woensdag 4 juni 2014

Copyright and Jamaican music

“..When I ask ‘what’s there for me?’, you say ‘what will be, will be’.. ” ~ Ini Kamoze (song ‘Pirate’, 1986).

Copyright infringement is a big, and persisting, problem in much popular music. This is however even more the case in Jamaican reggae music. A recent, general development in popular music is the shift to digitalization and the Internet, which to a large degree augmented the copyright problems. The ready availability of songs in mp3 format - through Internet - can in that sense be seen as both a blessing and a curse.

The Jamaican music scene has always been mainly audience-driven, due to its strong popular base. Sound systems and dancehalls, or performances, were since the 1960s an important avenue for Jamaican upcoming artists to let their songs and voice be known among the local audience, often in direct interaction with it. This could make or break their popularity, maybe enhance their fame, increase recording/studio or paid performance opportunities, and as a later step boost sales of their recordings/disks, even abroad. In wealthier countries, outside of Jamaica, there came to exist in time enough reggae fans willing to buy (or pay for) Jamaican music. Reggae’s internationalization since the popularity of Bob Marley especially enhanced this market (beyond Caribbean migrant circles, as initially).

Music was – and is - for many Jamaican artists a “way out of the ghetto”. Inspired and often talented, but also searching for a means of income. A strong, creative musical folk culture - with various African retentions - , combined with a need to escape poverty, eventually made the Jamaican music industry relatively large for a small island with between 2 and 3 million inhabitants. And for a poor, developing country.

In that developed music industry - from the vinyl days to present digital availability – say: between 1960 to the present –, however, copyright and legal protection of especially composers’ rights have remained in Jamaica, to differing degrees, problematic. A complex of inequality and poverty problems comes here to the fore. Reggae experts/historians have - based on testimonies by artists themselves - pointed out how local Jamaican producers, who generally owned studios and had other means, tended to “rip off” artists. Artists recording would get some pay after studio work, in some cases even just some food, generally in a haphazard, informal nature. Pocket money or ready cash, in other words.

The informal, creative flow common in the music scene perhaps contributed to it, but mainly opportunistic "money sharks" as interested parties in relatively powerful positions, eschewed a structured legal protection for composers.

Big Youth, a rootical reggae dee jay/artist starting in the 1970s, called, during an interview at the Rototom reggae festival in Spain (2010), such producers “criminals”. Indeed like criminals, these producers lacked real intelligence regarding empathy or solidarity, and compensated this with a “colder” cleverness on humans: that of knowing how to make selfish use of weak spots or inadvertence of powerless people. In this case poor artists, uninformed, yet eager and desperate to reach somewhere.

Sometimes producers or studio owners kept the legal rights of songs by artists (who were as said paid only once after recording), and thus ensured for themselves a continuous, if capricious, income. In many cases, producers not even ensured royalties or legal rights for themselves that much, but just generated income from disk sales or dances where the songs were played. All in all they ended up with more money than the creative artists themselves. In British law furthermore the one “financing” creative endeavors obtained legal rights, i.e. a studio owner who might not have contributed anything to the creation of the song or music (“riddim”/instrumental).

In many cases, the lack of a larger, organized legal protection in Jamaica caused that almost nobody within Jamaica really profited sufficiently from songs, even if these got popular outside of Jamaica.

Piracy (illegal copying) and – international - distribution without compensation (or knowledge) of artists were of course also rampant, well before digitalization. Some Jamaicans and/or foreigners profited from this, not the artists.

With older folk songs this problem is well-known, also outside of Jamaica.‘Day O : the Banana Boat Song’ has been a Mento classic in Jamaica, and from early times shared within Jamaican oral and musical culture. Long before Harry Belafonte got a big hit with it in 1956. Its individual author is – as with many older folk songs – historically hard to pinpoint. That was, however, another time, in other conditions. A music industry as such was not yet developed.


