A Brief Study of Free Music in South America

A final year degree essay…

 

My initial goals in starting research for this project were to gauge the reactions to two specific questions, the first regarding how locally based influences are within a free music movement which is largely non-regional given its having been founded, as a concept, with the internet in mind. I wanted to seek out strands within the output of Latin American contributors to free culture which could be tied back to local styles, be they an evolution of traditional culture or as a variation or re-definition of contemporary genres within music which had been adapted to hold a distinctness from their original inspirations. How capable I am of answering such questions at this point I’m unsure given the limited replies received to the planned bulk of my supporting evidence, the interviews which I sent out to various labels and artists. Whilst numerous individuals were willing to participate the task of being asked to break down the realities of an entire local movement is no easy one, in a field where regional analysis of the scene is seemingly non-existent there appeared to be little hope for or sense of a unifying sense of self within Latin American free music. In itself, of course, that offered some answers to the questions I’d planned to place my focus on, albeit not answers which particularly lent themselves to in-depth analysis.

As a modification of my initial aims I’ve consequently altered main thrust of my questioning to relate more to the question of ‘Why not?’ when asked in the context of free music in relation to regional cultures. Whilst the obvious force of a dominant global Western/European culture within music has a self-evident role to play in stifling or negating more regional variations in taste and community ideals regarding music there are other national and regional groups who do more to cling to what are at the very least self-realised local quirks and traits. Something which isn’t necessarily done with a sense of traditionalism or adherence to an ideal of national identity but rather with the manifestation of innate cultural traits and conventions which whilst not necessarily consciously projected on to the art do leak through from the surrounding culture.

Before going further, however, I should perhaps pause for a moment in defining exactly what the ‘Free Music Movement’ represents under my working definition for this essay. In short the Free Music Movement that I recognise is centred around the Creative Commons licensing system which, in itself, is a reaction against the traditional Copyright system which largely works in service of Copyright owners as opposed to actual content creators. Which is to say that the artist loses control of their work as it becomes commodified to the point of being a market asset more than a creative act, or even a commercially musical one. The Creative Commons license is user-defined and user-administrated, so the artist can place basic limitations on what their work is to be used for, allowed for commercial usage, allowing for free distribution, allowing for modification and re-mixing, or disallowing all of them, as they feel is suitable for themselves and the work without ownership of the work ever superseding its integrity and general desire to be experienced as a creative act rather than an economic one.

Around this ideal a global community has grown up, with most countries boasting some ‘scene’ no matter how small or marginal it may be and with the central focus being on the Creative Commons organisation, a non-profit activist and academic group based in the U.S. Although even given the fundamentally global outlook of the movement certain areas and countries can still be pointed to as  the most active in promoting and embracing the ideal of creator-controlled and largely freely distributed culture. The most notable advocates of the movement nationally speaking are, at this point, probably France, Germany and the U.S., although Latin America does boast an active movement and a firm grouping within the free music community as a whole.

My own participation in the movement and, from that, my own authority in talking about it is based upon an increasingly long running involvement with free music both as a commentator, reviewer and most recently as the founder and administrator of the ‘Net Label Coalition’, a group of 22 net labels (bodies who, under similar organisational structures to traditional indie labels release and promote free music) which include among their number members and artists from most active parts of the scene, South America included. I also run a Creative Commons news and feature site, The Creative UnCommons, which has previously bought me into contact with at least some of the major Latin American distributors and artists, as well as plenty of fans whose interests focus on regional net labels or Spanish language releases.

To return to my earlier point however, the apparent lack of a dominant South American sensibility to much of the music released from South America can first be juxtaposed to the efforts of a country like France, to avoid the obvious globalist tendencies of the more obviously comparable U.S.A. The French movement is arguably one of the biggest within the free music scene, a fact which is at least in part attributable to sites like Jamendo, who operate as something of a wholesale distributor of free music, without any particular focus on quality or genre it acts as a practical outlet for the vast majority of musicians involved in the scene. Although despite its ubiquitous nature the French contingent have frequently and readily shown themselves to be a dominant force, with a large and active community gathering around the Luxembourg based company. The result of this numerical and social dominance surrounding the site both the French language and sensibilities are clearly represented throughout the 33,000 albums the site makes available, as well as by an active and vocal presence as activists and reporters on large swathes of the movement as a whole. All of which leads to a definite trend within the actual efforts released through Jamendo itself and throughout other Creative Commons networks, a trend which manifests itself largely under the aegis of perceived ‘local’ styles. Look to, for example, Electronic music and you’ll often find the French ‘cultural identity’ manifested and defended. Here I should, perhaps, emphasise that when I attribute genres to specific nations it’s not my intention to ghettoise or limit culture but rather to point to real world trends which illustrate that whilst one style can be universal there’s still ample space for that basic pattern to be stamped with a different identity and sense of self.

