Modernization of the Cuban music industry, between determination and urgency
I heard for the first time about the "Mincult-Onudi-Koica Project: Strengthening the Competitiveness, Organizational Performance and Export Capacity of the Cuban Music Industry" in one of the AM-PM pitching sessions "America for its Music".
Since then I have followed in the footsteps of one of the most ambitious bets that the Cuban cultural sector has collected in recent years. With some frequency, I tried to catch up with its development through its National Coordinator Yolaida Duharte. When I learned in 2019 that its closing stage was approaching, I decided that it was time to formally sit down to talk about what those last three years of execution had been, what is the real impact that the work of that team led by Mario Escalona has left , director of the Egrem and appointed National Director of the project, if they had managed to move the fence a little or if he had stayed in another project with a bombastic title.
Before talking about the project as such, I would like to put your participation in context a little. How do you get to it?
I studied Sociology at the University of Havana, and I was linked from the beginning to issues related to participation and cultural processes around development. I have always been interested in research being practical; Of course, theoretical scaffolding is essential, but I am interested in what I produce giving tools to the other to transform their environment.
When I graduated I went to work at the Cuban Institute of Cultural Research "Juan Marinello", where for four years I was from the Group of Participation and Cultural Consumption. One day, by chance of life, at a concert in the Cuba Pavilion with a group of friends we started to discuss work issues. Then they told me about a collaboration project between the Cuban Ministry of Culture (Mincult) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), aimed at strengthening the music industry, which was about to start and that they were assembling the national coordination team to manage it. Specifically they were looking for someone young, who came from the world of cultural research and some experience in project management. From there came a direct proposal to work on it.
I consulted him with the pillow - and the closest friends, colleagues and family - and decided to accept the position. Honestly I found it novel, transformative; I had that vision that I was exactly looking for in applied research, with concrete actions that were going to be developed alongside or as a result of that research and, of course, I was going to be able to delve into a very specific topic in which there was already one in which I had already been interested and approached before, that of the cultural industries. That's how I got to the project, in October 2016.
In the most succinct way, if you had to explain to someone who has no idea what we are talking about, what is the project?
It is an international cooperation project with funds from the Korean International Cooperation Agency (Koica), managed by an international organization (in this case Onudi) and whose national counterpart is the Ministry of Culture.
What she seeks, as the name suggests, is to strengthen the music industry. Benefit the different processes of the wide range that it includes and achieve a little impact on each of them, but above all articulate these processes.
The idea was to identify weaknesses and potentials of the industry and think about what was the strategic way to favor it; See how, with the funds that the project had, it could be transformed from a qualitative and quantitative point of view, either by equipping the industry with equipment and technology, until the training of specialized personnel and the articulation of those actors that I already mentioned, which is one of the most
We spent two years creating training spaces for our specialists, not only to receive the information and take it away, but to design actions based on the tools or content received then measure the impact of those actions.
Coordinamos talleres de formación y consultorías a empresas a todo lo largo y ancho del país; trajimos a un grupo de expertos del sector que desde el principio propiciaron que las entidades y actores participantes se estudiaran o pensaran a sí mismos. En esas consultorías abordaron el quehacer de las empresas en su integralidad, generando o reformulando una serie de informaciones —económicas, de recursos humanos, etcétera— y a relacionarlas entre sí; esto luego se devolvía en el taller con propuestas de cómo hacer una empresa más eficiente, lo mismo gestionando fondos de movilidad para capacitar el personal que creando departamentos nuevos, ajustados a estos tiempos.
This dynamic forced companies to work continuously on this basis, because a year after the workshop we had a session with them to see how they had really implemented what was proposed, whether the exercise mobilized them or was really beneficial.
Luckily, and I do not think that by chance, it began to be seen in other settings of the Ministry of Culture itself that there was a harmony or link with what was being done as a project, consistent with this effort or idea that was born and implemented from there same, with the participation of the institutions and actors of the sector in general.
The transformation is not yet absolute, of course, but now you observe directors of the Ministry and of the country, in certain decision-making spaces, speaking and acting according to the cultural industries, following this approach, which also demands to continue its deepening according to the particularities of the Cuban context.
At a global level, these transformations - more periodic, less abrupt - are driven by the music industry itself, by the necessary readjustments of that business to stay alive. In the Cuban case, where does the motivation come from? Was it a proposition by Onudi, was it the Mincult who sought him out?
The United Nations organizations are dedicated to accompanying the governments of each country in matters that the latter identify as having priority or impact on their economic and social development, taking advantage of the expertise and international network on the issue that concerns each organization. This follows from a joint work agreement signed by the parties, called the “Programa País”, which is made up of projects that cover these strategic sectors, with well-marked objectives, results and actions during its execution period.
