Dousing the Fyre: Successful Caribbean Fest Reps Explain How to Do It Right

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A report by Patricia Meschino for Billboard.

Even the torrential rains and blustery winds that impact the Caribbean during hurricane season could never inflict the severity of brand damage caused by human carelessness at the failed Fyre Festival in the Bahamas. The extensive media coverage of the ill-fated event depicting FEMA-like accommodations, dubious amenities, stranded tourists and unaccountable promoters presents a stark contrast to the thriving music festival circuit that has developed throughout the Caribbean since the 1990s.

The beleaguered dispatches from the Bahamian island of Exuma, Fyre Fest’s proposed location, now form many consumers’ sole impressions of a Caribbean event. Even so, several organizers of successful Caribbean music festivals told Billboard they welcome the attention the Fyre fiasco has brought to the region and its musical options.

“What happened in the Bahamas presents an opportunity to highlight the Caribbean festivals that have properly planned their logistics, studied the carrying capacity of their destination and what their infrastructure can truly accommodate,” comments Colin Piper, CEO and Director of Tourism at the Discover Dominica Authority, organizers of the World Creole Music Festival (WCMF) on the lush eastern Caribbean island of Dominica. Founded as a celebration of local and regional creole (speaking) talent alongside international acts, the WCMF observes its 20th anniversary Oct. 27-29, 2017, at Windsor Park Stadium in the rustic capital Roseau. Last year the WCMF had its biggest audience to date — 20,000 patrons over three nights — for a lineup featuring Akon, Wyclef Jean, Jamaican dancehall star Popcaan and beloved Dominican Creole singer Ophelia Marie. “It’s incumbent on us to ensure that the public knows we have years of experience working with people that are planning well in advance and understand everything that needs to be taken into consideration for a successful festival,” offers Piper.

Many islands in the Caribbean archipelago have developed music festivals as vehicles to increase visitor traffic from April through early December, considered the off-season for the region’s tourism. With an objective of appealing to as wide an audience as possible, the lineups at many of these festivals juxtapose current and vintage pop, R&B, hip-hop and even country acts alongside homegrown stars, predominantly reggae and soca artists. The talent roster at the 21st annual St. Kitts Music Festival (June 22-24, Warner Park Stadium, Basseterre) — Creedence Clearwater RevisitedGoo Goo Dolls and dancehall reggae superstar Shabba Ranks — speaks to that formula. Over the years St. Kitts has presented John Legend, Damian Marley, Lionel Richie and even Fyre Fest’s Ja Rule, but earned its greatest international attention in 2016 when 50 Cent was arrested for indecent language following his performance there.

The Chairman of the St. Kitts Festival Artist Selection Committee, Jonel Powell, notes the festival’s ongoing attention to cornerstone details — proper staging, lighting, sound, adequate bar and food options, security for patrons, etc. — are key to its sustained triumphs. “A proper management team is also needed to deal with artists who can be very demanding, so liaisons backstage are important in making sure the artists put on that fantastic performance that you are paying them so much money to deliver. If the production is not in place, even performances by the best artists will fail,” states Powell.

The majority of Caribbean festivals are held in stadiums or other open-air spaces. That means organizers typically build stages and dressing room facilities, connect lighting and electricity, add in or refine sound systems, and provide restrooms. Most Caribbean fests take care to highlight their respective island’s natural attributes, from local cuisine to regional musical talent. The latter goal figured prominently in the inaugural staging of the Pure Grenada Music Festival (April 5-10, 2016), which featured a night devoted to the island’s veteran calypsonians (Ajamu, Scholar) and vibrant soca stars (Mr. Killa, Tallpree). “Years of planning have gone into the festival by many Grenadians who have moved back to the island from abroad with various skills; the Grenada government and the Grenada Tourism Authority have invested heavily and we have an amazing volunteer committee that has logistically helped us to get things done,” says Arlene Friday, Festival Coordinator, Head of Marketing and PR with the Pure Grenada Music Festival. The festival has scaled back to three nights this year, May 5-7, but has added a second stage to its venue, Port Louis Lawn, situated on the Caribbean Sea with Grenada’s picturesque capital St. George’s in the background. “There will be more music, more local acts, less time in between acts. This year we are offering a wine lounge, a beer garden, so we are upping the bar in terms of talent and the overall festival village experience,” adds Friday.

Working with budgets usually averaging below seven figures (slightly more than what the Fyre Fest promoters reportedly paid models Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner for endorsing their event) Caribbean promoters and event organizers — assisted by committed sponsors, tourist boards and legions of volunteers — have created a flourishing music festival circuit that, especially in light of the Fyre Fest debacle, deserves broader recognition.

“What happened at Fyre Festival comes down to the event’s promoters, not the destination, so we are extra careful to make sure we have our I’s dotted and our T’s crossed in all aspects of our execution,” remarks Kevin Bourke, cofounder with Andrew Christoforou of the first annual Tmrw.Tday Culture Fest (May 17-23) at various venues in Negril, Jamaica. Bourke and Christoforou, who have years of experience with music events and festival promotion, have partnered with the Jamaica Tourist Board, Red Stripe Beer (both sponsors of multiple music events across the island) and recruited Chris Blackwell as Tmrw.Tday’s reggae ambassador. On May 22 at Blackwell’s stunning Negril hotel The Caves, the Island Records founder will host an evening of dub featuring selector Gabre Selassie, renowned for his Sunday night Dub Club sessions in the hills overlooking Jamaica’s capital Kingston. Other events include a performance by sing-jay Protoje (whose politically charged “Blood Money” is one of 2017’s biggest reggae hits) and his band The Indiggnation, with EDM provided by NYC DJs Wolf + Lamb.

“Every festival patron essentially puts their trust in the promoter to curate an experience in whatever genre of music it is,” says Bourke. “We have a very calculated marketing strategy, operational plan and as we head towards the finish line, Fyre Festival has made us determined to show the world that we have the local team and talent to deliver a first class [first time] festival here in Jamaica.”

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