A cloud over the future of Reggae?

1997 article.

By Howard Campbell

[KINGSTON, JAMAICA] Oct. 12 - More trouble is looming over the future of reggae with yet another major record company raising questions about the ability of the music to be a mass seller in the United States.

Atlantic Records' perceived disappointment with the performance of reggae acts at one of its affiliated labels, is threatening to end the days of reggae at California-based Mesa/Bluemoon Records.

Sluggish sales by current Mesa reggae acts have not impressed marketing executives at Atlantic which will be assuming sole control of Mesa in a matter of months. Atlantic has major shares in the company which was once solely owned by Mesa founder Jim Snowden.

Among the reggae acts presently signed to the Berkley label are veteran British bands Steel Pulse and Aswad, and the highly- thought-of Jamaican group, Mystic Revealers.

In the past, other noted reggae performers like Grammy winners Black Uhuru were signed to Mesa which is primarily known as a distributor of contemporary jazz and blues acts like singer Randy Crawford, trumpeter Rick Braun and guitarist Scott Henderson.

According to Theo Butler, the company's promotions manager, Atlantic executives have not shown any sign that they are willing to give Mesa's reggae personnel any strong support. "It just doesn't seem to me that Atlantic is willing to support this music," said Butler. "I'm not telling any (reggae) artiste to come to Mesa right now."

Founded by Snowden, Mesa was purchased by Atlantic in 1994, acting as its distributor but allowing the company to retain its original staff. In October last year, Atlantic closed several of its smaller companies as part of its scaling down operations. Most of the Mesa staff, including Snowden who had stayed on as interim president, had their jobs terminated.

With Snowden went the hopes of several reggae acts the company had been promoting including Steel Pulse and Revealers.

Interestingly, Steel Pulse was axed by MCA, another major label, last year. Butler says the mood at Mesa is not strong at present. "I'm just an unfortunate survivor of what they've done to our label in the past few years," he said in somber tones. "We used to have our own staff, our own vision. All that's been taken away now."

Mystic Revealers and Steel Pulse are Mesa's latest reggae signings. Steel Pulse, from the West Indian-strong city of Birmingham, built a reputation as one of the most popular roots reggae groups of the 1980s. Early albums like "True Democracy" and "Handsworth Revolution" are considered classics, but they have not had a good track record with major labels. Prior to MCA, they had been dropped by Elektra Records.

Mystic Revealers' work, like Steel Pulse, is heavily influenced by their Rastafarian faith. Previously signed to Washington-based independent RAS Records, their management was hoping that with Atlantic's influence, Mesa would have pushed them to another level.

Both groups recently released albums were their first for Mesa, but according to Butler, Atlantic executives were not impressed with the below par sales of both efforts.

Steel Pulse's "Rage And Fury," considered by many as the 20- year-old British band's strongest album in some time, has sold 35,000 units to date.

Revealers' impressive "This One's For Jah" has not been complemented by its 9,000-unit sales figure.

Considering the present situation, Butler believes it would not be advisable for other reggae performers, like singer Mikey Spice, who was earmarked for a Mesa deal, to pursue negotiations. "I've already told his management that he would be no better off if he was at VP (a New York-based independent label) or RAS," he says. Butler says he will be moving on at the end of the year possibly for a job with Snowden's proposed distribution company. He believes Atlantic's reluctance to spend marketing dollars on reggae is the primary reason for the music being put on the backburner.

That has been the case with reggae and several major labels over the years. With the exception of Shabba Ranks, Shaggy and Mad Cobra, very few reggae acts have crossover appeal. Consequently, record sales in the United States are usually poor. In 1994, several big reggae names were dropped from the rosters of big companies including Columbia Records, Motown, and Capitol, and most of the acts claimed that their product was ignored and badly promoted.

But Butler pointed to another reason why reggae is not likely to flourish under Atlantic: their refusal to collaborate with smaller labels like VP and RAS to work the less lucrative ethnic markets where most reggae performers have strong followings.

"They (Atlantic) don't want to deal with the fundamental things needed to sell this music," Butler charged. "They don't want to sell vinyl, they don't want to deal with VP or RAS."

As bleak a picture as Butler paints, Julius Chin Yee, manager of Mystic Revealers, does not believe Atlantic will turn its back on the four -album deal it has with his group. "Our commitment with them is long-term no matter what happens," said Chin Yee.

Posted: Thu - February 6, 2003 at 05:57 PM