The South American presence, on the other hand, is largely made up of independent net labels rather than major distribution hubs and whilst certain regional trends are displayed there’s all too often a sense of a reaction to outside trends as opposed to an innovation and defence of local ones. To pick up on three of the ‘major’ labels that operate out of South America, Lepork Records, DelHotel and Pueblo Nuevo you can see a fairly continuous reliance on external cultural influences emerging. The first, Lepork, are a Punk based label whose self avowed aim is to promote specifically South American acts although much of what they release is built firmly on the foundations of North American Punk, with linguistic differences acting as the major innovation on their artists’ behalf. Whilst the goal is undeniably a laudable one it can still be a struggle when listening to their output to mark out a sense of uniqueness from the U.S. based movement that inspired them. Where the French operate under their own defined distribution systems and almost aggressively move for cultural dominance in certain genres, where often the vast majority of releases will bear what could be called strictly localised traits, the South American movement seems to lack either the arrogance or force required to present a strong cultural, musical identity.

Next there’s DelHotel, a Mexico based label which falls under more or less the same trap albeit with a variation of genre. With a general focus on Electro and Pop many of their artists fit more into a French tradition than a North American one, which in itself may be some vague sign of a reaction to their dominant northern neighbour or just a reflection of how one country has placed its brand on a certain style of music. It could even be said to be some form of rather more grim unwitting cultural imperialism/globalisation, with external forces delivering fully formed cultural concepts to be reproduced with the minimal of local variation. A theory which whilst I can see some benefit in I’m wary of entirely endorsing at least in part due to the vagueness and scattered nature of any open culture scene and even more so one based largely on the internet. Whilst the bulk of music released can certainly seem to fit into specific guidelines I won’t for a second deny that within the Latin American movement and all others there’s a near infinite depth of choice available, even if the major representatives of it seem to fall into more defined boundaries.

Finally there’s Pueblo Nuevo, a Chilean label who unlike the others I’ve mentioned place an active and fairly politicised emphasis on resistance, independence and Latin American unity, as can be seen in their ‘manifesto’:

Welcome to Pueblo Nuevo,

rustic and lonely territory,

over and over again devastated by frightful nature forces, the ruthless conqueror,

or the servile and shameful compatriot.

 

Over and over again,

our landscape has been erased and redrawn,

trying to eliminate every palimpsest, every fundamental sign.

Many have gone away, afraid by such an overwhelming and unspeakable cruelty, or by the simple and pressing drive to keep going…

 

Over and over again our spirit struggles and deceives the wall of silence and omission, re-emerging unrecognisable, wearing new costumes and disguises, just like Manuel Rodriguez cheating the oppressor,

we stand up to make ourselves heard.

 

Between the ancient voice and the cybernetic vertigo; between the underlying past and the virtual future; Pueblo Nuevo is born to our material world and to all those possible

worlds to come.

 

Here today, our claim for freedom,

concurrence and brotherhood,

from Latin America to the world.’

 

Which displays that mix between regional identity and global activity which is ideally the hall mark of the free music movement, which is, unsurprisingly, also referred to on occasion as ‘open culture’. Whichever name the movement operates under the ideal of a global outlet and evolutionary platform mixed with local and immediate cultural activity remains a fairly consistent aspiration for most.

 

And indeed a sense of desirable localisation and exploration is borne out by another quote from Pueblo Nuevo founder Mika Martini (aka Hugo Espinosa Chellew):

 

‘… the sounds I like to work with: voices from our Chilean tribal ancestors, sounds coming from Latin-American aboriginal instruments, political speeches (both as sound and concept). I’m interested in generating and/or proposing new soundings from elements I perceive as my background.

 

But such sentiments are, to me, something of a defensive act, turning to already oppressed musical movements such as traditional native music and then seeking to actively grant them a presence within the musical landscape. It’s far from an organic inclination on behalf of musicians in general to invest their own culture into the music which ultimately is what I feel the Latin American movement struggles with.

 

It could, I suppose, be asked just how readily any country mixes its own localised culture with the overarching identity of North American globalised trends given that for most the genre based structure of the culture they’re involved in is at least to some degree defined by the mainstream commercialism which has routinely fallen into the hands of corporate cultural management. However even with the most overtly ‘American’ of genres, Hip-Hop I can point to English, Scottish and Welsh acts which approach the musical conventions of the style with an entirely alternative intent, imposing the ideas and principles of their own lives upon music which traditionally ties itself to the conventions of the urban U.S. Yet, perhaps predictably, Latin American Hip Hop within the free music movement does less to dissent from the central archetype than to embrace it. Often you’ll find avowedly Latin Hip Hop which really just switches out certain U.S. orientated concepts for their Hispanic simmilies, without breaking from the aggressive, ‘Gangsta’ orientated mentality of it. A fact presumably in part at least attributable to the geographic closeness of South and Central America to the U.S., as well as the mass migration northwards which means that not only is culture projected south but that for many it’s a cultural image which is tied in to economic and social aspirations. The moral code which defined the genre are transferred wholesale across from one oppressed cultural group (African Americans) to another in Latin American and especially Mexican groups within the States and from there transited South again from those migrant communities. Obviously not a situation which could be said to apply to something like English Hip Hop, where the threat of cultural imperialism, whilst present, isn’t directly enforced either by proximity or a serious flow of people.

