L-R: DS3 Entertainment’s PJ Douglas Sands, Prime Minister Perry G. Christie, NARIP’s Tess Taylor, Island MMTS Founder Pia T. Glover-Rolle
View from my window: paradise!
(c) 2015-2016 by Tess Taylor
The inaugural Music, Model & Talent Showcase of the Islands (Island MMTS) took place from in July 2015 in Nassau, The Bahamas, and featured world-class talent. The brainchild of Pia Rolle, a former model turned entrepreneur, Island MMTS gives Caribbean talent a platform and access to the world. Over 1100 people auditioned for Island MMTS, 37 countries pledged support and 19 were represented.
The purpose and execution is impressive, as is some of the outstanding musical talent I met including Judah “The Lion”, Olivia “Lady Liv” Graveley and Preston “Puzzle” Wallace, among others. These are three artists whom I will help and in whose futures I take a great interest.
I was glad to be invited and happy to meet savvy industry executives from the music business and other sectors including TV, music production, personal artist management, journalism, radio and modeling.
“To Be Exposed To The Possibility Of Their Accomplishments”
The opening ceremony featured a pointed and excellent keynote speech from Prime Minister Perry G. Christie who wants Caribbean artists “to be exposed to the possibility of their accomplishments.” He understands investment in the arts is a cultural strong point and can be an economic powerhouse. 2005 revenues generated by Jamaican-born Shaggy and Sean Paul exceeded the banana industry of the entire Caribbean, he said. Also in 2005, the Jamaican copyright industries were valued at 4.8% of the country’s gross national product, or $29 Billion (USD).
Investment in the arts isn’t just a ‘feel-good’ abstraction. When art succeeds, earnings have no ceiling for the creators, those who invest in them and their countries of origin. The billions in revenue generated for Sweden by ABBA, for England by The Beatles or by Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Les Miserables (three of the longest-running, top-grossing musicals), the Taylor Swift franchise, the empires of Beyonce and Jay-Z, and Michael Jackson’s 50 sold-out shows at the London O2 Arena show how profitable music and art can be. Though it has marketplace challenges of its own, entertainment properties are not subject to the same hard goods limitations (supply chain issues, shortages, tariffs, import / export, timing, shipping, warehousing).
When it succeeds, art can earn at the highest levels. A recent report valued the global creative economy at $1.6 Trillion (USD). Intellectual property industries are crucial to future growth of their economies and essential contributors to GDP of their respective countries. For example, in the U.S., intellectual property industries are among the largest and highest-paying employers in the country, and are the largest positive contributors to the U.S. balance of trade.
Prime Minister Christie understands art can’t reach its full potential without strong government initiatives, copyright and trademark protection, and infrastructure. Those countries that show meaningful support of the arts have vastly superior economic profiles compared to developing countries that don’t. Without measures to develop, protect and monetize art, you have a country like Peru where thousands of gifted musicians, producers and artists create magnificent music but can’t make a living from it.
Connect Your Dream To A Living Example of Success: Sir Sidney Poitier
PM Christie encouraged Island MMTS delegates to connect their dreams to a living example of success, Sir Sidney Poitier. Poitier was a dishwasher at a New York restaurant, he could not read and a Jewish waiter saw him struggling with a newspaper one day after work. “I will teach you to read,” the waiter told him, and he did. Poitier went on to win two Oscars, become a producer, director and author. “But there was a time I couldn’t even read and someone volunteered to help me – someone who didn’t have to, and so I was able to maximize my talent,” said Poitier.
Poitier told Christie, “It’s your responsibility as leaders to recognize gifted people in your countries. Some don’t have the means or connections, and so they never have an opportunity to develop their talent.”
“There are many talented and gifted people here, and Caribbeans are among the most gifted and courageous in the world,” Christie said.
Christie is working to make the Bahamas more of a destination for tourism and cultural industries, including religious tourism, and recently entered into a relationship with concert and event promoter AEG LA to mobilize in the Bahamas. “We decided we had to attract events to our country,” he said.
