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COTT in the slips

By Terry Joseph
November 29, 2002

It slipped me to find out if drum majorettes and pom-pom girls in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade were forced to pay the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) for music used by bands that accompanied them.

A pity for sure, as it may have been useful to compare the approach of historically litigious Americans with a still-developing situation here, where the Copyright Organisation (COTT) is demanding masqueraders pay a tax for similarly "jumping-up in a band".

Unmoved by protests from the masquerade community, COTT said its position was arrived at after consultation on several levels, including a meeting with all stakeholders.

Bandleaders however insisted the meeting on which COTT constructed its disputatious position simply never took place and COTT itself seemed confused about details, unable to narrow down the meeting-date to even a specific year, saying it was "either in 1999 or 2000."

No minutes of the meeting were available at the time of first discussion and although The Express has since been advised that notes were subsequently discovered, documented proof is yet to be presented as part of COTT's evidence.

But the plot thickened, with COTT's administrative manager saying the discussion was held at its Jerningham Avenue offices, while another official is adamant it took place half a mile away, at the National Carnival Commission (NCC) Boardroom.

And those were not the only slips made by COTT. None of the name references supplied for corroboration supported the agency's story, one version of which cited Heads of Carnival's other Special Interest Groups as attendees.

When asked, TUCO's Brother Resistance and Pan Trinbago's Patrick Arnold were equally mystified.

Even in identifying which of the agency's representatives were present, we encounter irreconcilable differences between the two COTT versions, one naming a threesome including then CEO Nicholas Inniss, the other arguing tenaciously that only one official attended.

Last Saturday night at the Silver Stars panyard, Inniss told this column he not only didn't attend but—to his recollection—such a meeting never took place or, at the least, neither its planning nor result was ever brought to his attention.

NCBA chairman Richard Afong had earlier said he met Inniss about two years ago at the very Silver Stars panyard and the latter joked about the possibility of masqueraders having to individually pay licence fees for Carnival day music.

Without prompting, Inniss told the same story Saturday night, conceding he might have repeated the anecdote at the office. He then surmised that someone may have taken him seriously.

Interestingly, COTT says it did not implement Pay-As-You-Jump taxation at the time of the dubious meeting, because of proximity to the following year's Carnival. From the testimony of Inniss and Afong, their interaction took place at a Parang and Steel concert, an event staged only at Christmastime.

Since we are again into the season of goodwill, COTT is therefore vigourously disregarding its own precedent of allowing the target market enough time to internalise radical change, by this eleventh-hour haste to enforce collection of the fee with effect from Carnival 2003.

It also seems strange that COTT, forever on the hunt for new money, made no attempt to introduce the concept during the two-year interim since the alleged meeting; waiting again until it is too close to Carnival, but somehow hoping for smooth application of the contentious notion this time around.

Whatever the merits or demerits of demanding money from masqueraders, COTT's case has certainly been devalued by the sheer volume of inconsistencies in its fundamental argument that a meeting with bandleaders was convened. Sage counsel would suggest shelving the project altogether, a hint strengthened by even preliminary prediction of difficulties involved in policing the already flawed proposal.

By COTT's reckoning, masqueraders in large Carnival bands must each pay $2 (it is unlikely bandleaders will underwrite this expense), while small and medium bands incur a blanket fee of $800.

Consider now, that some small bands field no more than 200 revelers, making their individual payment twice that of others on the road pursuing an identical activity with Poison, Harts Ltd or Minshall. In a group of 50 masqueraders with music in tow, personal liability climbs to $16, all impacting on costume-prices, increasing value-added-tax in the process.

What this will do at first opportunity is hasten the extinction of small bands, the only remaining supplier of traditional Carnival characters, as leaders may find the challenge of presenting folkloric portrayals even less viable than currently obtains.

And come to think of it, how would the rule apply to anyone wishing to emulate the late Wilfred Strasser's "stills", where the performer assumes a statue-like posture all day; overtly oblivious to the music?

Perhaps because COTT's uncontested crusade has snared even barbers and hairdressers who have the temerity to play radios while they work, the agency might have come to think itself unassailable in the matter of generating revenue by caprice.

We all remember, for instance, COTT's proposed levy on taxi-drivers which, after the public furore that greeted its announcement, was deferred until January 1998; never to be heard from again.

With worst-case collateral damage unlikely to be any greater than a slightly bruised ego, the ill-advised masquerader tax plan should also be abandoned and with equal rapidity.

Indeed, if at all possible, COTT must increase our comfort by promising that any future adventures in this regard will accrue from deeper thought.

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