Proletarian Rock and Revolutionary Music – Standing against Copyright

While some musicians agree that someone should be arrested for downloading their MP3, in more civilised countries like Venezuela, artists instead feel honoured when the people know about them, and download and share their songs. 


Is it revolutionary that my CDs, my books, my songs, or my movies use obsolete copyright laws, those that are used by large entertainment transnationals to fine and arrest people who like my work?

In other countries, the copyright war is intensifying; large entertainment companies order the shutting down of websites, people’s arrest, and the implementation of controversial laws that support their interests, such as the SOPA and PIPA in the US, Sinde-Wert in Spain,  Doring in Mexico, Lleras in Colombia, and the ACTA agreement in 31 countries.

While some musicians agree that someone should be arrested for downloading their MP3, in more civilised countries like Venezuela, artists instead feel honoured when the people know about them, and download and share their songs. 

New models are being experimented with that allow artists to earn a living from their music and their fans to obtain their songs without the majority of the money going to multinational economic groups.

Groups such as Dame Pa Matala are used to playing their music and selling their CDs, not in music shops, but rather at their own concerts, with amazing success. Many people have downloaded their MP3s from the Internet, but this doesn’t stop them selling hundreds of CDs at their concerts.

Other groups usually go to the barrios and populated areas to play live music, without stages or barriers or much paraphernalia, and spend some time with them directly. Last week, people in Caracas could see the Argentinean reggae, rock, and ska group Las Hormigas Negras (the black ants) playing in Sabana Grande boulevard in an improvised style, without a stage or anything else apart from two speakers and their instruments. And the people bought their CDs directly, without a music shop in between them to take a percentage of the money.

The group was visiting Caracas to play in a local shopping centre in Chacao [an upper class area] as part of a tour of Latin America, but that didn’t stop them playing spontaneously in one of Caracas’ main boulevards to an audience who might not know them in person.

El Pacto publishes its CDs on the internet with a Creative Commons license.

However one experience which most draws our attention is the one with proletarian and campesino  (rural worker) rock group El Pacto (EP), which has spent more than twenty years infecting Venezuelans with its music. Originally from Lara [state], the people know them for hits such as Chimborazo, La Caravana, Explosion San Jose, and Pueblo a la Calle (people to the street), among others. In their concerts stilt walkers and artists perform street theatre, interacting with their fans, giving them a unique experience.

The thing is that El Pacto made two controversial decisions:  They put their most recent CD, ‘Dancing with roosters’ on their webpage, www.elpacto.com.ve for everyone to download, and they gave it a Creative Commons license [translator’s note: the same license Venezuelanalysis.com uses], giving legal permission to people to download and share the CD with friends- exactly the opposite of what we see with commercial CDs, which come with legal warnings, even prohibiting that you lend the CD to your friends.

The use of Creative Commons “fascinates us, because we don’t agree with copyright,” Jose Gabriel Alvarez, main vocalist of the group, explained to us last Friday on the program Copiate esta Radio (Copy this radio) on the radio station Alba Ciudad 96.3 FM.

“It’s very hard to say that a work [of music, art, etc] is completely yours when you’ve been influenced by everything. The license recognised that the music belongs to El Pacto but you can share it, use it, and that doesn’t affect our authorship of the music at any time.”

“It’s important that we break away from this siege of patents and registries, which belong to consumerist and capitalist society,” he added. “Just the opposite: we want our music to be used by humanity, to be useful, to have a function, and in order for that to happen it’s essential that it has a certain freedom of movement too.”

Models for change

This involves a change in the way things are done in the music world. The entertainment industry uses mechanisms like the payola (bribes to operators and owners of radio stations) so that a song made by a company is played simultaneously on hundreds of radio stations and TV channels. Later, they sell their CDs to recover the “investment”. They usually pay large amounts of money, between 30,000 and 60,000 bolivars per month (US $6,976 – US $13,953), so that an artist is heard a lot. The adverse affect of this is that those musicians who can’t pay simply aren’t heard on the radio. In that way, local culture is displaced by music that the companies want to impose.

El Pacto and other alternative and traditional groups are instead making themselves known through direct contact with their fans and through state and community media, social networks, and the internet, so their songs and videos are circulated.