I was brought to the Bahamas to judge musical talent and mentor artists. The level of talent was excellent, and I’ve taken a personal interest in assisting the careers of at least a half dozen talented songwriters and producers. Here are three standouts mentioned above:
Judah Seymour AKA “Judah The Lion” from Nassau had the audience and talent judges on their feet in the preliminary round and at the finale. His island rhythms, hip-hop and jazz-influenced dancehall reggae were a hit with all of us, and the energy from his set filled the ballroom. Energy is a huge part of that X Factor, the thing that brings an audience to its feet and bonds us with an artist. Judah performs frequently at a bar where he works in Nassau, which explains his ease on stage, his warm welcoming presence and exceptional ability to engage his audience. One of his songs “Right On, Right On” has a marvelous anthemic quality, and I have been humming it for weeks since the event! It’s a simple, excellent tune that sticks
The expense of registering and attending Island MMTS was not small. Many contestants from other islands had to travel for several days (taking 3 or 4 flights) to get to Nassau (inter-island flights are infrequent and expensive). And so apart from her talent, I was additionally impressed by Olivia Graveley AKA “The Real Lady Livi” from Turks & Caicos who won in several categories at Island MMTS. She barely made it to Island MMTS, “I would have slept on the ground!” she said, not knowing until her arrival where she’d stay due to strapped finances. She trusted that it would work out and it did! Her courage and determination are as impressive as her live show. An energetic rapper with a street sensibility and lingo, she captivated us all when she performed “Love Is Blind,” an autobiographical song about her mother in an abusive relationship, which made for an emotional performance. It was a powerful song and message, and she wiped tears from her eyes as she exited the stage. The audience loved her and she left many of us groping for hankies. An outstanding emotional performance.
Preston Wallace AKA “Puzzle” has a fabulous, anthemic hit, “My Birthday AKA The Birthday Song,” and I defy you to sit still when you listen to it. With its outstanding hook and simple sing-along chorus, I could see this song replacing the traditional Happy Birthday. With1M+ YouTube views and radio spins combined, the song is in high rotation on radio and it’s no wonder. Puzzle’s high-energy performance, off-the-charts charisma and masterful audience interaction had us all leaping to our feet – twice! He has won contests and will surely win hearts and minds beyond the Caribbean. Listen to My Birthday here.
These were just three of the artists I saw perform, and I mentored at least a dozen of them in individual sessions during the conference, giving them all homework assignments and Next Steps. Success isn’t rocket science, but it requires at least as much hard work as talent, if not more.
Rolle brought in executives to Island MMTS from many major markets, including:
- Celebrity Feature Panelist – Kim Fields, Model, Actress, Director, Producer with Tyler Perry Studios (Atlanta)
- Qiana Conley, Music Supervisor, Cue The Creatives (Los Angeles)
- Klaus D, record producer (from Los Angeles)
- Jay Hatch and Dan DiNapoli – Co-founders of iStandard Producers (New York)
- Kendrick Dean – songwriter producer (Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton)
Bryan Michael Cox, Bahamian, 9-time Grammy award winning songwriter and producer (Mariah Carey, Usher)
- Chuck Creekmur, CEO of AllHipHop.com (New York)
- Byron Wright, BMI (Atlanta)
- Greggory Smith, SESAC – Director of Writer/Publisher Relations
- Stevi Meredith (LA), Meredith Management (Los Angeles)
- Dion Summers, SiriusXM (New York)
- Syrah Scott, Top Choice Models (New York)
- Sandi Bass, Sandi Bass International (Chicago)
- Colin McMurray, Colin McMurray & Associates (Toronto)
- Rodney Harris, SLAMM Model & Talent Management (Atlanta, New York)
- Irvin Durand, C-PAF Caribbean Performing Arts Federation (Dominica)
- Paolo Buonfante, Elite Miami (Miami)
- Donnie Scantz: Co-founder of DS3, Composer / songwriter / producer. (Rihanna, Chris Brown) (Los Angeles, Houston)
- PJ Douglas-Sands, DS3 Entertainment, Island MMTS Season 1 Event Consultant (Houston)
- Elon Johnson, Executive Producer at BET / Viacom (New York)
- Lorraine Hartnett, Next Models (Toronto).
