This is a series of uncorroborated rumours and ideas thrown at me from various people I've talked to about manele. Until I finish my research none of it is to be regarded as empirically sound, well-collected evidence, and I'm not providing any source for any of it. Yet! Please correct me if I'm wrong about anything.
Everyone and their dog wants music industry reform these days. Looser copyright, alternative business models, customer interaction, donation systems. well manele has all these things, and has for a long time. The future may be on the internet, but it's also among the discriminated roma in Romania...
The sales of CDs are an incredibly small source of revenue here. Official 150-track MP3 CDs, selling for around 15 lei (€3), barely recoup manufacture and distribution costs, and have thus totally undercut the market for any piracy. There appears to be no copyright enforcement at all - people happily copy each others songs, in cover versions or even note-by-note, and of course manele is built to an incredibly large extent on "plagiarised"/transcultured musical elements from surrounding countries and across the world. Copying and being copied happens all the time.
And yet the performers and production companies are doing extremely well. How? By live appearances catered to functional needs, by customised music à la dubplates, by direct donation from listeners. All appearing in this video, sorry about the sound:
Here we see Florin Salam ("Florin Sausage", I love these artist names!), performing at a wedding. Wedding receptions (and christenings) flaunt their wealth by booking the biggest stars, of which Florin definitely is one, and of course buzz gets generated from wedding to wedding and the value of the performer is incredibly high, upwards of €10 000 a night for a man of Salam's calibre.
This revenue stream is the complimented by the curious practice - as seen in the video - of throwing lei bills at the performer and his band. In exchange, the singer incorporates the name of the donor into his performance, freestyle. Thus the singer gets money and the donor gets to support and interact with the star, plus get prestige in the eyes of the fellow party guests.
Does any of this sound crass to you? Well, think about it - how is it any different from various proposals of how to generate a living for musicians in the digital age?