The Rise of Tecno-Brega, or How to Build Markets on Top of Social Commons

I just returned from the biannual “Wizards of OS” conference in Berlin, Germany, a fantastic gathering of software programmers, activists, artists and policy wonks concerned about free culture and democracy. You can check out many of the panels and speeches here, but I also plan to blog this week about some of the provocative people and things that I encountered in Berlin.

One of the most intriguing stories I heard involves the power of the commons in revitalizing music in Brazil. In this large developing nation, the mainstream recording industry is troubled. Sony BMG, the largest multinational label in Brazil, recently announced plans to cut about 15 artists from its roster of 52. Another major record label has actually offered to produce and market bands if the bands pay the label the equivalent of $15,000! Perhaps you can sense the industry’s economic desperation and artistic cluelessness.

While conventional market players struggle, a number of grassroots genres of music are flourishing despite an absolute lack of copyright protection. A case in point is tecno-brega (spelled without the “h” in “techno”), “a romantic, cheesy sound with a techno-beat and electronica sound,” according to Ronaldo Lemos, the head of the Creative Commons in Brazil. The music is hugely popular in outlying regions of Brazil, such as Belem, a city in the northeast state of Pará.

Lemos says that tecno-brega arose on the fringes of the mainstream music marketplace through “sound system parties” attended by thousands of people every weekend. About 400 new CDs are produced and released every year by local artists, but both the production and distribution of these records take place outside the traditional music industry. The CDs can’t be found in retail stores, but are sold entirely by street vendors for only $1.50. The CDs serve as advertising for the weekend parties. None of the CDs are copyrighted. The music is “born free” in the sense that the tecno-brega scene doesn’t consider copyrights as part of its business model; it uses an open business model that invites and authorizes people to share and re-use the content.

Besides street sales of CD sales, tecno-brega bands use state-of-the-art sound technology to record and burn CDs of concerts performances. Lemos says, “The tecno-brega DJ’s usually acknowledge in their live presentations the presence of people from various neighborhoods, and this acknowledgement is of great value to the audience, leading thousands of buy copies of the recorded live presentation.” The same basic model is also at work in other grassroots musical genres in Brazil, such as baile funk, which originated in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

I’m wondering if Brazil’s socially based production and distribution of music might serve as a kind of R&D for the developed world. After all, the U.S. and Europe have their own stodgy, high-overhead market regimes that don’t know how to foster experimentation and diversity. What would happen if they began to use new social models and technology to blend the musical commons and market into something new? In 2004, the Boston-based rock band The Pixies used the same after-concert CD sales model as tecno-brega, and were hailed as innovators.

The point is (or should be): Now that the copying and distribution of digital works cost next to nothing, let the music flow, let creative experimentation rip, and build the fan community. The business models will inevitably emerge — and I am certain they will be far more robust and sustainable than the archaic conventional models.