- Datwon Thomas, Executive Editor, Vibe Magazine (New York)
- Lou Seymour, Owner, AMTI (Canada)
The talent judges were all interested in helping developing talent and guiding artists into areas where they have natural talent and can excel. Strategically, Rolle invited some judges who are also from the Islands and/or or Caribbean descent including Elon Johnson, Donnie Scantz, Bryan Michael Cox, Kendrick Dean, Lou Seymour and others who are especially proud of their heritage, eager to give back and help their fellow Islanders make a positive mark on the world. Says Chuck Creekmur, CEO of AllHipHop.com, “We’re all connected, even hip hop was started by someone of Caribbean descent.”
Cox, a 9-time Grammy winning producer songwriter Bryan Michael Cox (Usher, Mariah Carey) originally from The Bahamas, pointed out the importance of the Caribbean and its influence on hit artists including Snoop Dogg, Diplo, Major Laser and others who come to this region and “use our sound.” We become who we are because of our heritage, he said, proud of the history, colorful rhythms and musical influences of the Islands.
Encouraging participants at one session, Cox said the hardest part isn’t becoming successful, it’s maintaining success.
WORKSHOP: Too Hot For TV? How To Get Placed in Hollywood Film and TV
Elon Johnson, Executive Producer, BET (Viacom)
The conference featured workshops and panels. Too Hot For TV was especially good, led by Executive Producer Elon Johnson (BET / Viacom) who gave valuable tips for those interested in breaking into television. Her advice has broad application across other industries, here’s an overview.
To mesh better with the multi-tasking, short attention span of today’s viewers, television needs “snack-able content” – short, to-the-point segments with a beginning, middle and end (classic story structure works best).
Do not leave a story open-ended, Elon emphasized. The ability to tell a story in an entertaining or engaging way is key, and to follow the structure: start us somewhere, get us to a point in the middle, and then end or tie it up. The same is true for songs – the most effective storytelling requires a beginning, middle and end, a line for the listener (viewer) to follow that he can understand and relate to, that brings him “in.” The story must be strong and have distinct parts.
This is great time to get into TV especially as an independent, said Elon. She encouraged delegates to start now, and discussed available resources.
You can create your own content today and put it on YouTube or on your own Web site. It needs to be where others can find it, she said… and find YOU. “We [in the industry] need to be able to see it, as we are a very visual nation. Even if it’s not perfect or award winning [yet], or even if you don’t have the best setting, don’t worry,” she said, “no one expects perfection. Something well done is what we look for.”
Opportunity Is Everywhere
Elon encouraged delegates to network at the conference with speakers and other delegates, “get involved, extend your reach,” she said. Many people do different things, she told us, Vibe Magazine Executive Editor Datwan – another speaker at the Conference – is also executive producer of an indie film. “We all have projects we’re passionate about, don’t overlook this as an opportunity,” she said. Talking to Datwan could turn into an opportunity on a current or future project of his.
Great Need For Day Players
One way to start is as a “day player” for which there is demand. Many major actors have been on the long-running Law & Order, says Elon. It’s easy to get these kinds of gigs as a background character, pay is about $25 / hour. It could be a long day of shooting and unscripted but just being there is a plus, that’s a screen credit for you and a great way to meet people.
Having home support is huge. If you can’t get your neighbors to support you, how do you expect the world to? It’s critical to have a home team and your community on your side. Elon told us about two comedians/ soca performer Porgy and Murda (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEnhMDV3DrQ) and how she first saw their show at a local rum shop on Barbados’ version of YouTube, BajanTube (http://www.bajantube.com). Episodes are 6 or 7 minutes long, everyone in the shop was engrossed. The stories are relatable, you know these people, they are funny and charismatic – it draws you in. Fast forward 3 years, says Elon, “I’m at the BET Awards and THEY are there too. They built this thing from nothing, shot on the iPhone, Digicel was impressed and funded it, they continued to improve. Next thing you know they’re shooting in the States. This is to stress the importance of having a home base and to be clear on what you’re doing.
Use ingenuity and creative deal-making to get the support you need, anything from the barter system to making deals with local vendors and independent film makers in your area. You can get many things this way including exposure to a new audience, free use of locations, professional photos and footage to expand your press kit and more. Great art and cool music are excellent hooks to bring more people to a Web site, location or project. After all, the commercial value of art is its ability to attract a crowd so the more you can grow your own crowd, the more valuable you will be for others (brands, local vendors, Web sites, bloggers, other artists) to partner with.
