Why Dancehall Acts and Major American Record Labels May Need a Different Tune

For some time now, major American record labels have been signing dancehall acts, a trend that has generated both interest and concern within the music industry. Prominent Jamaican-born artists like Teejay, Byron Messia, and Masicka have recently been snapped up by Warner Music Group, Interscope, and Def Jam respectively, marking a resurgence of interest in the dancehall genre. But, as more dancehall acts get signed to these major labels, it’s becoming clear that the reality of achieving sustained commercial success is a complex equation, and one that isn’t always solved by signing on the dotted line.

A Resurgence of Interest, But to What End?

Label interest in dancehall is not new. But, the recent flurry of signings, particularly those without a track record of major hits before inking the deal, is raising eyebrows. The shift towards embracing this new sound from Jamaica has been described by industry figures such as Guy Moot, co-chair and CEO of Warner Chappell Music, as a move to combat a “stagnant phase” in the reggae and dancehall genres. Moot, and others, argue that these fresh acts are reinvigorating the scene, especially among young American audiences.

But is this resurgence in label interest delivering the desired outcomes for the artists themselves? The jury, it seems, is still out.

A Mixed Bag of Outcomes

Take Shenseea for example, the dancehall act who signed to Interscope Records, her debut album ‘Alpha’ posted the best first-week numbers for a reggae/dancehall album since Popcaan’s ‘FIXTAPE’ in 2020. Yet, despite such initial success, the album failed to take off in the mainstream market.

Charly Black, Kranium, and Gyptian also had initial success before signing to major labels. However, each subsequently expressed dissatisfaction with their label experiences. Reasons cited range from disagreements about creative direction, mismanagement, and delayed releases. All of these factors have left these artists, and observers, questioning the effectiveness and value of such label deals.

Examining The Alternatives

The experiences of Spice and Popcaan offer a contrasting perspective. These dancehall artists have seen greater international success, despite not being signed to a major label or having a crossover hit. Popcaan, signed to Drake’s OVO label, has racked up Billboard charting singles independently.

Also, let’s consider Skillibeng, a rising dancehall artist who recently signed with RCA Records and Eastsyde Records. Like the others mentioned, he did not have a significant hit before signing. The success of his deal remains to be seen.

Conclusion: Independence or Interference?

Signing with a major label brings undeniable benefits. It offers increased visibility, support, and potentially lucrative financial deals. However, recent experiences suggest that such contracts can become double-edged swords, particularly for dancehall acts. Artists may face creative restrictions, mismanagement, and a lack of understanding about the dancehall culture and how to market it.

In light of these experiences, it is worth questioning whether remaining independent, as Spice and Popcaan have done, might be a better path for many dancehall artists. As the music industry continues to evolve, the most successful route may involve leveraging the reach and resources of the major labels while maintaining creative control and a deep connection with their music and cultural roots.

One thing is clear: major labels are keen to tap into the dancehall resurgence. However, if they want to create enduring success with these artists, they will need to do more than just sign them. They must understand the genre, respect its culture, and work with artists to develop strategies that support their careers.