Manele Tidbit #1: The Manele Economy

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?


Boima said...

The Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars do something like this. Donors can do everything from a signed CD, to have VIP tickets at a show, to getting a song written for them, to just hanging out and eating Plasas.

I don't think it's a bad idea. It gets rid of the whole rockstar bull and makes the musician part of a community.

I think similar stuff happens as a dj. Whenever it's someone's birthday they want a shout out. Everyone has a request, some are willing to pay cash for it. The best dancing regulars are just as much part of the show as the djs.

Go Manele!

Birdseed said...

Yeah, it's palpable how close the artists are to the community here. When I was interviewing mogul Dan Bursuc all sorts of people were running in and out, random people booking events, he seemed right in the middle of a big social circle. If you look at any of the videos of live performances it's so obvious how they're down on the ground, next to the crowds, dancing and interacting-- I don't think I've even seen a raised stage, let alone any dividers.

The performers are very moderately styled and can look completely normal, too, no super-grooming here. Voice trumps looks any time (unless you're an eight-year-old boy).

Boima said...

You know last night I had an experience that is an interesting example of this artists/community thing.

I went to see Awilo Longomba last night in Oakland, and he was coming to do an "appearance" but was definitely billed as doing a full blown show.

I jumped at the chance to be able to see Awilo perhaps with a band at a small club down the street from my house.

Long story short, I get to the club, it's $40 US to get in, I go inside and everyone's waiting, the African community really came out. Probably the most diverse African crowd I've ever seen. Hits were being played from South Africa to East to West old and new, good DJ, but I got there at 10pm and by 1am Awilo hadn't arrived.

Finally he shows up at 1:15. Sans band, but with two dancers, and says that he had been waiting to come since 7:00 and the promoters didn't come and pick him up. He performs 2 and a 1/2 songs and then teases us with an acapella "Karolina" and then asks for donations because the promoter didn't pay him enough to do "Karolina" Then people start to give reluctant praise money and after about $200 performs half of Karolina. The people who donated got their name shouted on stage by Awilo, and a large donater got to get on stage and dance with him.

By now the audience is already booing and Awilo finished half the song and goes off stage. No shouts for encore. Then he comes back because we all paid our tribute in the form of a heavy door charge and says ok, I perform for free because I love you. He starts back into "Karolina" and invites a bunch of people on stage for a picture. That's when I left. I think I heard from the outside him perform one more song.

I definitely blame the promoters for setting this up wrong. The false advertising set Awilo up for failure, and I'm never going to one of their events again, even when they bring P Square here.

But it was one of the craziest performances I've ever seen, and it really got me thinking about that Manele video.

I even wonder about connections between the African tradition of giving money to performers and the practice in Romanian culture. I remember getting tips for dancing well at African parties as a youth, but I'm not up on the meaning behind the practice.

I also think the Awilo show is an interesting example of how audience as community becomes important. Awilo is an international musician who could probably fill downtown San Francisco performance venues of 3000 people with the right promotion and the backing of the right mainstream arts organization. But this was basically a community gathering that he was paid to come to, no more than 300 people in the room. The pressure to make the community happy, the desire to have an international artist represent in a place very far from home were the motivations behind the visit, and the promoters used us cause they knew we're hungry for this kind of thing. I wonder how it goes down in Houston, ATL, NY, DC the main stops on the African club circuit. I'm sure the promoters are much more experienced.

The African club circuit in the US and Europe today is probably similar to how the chitlin circuit was back in the day. Expect some more explorations on this from me, because I find it fascinating.

Birdseed said...

I'm thinking this sort of practice used to be more common before the mass-medial mass-culture society, you know? Certainly in the Swedish peasant society of the 19th century there'd be travelling musicians, spelmän, that would travel between community-organised events in a manner much like this one, where tips of various kinds would be a crucial source of income. They'd have functional repertoires and particularly geared music for different occasions - Swedish folk music's genres to a large extent are described by their usage, like "gånglåt" = walking song etc. There's even a special song style called a "skänklåt", a giving song, during which the gifts for the spelman were collected. :)