If Britney Spears & Co. aren't selling as many records here as they used to, they should point their fingers at a man who would be thrilled to shoulder the blame: President Hugo Chavez.
The National Assembly, which is dominated by Chavez, recently passed a law requiring that no less than 50 percent of all music played on the nation's radio stations be Venezuelan. Of that, half must be classified as "traditional," showcasing the "the presence of traditional Venezuelan values." Chavez backers say the harps and bandolas that now resound through this country of 25 million are playing the overture to a musical revolution.
"We've always had traditional Venezuelan records in stock, but before a few months ago we never sold any -- not one," said Miguel Angel Guada, manager of the Disco Center Superstore in one of the capital's largest malls. "It was all Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and that sort of thing. But now I'd say one-third of our business comes from Venezuelan artists, which is absolutely incredible."
The new law can make listening to the radio an adventure in dizzying contrasts. One minute a disc jockey might spin Puerto Rico's Daddy Yankee rapping about "Biggie and Pac," and the next minute it's flutes and fiddles from the Andean highlands. Some Venezuelan rock and pop artists have begun to record cover versions of traditional songs to take advantage of the mandates. Almost all local artists, regardless of age or genre, are reaping the rewards.
Members of Venezuela's Traditional National Orchestra used to lament how their compact discs would languish on vending tables at their concerts, but this year they watched sales take off with whiplash force -- from zero to 200 copies sold at a single performance. The orchestra is using the extra income to record more albums, according to Sigfrido Chiva, its president.
"After the law was approved and the music started being played on the radio, I began getting telephone calls to go on talk shows -- maybe 10 or 15 of them in the last couple of months," said Chiva, a violinist. "In my 52 years as a musician before that, I had never gotten a single call."
Radio listeners say they occasionally detect muted grumblings from pop and hip-hop DJs when they introduce the songs that meet the law's requirements. But a casual survey at Caracas record stores suggested that many Venezuelans are enjoying the variety.
"It's kind of the fashion now to listen to traditional music," said Rafael Quintero, 19. "It has just taken off in the last three months."
Jesus Alallon, 42, said he liked the new radio playlists, which he credits for changing his music-buying habits. "I buy more traditional music now," he said. "If I buy 10 records, I'd say one of them is probably traditional."
The Venezuelan government enacted similar radio guidelines in the 1980s to support the local music industry, but the rules did not have legal teeth and were widely interpreted as mere suggestions. After the 1990s, free market economics reigned, and Venezuelan music -- particularly its traditional forms -- all but disappeared. Record companies produced fewer traditional albums, and the lack of them is becoming painfully obvious to some listeners.
"I am a little concerned that the quality of some of the national music being broadcast isn't very high," said Eduardo Ramirez, who plays mandolin and cuatro, a four-string guitar, for the Traditional National Orchestra. "Some of the versions are of such low quality that I'm afraid they distort the original compositions. There's a revival of older recordings now, mainly because there's not enough material to fill all of the airtime."
The recording industry outside Venezuela, not surprisingly, isn't fond of the radio mandates. The International Intellectual Property Alliance, a private-sector coalition that represents U.S. copyright-based industries, reported that the new radio regulations and high piracy rates have combined to create "the bleakest scenario the industry has faced in its history" in Venezuela.
The new law "represents a serious commercial barrier to all international music by limiting its exposure to consumers and restricting the potential revenues it can generate through broadcasting fees," the organization stated in a report this year.
But to many Venezuelans, America's loss is their country's gain. Gustavo Arroyo, 20, dreams of being a singer in a successful band. For two years, he and his friends have been performing at parties, playing a mix of contemporary and traditional music. Even though one of his friends recently moved to Mexico, Arroyo said the band's dreams have not died. The new law, he added, doesn't hurt their chances.
"We need a little touch of luck," he said, "and a manager to get our songs on the radio."
on local radio.