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Brazil: how to make a profit by giving music away

Brazil's "cheesy techno" music industry makes millions without selling a single CD.

CDs and DVDs. (Sean Yong/Reuters)

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.”