17 January 2015

The Politics of Music Piracy in Bolivia

The government of indigenous Bolivian president Evo Morales, which was inaugurated in January 2006 and has huge popular support (gaining over 64% of the vote when re-elected in December 2009), has made no significant attempt to confront music, software or book piracy to date. However, the rise of piracy and collapse of the large-scale music industry date from well before Morales' tenure and need to be viewed in broader historical context. In particular, the various phases of neo-liberal policies since the mid-1980s have been seen to have exacerbated inequality, favoured foreign interests, reduced state legitimacy, and ultimately ignited the social movements that swept Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) Government to Power. Thus, the growth of piracy may, in part, be seen to reflect social conditions that denied majority access to knowledge and cultural resources and a political climate in which many Bolivians came to feel that laws were unjust and favoured the rich.

Piracy has been widely blamed for the near-complete collapse of Bolivia's large-scale 'licit' music recording industry and for the exodus of the multinationals from the country. Recording industry profits in the country in 1995 are estimated to have been in the region of US$20 million. While the three main national labels - Discolandia, Lauro, and Heriba - enjoyed around US$2 million of these profits, the lions' share (US$18 million) went to the multinationals operating in the country. During the 1990s, these included EMI Music, BMG, Warner Music, Universal Music, Sony Music, Leader Music, and Santa Fe Records. Levels of cassette and VHS piracy were already considerable in the mid-1990s, but according to Andres Lopez (formerly of Sony Music) the country's 1999 economic crisis escalated piracy levels from around 65% in 1998 to 85-89% in 1999. In the years around the turn of the millennium, the national and international music industry jointly organized a series of campaigns to combat piracy, including television advertisements, newspaper articles, raids on street vendors using hired police officers, and the mass destruction of pirated discs. The industry also lobbied for the revision of the 1992 copyright law (law 1322), pressured the government to tackle copyright infringement, and censured the state for treating piracy as a 'social' rather than a 'legal' issue. They also brought several cases against pirate producers to the courts, but the defendants, although caught red-handed and admitting guilt, escaped punishment due to legal loopholes. They were able to walk free and entirely unpunished because the two-year maximum jail term for copyright infringement (law 1322) is subject to judicial pardon (according to the Blatmann code of penal procedure), and because fines are not included among the penalties.

Despite the creation of a national intellectual property service (SENAPI) in 1999, and unfulfilled plans to overhaul copyright and create a special police force dedicated to enforcement (proposed by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights in 2001), the government demonstrated little motivation to combat piracy and respond to music industry pressure. This may be attributed in part to the political unpopularity of enforcement, the issues it raises concerning social inequality, and its relatively low priority given the political turbulence of the early years of the millennium, which included the so-called 'Water Wars' (2000) and 'Gas Wars' (2003). By 2003, Bolivian recording industry profits were estimated to have shrunk to around US$0.6 million, and all of the major international labels had closed their Bolivian offices and left the country. Both Lauro and Heriba had also ceased trading, and in this same year Discolandia downsized to 20 staff (from 150 in 1995). Today, Discolandia--a long-established label that has just celebrated its 50th anniversary - is the only major record label still trading in Bolivia. Nonetheless, many small, low-budget digital studios of varying degrees of informality are active around the country, recording local artists for regional markets, where the low cost of the original products often competes with pirate prices. By contrast, the high overheads and the constraints of the formal sector, alongside a desire to exploit international markets and maintain high profits, have meant that the large-scale labels made relatively few concessions on pricing. Instead, labels such as Discolandia have focused on the production of high-quality recordings, often incorporating glossy informative booklets, which are aimed at exclusive niche markets able to pay international prices, but which are well beyond the budget of the Bolivian majority.

In short, the large-scale record industry, which formerly dominated the market through technological advantage enabled by high capital investment, has almost entirely vanished. In its place we find a multiplicity of small-scale labels or home studios that use low-cost digital equipment requiring relatively little capital investment. As one Cochabamba-based vendor explained in January 2008:
Many groups [now] prefer to record with other labels. There are currently labels which are not like Lauro, Heriba, Discolandia, or even let's say Sony Music. They are not like these [large scale] labels: they are small labels that offer the capacity to record their product at low cost. Very low cost! Because in truth, with the technology that has now appeared, a console--a simple console--with a computer is more than sufficient to get started, and to have two good microphones, one for the instrument, the other for vocals. You don't need any more than this to make a studio. And for a video production, cameras and all these things are much cheaper, maybe 500 dollars. We are talking about a digital workstation which can create quality images and offer a product at lower costs. Now all these situations can be offered.
This description of a small-scale home studio describes, almost precisely, the equipment used by the originario (indigenous) artist/producer Gregorio Mamani Macha. He is constantly constrained economically, and although a very well-known artist among low-income indigenous people of the region he is almost unknown among the middle classes. His work has been subject to high levels of piracy, against which he has long been an outspoken opponent. However, piracy was also undoubtedly responsible for the international popularity of a VCD of his music featuring his son, the child star Vichito Mamani. This piracy-generated popularity led the family to undertake concert tours of Peru, Argentina and Bolivia in 2005-2006, enabling Mamani to raise the modest capital necessary to set up a digital studio. While Mamani's home studio and label (CEMBOL) is largely dedicated to producing and promoting his own work, a number of other labels primarily produce the work of others.

