Brazil: how to make a profit by giving music away

BELEM, Brazil — On the poor outskirts of Belem, the club Mansao de Forro was starting to fill up by midnight on a swelteringly humid Thursday night. Girls in tight jeans and heels sipped drinks from plastic cups while boys in long shorts circled around them.

As the hit "Amor Virtual" — Virtual Love — began to play, a dark-haired boy in blue flowery shorts spun around a tall, elegant blonde girl while her friends watched, shaking their hips. The sound of "tecno-brega," Belem’s indigenous computer pop, never fails to get the dance-floor moving. “I like it because you can dance to it,” said Jessica dos Santos, 18, a waitress. “All my friends like it.”

"Tecno-brega," literally cheesy techno, is a brash mixture of tinny electronic beats and shrill, sugary vocals. Produced locally, it has developed a unique business model. In tecno-brega, music is given away for free.

All over the remote Amazonian state of Para, from speakers strung from lamp posts in tiny villages to booming Belem car stereos, you will hear little else. “This is our sound, our rhythm,” said Jose Roberto, a computer programmer for the Brazilian Air Force who runs Belem’s bregapop website — tecno-brega’s biggest portal. “It is its own universe. That’s why I wanted to spread the word.”

Tecno-brega artists distribute their music for free via DJs, street vendors and the internet, hoping to build a reputation and gain lucrative live shows. In Brazil, pirated Hollywood DVDs and CDs by major artists are openly sold on the streets. In tecno-brega, there are no official releases — groups make and produce their own CDs. “If you don’t have an official CD,” observed Roberto, “then what is piracy?”

The model of free music distribution, which started with tecno-brega in Belem, has now spread to other "ghetto" music forms like Rio Funk.

The sound began around 2000, evolving out of an earlier local music style called "brega," or cheesy. Prompted by cheap computer technology, producers began mixing romantic Brazilian brega pop with electronic music and rhythms like reggaeton and reggae from the nearby Caribbean. Its pioneers were the group Calypso — judged the most listened-to band in Brazil in a 2007 survey —who pull in crowd of 30,000-plus for live shows.

“The crisis in the music industry is widely talked about,” said Ronaldo Lemos, from the respected Brazilian research institute Fundacao Getulio Vargas — one of the authors of an extensive 2008 study on tecno-brega’s unique industry and business model. In Brazil alone, CD sales fell from 94 million in 2000 to 52.9 million in 2005. “Tecno-brega is an industry that makes millions, but it is a completely different model of business,” said Lemos. “It doesn’t see technology as an enemy but as an opportunity.”

In the beginning, groups gave their songs away via DJs and street sellers. Today, it is via free download sites like 4shared, MSN Messenger — widely used in Brazil — and social networking sites like Orkut. “The more a song is played and heard, the better for the band,” said Roberto.

Aside from the big artists like Banda AR15 and Gabi Amarantos, there are sound systems — groups of DJs — with names like Superpop and Mega Principe (Mega Prince) who play to crowds of thousands. They travel in convoys of trucks with their own speaker stacks and laser light shows. “In the sound systems, you see a lot of technology,” said Roberto.

In Belem there is also a booming business in dance schools that teach couples the complicated steps. Just one YouTube video, apresentacao de tecno-brega, has 118,000 hits. But the market is Brazil’s lower classes. “The middle classes don’t like tecno-brega,” said Roberto. “It’s too populist. The words are too easy.”

In a bare, tiled room in a drab concrete housing block beside a highway on the edge of Belem, Kleber Cardoso, bass player with the group Banda ARK, pored over his Macbook, checking his group’s new self-produced live DVD. The apartment is both Kleber’s home and the group’s base. It was 10 p.m. but the heat was still intense. Keyboardist Anderson de Melo sat at a desk with a computer in second room that functions as their studio — the only one with air conditioning.

“People are beginning to see this as an interesting source of income and businessmen are investing,” said the group’s singer Renan Pereira. “Now groups don’t just have a car, they have a minibus. The movement is growing.”

Like the CDs, this DVD will be distributed for free. It is a convincing advert for the live shows that they play up to 15 times a month, crisscrossing Brazil’s north and northeast with a five-strong dance troupe. “You have to have a good show,” said Renan.

Acts like Banda ARK (named after its members Anderson, Renan and Kleber) will often record songs praising the sound systems who support their music. They will also record a track for the semi-organized "teams" of fans who follow them around. The cost? $169. 

There are no official figures for an industry as informal as tecno-brega. But Lemos and his team counted 73 groups and 273 sound systems alone and he believes the business turns over millions of reais. Now Lemos is studying similar informal, technology-based music cultures in other developing countries with strong musical traditions and access to cheap technology.

In Colombian shantytowns, there is "champeta." In Buenos Aires, "cumbia villera" is swapped via mobile phone and Bluetooth. In Angola, the percussive "kuduro" music has its own complex break-dance routines. In Suriname, "bubbling" functions in the same way. “In places where you would not expect to find technology making this sort of cultural impact,” said Lemos, “it is a massive market.”