In a later stage, the semblance of a modern record industry developed in Jamaica – mainly since the Ska era began around 1960 -, and when Coxsone Dodd opened Studio One in 1963. It was the first black-owned recording studio in Jamaica. It therefore had a stronger connection with the Jamaican people, especially with poorer people in downtown areas. It was for them more accessible.

Indeed, Studio One provided a way for aspiring artists to record songs, e.g. through auditions. Unfortunately, Coxsone Dodd wasn’t someone who ensured legal rights in writing, while many artists were partly unaware or inadvertent of such a need. They just went with the creative flow, and tried mainly to reach a public, get exposure, and in some way make money with music. In a humourous way, Colin Grant explains in his biographical book on the three Wailers (‘I & I : the Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, & Wailer’, 2011) how Studio One as a studio/business did not have departments (like a Marketing or Accounting Department or whatever) but simply was Coxsone Dodd, revolving around him. Artists thus were dependent on him and his whims, and he tended to keep at times people – like artists with demands - away, with the help of some “tough guys” around him.

Okay, one might say, these are problems – “teething troubles” – of a just beginning business in a developing country, still figuring things out.


One must conclude however, that from then (say 1963) to the present problems still remain regarding Jamaican music’s legal rights. Some things seem to have improved, though. There are many studio owners in Jamaica of a poor, black background, also in the ghetto areas. This increased since the 1970s and afterward. Other studios were maybe owned by more wealthy “uptown” people, but still gave poor artists a chance to audition or record, or offered a regular job or function in studios. Several artists, disappointed from dealings with and dependence on producers and getting little reward, opened their own labels and studios, such as the Wailers, Lee “Scratch” Perry (Black Ark studios), Abyssinians, Augustus Pablo, and later e.g. Gregory Isaacs (with Errol Dunkley), Bunny Wailer, Ijahman Levi, and Burning Spear.

This increased number of studios certainly did offer opportunities, and the Jamaican music industry of course expanded since the 1970, especially with Bob Marley’s rise to international stardom. Reggae went international, and more people worldwide got interested in reggae artists beyond Bob. Though there were/are also many who foolishly think that Bob Marley is/was the only interesting reggae artist. All in all however, artists like Jacob Miller, Black Uhuru, Culture, Burning Spear and others reached to differing degrees international markets. Less though, when compared to the more commercial sound of a band like Third World, but still: since the later 1970s reggae fans in several European countries, the US, Canada, Japan, and other continents bought, for instance, Black Uhuru or Burning Spear albums.

Reggae became since the late 1970s a well-known Jamaican international commodity, and a massive, cultural Jamaican export.

Culturally this is a great achievement and success. A small island really put itself on the global map. Often through a distorted image, but at least reggae spread and made its voice and presence known globally. That many people then can only respond to this with prejudice or superficial or racial stereotypes is still unfortunate (I discussed this in other blog posts), but does not diminish that fact. The lack of mainstream support for “real” reggae or dancehall is also a problem of course, but also authentic reggae reached international markets - often in a “niche” manner -, despite all this.

Great, in a cultural and artistic sense, but it has generally speaking not been a very big success financially. Not for Jamaica as a whole, its music industry, let alone for the artists (composers, musicians) themselves.

Earlier cases of exploitation and copyright infringement or ignorance (sometimes infringing and ignoring comes down to the same) - in fact: too many to mention - confirm the historical persistence of this injustice. This injustice has been perpetrated also by foreign parties. ‘Rivers of Babylon’ was recorded first by Jamaican group the Melodians in 1970, and was composed by Brent Dowe. It became a hit in Jamaica. The pop/disco group Boney M. – consisting of a few performers of Caribbean descent - , produced by the dubious German producer Frank Farian, had an international hit with it in Europe in 1978, eventually cashing millions. Most of it went to Frank Farian, and practically none of it went to Brent Dowe of the Melodians. Copyright was simply not ensured enough in an early stage for this composition and recording. Brent Dowe/Melodians were mentioned in the written credits on the Boney M. record, but without financial effects. Between, say, two US or European artists, such a cover without due compensation, was and is almost impossible, or at least much less easy.

