Thursday, March 25, 2010

Indie Artists In Brazil: Making Music In Spite Of Major Labels And Making It Work

By Michele Wilson-Morris
During the MIDEM conference, I had an opportunity to talk with David McLoughlin of BM&A (Brasil Musica E Artes, i.e. the Brazilian Music Export Office). David had a lot of interesting information to share about the Brazilian music market, particularly how independent musicians found a very innovative way to make their voices (and music) heard - literally, without the major record labels.

The Brazilian Music Export Office is sponsored by APEX-Brasil, whose goal is to increase the number of Brazilian exporting companies and consolidate the country's presence in traditional markets, also opening new markets for Brazilian products. The Agency came into existence in November 1997 by presidential decree and operated as a special department of SEBRAE (Brazilian Support Service to Micro and Small Enterprises) until February 6, 2003, when it was renamed APEX-Brasil and began to act as an autonomous agency that works in association with the Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade.

The major labels have traditionally controlled the music industry in Brazil, with local repertoire accounting for 70% of the market. The last 15 years, however, have seen a significant rise in independent producers establishing their own labels - some releasing 4 or 5 titles per year and a few releasing this each month. In recent times, through necessity, most independent artists now release their own albums - even though traditional sales outlets are a rarity; once the major labels began selling their products at reduced prices to supermarket chains, much as they did in the United States with WalMart, they sounded the death knoll. Small stores could no longer compete and began closing, so there was nowhere for independent artists to sell their products. Many of the well-established indie labels (estimated to be around 150) are diversifying into other areas, whether it be selling children's books, selling shows or undertaking cultural projects.

In more recent years, new technology combined with the utilization of the internet (as both a business and promotional tool) has seen a massive rise in the number of independent artists who are focused on both the artistic and business aspects of their careers. Entering an industry that is either in its death- or birth-throes, depending on your point of view, they are seeking and creating new models.

In the city of Cuiabá, Mata Grosso, local cultural producers have created the Cubo Card, a barter system whereby local artists and producers exchange services. This permitted artists to gain access to studios, good quality musicians and recordings, and thus they began to make demos, record their own albums and organize shows - in a region where this had been previously out of the economic reach of most independent artists. The initiative doesn't just put musicians together with recording studios - it gives them access to journalists, designers, photographers, video-producers, even hotels and restaurants and many others. The project is now being embraced by independent sectors around the country

What's so amazing is that this has all been done within the space of the last 2-3 years. When the Brazilian edition of Rolling Stone magazine announced the top 50 albums of the year, and the #1 album was by Macaco Bong, an independent instrumental rock trio. Vanguart, another independent musical group was also in the top 20. Both bands were fruit of the Cubo Card system.

Various cities now have local music festivals, and musicians from one area travel to play at other cities' festivals. To meet the demands of artists who wanted to play at festivals, festival organizers created the ABRAFIN (Brazilian Association of Independent Music Festivals). ABRAFIN coordinated festival dates to allow bands to start touring. As a means of helping bands travel from city to city to place at festivals, each individual festival demonstrated to its local government how much revenue and employment the festivals could generate. As this sector grew within each region, there was an increase in the growth of music associations or cooperatives. These groups organized the artists on both a political and professional level.

On a professional level, many local associations work with their SEBRAEs which are government entities that supply orientation and training courses for small businesses, and this now includes musicians who are now recognized as small businesses. SEBRAEs and local associations and BM&A organize training courses and conferences on issues musicians need to know about such as digital distribution, copyright, and tax incentives for cultural projects. Many of the Brazilian states are now developing export programs with the BM&A to export beyond their states and to the rest of the world. The catch phrase in Brazil is now "the economy of culture". SEBRAEs, the music associations and cooperatives map out local musical production, areas that require state investment and partners outside the state to assist in the same.

The BM&A, in association with regional partners, also hosts every six months the "Comprador & Imagem" (Buyer and Image) project where international guests from varying areas within the music industry (shows, media, radio, digital, etc) are invited to visit Brazil and meet up with local artists and producers to exchange ideas, information and generate business opportunities together.

Even though many artists would still love to have a contract with a major label, it is no longer relevant. Even with very limited radio play and the limited physical distribution of their CDs, they are able to be successful. The independent scene in Brazil is finding its feet. Almost fifty independent Brazilian bands performed at such fairs as SXSW, Womex and CMJ last year (2009) and in 2010, it's likely the numbers will increase.

So, what's the lesson to be learned here? Well, the internet is a very powerful tool. It gives people access to information they didn't have before. And people who are knowledgeable, talented and determined find a way to make things happen.

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