggae had greater chart presence and bigger sales but quality and sales are not always synonymous. Just because some international media have turned away from reggae does not mean there isn’t great music being made in Jamaica. I know there is, I hear it all the time. For reggae or any music not of American origin attempting to impact the US market, a hit for one artist is a hit for every artist because it opens the door that much wider. If the artists and their associates truly believed that, the entire industry would operate differently.  The doors that were wide open in the 90s and early 00s have almost closed but they are not locked, it just takes a sustained push to open them again. I would like to see artists and/or their teams concentrate on getting their music out and become savvier in their negotiations, making better deals for themselves, no matter where they are in their career. I would like to see corporate Jamaica support the island’s music industry at every level, including long term commitment to artists’ career development. For decades the music has proven to be a viable export and there is so much more to be done to fully maximize reggae’s potential, which can only help Jamaica.

Stan Evans

Stan Evan Smith is the Host of State of Affairs on The Keys Blog Talk Radio.  (www.thekeys107network.com)
Senior Editor and North East Media Coordinator: Jamaicans.com (FL)Contributing writer: YUSH .com (UK).
Contributing Editor: Everybody’s Magazine (NYC)
Sends comments to Email: wsmusicworks@gmail.com