The state of legal protection therefore reflects global inequality.

Such examples demonstrate how “big time” crooks outside of Jamaica, easily replaced “small-time” crooks exploiting artists within Jamaica. From “getting money where you can, and hold on to it” as a common survival mechanism in response to ghetto conditions – I discussed money in Jamaica in another blog post – to shrewd, international business getting even “more” money and hiding it. An example of neocolonial exploitation, if you will. Helped by an infrastructure of legal advise and structures, commonly available in wealthy countries.


Besides such more or less organic developments, larger legal developments caused changes for the positive. Internationally operating labels – partly of Jamaican origin – such as VP, Greensleeves and Jet Star - tend in recent times to observe copyright norms, including royalties for their Jamaican artists. Many artists prefer therefore that their material be distributed by these international companies. There remain however still objections regarding actual just recompense for Jamaican artists by these companies.

Jamaica adopted a modern copyright act only as late as in 1993. Although in Jamaica after this date, as the article in the journal ‘Popular music’ (and also found online) titled ‘The riddim method: aesthetics, ethics, and ownership in Jamaican dancehall’ (2006) by Peter Manuel & Wayne Marshall, states, regarding "post-1993":

..negotiation and registration of copyright and collection of subsequent royalties by musicians and composers continue to be irregular


Hence, most DJs (in the sense of artists-MC), except for major stars, may continue to value making records primarily for the flat fees they may receive, and for the prestige which can lead to more stage shows.. ”.

They, however, also point at some improvements and increased copyright awareness among artists since 1993.

This extensive article by Manuel & Marshall is in any case interesting reading with regard to copyright issues, also because it partly relates it to the current digital age. Over two decades after the (thus limitedly effective) Copyright Act adopted in 1993, in a general sense the opinion is that Jamaica and Jamaicans still do not get the just recompense for their reggae music and artists. That the economic and copyright situation currently still leaves much to be desired becomes evident from this (very recent) interview by Mutabaruka with Andrea Davis.

The current digital age is also discussed in relation to this.

Not just legal protection is discussed here, but also added economic revenues: merchandising, tourism development, and targeted marketing. The downtown, ghetto areas where reggae mainly originated, especially the Trench Town area of downtown Kingston (the capital of Jamaica), along with bordering areas as Waterhouse, Andrea Davis proposes, could be made into a walking itinerary for reggae fans internationally, boosting tourism income. A very good idea, I opine.

When I went to Jamaica I noticed that tourism attractions related to reggae were only developed when it had to do with the biggest name: Bob Marley. The Bob Marley Museum, mausoleum, studios or statues are well-organized and –marketed for tourists. Reggae is however much broader than Bob alone, I also wrote before on this blog.


Digitalization has also some artistic effects, beyond the practical. This is largely a matter of taste. Against people who claim vinyl “sounds” inherently better, others say digital music (wav, mp3) in time got to sound just as good or better. I think it is maybe so that the 0s and 1s of digital transcription of sound causes that music sounds a little bit less “flowing” or natural, but I can appreciate music in digital formats as well.

Another artistic effect is less discussed, I notice. The ready availability of mp3 songs changed the focus. The consumer selected what interested them: a certain song of an artist, and do not “download” or listen to other songs or albums of that artist. The very idea of an artist’s personality, in turn effecting his wider “artistic or cultural concept” gets lost in this: just a bit of his output is liked or heard, fitting a consumer’s whims. Reggae is not known for many “concept albums” and is traditionally mainly “single-oriented” (single songs tend to appear before they appear on albums).. though there are some great examples of concept albums within reggae, but still.. This is thus not too big a change, and partly a matter of distribution rather than substance. However: to get to know the artist behind the songs, it is not enough to just obtain an isolated, or superficial bit of his oeuvre..

