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Burning Spear Going To Exile?

Burning Spear Going To Exile?

Burning Spear Going To Exile?

By on - Photos by Burning Spear Music - 2 comments

Burning Spear's conflict with reggae distributor Ernie B. recently took a turn for the worst, with the legal eagles entering the fray amidst allegations of piracy, bootlegging and threats of arrest.

Those in attendance at the Rototom 2009 reggae university Sunsplash festival debate were taken aback at the virulence of Bunny Wailer’s attack on Chris Blackwell, with allegations of outstanding debts running into millions of dollars. This was an expression of a longstanding artist-producer\distributor grievance similar to that harboured by many musicians.

With the emergence of the internet, the source of such grievances has extended beyond artist and producer\distributor conflicts to widescale allegations of ‘piracy’ and illegal file sharing. The bottom line here is that piracy on the internet puts people out of work and flouts the principle that the ‘labourer is worthy of his wages’. The failure to get these wages is of course a very sore point with many musicians.

As a warning against illegal file sharing, over 2003-2008 the US music industry brought lawsuits against 30,000 people. It recently won its case against the popular file sharing service Limewire and now claims that it is entitled to $US75 trillion in damages. Related to this malpractice, the overall picture reveals that during 2004-2010 recorded music sales have declined in value globally by 31 per cent. According to the British Recorded Music Industry (BPI) combined digital and physical album sales dropped by 7 percent in 2010. Not surprisingly this decline is attributed to illegal downloads. Digital music sales might be booming, but it doesn’t compensate for the decline in the sale of physical albums or CDs.

Against this backdrop, fans of Burning Spear (aka Winston Rodney) were shocked last week when he announced via his Facebook page that he was going into exile. By the end of the week there was widescale relief when the decision was reversed, confirming that his German Summerjam and Florida appearances would go ahead later this year. The issues in dispute have been passed to the legal eagles.

Burning Spear

The dispute centres on allegations that Ernie B. – the Californian-based distributor of reggae music – has been engaging in ‘piracy’ at the expense of impoverished reggae artists. For some time now Burning Spear has been calling on all artists and consumers to boycott this outlet.

Availing of his Facebook page last week Burning Spear informed that “they bootlegging all of our music and trying to use the police to get us arrested. Time to unite it’s our music that feed them”. The background to this posting is his contention that Ernie B. and associates have secured a warrant for his arrest – a warrant he intends to fight in court.

He now plans to sue for royalties as part of a wider campaign that includes boycotting Air Jamaica, Ernie B. Reggae distribution and RAS Records, whom he describes as “the worse scam and bootleggers in the music industry”.

Bringing a tense week to a close Burning Spear’s Facebook page subsequently announced “Great news - Jah is Real. We now have the best Attorneys in the world to handle the matter. We will do the show in Miami, Florida, and Germany. Attorneys will handle all matters, we no longer have to talk with them, what they are doing is intimidation. Now they will have to turn over full audit ...”.

Robustly defending his position in this dispute Ernie B. responded (via www.bobmarleymagazine.com) that “In 19 years of doing business I have never seen an illegal copy of Burning Spear's music pass through our warehouse, nor have I been offered any, nor have we stocked or sold any. When determining the validity of the claims that Burning Spear Music is making against us, it should be duly noted that those same claims are being made against virtually every company that they have ever dealt with. We continue to hold a deep respect for Spear's legendary works and hope that they will decide to start selling the music again. We understand their frustrations of dealing in this business. We also understand the ease at which some wrong ideas may be adopted (about us, for example), perhaps due to misunderstandings or the spread of malicious rumours”.

This carefully crafted riposte proceeded in an effort to claim the high moral ground in the dispute, pointing out that “.... our lost sales due to piracy is substantial. Let's keep this a positive discussion and do what we can to make life hard for those engaged in piracy. An important part of this effort is naming and shaming those pirates, but first we must be sure when we make these claims. It's a serious accusation to make, with far reaching consequences ... I don't like being called a pirate, but I can appreciate that people can make an innocent, simple mistake in judgment. In the future let's make sure before we throw those powerful words around please. Just because an artist thinks that they have been pirated does not make it so".

Burning Spear’s antipathy toward music distributors is longstanding. Though it came to a head last week with moves toward the courtroom in the Ernie B. case, his management continue to name specific producers and distributors that allegedly owe him ‘millions of dollars’. Of course it is this same antipathy that has fuelled his laudable pursuit of independence in the music business and the request that fans “not buy any Burning Spear record from any website”.

The music industry/piracy conflict is now a war zone. In every war zone truth is the first casualty. This makes it difficult to obtain facts and break free from the narratives presented by both sides in order to reach an independent or fair assessment of the matters in contention. It is clear that many digital consumers are thieves, stealing everything from music to films and books. If tables and televisions were downloadable they'd be gone too.

However this is nothing new in music, as many now respectable citizens still store their boxes of old music audio cassettes. At the level of the consumer the most convincing ethical argument is that one shouldn't exploit the work of others for financial gain without their permission. However in practice this is often little more than wishful thinking.

In the course of this dispute Sonia Rodney explains "I've seen lawyers act like big time jerks". Most of us have. But we've also seen scenarios where they are the only victors in the courtroom. As the fallout from the Marley legacy has shown, the law and reggae music are not comfortable bedfellows. And as the fallout from the current economic recession tells us, accounting audits can be as much an art as a science.

Like the battle between the pirates or slave traders and the abolitionists, this struggle - between artists, producers, distributors and pirates - is sure to run, albeit with far too many casualties.

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Read comments (2)


Posted by Dada Slim on 02.23.2012
chaaa...

Posted by Strongtree on 02.23.2012
These are some very serious allegations made against Ernie B. Does Burning Spear have any evidence to these claims? I live in New Zealand and have been buying from Ernie B's Reggae for over 10 years now and I've never had any pirated copys delivered to me yet!

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