When steel whispers

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Above: There are fans and then there are pan supporters. Which band in the world has an audience that acts as its road crew? Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth 759 for November 30, 2010

Invited, at quite short notice, to offer a talk to steelband leaders on November 20 the challenge proved not to be what to say to these pannists but what to tell them that stuck to the topic.
There have been several instalments of BitDepth that explored pan and Carnival in the 21st century and few of them have been celebratory of the state of affairs that prevails today.

Here’s something you can do. Fire up Google and run a search for “steelband” and “steelband news,” but prepare to be as surprised as I was.
On the holy grail of online search, the first page that’s returned when a general search is executed, there are no references at all to any steelband operating in Trinidad and Tobago.

The search on steelband news begins, deservedly, with the website When Steel Talks (panonthenet.com), a key resource for steelband reporting on the web. The other search results for both terms do turn up steelbands, it’s just that none of them are from the country of the instrument’s birth.
While this is disturbing, there are some upsides. For one, steelbands in Trinidad and Tobago have an opportunity to create the kind of focused, planned strategy that can change the perception of the movement on the web in short order.

Instead of a smattering of haphazard, unevenly produced websites and a scattershot effort at uploading a few albums, it’s now possible to skip the whole process of 1990’s and early 21st century web development and asset deployment to leverage today’s remarkable solutions.

One question that arose at the talk was the challenge of finding steelband music on online music download websites, particularly since the albums that are available get lumped into the world music category.

At least part of the reason is that there are so few albums available at all. On the major legal music download sites, most of the steelband music is available as the kind of collections that are great for the curious but offer little for collectors.

Even TrinidadTunes.com (website currently inactive), the local online music downloads store has just seven albums that show up in a search for “steelband.”
If local steelbands got together to offer legal music download websites a strong collection of recorded music, getting the word steelband included in their genre lists would probably be a much easier sell, but that’s not the immediate problem.

What’s stalling local steelband marketing on the web is not just a lack of presence and pathetic search engine optimisation for what’s there right now, it’s the lack of interest in winning attention for the music online.
On the web, attention is the primary currency. Without it, there are no music sales, no bookings and no income.

For too long, steelband has trundled along on powered by a powerful and rich legacy, but the evidence of a simple Internet search suggests that history and resonance remain parochial. This is treasure that is not just buried, all the maps on the web lead elsewhere.

So what’s to be done?
Steelbands need to define clear identities, rich selling propositions for their brands and share those stories individually on the web. It’s quite simple. Being good in this country isn’t the same thing as being good in the world.

Collectively, there needs to be a revolution in promoting the music. Bands like Radiohead and NIN have proven that free distributions of music can generate attention currency and Phish has made a career out of selling affordably priced board recordings of its concerts alongside its formal studio output.

There’s a rich market for the kind of individuality that’s lubricated product sampling and streamed performance among the audiences for music today.
It’s time that the steelbands of Trinidad and Tobago stop being a noble, hardworking secret kept from the rest of the world.