Así fue en el caso de este primer proyecto conjunto entre el Mincult y la Onudi. Aunque existen otros proyectos en el mundo que acompaña esta organización en materia de industrias culturales y creativas —joyería, moda o tejidos—, es el primero en el que abarca a la industria musical, diferente además a los enfoques más tradicionales de la visión «industrial» y «cadena de valor». Y es que en Cuba la música es un sector de gran expansión e impacto social, cultural y económico.
The potential of music in the country is very evident, but at the same time the weaknesses it has in its industry are evident. And the research that preceded us in the field of cultural economics - from renowned academics such as Dr. Tania García, Dr. Idalia Romero or Dr. Johannes Abreu - showed that it was an interesting and important market, that it could and should be transform, for the better use and development of itself and the country.
This was how the idea of the project came up and its joint preparation was started for the subsequent search for funds, which was finally successful, obtaining the support of the Korean agency.
At some point you mentioned to me that the project evolved ...
The general objectives and results remain the same as those originally stated, but along the way we modified certain actions. For example, in the technological aspect, associated with supporting improvements for music production in the country. Initially there was talk of acquiring remote studios for live performances and servicing concerts and festivals. But it turns out that, in the analysis with the record labels that would be the main beneficiaries, we noticed that there was a fundamental problem and as high priority as this, which was the obsolescence of the technology of our recording studios (we are talking about studios with high demand and with more than 20, 30, 40 years of exploitation).
Entonces dijimos, bueno, aquí hay un asunto importante: la actualización tecnológica de los estudios tendría un impacto transformador para la industria. Pero lo más novedoso e interesante de todo fue el resultado el pensamiento colectivo: «vamos a pensar como industria y no de manera individual; vamos a pensar cómo diversificamos y se complementan los servicios que ofrecen estos estudios de grabación”.
Specifically, we provided Colibrí with a mobile studio to record outdoors, we managed to provide Egrem with a state-of-the-art console at the Areito Studios and Abdala today has two workstations for the restoration and digitization of sound files, as well as a renovation integral to Bis Music's Eusebio Delfín studio in Cienfuegos, something that has particularly benefited artists from the center and east of the country.
Another of the results not initially planned was the information and analysis system that we have generated. It started from a necessity, because it was necessary to do all the previous investigative work on the current state of the industry in order to decide what to transform.
Initially, the idea was to create a basic tool to know what the state of the industry was and, based on that, design the initial workshops. Along the way we realized that we needed a more complete product than a music diagnosis or survey; We needed a product that was sustainable and useful over time, something that a cooperation project will always require, which is a boost with finite funds but in which the actions that result must have an impact over time [in the industry].
Information and project personnel were also contributed for the preparation in 2019 of the dossier that would nominate Havana within the Unesco Creative Cities Network, a global network that groups cities that make creativity visible as a strategic factor of development. Fortunately, it was declared that same year to the Cuban capital as a Creative City of Music, signifying, of course, a recognition of the musical potential and infrastructure generated for its extension in the territory, but also a strong commitment to continue working in that sense and take advantage of even more the installed capacities depending on the own development of the city and its population.
At this closing stage, what do you feel you have accomplished (and what you have not)?
The first result or achievement is something I have mentioned at various times, positioning a topic in a setting in which it did not have all the hierarchy or all the comprehensive vision it deserves. We are neither the first nor the only ones that are investigating this matter, but we are pleased to see how in decision-making spaces people are speaking in other terms, other interests and other relationships are being inserted, when before trying to push these issues almost what was sticking against the wall, it just wasn't talked about.
On the other hand, we feel that the project has served to promote the idea (even beyond the music sector) that work in the industry must be modernized. Now we see that there is talk of how to draw the value chain and, consequently, how to articulate with sectors, how to open up to other contexts and actors that are part of the industry. When you trace that value chain to have a comprehensive vision, you cannot be left alone with what you generate as a state structure, you have to really integrate and make visible all the actors that participate and contribute there.
In this same sense, we have promoted that articulation that I mentioned, we have promoted the integration of the different actors and that they feel to think about how to change the chip, how to create new terms and new dimensions of work. There it is in the example of copyright, which we have the challenge of giving all the real and transversal weight it has within the industry, that is taken into account and is related to all the parties with which it may be involved and today lacks an update of all associated legal and technological scaffolding
Another result is the contribution from the research point of view, the generation of informative and analytical materials, such as the diagnosis of the industry that we carried out in 2017. In it we exposed the potentialities and weaknesses of the sector, and served as the basis for the subsequent process of seating the parties and generating a strategic vision. This allowed us to overcome the lack of clearly designed policies for the music industry as a whole, with a comprehensive vision, independent of programs and projects focused on specific genres or activities within the sector. A policy or program that sets out what the benchmark is, what is being proposed and how it will be achieved, taking into account own resources and those that can be managed. All those letters were put on the table and we began to project in the short and medium term how to proceed, and in this strategic design all the entities and actors that make up the project participated: record companies, music and technology companies, management companies, Cuban Institute of Music, Collaboration and Research Centers and, of course, the specialists, artists and promoters who integrate or produce them as a sector.
