Cuban Musicians Are Victims of Corrupt State Talent Agencies

For years Cuban artists been pushing to be able to perform without having to go through state-run booking agencies. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 20 March 2023 — “Obviously, someone gave an order to go after the talent agencies,” says Ofelia, a Havana singer for whom the pandemic was a turning point in her career. It happened the moment she went onstage, she tells 14ymedio. It was the first time one of her appearances had not been arranged through a licensed talent agency or a state-run booking company, the only legal way for an artist to perform in Cuba.

Reading an article in Cubadebate, “Are Cuba’s Musical Booking Agencies Good at Representing Their Artists?” she recognized all the problems endemic to state institutions: inefficiency, corruption, breach of contract, delayed payment, bureaucracy and a host of what are, by now, common complaints.

“I think this is about giving MSMEs (small and medium-sized business) the authority to act as talent agents while, at the same time, getting state companies out of the business. There’s been talk of doing this for a long time but nothing has ever come of it,” says the soloist, who suspects that that the ongoing effects of currency unification in 2021 could be the impetus for an eventual change. “They have always relied on these agencies to manage artists but, now that the peso is worthless, maybe they’ve realized they can’t afford them. Perhaps an MSME will be more profitable and can act more like a company that represents artists should act,” she says.

Ofelia thinks this model could work well for successful groups, or for artists with a certain level or fame, who could generate high returns for the company. However, for less commercial artists such as musicians who work nights at bars and restaurants, she believes a license to perform, along with the responsibility to pay any taxes, would be enough.

Ofelia’s idea is not so far-fetched. An extensive article posted on the official digital news platform Cubadebate highlights recent messages from the Communist Party – which are clearly the reason for that article – that are critical of the current system and supportive of fundamental change.

“A thorough review of music and entertainment companies and agencies, and of their structural and operational models, is in order,” reads a quote from a report presented to the National Assembly and cited in Tuesday’s article.

It also cited remarks made by President Miguel Diaz-Canel in 2019 to the National Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC): “We hear complaints that the way so-called cultural industries operate — as it relates to artistic creation, its production, promotion and commercialization — is antiquated,” he said. “There is much dissatisfaction among artists and creators who must do absolutely everything when it comes to disseminating or promoting their work, while those who should be responsible for doing so practice a kind of parasitism through inaction. Artists have a duty to pay their taxes, but they should not have to pay companies that have had nothing to do with employment contracts, with their promotion or with their legal protection.”

There are many examples to support the president’s claim, though no indication that anything being is done to solve the problem. These examples are cited not only in the Cubadebate arcticle, whose sources remain anonymous, but are also confirmed by Ofelia.

“The system isn’t profitable. It’s not a meritocracy. It all depends on how much leverage an artist has, on bribes, on corruption from top to bottom… For example, [let’s say] they hire you for a gig and pay you X amount of pesos, but the Municipal Culture director can ask you for 4,000 of that. If they do that with me, I hate to think how much it would be for those reggaeton artists who pull in big crowds,” she says.

The article reports that the island has one municipal and fourteen provincial artist management companies, two provincial and six national music centers, and six talent agencies with 4,081 departments (669 subsidized and 3,412 unsubsidized) made up of 21,335 artists and support staff.

This mastodon — a holdover from the era of provincial music academies, which were made management companies by law in 2012 — serves no purpose and lacks everything. “When there were two currencies, you could perform either for pesos or hard currency. When they did it like that, the profits that the companies earned would, in theory, go straight to the Cuban Institute of Music, which is the ideological arm in all this. When they took that away, the companies didn’t have the hard currency to pay for things, to have a car fixed… If you needed to print an invoice, there was no paper, or there was no toner for the printer… It was impossible to work under those conditions,” recalls Ofelia.

Ofelia recalls one of Havana’s most notorious incidents, when a letter one of her colleagues wrote was published in one of the State newspapers, Juventud Rebelde [Rebel Youth]. In it, he accused his management company’s directors of spending a quarter of a million pesos for a project that had not been approved, pocketing part of money and leaving the company penniless. More commonly, it can take up to two months or more for an artist to get paid for a performance.

“Sometimes it’s because there’s no transportation. Other times it’s because there’s no employee who can go to the bank, or because there’s no money to pay them. Or they go to the bank but they can’t get anyone to print an account statement.” she explains.

The incidents reported by Cubadebate are not dissimilar. Even the winner of the controversial San Remo Music Awards contest, Aníbal Ramos, is having to sue for breach of contract after winning the contest. Though he won in the professional category, a year later he still has not yet received his prize money. “I knocked on many doors over an audition issue that took more than nine months to resolve. To join the company, it doesn’t matter what artistic or educational level you have because there is a parallel evaluation system,” says Ramos.

Also interviewed for the article was singer Ariel Diaz, one of the few to give his real name. He reports that management companies do not promote their artists’ work, handle publicity, logistics or production, or, unsurprisingly, provide legal representation. He is unaware of anyone having ever filed a lawsuit against an institution despite a long history of breaches of contract.

The catalogue of complaints outlined by state media is endless. It seems we can expect at least one more article on this subject judging from the line at the end: “To be continued.”  Its publication, years after this topic was no longer even an open secret, suggests something is afoot in the world of music.


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