For example, Cochabamba-based CG Records and Banana Records are both established producers of originario musics and popular electronic genres, such as cumbia, for low-income markets. They started out, respectively, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, producing cassettes of regional styles for an emergent mass market. As Wilson Ramirez of Banana Records noted in March 2008:
Formerly, we used to produce cassettes. Well, the people of the countryside identified more with their [own] music; they purchased this music and didn't buy pirated versions. So in our case it was better to dedicate ourselves to the mass market which was more indigenous, as is the case in Bolivia, than to address ourselves to the central market that was already occupied by Chayanne, Luis Miguel and those kinds of foreign music.
This reported tendency for indigenous peoples to buy originals would now seem to be less in evidence with the escalation of mass piracy following the arrival of VCD technology. Although original VCDs of originario music are far more widely available than those of neo-folkloric and international genres consumed by the middle classes, Wilson Ramirez asserts that 'of every ten discs sold, we sell one original; the pirates [sell] nine.' The effects of piracy have led to the changing of contractual agreements between labels and artists, where a recording fee is only offered to the most established and successful artists. Other artists are required to pay the label to produce their work (Banana Records apparently charges US$500) and may be responsible for their own distribution. Labels rarely produce more than 1000 or 2000 copies of a new release as the window of opportunity for selling originals, before the market is flooded by thousands of pirated copies, is often only a matter of days. Coordinating single-day release in all the major markets around the country has thus become a standard strategy to attempt to recoup production costs. Few labels survive economically from the music business alone, most combining such work with other occupations or businesses. For example, in addition to Banana Records, which has grown increasingly unprofitable, Wilson Ramirez owns a radio station Ritmo--originally set up to promote his recordings--and a successful bakery chain.

A large proportion of small-sized and medium-sized studios might be described as 'informal,' as they neither pay taxes nor register recordings with performers' or composers' rights organizations, or with the national intellectual property service (SENAPI). Although rights to compositions and recordings can now be registered quite simply and cheaply, originario artists/composers and producers often believe that a notated score is required (as was formerly the case), that royalties will not be forthcoming, and that registration will not halt plagiarism. With the pro-indigenous presidency of Evo Morales, newly created originario musicians' organizations have begun to confront a perceived sense of exclusion and discrimination by the existing music royalty collection societies controlled by middle-class artists. Such moves, which are often presented as a 'cultural revolution,' reflect a desire to gain greater equality, recognition and legitimacy. Certain small-scale labels have also sought out ways to become 'legitimate' and move into the formal sector, a widely held aspiration in Bolivia's highly informal economy. Indeed, according to Wilson Ramirez, many apparently licit medium-sized and small-sized labels originally raised the capital necessary to set up studios through piracy, and some continue such practices clandestinely. He identified this shadowy aspect of the activities of many record labels as a key impediment to mounting a unified campaign against piracy.

Drastic reductions in the cost of disc-burning equipment, alongside the growing market for high-quality colour-printed covers, known locally as laminas, and the tightening of border controls point towards increasing localisation of pirate production: a gradual shift from Peru to Bolivia. Peru's hold over the production of pirated music for the Bolivian market appears, partially at least, to have been underpinned by Bolivian national discourses of technological and economic inferiority, which might be seen as counterbalanced by a sense of Bolivian moral and cultural superiority. In addition, for many years the frontier town of Desaguadero has maintained the image of a place where profit is to be made by importing pirated discs: a chimera that, alongside low Bolivian self-esteem as regards national manufacturing, has been in the interests of the many traders of contraband goods. Might these be symptoms of the high levels of informality in the economy?

The large-scale national labels of Discolandia and Lauro founded in the late 1950s (and before them Mendez, in 1949) were key to the development of the sense of a national culture based on 'folklore.' In many parts of Latin America, the development of national folkloric genres has been associated with cultural homogenisation and the erasure of more indigenous and diverse forms. But today's mass of small-scale labels, many of which target an emergent low-income and largely indigenous market, suggest heterogeneity; they stress a diversity of regional, local, urban, rural or ethnic identities; they offer contrasting music aesthetics and values; and they often reflect internal national issues and struggles. There is also a youthful aspect to such developments: not only are young people more at home than their elders with digital technologies, but with over 35% of Bolivia's population under 15 years of age, and a media age of under 22 years, immense potential for individual agency in small-scale record industry lies ahead. Despite the near complete demise of Bolivia's large-scale record industry, it appears that the overall number of recordings being released has increased, as have the sectors of the population how consuming such media. It is now commonplace for low-income consumers to own a sizeable collection of cheap VCDs, although low disc quality, frequent faults, and the medium's intrinsic fragility mean that many quickly become unusable. People sometimes contrasted the throwaway and ephemeral quality of music VCDs, which tend to be 'watched' a few times for their visual novelties, with their multiple 'listenings' to the more robust audio cassette, a format that remains important to the originario music market. Thus, in the shift from analogue audio (cassette) to digital audio-visual (VCD, DVD) music-reception habits, aesthetics and priorities have also transformed. For example, the rise of the VCD music video was, according to some consultants, directly responsible for the growth in popularity of originario charango songs, eclipsing previously dominant electronic genres such as cumbia. However, this may also in part be attributed to the key role played by charango songs in the pro-indigenous election campaign and landslide victory of Evo Morales in December 2005, and to the rise of indigenous politics more generally. Thus, in certain respects, technological developments have moved in parallel with, and may even have underscored, political ones.

[This is a slightly edited extract from 'Rampant Reproduction and Digital Democracy: Shifting Landscapes of Music Production and Piracy in Bolivia' by Henry Stobart, which was originally published, along with references, in Ethnomusicology Forum, Vol. 19, No. 1, June 2010, pp. 27-56. The extracts are from pages 30-35 and 48-49.]

1 comment:

  1. Hi Yusuf,


    Launch of Decoloniality London this saturday . stay tuned. inspired by Multiversity.