Web Exclusive Essay
Tecnobrega’s Productive Audiences
Ronaldo Lemos (2008) has coined the phrase “globoperipheral music” to describe the emergence of music scenes that put central focus on the peripheries. Wayne Marshall (2009) has alternatively dubbed the trend “Global Ghettotech,” a more sardonic reference to the somewhat romantic international interest in the music from the slums of former colonies. Whatever you want to call it, a few years back, this emerging and tightly networked global music circuit was buzzing particularly about the infectious beats of Tecnobrega, Brazil’s “Tacky Techno.” In Belém, the capital of the Amazon, a whole industry had emerged around this music, and apparently it was very happily reinventing the music business’s status quo. A team of Brazilian researchers led by Ronaldo Lemos and Oona Castro (2008) encountered a vibrant grassroots economic system, one where musicians had decided to bypass traditional music labels and were instead making successful partnerships with the local “pirates” who loyally feature Tecnobrega artists in the midst of their very own bootlegged bounty.
With this research in hand, I headed to Belém myself to study the audiences’ role in this booming music scene. With 1.5 million inhabitants, Belém was reported to have 140 Tecnobrega bands and 700 aparelhagems (literally, “apparatuses”), the Tecnobrega sound systems that, in their most ambitious instances, are formed by gigantic retrofuturistic machines that elevate the godlike DJs through hydraulics at the end of the shows. This infrastructure supports more than 4,000 Tecnobrega parties a month in Belém. What I found not only involved audiences but empowered participants who valued their role as industry agents (Domb 2009). When the Tecnobrega musicians decided to forgo copyright and deem all uses and circulation of their music as not only legitimate but positive, local audiences thrived.
Tecnobrega’s superfans, rather than forming fan clubs that would tether them to one band or DJ, create equipes, teams of friends that attend the parties and concerts together. An important aspect of being part of a team is being identified as such (to a certain extent, being identified is what consolidates the team); equipes ensure their notoriety by carefully branding themselves, usually appropriating U.S. pop icons. For instance, one team, the Psychopaths (who also run a motorcycle club), chose horror icon Freddy Krueger to represent them, while another identified with superheroes the Super Friends. These logos then get plastered on every possible surface—but the first one, the most important one, is a large plastic bucket. Once the logo is there, the team officially exists. Teams use the bucket for two purposes: so they can show the DJ from afar that they made it to the party (if all goes well, they will get called out over the sound system) and so that they can carry their beer on ice for the four to five hours the party may last.
Beyond the bucket, the teams’ involvement in Tecnobrega can grow in many different directions, and it can go as far as cohosting parties with famous DJs when the equipes have become part of the party’s appeal. In some cases, they will even pay musicians to compose songs about them that they’ll then present to the DJ in hopes that he or she will play it during a show or that it will be included in one of the “pirate” Tecnobrega collections. Along with the casual audience, these superfans also promote shows, participate in web forums, create dance steps, and download and share music. In the absence of a traditional music industry’s marketing machinery, the audience is the most effective promoter of Tecnobrega.
It would then be fair to say that Tecnobrega audiences have long stopped being purely “consumers” and have become actively involved in generating value for the industry. The question then becomes, how do we account for this value? Trying to understand how value is generated in the Tecnobrega industry as a whole through conventional analytical tools such as the value chain is a somewhat fruitless effort, but it does serve as the starting point for a different, potentially more nuanced model: the value network.
The value chain, originally designed to depict the manufacturing process, shows a series of fixed one-way dependencies that end with the finished product in a customer’s hands. It offers no way to account for audience participation in this process or for the different types of value that emerge in a participatory media environment such as Tecnobrega. I propose, then, that we begin not from a static chain but from a fluid value network, where the dependencies are not fixed and where value flows in several directions. In such a model, we can account equally for the role of the pirates, the musicians, the audience, and any of the many other actors involved. Just as importantly, we can consider the different types of value that circulate through such a network.
It is then, under further observation, that two overlapping subnetworks emerge. The first involves monetary transactions, bringing to light the commercial potential of Tecnobrega in spite of its refusal to enforce copyright as a means for revenue generation. The second is composed of symbolic transactions, exchanges that increase the social and cultural value of Tecnobrega, in turn making the monetary transactions that take place within the network more successful. Both of these subnetworks support and feed into each other; they are fully interdependent, and none of their nodes necessarily represent the beginning or the end of the generation of value.
Under a value network model, it is just as possible to account for complex processes—such as that of a team commissioning a song from a musician that will then be given as a gift to a DJ, sold on the street, and freely downloaded from the Internet—as it is to account for seemingly simple ones—such as the value generated by a team’s beer bucket, the primary tool for identifying a team as an entity and even as a productive node in the network itself. In such a model, we can see how much value (symbolic and monetary) the bucket and the network can hold.
Domb, Ana. 2009. “‘Fire, Lights, Everything!’: Exploring Symbolic Capital in the Tecnobrega Dance Scene.” Master’s thesis, MIT. Available at http://cms.mit.edu/research/theses/AnaDombKrauskopf2009.pdf.
Lemos, Ronaldo. 2008. “Tudo Dominado: A Música Eletrônica Globoperiférica.” Overblog, Overmundo, Nov. 18. http://www.overmundo.com.br/overblog/tudo-dominado-a-musica-eletronica-globoperiferica.
Lemos, Ronaldo, and Oona Castro. 2008. Tecnobrega: O Pará Reinventando o Negócio da Música. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Aeroplano.
Marshall, Wayne. 2009. “Can We Talk about ‘Can We Talk about the Reggaeton Crash?’?” wayne&wax (blog), June 22. http://wayneandwax.com/?p=2015.