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Framing your new tech company as the “Spotify of the Caribbean” is certainly one way to pique the curiosity of skeptics. But if the current interest from listeners and industry peers is anything to go by, the soca music streaming app Radial—created by developers Abay Israel and Andre Thomas—might be onto something. Radial (available for download on iTunes) allows you to “experience soca music for yourself,” creating a space for new listeners or seasoned soca heads to find the music they’re looking for. Aimed at servicing diasporic audiences who don’t have the same proximity to soca music as listeners in the islands, Radial gives users an ever-increasing music library so they can also create personalized playlists or listen to curated ones. Since you can’t spell ‘social’ without s-o-c-a, a unique social aspect continues to be developed to allow users to comment, share, and find new music through the people they follow. To the team–Phoumano Thongsithavong, Kit Israel, Jonathan Herbert, Dane Robertson, and Regis Bolden make up the rest–the social side of Radial is vital, replicating the real-life community around how Caribbean music is created, discovered, and shared.
Radial is the brainchild of the Trinidadian-born Israel and Thomas, who met at Morehouse College where the two became fast friends. Israel was moonlighting as a DJ (“I just carried the crates,” admits Thomas), introducing listeners to the Caribbean sounds of soca, calypso, and reggae. The reaction was staggering. “People in the diaspora wanted to get access to this content so desperately,” said Israel. “Radial started with Andre’s dream back in 2009-ish. In the States, Spotify and Pandora were becoming popular, and Andre, who moved back to Trinidad after graduating from Morehouse, said to me, ‘I want a way to use Pandora and Spotify in the Caribbean—because you can’t do it right now. It’s blocked.’ So, he asked me if there was a way to do it, and then it became, ‘Maybe we should start our own streaming app for Caribbean music.”
The streaming service will undoubtedly be a game changer for the Caribbean music industry because it differs drastically from the North American industry model. With the app, a new lane is created for artists to get their music to the masses without the politics of shifting business practices and media landscapes across the globe. “We (Caribbean artists) don’t really do albums. If we do, it’s more to conform to North America. But should we?” asks Thomas. “Some artists do release albums, but that’s not how they make money. People in the Caribbean don’t make money from selling records anymore,” added Israel. “They make money performing at events and getting sponsorship—by saying ‘Hey, this is my song for the season. Please push this for me.’”
What Israel and Thomas are doing with Radial is important, particularly because of the app and the lack of representation of Black and Caribbean demographics in the tech sphere. The uniqueness of their journey is that they have experiences in both the American and Caribbean technology and entrepreneurial spaces, and they are bringing that to a community that has been appropriated or long left behind. “There’s a saying that you have to be 10 times better than the people around you in order to stand out, and I’ve experienced that,” said Israel. “When I was in grad school talking about Radial, I was the only Black person in my class. And it’s a case where you say your idea and everyone is like, ‘Of course the Black guy is going to do music. Of course.’ There’s going to be certain perceptions of what Black men in America are able to do or should be doing, but that’s not going to stop us from pushing forward.”
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Thomas echoes this sentiment. “I don’t like to complain about limitations or being underrepresented. I just like to say, OK, let’s find some other way to do it. By any means necessary.” Part of their success has included mentorship from heavyweights in the U.S. and Caribbean tech investment fields, and an official investment from Backstage Capital, founded by Arlan Hamilton, an emerging venture capital fund manager. Backstage Capital’s aim is to “minimize funding disparities in tech by investing in high-potential founders who are of color, women, and/or LGBT.” Israel and Thomas’ experiences have also illuminated some differences between American and Caribbean investors. American investors are wary of any new music streaming entity, and seek investments that will pay off with exorbitant dividends. Israel described the Caribbean environment as “nascent,” stating that the entrepreneurship field is a burgeoning one with positive room for growth. Caribbean investors are more risk-averse in general and require founders to prove their success more definitively before agreeing to a partnership.
With the future ability to provide qualitative and quantitative data to artists, Radial will help to put some control back in their hands. An artist who lacks radio spins but has an immensely positive engagement on Radial can use those stats to prove why their single needs a spot in radio rotation. In addition, the app allows artists to recognize a thriving foreign fanbase from the volume of comments, which opens up new possibilities for touring, merchandising, and more. Where the mainstream has latched onto and attempted to colonize Caribbean sounds (Christopher Columbus must love “tropical house”), and where Joss Stone can earn Billboard’s No. 1 Reggae Album of 2015 based on ill-fitting determinations, Radial helps artists and soca music lovers to reclaim the narrative. “If we look at where North American music is moving, they’re realizing that touring is making a lot of money. They’ve already realized that singles—like how Apple did it by breaking up the album and making singles [available for purchase]—they’re going in the direction that the Caribbean has already established, and we’re kind of leaping ahead of that,” said Thomas.
Since launching in June, Radial has acquired several hundred engaged subscribers. Future plans include spreading to other platforms (Radial is currently only available for iOS users), a more robust social aspect, and increased partnerships with Caribbean artists and DJs. “Anybody anywhere around the world should have access to this music,” said Israel.
Bee Quammie is a writer in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.