The Art Of The Record Deal: J’can artistes moving from obscurity to global celebrities

Editor’s note: The below is part one of a two-part series by Donovan “JR Watkis” Watkis. Part two will be published on Buzz tomorrow, May 17.

The music business is an industry that relies heavily on leveraging relationships behind the scenes. The more leverage you have as an artiste the greater your demands can be, and the greater support you will get for your career. There are also many powers of influence, and key decision makers that help to decide who and what becomes a hit.

Dancehall artiste Spice performing at the Red Bull Music Festival in London, United Kingdom on August 23, 2019.(Photo: Dan Medhurst/Red Bull Content Pool)

Although Jamaican artistes enjoy a rich cultural heritage and the music is like-able abroad, their constant struggle has been to leverage their home based fame and secure partnerships that will assist in selling records, and achieve market dominance outside of Jamaica.

‪Every year various music industry organisations assemble professionals from California , Miami, New York and Jamaica. The intention of these gatherings and conferences are mainly to prepare local artistes and their teams through presentations and panel discussions for the bigger markets. The events also provided excellent opportunities for networking with executives from the major streaming platforms and record labels. The conversations are centered around making hits in the modern music industry. The events are successful if the relationships made become fruitful transactions and creative collaborations later.

Jamaican artiste Lee “Scratch” Perry


One obstacle faced by persons who start in the Jamaican music industry in gaining appeal is low streaming numbers in the USA. It is the dream of reggae hopefuls to capture the imagination of audiences and saturate the USA market but reggae/dancehall make up only one per cent of the music album consumption according to Statista.

It is quite difficult for some artists who enjoy fame and notoriety in Jamaica to generate the same level of excitement abroad — because internationally the music business uses streaming to measure success. Streaming platforms that are playlist-based, like Spotify, Amazon, and Pandora, are not yet integrated into Caribbean territories. This affects the rental (streams) and sales (downloads) of reggae and dancehall music, because if the services are not where the core audience resides then they will not be counted among the streamed demographic.

Jamaica is regarded as a performance rights market, as artiste will find their successes from performing.

In times gone by BET and MTV were sure media houses if an artiste wanted international recognition and music sales. It has become much more complex to break an artiste internationally since the advent of streaming.

According to the IFPI’s global music 2018 report, Jamaica is regarded as a performance rights market. Meaning most of the successes artistes achieve will come from performances. This is so because Jamaicans get their recorded music for free but will pay a premium for live concert VIP experiences. Fifty thousand people turned out for the Buju Banton concert at the national stadium last year and thousands attend the seasonal reggae concerts on the island each year.

Streaming platforms are not fully integrated in the Caribbean which affects artistes who want to find international success.

Notwithstanding, streaming platforms are not yet fully integrated so artistes who desire international success must take their cultural capital outside of Jamaica. The difference in demography and the speed of fame abroad present a great artistic risk for artistes and a financial risk for record labels.

Neither YouTube nor Apple’s recent expansion into the market with limited services offers great enough platforms to impact local artists’ international data projections. Labels usually look for chart success, radio play, and concert numbers to sign artists. However, when it comes to Jamaican artistes they have to be more flexible in rationalising future success. Except for Sean Paul, who registers massive streaming numbers, it seems the major labels have to measure the potential impact of an artist by considering an intangible cultural capital abroad to rationalize signing an artist.

Shani Fuller-Tillman, VP of urban marketing at RCA records in the Rolling Stone Magazine explains,

“…although it is challenging for Jamaican artists to reach a wide audience they (RCA records) are a label that loves to step out on things that may not be so cookie-cutter or easy to break in the market. Although reggae music isn’t widely accepted on that mainstream level…there are huge reggae fans…and it’s big in New York, Connecticut, and Florida”

– Contributed by JR Watkis, music marketer, producer and the host of World Music Views on Television Jamaica (TVJ). He may be contacted at