Senior Editor and North East Media Coordinator for Jamaicans.com
I met Neil Robertson, in the mid 1990’s in New York City when he was quarterbacking then Jamaican rising star “Luciano” “Where there is Life project in the US. He currently head the live events and touring department at VP Records. Robertson is responsible for coordinating touring for reggae artists signed to or distributed by New York based Indie VP records. We recent talked about the currents state of affairs of reggae in the USA, about the steady decline in reggae cd sale, why promoters aren’t booking contemporary reggae acts, why these acts are unable to appeal to maintain stream audiences beyond their base and their inability to view their career through the prism of the big picture.
Robertson’s most recent projects include the two of most successful acts (tour audience draw, cd sales and legitimate chart) in reggae music today. Italian born Alborosie, the first white artist to be distributed by Bob Marley’s label, Tuff Gong, on his first U.S. tour, and the American debut of international German reggae artist Gentleman, who’ Neil calls “ the Eminem of Reggae.”
What most top Jamaican reggae/dancehall acts do in America isn’t touring. There is a lack of serious touring (road activity) and that has hurt the contemporary (Jamaican) reggae because these artistes aren’t touring the mainstream music venues in the United States. The contemporary (Jamaican) reggae act instead opt to do weekend to weekend on ‘one offs’ shows or ‘spot dates’ mostly in pockets of the ethnic market. The Jamaican reggae/dancehall acts ignore, unlike the roots-reggae acts, touring Europe and college areas on the US west coast and in the Midwest. Jamaican reggae/dancehall acts popularity in Jamaica, and the ethnic market (urban centers) in North America is limited and have no impact on the larger mainstream market. This evidenced by SoundScan, the American cd sales tracking company 2012 reports. No album or reggae /dancehall artistes out of Jamaica had any impact in the US.
Without touring the artistes can’t develop awareness of their brand, or how best to market themselves. Also their decision to do shows has more to do with maximizing immediate financial return instead of maximizing their brand to develop larger audience market share.
Alborosie and Gentleman, in Europe pull large audiences. There is hardly any reggae/dancehall act out of Jamaica who can draw the kind of a crowd Alborosie and Gentleman do.
Jamaican reggae/dancehall artist have not created, or made use of the opportunities to succeed in the larger US market, therefore they have not been able to exploit these opportunities to be successful. And as Robertson is urging Jamaican acts to focus on the bigger picture if they want to be successful in the US
Since touring helped introduce the music and to establish the name reggae acts, like Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, and Peter Tosh to audiences in Europe and the US in the 1970 and 80’s Robertson thinks the new wave of Jamaican artistes can learn from their predecessors success this critical area.
After our conversation I conducted an interview with Neil Robertson.
Stan Evan Smith: Since 2006 how many reggae dance hall artists (DJ and singers) have conducted US serious tours lasting from two to six months?
Neil Robertson: I’m not sure since 2006 exactly how many acts have toured 2+ months straight but Sean Paul & Damian Marley would be two that have.
Stan Evan Smith: Why aren’t reggae/dance hall artist doing tours in the US?
Neil Robertson: Many feel they tour nonstop. It depends how you define a tour. If you’re defining a tour as multiple dates three+ weeks or more, then the reason is the current reggae business model. It’s based on how much a show pays no matter where it is and not building the artists brand market by market. The artists also need to invest in themselves. Hire your own publicists & social media person; invest in Facebook ads to support your dates. You have to be active in the promotion of your brand.
Stan Evan Smith: Which dance hall acts have been the most successful (touring, sales and mainstream rotation play since 2006?
Neil Robertson: Sean Paul, Damian Marley, Gyptian, Shaggy. Vegas is there now with the success of Bruk It. Popcaan is also in the mix. He’s proven that he knows how to make songs that the youth market like. He’s fun and just in the mix of mainstream acts while still being underground. If he could have entered the USA market to support his singles at radio he would be on his way to that “International Reggae” artist ranking.
Stan Evan Smith: How is the Jamaican based reggae acts fairing against US based Reggae acts?
Neil Robertson: The top Jamaican acts like the Marley’s, Sean Paul, Toots, Barrington Levy are doing well. We should also talk about Steele Pulse in there as they represent the Jamaican experience from their UK perspective. The challenge is that top US based Reggae bands have established their brands now and have a young generation growing up with them. The good thing for Jamaican Reggae acts is that many of these US Reggae acts are clear on the influences and push their fans to go deeper. Groundation for example lists their favorite reggae albums on their website to share with their fan base what music influenced them.
Stan Evan Smith: What should a Jamaican base reggae act do to succeed in the US market?
Neil Robertson: It starts with writing songs on subjects that the US can identify with. In terms of establishing yourself as a touring act, follow the model of what I did with Rootz Underground. I didn’t invent the model of how to succeed as a touring act. You have to go out there for support act and open for acts that have a solid audience. In the case of Rootz that was supporting Gregory Issacs rip, Stephen Marley, Tarrus Riley, Anthony B and a great new band on the rise in France called Danakil. Bob Marley, D. Brown, Peter Tosh, and Steel Pulse all did this strategically to win the USA market.
Neil Robertson: Bands shouldn’t expect to do one lap around the USA and the next time you’re supposed to get $10K+ usd a show. You have to keep consistent on the road for 2+ years & build your audience. After 2 years if you aren’t seeing an audience every night that can support your band then you better quickly revamp the formula or get a day job.