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The Exportation of Mas

This is one of my absolute favourite times of the year, Crop Over in my home, Barbados. We’re also in the throes of “Band Launch Season” in Trinidad and either anticipating the start or collecting the last feathers scattered on the ground at the culmination of carnivals from St. Lucia to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Hollywood USA, Jamaica and everyone else in between.

The last few years have been exciting for those who are involved in the business of, or who simply “jump” or “play mas”.  There are so many locations to choose from, as one can now begin with Trinidad Carnival in February/April, move on to Jamaica Carnival in April, then the newly minted Guyana Carnival and the more established Batabano and Caymas in the Cayman Islands in May, Vincy Mas and St. Lucia Carnival in July and Crop Over in Barbados in July/August, followed by Spice Mas in Grenada and Antigua Carnival and this is only in the Caribbean!

Is money being made?  The proof is in the numbers of course.  The Central Statistical Office of the Ministry of Planning and Development in Trinidad and Tobago reported that for the period February 10 to 28, 2017 (Carnival Monday and Tuesday were February 27 and 28, respectively), visitor arrivals specifically for carnival numbered 35,269 for Trinidad.  The estimated visitor expenditure during the aforementioned period was TT$8,943.00 per person, although this figure was not necessarily representative of the total contribution of carnival to the Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”) of Trinidad and Tobago.  The Oxford Business Group stated that tourism in Trinidad and Tobago contributed 8.2% in 2013 to the twin-island republic’s GDP, although the specific numbers relating to carnival were not provided.

In 2012 in Barbados, Crop Over “pumped approximately BBD$80 Million” into the economy and more recently, the explosion of popularity of Jamaica carnival has led to the Minister of Tourism, Edmund Bartlett stating that in a few years, the spend generated by carnival could jump to JMD$1Billion.  Carnival in Jamaica, according to Bartlett, saw US$2.3 Million (JMD$300Million) in circulation earlier in 2017.  So there is definitely money to be made.

How about the makers of Mas in our small island developing states? Have they been making significant returns from our festivals?  From as far back as 2008, it was reported that “…some of the popular mas bands will gross in excess of TT$10 Million.”  It is important to note that the writer from Trinidad Carnival Diary pointed out that the question of what portion of the revenue was paid in taxes or could be counted as profit was debatable.  The bottom line is that in the past few years, a new individual has emerged from the proverbial cocoon of the traditional bandleader, this person being the “Carnival Entrepreneur”.

Over time, we have also seen the expansion of band offerings in Barbados, with recent major players entering the market such as Zulu International, Aura Experience, Krave the Band and Xhosa Barbados, alongside stalwarts such as Baje International.  Tribe Carnival in Trinidad recently launched a record six bands under its stewardship and Jamaica Carnival grew from one band to four, which have seen sold out bands by the time the annual Road March is staged.

The Carnival Entrepreneur is a business savvy individual whose business is making a living from leading and/or designing for a band, providing carnival concierge services and/or creating, managing and promoting events.  There are also myriad offshoots or sub-genres of this field of work such as the traveling makeup artist or spray-tanning professional.  These persons are not only creating or supplying for their indigenous carnivals, they are doing so within the Caribbean region and beyond.

From die-hard carnival chasers to those whose sole social experience revolves around the carnival/festival seasons in their respective islands (and everyone else in between), the names “Scorch”, “Roast Entertainment”, “Caesar’s Army”, “Tribe”, “Aura Experience”, , “Xamayca”, “Tracy Boyce”, “Samantha Ammon”, “Suga Apple”, “Rhion Romany”, “Yuma”, “Rebel”, “Candy Coated Events”, “Solange Govia”, “Sandra Hordatt”, “DJ Puffy”, “Xodus”, “Fonrose the Brand”, “Krave the Band”, “DJ Private Ryan”, “Soca Brainwash”, “Marie Collette”, “Lauren Austin”, “Douglas John” and “Shawn Danraj” have distinct followings for their prowess in costume design, Crop Over/carnival bands and fete management and promotion.  These businesses and business people have managed to generate excitement, in some cases to a frenzied level, of persons who want to wear a resort wear or Monday Wear piece, attend and event or jump/play as a member of that particular band.  These names are associated with fun and trendiness throughout the Caribbean and into the diaspora and in some cases, designs have graced the backs of international superstar celebrities such as Barbados’ own Rihanna, who has faithfully jumped with the band Aura Experience in a Laurin Austin design for a number of years, which in turn, boosted that band’s popularity to exponential proportions.

