Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Business of Tech and the Sound System

(First published in the Business section of the Jamaica Monitor July 25, 2021)

A few days ago, we saw the conclusion of the seventh Sound System Outernational (SSO) academic conference, titled Sound Systems at the Crossroads. Owing to Covid-19 this staging of the conference ran for six days online. This is a project of the University of London’s Goldsmiths College, headed up by one of my former graduate work supervisors, Professor Julian Henriques. Imagine that though, a full-blown sound system conference with academic presentations, documentaries and film shorts, and sound system sessions with DJs and sounds from Brazil, Mexico, Columbia, South Africa, Italy, the UK, and more. Is there anyone missing? Jamaica was front and center for sure, but again it was about paying respects for its gifts, not about anything of economic or financial significance. 

Image Source: Sound System Festival Instagram

Professor Carolyn Cooper did a very good write-up ahead of the conference in an article titled, "University of London promoting sound systems" in The Jamaica Gleaner that I recommend you read. Her argument sheds some light on why all this global respect, admiration, and imitation of the economic (for non-Jamaicans) and cultural force that is Jamaica fails to translate to more than big-ups. She pointed out that, "the Jamaican elite devalue the mother language of the majority of citizens in much the same way that they diss sound systems. I suppose we need a Jamaican Language Outernational project, supported by a foreign university, to force us to honour fi wi culture, fi wi knowledge an fi wi identity." In other words, we strongly dislike who and what a majority of us are, and we want to sanitize ourselves. "Elite" as referred to by prof Cooper should not be read to mean descendants of those who use to rule. Today, many of them look like those who were enslaved because it is not purely about color, rather it is a way of thinking. 

One of the benefits of having lived outside of Jamaica is you develop a comparative lens through which you begin to examine your present and past lived experiences. It is an immensely valuable tool. I am a big advocate of traveling as a part of an overall education process. Not only is it about seeing how other people do things, but it is also about learning to appreciate what you have. Many life expressions from Jamaica, namely, reggae, dancehall, dub, ska, the sound system, Patwa, Garveyite and Rastafari philosophy, food, and so on have become the “luxury” good, the aspirational product or brand, the Gucci, the Louis Vuitton, the Range Rover, Mercedes Benz, etcetera of world popular culture. If only we truly understood this. 

I see that this past week the government showcased some Jamaicans in the business of technology, which is a worthy project, but I couldn’t but wonder if we aren’t losing a massive opportunity to play to our own strengths in technology by launching from a base of our innovations in sound system technology. The sound system is a product of modern electronic technology, developed on the island of Jamaica. The study and mastery of sonic and related entertainment technology are not fields we would be woefully ill-equipped for. We have been unrivaled authorities to some extent, though we may be losing that authority. 

Image Source: Sound System Addict Instagram

In my conversation with prof Cooper ahead of the keynote presentation that she delivered at the SSO conference I raised some points that she picked up on. I told her that I think one goal of Jamaican music entrepreneurs in this new era should be scaling the sound system segment of our culture as businesses beyond the individual or small group into streamlined manufacturing operations. These operators should be holding trademarks for sound system brands and marketing merchandise, and, also holding patents as pertains to the creation and manufacturing know-how of sound systems. We should aim to have a vibrant global operation to build and consult on building and operating sound systems as streamlined operations. 

These are the demands of the modern world for which we must prepare physicists, sound engineers, industrial designers, marketing managers, and business leaders. Recall Patricia Meschino’s article "Check out the real situation: Charting reggae's vast influence", published in The Jamaica Observer on April 18, 2021, in which she argued that Jamaica should embrace technology and other sectors in the country to monetize Jamaica’s vast music influence, and I am in agreement with her. To date, we have been using an outlook that has not facilitated a more seamless integration into a globally integrated capitalist economic structure on our own terms and I fear we are now experiencing the consequences. 

Unfortunately for us, it appears that we are blind to this world of our technological genius and are sadly consumed by what David Schwartz in his book, The Magic of Thinking Big, describes as a “greed that is blind to the how of making money.” To explain, it is a greed that is in the perpetual pursuit of money but lacks the higher understanding of how the system works, a lack of understanding that meaningful economic wealth comes from a full embrace of yourself, your identity, and your humanity. Learn to embrace your culture and what you have here at home and the wealth you so desperately seek will find its way to you naturally. 

Kam-Au Amen has several years of combined industry experience across the areas of business management, brand licensing, media production, and eCommerce. He is a researcher of African and Caribbean entertainment and cultural enterprise management and is a former Deputy Director of Culture in the Ministry of Culture, Jamaica. He has also served as a member of the Entertainment Advisory Board. He is the conceptualizer and first coordinator of the pioneering BA in Entertainment and Cultural Enterprise Management at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona.