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Ecuador: Breaking the Austerity Grip in Music

Written by on . Published in Austerity: Less is More?

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Recording desk at a studio. Photon by Justin Ornellas, taken from Published under a license CC BY 2.0


No one knows what the term “music industry” means in Ecuador.  We did have one a long time ago, I think, but it just disappeared because local music couldn’t compete with foreign imports. Nowadays local music can’t compete with them either, even though worldwide record sales are poor and the industry is looking for new ways to sooth the economic impact of plummeting sales and internet piracy. But hey, people will always need a break from their daily stress, that’s the reason why huge concerts thrive in countries with big economic problems such as Spain – where a few weeks ago Bruce Springsteen put on a gig.

No, austerity shouldn’t have an impact on entertainment, and after all music is entertainment. Yet, what happens to a country that hasn’t ever had a proper music industry and where all the “national” music has developed very much on the sidelines? It costs a lot of money to produce music in Ecuador in “state of the art” recording studios, or maybe you just have to win one of the categories of the “Phonographic Fund”, managed by the Ministry of Culture, that gives more than USD 10,000 to the lucky winners. Because, if you’re not lucky, you’re in trouble: in a country where the basic wage is about $ 300, a recording studio with good quality sound can cost $ 30, and that’s only the hourly rate.

But for some musicians there’s hope… at least on paper. The recently adopted Communication Law hit the right spot. This is a clear government initiative to increase exposure of local musicians’ work on the airwaves: for every song by a foreign artist, the stations are obliged to play one by a local musician. This is called “1 x 1” exposure and it’s a new form of promotion. All the many recent discussions on the subject have noted that the previous standard required stations to play a 30% quota of national music, but the government never checked to see if the law was actually being implemented. Nowadays, musicians are expecting such controls. And maybe that’s why, for the first time in all our 33 years of democratic life (after the last dictatorship,) we have official television spots where local musicians talk about the advantages of the new initiative and say “thank you” to the Government – because of that bill…

Yet no one is thinking about the serious investment needed to make professional recordings. The small recording studios can’t compete with the bigger ones because the sound they produce is not exactly of the highest quality. The government gives musicians exposure on local radio by decree, but doesn’t breath a word about economic incentives to make better recordings (apart from the Ministry of Culture’s “Phonographic Fund”), and nor does anyone else. So is Ecuador really breaking the austerity grip on music?

“The invisibility of Ecuadorian musicians in the media results from the confluence of several factors: the logic of territorial expansion of big corporations of communication and entertainment such as the Prisa Group, Walt Disney Company or MVS Comunicaciones, whose interests are based in foreign productions, especially those from Spain, Mexico and the United States; the practices of principals and radio programmers, promoters and artists who have installed the payola[1] as the most common means of access to radios, which creates an environment of unfair competition that benefits the artists who are more likely to invest in so-called “awards” (iPods, laptops, cell phones that are delivered to the radios for the purpose of “promotion”)[2], writes Javier López Narváez in an article in El Telégrafo, the national newspaper. Narváez synthesizes the dynamics of the industry in Ecuador. But can a law really make local music competitive if it lacks the money to do so?

Ecuador is a country where musicians are middle class, so releasing an album or touring represents a huge economic risk unless you are a successful pop singer (like Juan Fernando Velasco) or form part of “tecnocumbia” (a kind of music where Andean and tropical sounds collide, widely consumed in Ecuador and whose artists have an estimated income of $ 4,000 per performance). In 2012, for every 100 hours of radio programming, only nine were intended for music “made in Ecuador”, a fact reflected in the relationship of the public with the sounds produced in the country. In fact, if you stroll through social networks, you can see that there is still some opposition to the new measure, especially since it forces people to hear things that they might not want to hear – meaning local music.

To sum up, while economic conditions are not the best for music anywhere in the world, in Ecuador we are willing to build an industry out of the small pieces. And with this new law (which the Government favors, and which involves no money) the musicians don’t have any other choice but to prepare to join forces with producers, studio owners, and managers of theaters, to generate agreements to create a national music industry. Entertainment is not something that can be left behind and discarded, even when times are tough. “Our job now is to deliver well recorded, professional music to the radios,” said musician Steffano Dueñas, in a note published on 19 June in El Telégrafo. And boy, is he right!

[1] A bribe that the radio stations used to ask for to allow musicians to play their music on air. Old habits die hard.

[2] Yes, artists pay for “prizes” just to gain “air time” for their songs.

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EduardoVarasC Twitter: @eduardovarcarEduardo

Writer, journalist and musician from Ecuador, in South America