With so many online resources, Facebook groups and information available, Elon said it’s key to know what’s going on so you can find where you fit in.
- Mandy.com: This job Web site features casting information, it’s a big entertainment hub that lists opportunities in different countries.
- Cynopsis.com: a trade Web site, get email every day
- RealityWanted.com: reality Web site
- Deliver or Die: casting agency
- DoronoForCasting.com: US-based, some international opportunities
- Backstage.com – this started in The Voice classified section in New York, it was free and huge. Elon was a freelance writer for the Voice (everyone wanted to write for them). Backstage was big, then it went online.
Caution: be careful, do your research, not all services are legitimate.
Voice over can be very lucrative, do a search and reach out to casting agencies. Upload a reel and voice demos. Voice over work can be especially lucrative if you can do accents, plus it’s work that can lead to other things and can be done remotely.
Elon recommended internships as a good way to get in and learn behind-the-scenes aspects of production. This has worked well for many people who have put themselves in the right place – it’s a way to be present and available. Just be professional she emphasized.
Opportunities in Reality TV
Reality TV is the biggest and cheapest form of TV to produce today which is why it’s so huge. This can be a springboard to other opportunities, but it can also be a slippery slope. If you act like a hyperbole of yourself, this is less effective. On the other hand, people like K. Michelle used it to her advantage. No one knew her before the show Love & Hip Hop. She made it work, now she’s at the BET Awards, on Soul Train and has created recognition for herself.
Getting Into Hollywood Films
To get into Hollywood films, Elon recommended starting out DIY (do-it-yourself). Get a group or community together, create your own projects and work on independent films. Many of the above-listed resources and Web sites give access to casting for indie films. Very few have money, and those that do can probably only raise enough to edit and color correct and feed people on location. Says Elon, think about what you need to get. If you need a tangible visual, it would be good to show a link with your work. You have to weigh which things are most important to you, getting paid or having product because the footage could be valuable currency in your career. It shows what you are able to do, be sure to negotiate! Elon suggests requesting professional photos from the set, use of the footage for your promotional materials and on your Web site, and something you can own and use.
Networking, Packaging Yourself
Through the pre-conference mandatory preparation that is a part of the Island MMTS experience, a lot of the Island MMTS delegates have done a great job packaging themselves. So next comes networking!
Effective networking can start with a compliment, this opens a conversation. Also, sharing something in common, such as “My brother’s name is Russ, too!” is a good ice-breaker. It’s hard for many people to have a conversation with someone they don’t know, these are two easy ways to get it rolling.
A third way, is to ask a question. People love to talk about themselves!
And as you network, be prepared with an elevator pitch because you don’t know whom you will meet, when or where, and you don’t have a lot of time. The “elevator pitch” is the few sentences you say to someone – for example, in an elevator – to impress or engage them enough to interest them in more. It’s a valuable skill, worth practicing and perfecting.
One delegate asked Elon whom she’d like to meet and what would her elevator pitch be? Elon said she’d love to meet Oprah, and would say something like this:
- Establish connection: “I worked with Candy Carter on your show.” Carter is a senior producer and key player – this lets Oprah know Elon is “in.”
- Establish myself, this is who I am: “Right now I’m working on XYZ projects and I’m an EVP at Viacom.”
- This is what I want to do: “In the future I want to set up a network in the Caribbean.”
The most effective networking can occur when you do your homework – all of that is an investment in yourself. I suggested identifying key people, including senior executives, printing out their photos with their names and pinning them up in sight (at office, in home, etc.) where they will be seen many times a day. We recognize the movie stars, executives are less widely known by appearance and many will appreciate being recognized. If you can seize the opportunity with confidence, it can lead to more.
As an example, Elon mentioned June Ambrose, one of the biggest stylists in the world based in New York. With almost 500,000 Instagram followers she’s from Grenada. People who come to New York from the islands may be able to get a meeting with her because of that shared connection. Just do a search, suggested Elon, because so many people of Caribbean descent work in the industry. A shared history and lineage can help get that first meeting. You have to find any way in that you can.
