I’ve spent the past week in Rio de Janeiro, which was pretty amazing on all sorts of levels, though you’ll be delighted to hear that I was there working hard and not just on a big junket to a fabulous city with incredible beaches, breathtaking scenery, great nightlife, amazing music, wonderful food and awesome people – though those, of course, also featured.
I went for a number of reasons. The first of which was to present a keynote speech at an academic conference about independent music in what was being referred to as the “post-crisis age” – which is a fairly contentious term, but it made for an interesting context.
Micael, who organised the conference, also has a new book out about this sort of thing, including contributions from many of the presenters.
It was an opportunity to further my connections with some colleagues I’d met in Madrid earlier in the year – some academics from Spain, as well as a few who had come over to the Madrid conference from Brazil. All music industry and media academics researching and writing about really interesting stuff that doesn’t tend to get published in English.
But the main reason for me was to start making some headway into what I hope will form my major research project for the next year or two: the Fora do Eixo – a network of independent music collectives all across Brazil. It’s fascinating stuff, and nobody seems to know about it – let alone research it – in the English-speaking world… and there’s a lot to learn.
Straight to work
I arrived at the airport early on Monday morning and was picked up by Leonardo di Marchi, a scholar who studies music industry institutions in Brazil. He took me straight to the university building in the north of the city, which looked like it was designed by M.C. Escher and Franz Kafka if they had shares in a cement factory.
It was grey, rainy and miserable on the first day, and not at all the tropical paradise I’d been led to expect. So I didn’t mind staying indoors all day too much… though I found the seminar heavy going, to say the least…
They take their seminars seriously in Brazil. It was a 9am start, and it went until after 8pm. Panel sessions lasted for three hours at a stretch, and as long as the presentations were, the questions and discussion were much longer.
Of course, it was mostly in Portuguese, with some presentations in Spanish. My Portuguese is limited to three words, two of which mean ‘thank you’. My Spanish isn’t much better.
Unless they were going to ask our names or tell us that the man runs, the girl swims, and that the woman knows the boy, it was going to be entirely impenetrable for me. For eleven hours.
I got some email done.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
I was staying with my Spanish colleagues (actually, one’s Argentinian, but lives in Madrid). They had rented an amazing million-dollar apartment overlooking the beach at Copacabana. I didn’t ask how they managed to score such an incredible pad, but I was more than happy to sleep on the couch at their place for a tiny fraction of the rent, rather than sleep in a hostel.
Apart from anything else, the couch was just about bigger than my king size bed at home…
It was insanely great – all marble and expensive furniture, a fridge that could chill your drink to the correct temperature in minutes, and the view was just unbelievable. Right on the beachfront, centre of Copacabana, ten stories up. It made just sitting at the dining table, working on the laptop feel glamorous.
Tired, but ready to struggle on
My friend Joe Muggs, a music journalist from London, got in touch via Twitter and let me know he was in town for a completely different music industry conference.
Now, Joe and I have talked a lot over the last year or so, and have worked together on a project or two, but we had never actually met in person. So it was very cool to end up sitting on the beach in the middle of the night, drinking Caipirinhas and chatting face to face for the first time in Rio de Janeiro, when we actually only live about an hour and a half away from each other in England.
Joe brought a friend of his along, who had just quit his job at a major record label and was about to start a freelance career. An English guy, but who had lived in Rio for a long time and had a lot of stories to tell.
It turns out he was a big fan of José – one of the Spanish academics I was staying with, who, it turns out, also presents a Brazilian music programme on the Spanish national radio, and has done for years. (UPDATE: Turns out I have that wrong – José was general director of programs of public radio in Spain – but that’s confusing, because Joe’s friend said that he used to listen to his show…?)(
Given the travel, and how tired I was, going out to sit on the beach, drink and talk about music was a terrible ordeal, but I managed to persevere until about 2:30am…
Music as Culture in the Digital Age
My presentation was at the beginning of the second day, and so after only a few hours sleep, we left early to get there. The university was about an hour away by Metro – two trains, actually – and then a walk from Maracaná (an important sports stadium, apparently).
Of course, punctuality wasn’t one of the most pressing concerns for my non-English colleagues, and we finally got started about an hour late. I showed videos from a number of the projects I’ve worked on – focusing on Aftershock in Italy, France and England, The Kitchen Orchestra project in Norway, the Music Basti project in India, and the Jura project in Scotland.
My talk was primarily about what has emerged as my main research over the past few years and the key overarching ideas that connect these individual projects – which is an exploratory approach to understanding the mediation of music culture and independent music business in the digital age.
Some good questions from the audience, specifically about funding for practice-based research projects like this in the UK, and about the theoretical framework (McLuhan, Small, Engeström and others).
Rio takes it toll
After the talk and a bit of lunch, the jet lag really started to kick in, so I went back to the apartment for a nap. The idea was that I would join my colleagues at 9pm (just after the talking part of the conference finished) for the cocktail evening and book launch, and then we were being taken out to some clubs to see some gigs.
I got home around 3pm, was asleep by about 4pm – and woke at 3am, about half an hour before my Spanish friends returned after what must have been a very big night, apparently involving caipirinhas. I’m sure it was a lot of fun, but between my jet lag and their monumental hangovers the next day, I’m glad I didn’t end up going back for that one…
A few hours work, and then a few more hours sleep and I was ready for phase two of my visit.
