In a year without Carnival, soca artists still made 2020 theirs

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With such a frantic race towards an often limited release window, the cancellation of Carnival coupled with the overall effects of the pandemic saw less new music than usual. Where stars like Montano, Bunji Garlin, Kerwin Du Bois, Nailah Blackman, and Kes would likely have at least a half-dozen singles apiece out by this point in any other year, many of the genre’s biggest players have slowed their output considerably. “By now, I would have 10 to 15 songs [I’ve produced] out, but I only have two,” says Travis World, a Trinidad-based DJ and producer behind some of the biggest soca singles of the last five years, including Wuss Ways’ “Pandemonium” and Lyrikal’s “Zig Zag.” As he continued to make riddims, he noted artists were less motivated to record over them. “This is a job for me, at the end of the day. But, it was also a traumatic experience for the industry, for the world, really,” he says. “I had to understand it from that perspective.”

As New York-based DJ Jel sees it, fans of soca have very different consumption habits than fans of other genres, making it tricky for artists to gauge the right pivot. “Honestly, we’re not streaming the way other genres do. Within our region and in the diaspora, we’re not consuming music the same way,” he says, pointing to the importance of YouTube channels like JuliansPromosTV as a primary platform for new releases, the absence of soca as its own discoverable genre on streaming services, as well as a tendency toward other regional sounds like dancehall once the carnival season is over. “Soca will kind of get its play in Trinidad starting around October, then the radio stations go 100% soca right after Christmas. By Ash Wednesday, everything completely switches to dancehall, reggae, and hip-hop.”

For a loose comparison, consider how Christmas music might feel ubiquitous in November and December, just to be all but wiped from radio programming and promoted playlists by January. For new holiday releases, that fall and winter listenership is critical. In a year where the main event is scrapped, the pay-off for the artist may go with it. “One of my goals is to release a soca riddim on Ash Wednesday,” Travis said. “Just to show people that this is our opportunity to continue after Carnival Monday and Tuesday. That we can continue.”

With many of the genre’s more notable names taking a step back, Jel says emerging artists lead the charge in 2020. “We’re going to start to see a shift in having more catalog from these smaller acts, so GBM Neutron, Ricardo Drue, Erphaan Alves, Voice, Sekon Sta, Adam O from the Virgin Islands,” he says.

For Los Angeles-based producer Kasey Phillips, who works under the name Precision Productions and is responsible for hits like Preedy’s “Yuh Bad,” the slower pace offered artists and producers the chance to do entire campaigns they may normally breeze past. “The slow-down gave me the opportunity to actually focus on a release and put the steam, the money, the power, the marketing behind releases,” he explains. “It’s hard to tell artists to finish a new song with enough time to give it to Spotify four weeks in advance to get it onto some playlists. They’re lucky if they get it two days in advance.” Still, Phillips sees promise in soca fans’ more recent shifts in consumption. “Streaming has picked up a lot of our local music, Trinibad (Trini dancehall) is another huge example of that,” he added. “It’s been getting very strong on the digital side, and I’ve been on that mission over the last five years to help grow that from nothing.”

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