The latter is especially the case due to the main advantage of Internet: there is so much at once available. This means that much more can be found more easily of more artists. This increased choice can be seen as a good thing, of course, but it can stimulate a too superficial attention. Before the Internet there were also many singles you could encounter in stores, of artists you did not have or know much of yet. On the Internet however, with so much music and information, even unique artists can get rather “drowned”..

Artistic considerations aside, the fact is that many people nowadays obtain songs in digital format through the Internet, or listen to it via streaming or e.g. YouTube on the Internet itself. This increased strongly since the last 10 years, to a higher degree in wealthy, developed countries. It is self-evident that this brings all kind of copyright and legal problems. In relation to this it brings economic revenue problems. This affects all genres, not just reggae.

Not too long ago artists could live off the records they sold, that they’ve put on the market. Downloading (illegally) through Internet diminished this income drastically, and made it even unprofitable. This caused – as readers might know – the increased emphasis on (and prices of) touring, concerts, and live performances by artists. Alongside income from merchandising and advertsing and such. This became simply more necessary to keep the music career profitable.

I think that this is not in all senses a positive development. I myself recorded a song in a professional studio in 2012: I had to pay (recording) studio time and musician’s fee, besides the mere effort of recording (which I saw as interesting as well, of course). Imagine how much entire albums cost and when you have to rent a studio for weeks or months, and you also have to take care of the marketing, with extra costs etcetera..

(By the way: my Indie publisher/label for that song – CD Baby - has the copyright issue well-organized: the copyright of the song, called 'Rastafari Live On' – which by the way had an original, “fresh” riddim - rests with me and is protected – also on the Internet - with percentages of royalties which were transparent from the start.)

There are of course also many proponents of the free availability of music, without copyright obstacles. These were there also before the digital age, in the early stages of Jamaican music. In line with a folk tradition, and a supposedly “non-materialistic” culture in Jamaica (different from the West) aimed at sharing culture among the people. Often the Rastafari worldview is also presented as supporting this “sharing” and open availability of music and songs, or instrumental “riddims” to vocalize on. Others contest this, and say that reggae artists (also Rastas) want their individual rights to be respected.

In conclusion, there is increased awareness and attention to this in Jamaican music in recent times. As Manuel and Marshall also explain in their article: only the “high profile” cases (big hits in the US for example) tend to receive legal attention from Jamaican parties owning copyright. An example is Mr Vegas pressing charges against well-known Pit Bull and Lil John’s song ‘Culo’ (2004) for using parts of Mr Vegas’ song – the chorus – ‘Pull Up’ (2003) for this (along with a simplified version of the accompanying Coolie Dance Riddim), without Mr Vegas’s permission or involvement. Indeed the songs are very similar, and Mr Vegas thus seems to have a strong legal case.

The large, “underground” and international reggae scene using extant Jamaican riddims or even song melodies tends to remain largely off the hook. Even when some of these latter artists actually put it on the market under their own name or perform with it for money. Gaining actual income using music of others, without their – or their legal titleholder’s - involvement or permission, is strictly speaking illegal and a case of copyright infringement. Most probably, though, it is too widespread and ephemeral to be handled, especially when done by obscure or relatively little known artists. I think that a poor country with a limited legal infrastructure also lacks the mean to address all this. By contrast, I imagine that even an obscure artist recording an unauthorized cover of a Rolling Stones song and making this public (via YouTube, Soundcloud or otherwise), will probably soon encounter legal repercussions by the Rolling Stones’ legal people. Again, global inequality..


