From the favelas of Belem to the stage at the Grammys, the digital music phenomenon known as tecnobrega is conquering global fans and minting multi-millionaire musicians. That's pretty impressive for a subgenre built on the idea that musicians should pirate their own music.
We had the internet in 2004, but it wasn’t the same levels of access we see today. A lot fewer people were on it. 2004 was the year Google launched the now-defunct social network Orkut, and millions of Brazilians were logging on for the first time — before Facebook, smartphones and even iPods. Then there was Napster, and all of a sudden, with P2P technology, the possibility of downloading music from all over the world.
The record labels thought this would mean the death of the death of the music industry (or at least their profits) and started to sue the fans of their own labels’ bands.
But in Belem, musicians started wondering if free, unlimited music sharing could be a good thing. They’d throw down some beats on their desktop computers, burn thousands of CDs, and give them out for free to the best distributor they could find —camelos.
“They’d tell them, “Sell my music and make me famous,” says Ronaldo Lemos, a law professor who has studied the tecnobrega phenomenon since 2005 (and heads up Creative Commons in Brazil).
“Even though the artists were using the camelos to sell their music, it was their own to sell,” explains Lemos. “They were saying, this is my music, go ahead and pirate it. Of course there was no contract. It was an informal arrangement.”
While tecnobrega artists weren’t making any money selling CDs — the camelos kept all the profit — they were getting free distribution, and started getting popular enough enough to start selling out concerts. Not just any concerts — parties with massive sound systems, projection screens, lasers, smoke machines, and CDs of the live show available to purchase by the time you left.
“The funny thing is that it was not a niche phenomenon,” says Lemos. “These musicians started becoming multi-millionaires. Tecnobrega was building the most popular artists in Brazil — completely outside of the analog record industry and radio stations.
“People were wondering, “Where does this band come from? They’re not on TV or the radio. How can they be playing in Rio or São Paulo and there are 50,000 people paying to see them?”
It’s not just tecnobrega — there is a global movement of music emerging from the “peripheries” to the mainstream using digital technology - from passinho, funk ostentação and eletro forro in Brazil, to dubstep, kudoro and bubblin. This so-called “global peripheral music” — all follows more or less the same rules: Embrace digital technology 100% and pirate your music on any platform available.
“Everyone applauds Lady Gaga,” tecnobrega queen Gaby Amarantos once said, “but in Pará, people have been descending from flying saucers for a long time.”
Follow Julie on Twitter @jruv.