Macaco Bong & Black Drawing Chalks
My friend Fabricio, who I met through Un-Convention, manages a couple of bands that had come from Goiania to Rio to play a concert in a new venue called Studio RJ – an amazing space right on the waterfront in Ipanema (the next bay along from Copacabana).
He arranged to meet me at a Boteca in Ipanema – a bar with snacks. By now, the weather had improved dramatically, and so we went to the beach, sat on deck chairs, drank leão matte (iced tea with lemonade) and just more or less chilled for an hour or two… until it was time for soundcheck.
The bands were staying in an 11-berth room in a local hostel. Really cheap accommodation for that many people – but close to everything. I helped the band take their gear to the venue, and stayed around for the soundcheck.
This was a Fora do Eixo gig, so I asked questions about how it was organised, how it was promoted, where the money went, and so on.
It turns out that this was a free gig. The first of a series of regular Wednesday Fora do Eixo free concerts. The idea is to bring a significant crowd, and to sell merchandise at the concert, while the venue makes money on the bar.
It seemed to work. The place was pretty packed and the bands sold an amazing amount of t-shirts and CDs.
Macaco Bong are pretty big in Brazil though… even though they’re an independent artist, connected with the collectives rather than signed to a major record label, their album was record of the year in Rolling Stone magazine in 2008, they supported System of Down earlier this week… and they have quite a following.
Impressive when you consider that they play quite challenging instrumental hard rock, often in strange time signatures with multiple sections that do not repeat in each song.
Black Drawing Chalks have quite a following too – and members of the band do quite a lot of visual design work for other artists as well (hence the band name).
They’re more straight-ahead hard-edged bluesy rock than Macaco Bong. Unfortunately they were losing a member – after several years on the road, the guitarist had opted for a quieter life with a regular job. It was a very emotional night for them all, as they’re all such great friends.
I began to tire toward the end and walked home (about half an hour along the beach front). But not before I’d made some appointments for my research. I’d had dinner before the concert with members of some of the collectives and arranged to meet with them for proper interviews during the rest of my stay.
It would have been great to arrange more interviews than I did – but given my brief stay in town and everyone’s schedules, it wouldn’t have been possible to make it happen.
As it was, not all of the interviews I arranged ended up happening, but I met with a couple of the Fora do Eixo members and spoke to them on camera for about an hour each about how Fora do Eixo works, how it started and what it does.
I’ll be putting those interviews up online (in manageable, bite-sized pieces) this weekend, and I also made some excellent further contacts for Skype interviews – or, if I can secure some research funding to pursue this, for when I return to Brazil next year.
Of course, if I do get funds to come back, it won’t just be Rio I come to. The whole point of Fora do Eixo is that it connects cities across the country into an informal touring network with hubs all over the place, from the centre of Sao Paulo to remote towns in the Amazon.
It’s political, an alternative to what they see as the ‘old way’ of corporate, capitalist music business – and it’s incredibly well-organised.
They even have their own currency – a barter-based system that they see as complementary to the official currency, which allows them to pay people using services rather than cash.
In Rio, they’re investigating a card-based system, linked with centralised software that tracks balances and payments. It’s incredibly sophisticated, and it has the beginnings of a separate complementary economy based within the independent music sector.
You can see why I find this interesting.
Nobody has written terribly extensively about this phenomenon in English yet (though I finally found an article or two about specific aspects of the collectives and their activity), and it seems like there are lessons that can be drawn and transferred to other independent music, arts and cultural contexts.
Of course, not everyone has the geographic enormity of Brazil to inspire them to come up with creative, practical and mutually beneficial solutions, but there is a lot to learn here.
A night out in Lapa
Anna Maria, Cíntia and Micael with some of Anna Maria’s work behind
On my last night in Brazil, the Spanish guys (Nacho, Luis & Jose) and I went to dinner at the home of Micael and Cíntia – the two academics whose university hosted the conference. A small, but lovely group of people at home for a dinner.
Cíntia’s mother was there – a well-known artist named Anna Maria Maiolino – and I was introduced to some of her (amazing) work. (UPDATE: I’m reliably informed that Anna is Micael’s mother and not Cíntia’s. Also confusing. I was convinced I had that right…)
After dinner, we met up with Fernando Salis, another (very different) artist who is best known for this amazing projection on the Cristo Redentor statue. Watch to the end. Very clever…
Fernando took us to Lapa – a comparatively (until recently, VERY) run down part of town, but which is the home to some of Rio’s best nightlife. We went to a bar where an amazing singer performed an incredible repertoire ranging from traditional Brazilian folk songs, right through to Björk tunes.
Unsurprisingly, that was a bit of a late one…
The best reason to go to Brazil?
My last hours in Brazil were spent doing a bit of record shopping (some amazing finds) and one or two gifts… and then the long journey home – including a 90 minute taxi ride across town, a 12 hour flight and a three-hour coach back to Birmingham… and a lot of waiting around in between.
So… that, as well as all of my regular work (other than teaching two classes, that I was able to get cover for) and some record shopping is basically what I’ve been doing in Brazil this past week.
Looking forward to a cup of tea and a lie down before I’m back to work on Monday…