Jamaica’s Rebel Salute and Jazz & Blues Festivals Thrive Despite Dwindling Corporate Sponsorship
Rebel Salute

Although fundamentally different in their concepts, two recently concluded music festivals, held in Jamaica just five days apart, drew sizable crowds despite waning corporate sponsorship.

Rebel Salute is the Caribbean's largest showcase of roots reggae and culturally themed dancehall and attracted some 20,000 patrons, according to the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB).  Rebel Salute celebrated its 20th anniversary this year by expanding to two nights (Jan. 18-19) and moving to a new home, the spacious Richmond Estate in Priory, St Ann, close to the resort town of Ocho Rios. Here, x-rated and violent song lyrics are forbidden, says veteran Rastafarian sing-jay Tony Rebel, who promotes the show through his Organic H.E.A.R.T. group of companies.

The festival's lineup featured 40 seasoned, contemporary and upcoming reggae acts including the soulful  Beres Hammond,  fiery sing-jay Sizzla Kalongi, veteran dancehall artist Louie Culture, and British reggae group Aswad. In a triumphant return to Jamaica after a 23-year absence, Aswad earned accolades from Rebel Salute’s predominantly Jamaican audience that also included visitors from the Caribbean, Europe and the US.

While its name suggests otherwise, the 17-year-old Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival held Jan. 24-26 at the Greenfield Stadium in Trelawny, approximately 40 minutes outside of Montego Bay, was devoid of blues and light on jazz. Instead, its already proven eclectic mix of pop, R&B and reggae attracted 22,000 patrons over three nights, according to the JTB. The returning headliners included John Legend, Dionne Warwick, Michael Bolton, veteran band Third World (who celebratied their 40th anniversary this year) and a transformative set by 22-year old Jamaican singer Romain Virgo who has matured into a consummate festival headliner.

The JTB champions the two festivals as effective tourism vehicles, lending financial support and marketing expertise to promote the festivals beyond Jamaica's shores. "Through an extensive network of agents, tour operators and the entire travel trade, we spread the news about them while engaging media in the lead-up to promote their respective lineups," JTB Deputy Director Jason Hall explained to Billboard.biz in his Kingston office.

This year the JTB contributed their greatest support to date to Rebel Salute, $60,000, an increase from the $46,000 given in 2012; conversely, their sponsorship of Jazz and Blues, at $100,000, is less than half of last year's $250,000. Sponsorship, says Hall, is based on the PR and marketing plans presented, as determined by the JTB's Board of Directors. "Jazz and Blues submitted a more sophisticated proposal, so we worked with the Rebel Salute organizers to enhance their proposal and capture a valid PR marketing strategy, then arrived at a level commensurate with what they presented. Due to financial challenges sponsorship was reduced for Jazz and Blues but, recognizing that Rebel Salute has an expanded format in a new location, we increased their sponsorship to ensure the organizers attain the event's full potential."

Tony Rebel says the cost of staging Rebel Salute is JA $40 million ($425,000). He maintains his sponsors, including Grace Foods, CVM Television, and IRIE FM radio should increase their support, reflective of Rebel Salute's significance within Jamaica's tourism product. "Some brand managers don't understand that many foreigners come here just for the positive, indigenous Jamaican music we present, and that greater support will bring a reciprocal, beneficial relationship," asserts Rebel, whose greatest commercial success, 1994's "Weekend Love" featuring Queen Latifah, reached no. 29 on the R&B Singles chart.

Initially staged in January 1994 as Rebel's birthday celebration, and the following year to honor his close friend, beloved singer Garnet Silk, who died in December 1994 at the age of 27 following an explosion at his mother's home, Rebel Salute adheres to the Rastafarian tenet forbidding alcohol and meat consumption. Prohibiting the sale of those items (although they can be purchased from numerous vendors lining the venue's perimeter) further constrains Rebel's sponsorship options. "Rum and beer companies have made sponsorship offers but I won't allow it; 2.5 million people die from alcohol each year," Rebel claims, "why should we support that?"

Operating expenses for the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival were approximately $1.5 million, about half of the cost of 2012, which boasted Celine Dion as the marquee act. The festival's other major sponsor, Flow Telecommunications, decreased its funding but increased its "investment in services including more broadband internet support enabling the production of the festival," noted Michelle English, COO for Flow, Jamaica. With diminished revenue from major sponsors and the decline in hotel rooms made available at a decreased cost, Walter Elmore, CEO of Art Of Music Productions, Jazz and Blues' producers, contemplated cancelling this year's staging. "Then, just 6 weeks before the show we said, let's do it," Elmore explained in an interview at the luxurious Gran Bahia Principe Hotel in Runaway Bay, which donated five rooms to the festival. "We focused our marketing on Facebook and email blasts of video clips from previous years, and heavily marketed in Canada, online and with radio and print ads because several flights come into Jamaica from Canada. Online ticket sales primarily came from Canada, the UK, the Caribbean and Central and South America; people want Jazz and Blues to continue, so it's our job is to provide it."

Holding two music festivals less than a week apart in January, the island's peak visitor arrivals season, may not facilitate either event's pursuit of greater sponsorship or audience expansion. "Rebel Salute is lesser-known internationally than Jazz and Blues; although it's Rebel's birthday celebration, he might get more traction by moving it to another time of year," observes Hall.

Some artists also expressed apprehension about performing on two shows held so close together. "I wasn't sure I wanted to perform at Jazz because I was already booked for Rebel Salute but each show presents a different package, and was well attended," commented rapidly rising sing-jay Chronixx who, along with his Zincfence band, debuted at Jazz and Blues this year and appeared at Rebel Salute for the second time/ Chronixx has already seen an spike in bookings due to his double exposure at Jamaica's January festivals. "We were planning a European tour and following these appearances, we received more offers for dates there. I realize my audience isn't just people who were there, but those who read the reviews and watch clips on YouTube, so together, these shows can really expand an artist's fan base."