 

Of course more aspects are at work in defining regional trends within free music than the globalisation of culture, indeed the medium itself tends to encourage a certain amount of heterogeneity within its output. Much of the movement is built upon solitary would-be artists who through new technology are for the first time being granted the opportunity to create and distribute music, although with a set of tools which are often clearly, near unarguably defined. The proliferation of Electronic music is the obvious result of more and more people having the ability to create such with a minimum of equipment and it’s this genre, which has largely been evolved online, which makes up much of the output of Latin American musicians. It makes for a cultural movement which doesn’t have any geographic or community anchor and therefore one which doesn’t feel inclined to feed into a set local tradition. Although as stated earlier, countries like France have continually and actively protected some sense of cultural individuality within these new digital genres. And it can still be asked of course whether regional foundations are necessary with such a globally inspired style of music, where the occasional foray into World music crossovers could be said to represent a humanistic cherry picking of local cultures which isn’t bound by national identity. A musician can now use aspects of culturally alien music in their own with relative ease given their access to the sources of those styles through the internet, but is that form of cultural appropriation still tied to the cultures themselves or is it a new abstraction of them? Can it be argued that something like traditional tribal music from South America needs to be maintained and protected by South Americans to retain integrity? Or have we all inherited a more general human culture which can be detached from its roots and propagated without context? If the latter is the case then perhaps the apparent lack of dominantly South American traits in music can be said to be a true evolution of cultural outlooks as opposed to a failure to defend an antiquated model. Quite which side is right is, perhaps, more in the mind of the beholder than anything else and the answer may even be reliant on the unfolding development of the free music movement in particular and cultural progress in general, where the value of a globalist cultural structure will be proven or dis-proven on the fates of regional and cultural strands which stand outside of the mainstream. If they should fade and falter before a Anglo-American cultural ideal on the ever more dominant musical stage of the internet then it becomes evident that a measure of protectionism could well have been justified.

 

Of course all of this must be set not just in the context of free music but of music in general. The free music movement is a fairly new one which faces increasing resistance from traditional commercial models, those involved now are very much the pioneers of a new and more egalitarian cultural system but their reach as such remains limited. The potential lies perhaps especially within the Latin American movement to draw in more native styles and influences and safe guard them from a generic notion of commercial ‘World Music’ which seeks to ghettoise and neuter the active force of minority styles. There’s a far greater awareness of indigenous creativity in at least some parts of South America than there could be said to be in most parts of the world, resistance has to at least some degree made the protection of culture an active issue and one which could well be served by the free music movement were its activists to take up the role of something like guardians and promoters, drawing in the non-internet savvy bulk of people who maintain local musical traditions and granting them new tools with which to safeguard their heritage. That step, however, is one that has yet to be taken anywhere within the scene although its time as an idea may soon be coming with certain upcoming projects placing a focus on widening the movement beyond the self-imposed boundaries of its innovators and vanguard.

 

Perhaps the most positive message that can be offered up now in regard to the South American presence within the free music scene is that it’s still struggling, as are we all, under the basic assumptions provided by the traditional commercial model of musical distribution. Artistic freedom is practically possible by virtue of the tools available but ingrained notions of cultural trends go back far, far further than the Creative Commons ideal and the hierarchical imposition of culture which has been dominant for so long is unlikely to fade away to allow for more independent and individual contributions without a fight. Many countries too have yet to be properly brought into the Creative Commons model, reliant as it is on early regional take up to establish at least the core of a viable scene, so whilst Mexico, Chile, Argentina and perhaps one or two others are slowly turning their attentions to the potential of an open culture model the commercial model still remains dominant over most of the continent. And with global efforts on behalf of the key music distribution corporations already under way to crack down on alternative artistic concepts it may well be a far harder and longer task to bring about a flourishing network than it’s been with previous efforts.

 

Ultimately all too much about both the South American movement and the movement in general has yet to be discovered, what questions I started off with seem as I approach the end of my research like wholly inadequate entries into investigation. And the main product of my efforts seems to be a new list of questions which need to be answered as the foundations of proper analysis, but that perhaps is inevitable when undertaking a study of such a young scene where the chaos of initial intent blurs any more hardened attempts at understanding. There are no authoritative sources to return to or accepted truths regarding what the movement is doing and where that may lead, even more so in South America perhaps, where such structures as are offered by sites like Jamendo or free music publications like The Creative UnCommons or Phlow Magazine are cut off by the very basic issue of linguistic barriers. And I can’t say I’m sure that my own interpretations of the situation have done much to add to the wider understanding of it but perhaps I have projected some theoretical paths which may become more relevant as they come to fruition.

 

With thanks to:

 

DelHotel Records

Lepork Records

Pueblo Nuevo

Veronica Peralta (Translations)

Jenny Ruales (Translations)

References:

www.Jamendo.com – Free music distribution hub.

www.Archive.org – Free music and open culture archives.

www.TheCreativeUnCommons.com – Free music review and community site. (Defunct)

www.TheCreativeUnCommons.com/forums/– NetLabel Coalition community (Defunct).

www.Phlow.com – German magazine site, English language.

www.creativecommons.org – Creative Commons Organisation.

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