Create Foundation of Skills
Don’t be jack of all trades and master of none, create a foundation of skills. Elon talked about her approach. She is a producer and made it her business to learn television from every angle. She started as a writer, interviewed tons of people, learned camera angles and set-up, and became a producer. She was a full time writer at MTV, continued to freelance and started media training. Because she learned every angle of television, it’s easy for her to get a job, she said, either in news, lifestyle, or talk show formats. Her versatility – and training she gave herself – makes her flexible and valuable.
Kim Fields, who keynoted at Island MMTS as well, is an excellent example of this Elon pointed out. Fields started as a model, then actress and now she’s directing, taking what she knows and using it to develop her career further.
Diligence is important, says Elon. You have to care about your project more than anyone else, and invest in yourself. Be willing to do MORE for your project. If you can afford those Jordans [expensive shoes], you can afford a down payment on a session. To invest in yourself is critical, then others are more likely to invest as well.
Get Your Community Behind You
Elon suggested creative ways to engage your community. If you want to shoot a series at a restaurant, offer to include the location in ‘Special Thanks’ credits or show signage, think of ways to barter. Be ready to do-it-yourself. Consider ways to make yourself ready, she said. Part of packaging is making sure you have professional business cards and headshots, to show versatile looks if you’re a model. Be personable, find a connection with people, study your craft. Successful people know the heads of movie studios and production companies, and they know credits of other people.
Elon suggested being direct and specific in asking for support, “It’s my birthday, no gifts please, I need cash to go to New York for two weeks!” Then budget and put it together, schedule as many meetings as you can while you’re there.
What is meant for you will not pass you by
Elon closed with these words of encouragement. Not every email you send will get a response, not every executive you talk to will be around in a month, you won’t nail every audition and get every part. If that time or project was not right for you, something else is bound to happen if you remain focused and diligent, what is meant for you will not pass you by.
Audition Tips & Singers Workshop
With Stevi Meredith, Personal Artist Manager
Stevi Meredith gave valuable advice in her workshop, here are a few nuggets.
Don’t ask what we’re looking for, ask “What can I give?
This is key, says Meredith. What “we” look for changes all the time, so focus on what makes you special. This is your gift.
The industry is not looking for a mimic, we look for something unique about YOU. We’d rather listen to Beyonce doing Beyonce than to you trying to do Beyonce, she said.
“And don’t ever do a cover of RESPECT,” she advised. “Aretha’s is the iconic version.”
A demo should contain 2 to 3 songs at the most and should match in genre. This begs the question, what kind of artist do you want to be? Songs on the demo (style and genre) must match the artist’s vision of what he or she wants to be and indicate the kind of music the artists wants to sing. All contact information should be on the CD itself, the CD case and embedded on the MP3 sound files.
You will never be a better singer than a person
My favorite piece of advice from Meredith is, “you will never be a better singer than a person, or model, actor, doctor, bookkeeper, etc. And so you need to spend as much time working on yourself as a person as you do as an artist. If you are a lazy person, that ‘lazy’ will show up in your music. If you are a procrastinator, it will show up in your music.”
Know Where You Draw The Line
What will you do to succeed and gain access to your dream? Wrong answer: “I’ll do anything!” Meredith says it’s crucial to know where you draw the line BEFORE you go into the audition. You might have to be ready to say “no.” You have to have a belief system to be in this business, says Meredith, because the business can eat you alive. It helps to believe in something bigger, and at the end of that day you need something to hold on to. You have to have confidence in yourself.
Don’t ask what we want. What can you give? What makes you unique?
The 5 Ps: Proper preparation prevents poor performance
For your demo, submit what you practiced. Your body has kinesthetic and muscle memory, this will help greatly during an audition.
Another essential tool is a 1-minute monologue about yourself. “So when I say ‘tell me about yourself’ you have something to say,” say Meredith. This is something you have to practice, in connection with the thing you’re trying to do. For example, “I live here in Bahamas, I’d love to travel to the US. I just recorded a demo, may I give you a copy? I just won a school talent contest and would like to record an album.”This will change when you have new or more important things to say about yourself. We want to see your passion and energy when you tell us about yourself!
The Artist’s Journey
No matter where you think you are in your journey, there is always someone farther away with more obstacles and still trying to make it. You never give up. We look for passion… And there is always someone with more determination too which is why you have to up the ante to succeed.
