It’s 2 a.m. in the wet heat of one of Belem’s countless weekly raves. Like most nights in this northern city, loud, thick beats thump out above the crowds of girls twirling around men in tank tops. Amidst the blinding smoke machines, you could be forgiven for not paying attention to the night’s soundtrack.
But as the rotating pink spotlights settle into a rhythm, recognition hits: beneath reggaeton-like beats and video game bleep-noises, hints of 80s favorite “Girl’s Just Want to Have Fun” trickle through. From above the Portuguese chorus, “Today I Just Want to Dance!”, the DJ booms a shoutout to some fans, pushing the fader to mix into something that sounds like the new Rihanna track on speed, then a bass-heavy version of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. The dancing intensifies, and the booming covers work to keep up, blasting through until sunrise.
This is technobrega, literally translated as “cheesy techno”. Over the past decade it’s emerged as the musical subculture of northern Brazil. Born out of informality, it has thrived without record labels, regulations, or royalties. Driven by a culture of copy-pasting national and international hits atop truly Brazilian beats, technobrega scoffs at international copyright, growing largely by word-of-mouth and digital sharing between fans.
Behind the thousands of technobrega tracks are home-producers who work on basic computers with pirated software. Joe Benassi has been producing technobrega in this manner since it emerged from a mix of local and international rhythms around 2003.
“Some people consider it plagiarism,” says Benassi, whose work revolves around remixes of global pop hits. “But here we’ve developed a tradition around it.” Looking at Benassi’s makeshift studio setup in his family’s humble patio, it’s easy to file technobrega under the rug as a few kids messing around with remixes. In reality, technobrega now marks a multi-million-dollar business with a heaving fan base in Belem’s low-income communities. Yet it’s remained almost entirely off the radar outside northern Brazil.
So why haven’t Sony, Warner, and Universal come knocking on Benassi’s door? Pedro Augusto and his team from Rio’s Centre for Technology and Society have been tracking the rise of technobrega as a musical phenomenon for its creative approach to copyright. He says that although something like 80 percent of technobregas are essentially covers, chasing down producers just isn’t worth the hassle for the big players. “The rules are obviously being broken,” says Augusto. “But enforcing them would be more expensive than the returns for record labels.”
Although it’s a rapidly growing industry, technobrega’s appeal so far seems not to conflict with the targets of mainstream music. And without outside interference or rules, technobrega has evolved its own business model, sustaining thousands of street-level jobs along the way.Producers like Benassi get hired by artists to make tracks. Often pushed for time—or lacking raw musical talent—they usually swipe melodies from pop hits they find online and lace them into their favorite beats. Then, they push their ‘new’ music through social networks, radio stations, and roaming megaphones—a mix of digital and analog promotion. Crucially, artists foot the bill to burn discs for vendors to hawk at local markets to grow their exposure.
Normally, none of the profits from those sales or radio plays goes to the producers or artists. If they’re lucky, their music will catch the interest of the powerhouses of technobrega: the raves, or aparelhagens. This is where technobrega shifts from homemade music production and distribution to a massive and profitable subculture. These roving club nights are fittingly named: aparelhagem means “apparatus”, and each is rammed with massive soundsystems, cobbled-together fireworks, shimmery confetti, and frenetic light shows worthy of the pop stars they’re copying. Each aparelhagem is its own brand, and the most popular draw up to 20,000 people per show. The clubbing hordes pay entry fees, buy drinks, and fork out for CDs made on the spot from the live show. It’s these profits that prop up the system as aparelhagem owners line their pockets; rarely will producers get a direct cut from the night.
On any weekend in Belem, dozens of aparelhagems and technobrega shows blast from both legal clubs and clandestine warehouses. Figures about the industry’s size are predictably hazy and haven’t been updated since 2006. Even then, Augusto’s team put their annual profit at over USD 12 million.
From Colombia’s champeta to Angola’s kuduro to Argentina’s cumbia, musical scenes that thrive on raves and remixes have been cropping up around the world. But none quite matches the size, passion, or straight-up copying of technobrega’s pop jams fused with a hint of brasilidade, or Brazilianness.
While this digital democratization of local music scenes allows anyone to be a creator, not everyone profits. Technobrega producers, like many of their international counterparts who depend on the informal music business, tend to miss out on their copyrights and royalties. Benassi must use new tracks as advertisements for his production services; the only money he really makes is from artists who hire him directly. He has all but given up on seeing a cut when his original tracks are played on the radio or at shows, even if he does formally register them. Benassi blames a culture of apathy for not protecting his work and believes Brazil’s Institute of Intellectual Property just isn’t interested enough to follow through. Though another side could argue that pirating only begets more pirating.
But he says, “Technobrega is a new rhythm, like a child that’s growing quickly, and its characteristics could change at any moment.” There are already moves among some of his cohort to form unions and write only original tracks they can copyright. For now, though, northern Brazilians await the next big cheesy cover.