In another post I wrote on this blog, of 16 February 2011, called ‘To know is to belong?’, I discussed “ownership” of Jamaican reggae music in another sense. It was a response to Eek-A-Mouse angered outburst at a festival in New York in 2008, in which he lamented the fact that white artists making reggae became famous and rich easily, get signed by big labels, unlike black Jamaican reggae artists. “Dem no waan black people fe run reggae music” he said. His criticism was based on race. He therefore mentioned mixed-raced or lighter-skinned Jamaicans as well (like Bob Marley), as unjustly favoured over black reggae artists. Eek-A-Mouse also complained that he got no money, unlike some other artists.

That critique of racial bias is I think largely just and founded. The fact remains, however, that – while less than could have been – many reggae fans all over the world search reggae records, even without mainstream support. In some countries the reggae fans seem to numerically increase relatively the last 10 years.

Even if artists are popular and their music paid for/bought, despite the mentioned odds and biases, limited legal protection might still impede artists getting their due reward. I know several reggae fans who bought all or near-all albums of certain reggae artists (in actual physical stores back then): Burning Spear, Culture and other artists. This is the Netherlands, and I’m sure several such committed, spending fans can be found in for instance Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Sweden, Japan, USA, and Canada. Many of these countries have sound system scenes playing reggae music. These local dee-jay’s/selectors need to buy records (often old-time vinyl) as well. Some parts of Germany have many sound systems, Japan as well, as does Italy. Sound system scenes are further coming up in countries in Latin America, Africa, and East Asia, and in Spain.

A proper legal protection combined with a structural copyright registration seems to me a first step in securing that Jamaicans keep – or regain, better said – control over their own music and cultural creation. It is in essence humiliating to have other people control what comes out of you. It dehumanizes and in a sense paralyzes.

Along with big companies favouring certain (white) reggae artists, and distorting reggae’s global, mainstream image with their power, also the limited copyright protection stems from wealth differences in the world and global inequality in development and possibilities. This translates as differences in power. Thus even to the degree that some people do not even have power over their own artistic and cultural inventions and expressions.

That is the deeper –and sadder truth – behind the chaotic and deficient copyright protection still affecting Jamaican music. Poor black people like Jamaicans lack control over their own economy, and - as part of that - over their own artistic expressions, and legal protection. This makes the goal once formulated by Marcus Garvey, black self-empowerment, all the more necessary.


As the opening quote of this post may have indicated, this theme is also discussed in several reggae lyrics. Reggae lyrics are partly known for dealing with “reality” and social critique, and this type of injustice is part of that. Burning Spear (Winston Rodney) has been talking about it for some time now in interviews and statements; he said that since his very debut single (in 1969) he did not get for his music what he was entitled to, reason why he founded his own, independent label in a later stage. He also mentioned it in some songs. ‘Legal Hustlers’ (from album Rasta Business, 1995) or ‘Wickedness’ (from album Jah Is Real, 2008) being examples from later albums.

Piracy (illegal copying and distributing of music) is discussed in the song ‘Mr. Pirate’ by Eric Donaldson, to give but an example, while financial misconduct or conflicts, or “bandwagonists” and “parasites”, are alluded to in several other reggae lyrics, as are specific cases of exploitation of artists by both fellow Jamaicans as foreigners.

The nice ‘Rasta Got Soul’ (2011) by Fantan Mojah, also refers to this, to give just another, quite recent example.

The interesting thing about the song ‘Pirate’ (1986) by Ini Kamoze (recorded with Sly & Robbie) is the broader, historical vision behind its lyrics. Whereas in reggae lyrics “pirate” or “old pirate” as in Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ often refer to the old colonial white exploiters and enslavers (pirate Hawkins and others) of Africans, Ini Kamoze connects this image with “pirates” in the form of current exploiters and oppressors, while “collecting my royalty” in the lyrics directly refers to the music business.

Such a connection seems, as I already reasoned, to make historical sense: black people were historically oppressed and sidelined for over 400 years, still persisting in the present, and manifested in limited control and power economically, politically, or legally in the present-day world. Specifically – and tragically – even limited control over their very own creations and works.

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