Advice For Pre-Teen Singers
Keep growing, there is not a place for everyone who is 10 in the business, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be ready when it’s your turn. Most people fail because get out of the business before it’s their turn. It’s like the lottery, you can’t win unless you play. Keep preparing and make sure you’re ready when it’s your turn. You don’t always have time to get ready so you just have to BE ready, says Meredith.
And the most important thing of all for singers, soundcheck!
Bahamian Performing Rights Organization
One important step to giving Bahamians greater control over their musical destinies would be to perform their own performing rights organization. As of now, the islands are regulated by the British PRS. Currently, songwriters and publishers register with PRS and then with partner PROs in other countries. This would make the Bahamas more viable as a music market, from which so much incredible music has come: rake ‘n’ scrape, soca, calypso, steel drums, reggae and more.
We had a taste of the islands mid-week when we were taken to a neighborhood in the central part of the island. We were dropped off at an outdoor area with a basketball court and bleachers. A make-shift canteen had been set up to sell alcohol and fritters, fried on the spot by a lady who used to be the girlfriend of Donnie Scantz’s father (we learned later).
Junkanoo is like a Bahamian version of Mardi Gras, a Bahamian street parade with music, dance and costumes held every Boxing Day (December 26th) and again on New Year’s Day. The largest Junkanoo parade happens in the capital of New Providence, with smaller parades on the other Bahamian Islands known as the Family Islands. Preparations begin mid-year, with rehearsals twice a week leading up to the event. Our guide, Jerome Sawyer of J. Sawyer & Associates, reported that every year crime drops precipitously when Junkanoo preparations are in full swing, as those who might ordinarily be idle or engaged in illegal activities are working side by side with businessmen, lawyers, doctors, mothers, teachers and people from every strata of society to create elaborate costumes and rehearse their music.
Junkanoo got its start in 1838 when slaves were freed, and wild celebration and incredible rhythms exploded onto the streets. We witnessed over 200 people in loose marching band formation tearing it up on a hot night in that little neighborhood! They started with a few brass instruments and a John Williams theme, the brass, with more brass (tubas, trombones, trumpets and flugels) layering in and belting out a fanfare, building slowly until the drums joined in.
The drums, the drums! And the rhythm! Every person in our large party was dancing, gyrating and generally leaping about, including me! The scene and the music was breathtaking.
The drums anchor the ensemble. These are handmade and fashioned from scrap and old metal garbage cans with goat skin stretched tightly across the mouths (see photos). These are slung over the shoulder with homemade harnesses. A bandleader walked around the basketball court occasionally blowing a whistle or shouting unintelligible instructions to the musicians who stood in loose formation, rocking from side to side in unison with the incredible rhythms. Sweat poured down their faces and shirtless bodies of the male musicians, especially the drummers who thrilled at the banging of their instruments as if their lives depended on it. This went on for over an hour before we left, and continued even after our departure. The incredible rhythms consumed the entire neighborhood and the exuberance of the music makers was infectious. I plan to return to The Bahamas on Boxing Day – if a mere rehearsal is this thrilling, I want to see the final performance live.
Artists I Met
I enjoyed meeting many artists, including Catriona “Cat” Lake from Anguilla who has written over 200 songs, mostly soul, neo-soul and jazz. Julien “Believe” Thompson from Nassau is also a prolific writer (over 200 songs) and is building a fan base performing in Los Angeles and New York.
Island MMTS: Artist Development Platform & Springboard For Caribbean Talent
At the opening press conference, Rolle explained her vision for the conference and the shyness of many Caribbeans, “we think we’re good but we’re not sure.” Encouragement and validation from international industry professionals and talent judges means a lot, said Rolle.
By the end of the conference, we’d seen plenty of real talent and star quality. The other judges and I had dispensed many hours of one-on-one mentoring, practical advice and encouragement, and we’ve all taken a real interest in the bright futures of the contestants.
And so the inaugural Island MMTS conference was a major success by any standard and delivered more than I expected, especially for a first-time conference. Pia Rolle and her project, Island MMTS, are positioned to become an important artist development platform and springboard for Caribbean talent into the world. We will welcome them with open arms, and look forward to helping to spread their talent through the Islands, and grow it in the US and around the world.
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