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Caribbean Music Fests Face Economic Uncertainly During Pandemic


For many Caribbean islands where tourism is the primary revenue earner, the coronavirus-sparked ban on large gatherings as well as airline and cruise travel has brought widespread postponements and cancellations to the region's spring/summer music festival season. From the Bahamas chain just below Florida's southern tip to Trinidad and Tobago, many Caribbean islands utilize music festivals to attract visitors to their shores, especially during the slower spring and summer months. The far-reaching scope of Caribbean music festivals extends beyond homegrown reggae and soca, salsa and reggaeton, to showcasing blues, rock, country, jazz, hip-hop and electronic acts, attracting anywhere from 1,000 to upwards of 40,000 patrons.

New York City-based Julie "Lexy" Brooks, CEO/president of VIP Connected Entertainment, a booking agent for concerts/festivals throughout the Caribbean including the St. Kitts Music Festival and the Dominica World Creole Festival, says the absence of festivals will bring financial devastation to many Caribbean territories. "If we here in the U.S. are being stressed by the coronavirus, can you imagine what's going to happen to these little islands when they can't have their events and people don't come in to support their economies?" asks Brooks. "Where do these cancellations leave people? Do the promoters move all these events to 2021, when people feel comfortable again?"

Many festival promoters are doing just that. The 2020 Saint Lucia Jazz Festival Produced in Collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center, scheduled for May 7-9, headlined by Chick Corea, Patti LaBelle and Chucho Valdés, has been canceled. Founded in 1992 as the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival featuring local, regional and international jazz acts, the event expanded to 10 nights with "jazz" as a catch-all label for an eclectic lineup. Previous performers include the late Amy Winehouse, who spent several months in the eastern Caribbean island, French-Caribbean supergroup Kassav and KC and The Sunshine Band. "As we approach 30 years of Saint Lucia Jazz, we remember the many mishaps, including headliners' last-minute cancellations, inclement weather, even challenges with airlifts to/from St. Lucia, yet the festival has happened annually since its inception, until 2020. The financial fallout from cancellations by hundreds of visitors who planned to attend this year is still being tallied," comments Lorraine A. Sidonie, CEO, Events Company of St. Lucia, Inc. which plans, produces and executes all national festivals and events for the island.

The amorphous jazz festival prototype that worked so well for Saint Lucia was implemented by many other Caribbean islands' events, including the Tobago Jazz Experience, held in the smaller island of the southern Caribbean Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T). Scheduled for April 23-26, the lineup for the 2020 Tobago Jazz Experience remained unannounced at the time of its March 12 cancellation. Founded as the Tobago International Gourmet Jazz Festival in 2005, the festival has presented T&T superstars including Machel Montano, David Rudder and Calypso Rose alongside Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Janelle Monae, Whitney Houston and John Legend; Legend's 2014 performance pulled a record audience of 15,000, notes John Arnold, president of the Copyright Organization of Trinidad and Tobago (COTT) who worked with the festival from its launch through 2017. Tobago Jazz's popularity has spawned four mixed-genre jazz festivals (all canceled for 2020) in Trinidad, the birthplace of calypso, soca, the steel pan and home to a world-renowned pre-Lenten carnival, which took place, as scheduled, Feb. 24-25. "The Tobago Jazz Experience was developed to attract international visitor arrivals," Arnold told Billboard. "The objective is to produce a festival where business community stakeholders can benefit. Festival goers take flights, rent cars, buy gas, groceries, go to restaurants and fill our hotels/guest houses, totaling 3,700 rooms, so the spinoffs are more critical than the actual money made from the festival."

The St. Kitts Music Festival, held on the larger island of the dual island nation St. Kitts and Nevis, was also postponed for 2020, rescheduled for June 23-27, 2021. The postponement was announced on March 26 by St. Kitts' minister of tourism Lindsay F.P. Grant, who cited the safety of all involved as the paramount concern. Founded in 1996, St. Kitts' annual celebration generated $30 million in economic activity in 2018, according to an economic impact assessment study, an extraordinary return on its $2 million budget. In 2019, the festival attracted 28,000 patrons over three nights with a lineup that included Smokey Robinson, Ella Mai and Buju Banton. "We developed the festival to put heads in beds, and we can fill all of St. Kitts' hotels and many rooms in Nevis (about 45 minutes away via ferry boat) so it's a significant economic driver," Damian Hobson, the festival's chairman, told Billboard on the phone from the island's capital Basseterre.

Some Caribbean festivals entice global audiences to their respective destinations by showcasing local talents. Jamaica's venerable Reggae Sumfest, established in 1993 (scheduled for July 12-18, Catherine Hall, Montego Bay), attracted over 30,000 fans and generated $7 million for the island's economy in 2019, according to Jamaica's tourism minister Edmund Bartlett, with a lineup of Jamaica's popular reggae and dancehall acts; Koffee and VH1's Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta star Spice performed last year, both are slated for 2020. Sumfest was initially patterned on Jamaica's pioneering Reggae Sunsplash. Founded in 1978, Sunsplash's inaugural edition established summer tourism in Jamaica. After a 14-year dormancy period, Reggae Sunsplash is still scheduled to return on Nov. 6-8 at Grizzly's Plantation Cove, St. Ann, although a lineup hasn't been revealed.

Also halted for the next few months are the many Trinidad-styled carnivals held throughout the Caribbean and the U.S., which provide a lucrative circuit for in-demand soca talents from T&T and other Caribbean islands. "Our Caribbean artists perform at annual carnivals and international festivals that aren't happening now so it's going to be hard for them, like all artists who make their living as performers," offers Arnold. "COTT can do a special distribution of artists' royalties for our members so we are appealing to broadcasters, government, corporate, all who owe us money to pay, because that can help tide over the artists. The T&T government has provided various severance packages for the vulnerable during this crisis and I've asked them to help the creative sector because they will be losing some serious dollars." The postponed Tmrw.Tday Culture Fest, originally scheduled for April 28-May 3 in Negril, has stamped its unique identity on Jamaica's festival landscape, incorporating yoga, wellness and eco-consciousness alongside dancehall/reggae, house music and dub. Tmrw.Tday attracted over 2,000 patrons in 2019, including arrivals from North America, the UK and the Caribbean, with headlining reggae artist Protoje, EDM DJs Audiofly and Dubfire and dub selector Teflon Zincfence. Ticket sales for 2020 were 25% ahead of 2019 prior to the promoters' March 18 postponement announcement; the festival has a no-return ticket policy but 2020 festival pass holders can participate in a virtual festival in April and attend the Tmrw.Tday Together gathering in Negril (2020 date TBA) and the 2021 or 2022 Tmrw.Tday Culture Fest. Despite the reshuffling of events and incurred financial losses, co-founders Kevin Bourke and Andrew Christoforou nonetheless convey the positive vibrations reflective of their festival's mission. "Tmrw.Tday has pushed change in how humanity must adapt to what has been so evident. Nature was screaming at us to slow down and we didn't listen. This pandemic reinforces what we've been saying since we began in 2017: we must change ourselves, how we live, how we treat nature and how we treat each other -- today, not tomorrow."



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