In relation to the technological and training component, there is the update of the studies that I already mentioned, but also what we call exploratory or exchange missions, to make our artists and specialists visible on international stages, as well as training and reflecting on how this sector works. Internationally, the dynamics of the industry and the opportunities for new alliances that are generated in them.
If you do not go and do not touch these spaces with your hand, if you do not exchange, you will not know how that world moves, that is why the project allocated funds to participate in international festivals and fairs, and in the same way brought certain experts to Cuba to generate training and negotiation spaces. And it is that the project also contributed during its three years of execution to the management and organization of national festivals such as Cubadisco and Primera Línea, supporting the production of shows, design and production of promotional works, generation of digital voting tools and the participation of programmers, experts and international bands on the Cuban stage.
In the results there is a third component associated with generating an industry brand and marketing strategy.
One of the biggest weaknesses in the music industry detected was the lack of positioning of our products internationally. When we go abroad we see that the Cuban music industry is quite fragmented: either an artist brand or a company brand, there is no real integration as a country brand. So we decided to see how we can insert ourselves into this scenario and also how, internally, we develop better marketing strategies.
After intense work with professionals in the sector, and with national and foreign experts, we have managed to design a brand and marketing strategy, with areas of conflict and power identified, as well as concrete actions that in the short, medium and long term they can integrate impact efforts for the internationalization of Cuban music.
Despite the fact that the industry has the hardest earned: that there is already an established imagination of what Cuban music is, the difficult thing is when you have to build a brand in which, in addition, you have to sell people the concept itself of the product.
That was precisely the starting point: we have won a stretch, the “Cuban music” brand exists, it is more than recognized, what happens is that there is no integrated vision. We then try to propose concrete actions for the commercialization of this music, tools that exist in the world —as can be the export offices, for example—, but which are newly implemented here (at least in the state sector), always putting in the balance the cultural and commercial weight of the same.
There in that same component of commercialization is the creation of a digital music platform [still in production], which is connected to a series of national efforts that were scattered, and what we did was integrate the needs of the industry itself .
It is a platform designed for the Cuban context, which provides the population with content ranging from information on artist and festival performances, to the commercialization of music in digital format. Finally, Artex will be the company in charge of integrating all this, and we as a project are supporting the purchase of the technological equipment that would support the platform, as well as the training of specialists in topics such as programming oriented to this type of services. Along the way, we have dealt with all those dialogues between companies and diverse sectors, which have to discuss issues of tariffs, copyright, costs, and distribution of benefits, but we are coming.
In relation to what we have not achieved, there is still a need for greater and more effective articulation among the industry players, there are spaces in which we could not get into everything we would have liked. The project rolled out a few things, but more funds must be sought and managed (both through possible trade and cooperation agreements) to delve into several of the proposals that we have promoted, and the institutions must take responsibility for managing those searches for money.
Three years after the project started, already in its closing stage, do you feel optimistic? Do you think the Cuban music industry is in a better place than when they started?
If your question is that closed, I'd say yes, it's in a better place. Obviously it is not the optimal place, we all know that, but I do believe that it is in a better capacity for evaluation and reception and development of the transformation.
The same people and actors in the industry, who at one time were estranged or absent from dialogue, are now part of the dynamic promoted by the project, had to grow together with it. We opened a gap, today the mind is more open to transformation, we gave importance to other actors and other ways of articulation; Although I believe that this issue still needs to appear even more on the agenda of decision-makers and that certain spaces that occur naturally take advantage of it.
As an industry we are in a better context, not economic but we do have opportunities to act and make this action more participatory, with the leading role even of other actors, taking into account the very heterogeneous nature of the industry. It is the moment and a call to accompany and generate new spaces for joint action. .
I am happy to see how certain dialogues that did not exist before are naturalized, topics studied that are now in force and the gradual understanding of the comprehensive approach to the musical ecosystem. Undoubtedly, a provocative context that requires greater dynamism, red tape, inclusion, modernization, efficiency and management capacity from the sector, along with greater protection of the sound space based on authenticity and specialized criteria. They are not formulas, but strategic proposals that the project and its actors contribute to the fullest strengthening of the Cuban music industry
Rafa G. Escalona
Certified Journalist. Father of a music magazine.