VP Records sails to new Territory
DANCEHALL music and VP Records have been synonymous for the past 20 years. The Queens, New York independent label helped introduce reggae's flamboyant derivative to the American mainstream, but recently the company has extended its boundaries.
Aaron Talbert, its vice-president of sales and marketing, described 2013 as a "transitional year" for VP. He said the label is moving outside its dancehall base by signing non-Jamaican acts and looking to break in emerging markets like Brazil and the Pacific.
The year's commercial achievement was a gold plaque presented to singer Gyptian for his song Hold Yuh which VP released in 2010. It was certified by the Recording Industry Association of America in July.
Talbert says the success of Hold Yuh shows VP still has what it takes to sell Jamaican acts in a marketplace that has seemingly shut its doors on dancehall/reggae music.
"It's a reinforcement of us being current in terms of the market and that we can still deliver in that market. Like every record company, we've had to come up with new ideas to be competitive," he told the Sunday Observer.
Gyptian's new album, Sex, Love and Reggae is scheduled to be released October 29 and VP is again banking on songs from it to make the main Billboard charts. Talbert says big things are also expected for Sound The System, the album from Italian singer Alborosie, which was released in September.
Another of VP's touted projects this year was Better Tomorrow, the third album from soul-reggae singer Etana. There was much pre-release buzz in Caribbean and mainstream media in the US, but that was never sustained.
Recently, Etana expressed dissatisfaction with VP's promotion of Better Tomorrow and says she plans to leave the company after her next album. While not commenting on those pronouncements, Talbert acknowledged her disappointment.
"It (Better Tomorrow) didn't live up to expectations. It just didn't perform as we hoped."
What performed well were the Reggae Gold dancehall compilations that first earned VP a foothold in the US urban scene during the early 1990s. It set the pace for a golden run throughout that decade when dancehall was consumed by hip-hop and pop fans.
Most major labels in the US had a dancehall act on their roster and consulted VP to help introduce them to the mainstream. It paid off for all concerned and by the dawn of the new century, VP was recognised by most majors as the go-to 'indie'. They worked with Atlantic Records on Dutty Rock, Sean Paul's multi-platinum 2002 album, and assembled a formidable catalogue by Beres Hammond, its flagship artiste.
Talbert notes changing trends have contributed to a recent drop in dancehall music sales. Not as many urban radio stations are in tune with the sound as 10 years ago and, with the exception of Hold Yuh, there have not been many hits with the transition from compact disc to digital download.
Music producer Gussie Clarke was a major player in the 1990s dancehall blitz. He spoke to the Observer about the new VP thrust.
"The truth is, if they are not careful they will become obsolete, just like many independent companies. They are trying to expand outside of Jamaica and that's understandable," said Clarke. "What people have to realise is, it's not just about making reggae music anymore. It's about making good reggae music or people not going to buy it."
An area VP is looking to capitalise on is the Pacific Rim, arguably the most vibrant market for reggae. They have a distribution deal with Katchafire, a New Zealand band whose Best So Far compilation album the company released this year.
"We've had great sales with it, it's the first time people have been able to get a view of who the band is. In terms of new markets, we've had great success in Hawaii with that record," he said.
Katchafire has done well on the US west coast and Brazil, where VP recently opened an office. Etana and Alborosie have also performed in the South American country which has a diverse reggae scene.
The Sicily-born Alborosie has established a large following in Europe and Latin America through constant touring. However, Talbert says he is yet to make a mark in the world's largest market.
"He has very broad appeal but we'd like to spread him to the US in the new year," he said.
VP has not cut its ties with Jamaican and Caribbean artistes. Albums by lovers' rock singer Christopher Martin and Trinidadian soca star Bunji Garlin are among its 2014 first-quarter releases.