There is no better time to find one’s niche in the carnival business.  From fete promotion, carnival accessories (e.g. Carnivalista), resort wear, shopping your costume designs to major bands, or touring as a DJ, there are many ways to make carnivals and festivals into a year-round business.  While our islands and territories have been producing Mas for years, there has been a surge of interest in the last few years from persons outside of the region, particularly with the surging interest from Millenials in the diaspora who are seeking to establish familial ties to the Caribbean.  This has definitely not gone unnoticed by jurisdictions which may have had carnival for years (e.g. Jamaica) or newbies looking for a piece of the action (e.g. Guyana) whose goal is to turn their festivals into major tourism revenue earners.

In addition to fellow members of CARICOM, the brands and persons described above have branched out into countries and cities such as Miami, Toronto, Canada, Bermuda, Washington DC, Hollywood, California and New York and in some cases such as the Soca Brainwash event, have a massive following.  Further, with the advent of social media platforms such as Instagram, advertising has never been easier and more cost-effective.  A few posts coupled with word-of-mouth passing on of information and events are sold out in literally hours.

The question is, what infrastructure do we have in place and is there a need for one at the regional level to regulate or facilitate this industry?  How do we ensure that producers of carnival and festival-related content are welcomed into the fold outside of their respective countries?

In respect of the first question, carnivals in each island are managed by national organisations which are usually government owned and which host their own events such as calypso competitions, childrens’ carnival parades, general management of the parade of adult bands and similar competitions or events.  As a result, these brands work on their own privately (although there are usually organisations for band leaders who in many cases double as designers) and their owners travel and create linkages between jurisdictions.  The answer to the second question is a bit more complex.  Some brands, particularly the event brands, have faced backlash due to perceived competition created when they host an event in another country.  There is more evidence of this between Caribbean islands than extra-regionally.  In some cases, questions are asked as to whether the appropriate channels have been used to promote events and whether imported events distract revellers from enjoying a more “local” or “authentic” experience.

In spite of the foregoing, as with any business, the strong and innovative will survive.  This may be a harsh reality for some but creating a business model which can capture the hearts and waistlines of persons is an ongoing process and local brands should be encouraged to work as hard as they can to “set up shop” in other countries.  We should be very aware that we have reached a point where thanks to strong promotion, our festivals are attracting more persons from overseas than ever before, our business persons are winning awards, and our strongest bands and events are fully subscribed in record time.

At the CARICOM level, artists are permitted to move freely among Member States to do business, through via free movement, with recent discussions focusing on how to improve upon such regional laws.  However, it may be argued that many of the persons who move around the region in the business of Mas are not doing so mainly via these mechanisms and may rely more on social linkages made.  On a positive note, it has been acknowledged by Pamela Coke-Hamilton, outgoing Executive Director of the Caribbean Export Development Agency that in general, there has been “…an absence of a structure that looks at the monetization of the creative industries for the region…”.  With this understanding in mind, a recommendation was made in 2016 to establish the Caribbean Creative Industries Management Unit, which is a dedicated body whose purpose will be to address the needs of the regional creative industries.  Outside of CARICOM, the CARIFORUM-EU Economic Partnership Agreement addresses the entry of certain categories of artists into the European Union to ply their trade.

So what next?  The business of Mas is moving full steam ahead.  From a consumer’s point of view, one only has to decide where next to visit and which events to attend and which costume to wear.  There is much to choose from.  From a law-maker’s perspective, a full understanding of the inner workings of the industry is imperative so that the most beneficial policies and rules are drafted so that the maximum potential of these business can be realised.  Opportunities abound, it is just a matter of finding means to make them work.