“For us, the most important thing isn’t to earn money with the recordings, but rather that the people know us, that the most amount of people possible can acquire [our music], and that this translates into live shows, which is what we really like to do,” said the leader of El Pacto.

“Thanks to god and this revolution, we were able to shake-up this dictatorship of the music companies,” he said.

For Alvarez, the topic of copyright goes beyond music and affects freedom of expression and the thoughts of the peoples directly. 

“He who has eyes, look: those countries in the so called first world repress freedom of thought and expression, and we’re advancing towards greater freedom of thought, greater freedom of expression, greater artistic creativity and greater freedom to do these things”.

CDs verses Internet

The leader of El Pacto compared the physical distribution of the CD, which was published a month ago and 300 copies of it have been sold, to the number of Internet downloads. “In the same period of time almost 2000 copies of the CD have been downloaded. One of the things that surprised us was that the second country for the most downloads is France, and the third is Chile. It’s something that we would never have imagined”.

‘Dancing with roosters’ was printed by the National Disc Centre (Cendis), an entity of the culture ministry. It can also be bought in the South Bookshops [state owned book chain] for 30 Bs [US$ 7). With the [Bolivarian] government there weren’t any problems in using this distribution model through the Internet, but it’s unlikely that a private music company would have been in agreement with the proposal.

Octavio Rossel, a free software activist, was who recommended that El Pacto use Creative Commons. El Pacto’s website is also made with free software, and Alvarez announced that, over the next few days, they will upload all of the group’s discography, as well as videos and three songs recorded in a studio.

Worrying attitudes from the left

El Pacto played last Sunday in Maracaibo along with Manu Chao, brought to Venezuela by the government to do two free concerts.

Manu Chao is a group that is strongly identified with the left and that became known because they went to the barrios and humble places to play for the people, without worrying about intellectual property nor author’s rights.

However, their recent attitude has left some of their fans worried. In Venezuela, their managers resorted to copyright laws to prohibit state channels from transmitting the Maracaibo concert. They treated the press badly at both events- mostly state and alternative media- removing photographers and journalists with the argument that they “didn’t have the right to take photos”.

The Caracas concert on Friday was transmitted in its totality by the public state channel TVES, but Manu Chao’s managers got extremely angry because the contract supposedly only gave the channel permission to broadcast a small part of the event. In reprisal, the managers prohibited Vive TV- also public and state owned, from transmitting the Sunday Maracaibo concert.

Free culture

The U.S. lawyer Lawrence Lessig wrote, in 2004, the book  ‘Free culture: How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity’, which summarises how large transnationals have modified author’s rights and intellectual property laws in order to damage our own culture.

Lessig proposed a set of alternative licenses to traditional copyright, called ‘Creative Commons’, in which the authors, musicians, and cinematographers can… allow people to share their works. The artist can select certain conditions if he or she wants; the material can’t be modified, or that it can’t be used for profit.

Under government consultation

The National Centre of Information Technology (CNTI, an entity of the science and technology ministry) began a process of public consultation in February for the adaption of Creative Commons license to the Venezuelan legal framework. “People interested in participating in this process should register on the page of the International Organization ‘Creative Commons’  (http://wiki.creativecommons.org/Venezuela/Public_Discussion) and from there express their suggestions and opinions,” said John Pinango, leader of the CNTI project. The consultation process was open during March.

It’s important that artists and musicians study this proposal in order to make it as Venezuelan as possible. But also, grassroots support for artists who decide to confront traditional models imposed by music companies is important, in order to make direct distribution, the creative commons license, and concerts new forms of subsistence.

Revolutionary artists are against the criminalisation of those who download their MP3s, but they also need to earn a living from their music. So, if you like a musical group and you see that they are experimenting with new forms of distribution, support them! Buy their CDs, especially when you see that they make them themselves, and the money doesn’t go to a transnational. Get out to their concerts and performances. Support them when you see them live. Let’s not leave all the weight of supporting these artists to the government. If you want to help change the world and bring down the capitalist system, you should also do your part.

Translation by Tamara Pearson for Venezuelanalysis.com