Posted on 18 January 2010.
R&B diva Beyonce has a reputation for being one of the shrewdest businesswomen in music.
At a time of falling music sales, her most recent album, I Am… Sasha Fierce, has sold six million copies worldwide.
Her concert tours, her endorsement of brands including L’Oreal cosmetics and her forthcoming Heat perfume – to be launched next month in the US – all add to her income.
According to Forbes magazine, her earnings have topped $80m (£50m) a year for the past two years.
But when she ventures into the Caribbean, her appearances seem to court controversy.
On New Year’s Eve, she was paid a reported $2m fee for performing at a private party on the exclusive island of St Barts, but a wave of bad publicity ensued when it emerged that her patron was Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi’s son Mutasim-Billah.
Now she is set to return to the region with a concert next month in Trinidad and Tobago – but the news has already angered the local music industry and given new impetus to a bitter battle between the country’s two mobile phone providers.
The problem is that Beyonce’s show in Port-of-Spain is being sponsored by local phone company TSTT, which is 51% owned by the government and 49% owned by global telecoms giant Cable & Wireless (C&W).
It is also taking place on Thursday, 18 February – immediately after Trinidad and Tobago’s world-renowned carnival.
With ticket prices for the concert ranging from $71 to $253, organisers of carnival bands and shows are worried that it will absorb money that would otherwise have gone into their pockets.
“We have nothing against Beyonce,” says Gregory Fernandes, who used to run some of the carnival’s biggest events as head of the Caribbean Prestige Foundation.
“We are just saying that it is insensitive to bring her at this time. It will affect all carnival stakeholders.”
Part of that perceived insensitivity comes from the feeling that locally produced soca music is losing out to glossy international pop.
“Our culture of carnival is on the way out,” complained one reader in the letters columns of the Trinidad & Tobago Express. “What used to be the greatest show on earth is playing second fiddle to another people’s culture.”
Many feel that TSTT, as a majority state-owned firm, should be doing more to promote the local music industry and its performers, rather than importing superstars from abroad.
As it happens, TSTT’s Bmobile brand has been associated with many carnival events in recent years, in its continuing effort to fight off competition from rival mobile phone provider Digicel.
But this year, it has cancelled its popular Soca in B-Square concerts, which used to take place in the run-up to carnival itself.
TSTT officials say this is because Trinidad’s biggest soca star, Machel Montano, was unavailable to perform, but other artists are unconvinced.
“[TSTT] blanked the local culture and pushed the foreign,” said Ken Marlon Charles, better known by his stage name of KMC.
The dispute took a new turn when Digicel said it had also been approached to sponsor a Beyonce concert, but had turned it down because it wanted to promote local culture instead.
Digicel’s communications manager, Penny Gomez, told the Trinidad Guardian that the firm had been asked to pay $1.75m for Beyonce’s appearance fee, while the entire cost of the concert would have been nearly three times as much.
“We have an appreciation for what is local, so we have not sought to go overseas,” she said, adding that Digicel did not have “a limitless public purse from which to draw”.
Digicel, owned by Irish businessman Denis O’Brien, has been operating in the Caribbean since 2001, when it began to erode what had been a virtual monopoly for Cable & Wireless and its partners in the region.
Its entry into the Trinidad and Tobago market in 2006 was particularly fraught, with TSTT and Bmobile fighting hard to minimise the newcomer’s impact.
TSTT’s response to Digicel’s latest comments shows that there is still plenty of bad blood between the two firms.
“We don’t have Digicel’s limitations of being unable to support an international concert while at the same time lending support to local culture,” said TSTT spokesman Graham Suite.
In view of the controversy, TSTT’s board of directors has reviewed the company’s plan to host the Beyonce concert and proclaimed it a “sound business decision”.
But Trinis are currently suspicious of any event that might prove to be a drain on state funds, since 2009 saw Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s administration host two costly international summits that failed to bring much benefit to the local economy.
If ticket sales are not as strong as TSTT hopes, there could be an embarrassing financial shortfall – with the taxpayer left to pick up the bill.