Where Music Isn’t Free

Chris Kjorness argues that reggae outlasted mambo for the same reason the United States outlasted the Soviet Union:

At the height of  ’50s mambo fever, you would have been laughed out of the room had you predicted that comparatively tiny and impoverished Jamaica would soon become a dominant force in global music, while the Caribbean’s longstanding cultural capital of Havana fell into irrelevance and decay. But the rise of communism and its attendant cultural protectionism soon choked off mambo and Cuban creativity at the source, while Jamaica’s economic boom and unfettered recording industry uncorked a revolutionary new music called reggae.

Many Cuban musicians welcomed the revolution, and quite a few benefited at first, but that soon changed:

By 1961, all production facilities had been nationalized. State approval was required for any new recording. Censorship and bureaucratic red tape frustrated artists. Reduced tourism and trade cut Cuba off from its most lucrative markets, and the lack of profit motive meant that no one stood to make money by pushing new music or reissuing perennially popular recordings. Meanwhile, the deteriorating economy (exacerbated by the U.S. embargo) made money still more scarce. By 1966, Cuba, which used to press millions of records a year, only managed to eke out 184,000.

Meanwhile, in free-market Jamaica:

[T]he sound-system dance was the place most Jamaicans went to show off their wares and hear new tunes. An underground economy grew around the dances: Organizers charged admission, DJs received a fee, and food and alcohol vendors lined the streets around the venue. Competition between DJs was intense, and customer feedback immediate. The hottest music in 1950s Kingston was American jazz and rhythm and blues. DJs paid a premium for records by artists such as Rosco Gordon and Fats Domino. Records were imported or bought off boat workers coming from the United States. Many DJs actually got their start working as migrant laborers in the United States, using the money they earned to collect equipment and records. A new breed of music entrepreneurs was just beginning to build the infrastructure needed for Jamaican music to flourish.

The Cuban government continued its censorship as recently as December:

A crackdown on reggaeton and other unnamed musical styles that are threatening the revolutionary country’s traditional musical culture will punish artists and fine those who programme it, according to Cuban Music Institute boss Orlando Vistel Columbié. “We are not just talking about reggaeton. There is vulgarity, banality and mediocrity in other forms of music too,” Vistel told the official Granma newspaper. “But it is also true that reggaeton is the most notorious.  On the one hand there are aggressive, sexually obscene lyrics that deform the innate sensuality of the Cuban woman, projecting them as grotesque sexual objects. And all that is backed by the poorest quality music.” …

Musicians who play reggaeton are threatened with being struck off official lists, making it harder for them to work, and recordings are already being purged from official catalogues. Radio and television stations are also under pressure to drop reggaeton – though Cubans can still turn their dials to radio stations in nearby Miami or elsewhere.