Latin

Why Jorge & Mateus, Brazil's Sertanejo Kings, Aren't Planning on a Global Career

Jorge & Mateus
Divulgação Som Livre*

Jorge & Mateus

The duo earns about $200,000 a gig in Brazil in a genre that has transformed into pop music.

For decades, sertanejo — Brazil’s answer to American country music and Mexico’s norteño — reigned supreme in the heartland of South America’s largest country.

The genre, with its simple-sounding songs that more recently draw on bachata rhythms, developed in Brazil’s rural heartland, in places like Goiás, a tropical mix of Iowa and Texas. (The term sertão, from which sertanejo derives, means “rural backlands.”)

While sertanejo songs have been the country’s most popular radio plays for at least two decades, the rise of music streaming and efforts by promoters like Villa Mix to stage massive sertanejo concerts around the country have transformed the genre from a regional to national pop-music phenomenon.

Lately, sertanejo music has dominated streaming charts in Brazil. Marília Mendonça, a sertanejo singer, topped Spotify’s 2020 list of most listened to artists in Brazil.

Among the genre’s longest running superstars is Jorge & Mateus. The duo, Jorge Alves Barcelos, 39, and Mateus Pedro Liduário de Oliveira, 35, who both hail from Goiás, came on the scene in 2005 and have blossomed into one of Brazil’s most popular acts in any genre, commanding fees up to $200,000 per show in their country, according to Marcos Araújo, their former manager. They topped Spotify’s list of most listened to Brazilian artists in the decade ending in 2019, and their live “Propaganda” was Spotify’s most heard song of the decade in Brazil.

In April, Jorge & Mateus’ label Som Livre released Tudo em Paz, the act’s ninth live album. It had the fourth-most plays on Spotify’s global chart in its first weekend, and all 15 of the project’s tracks entered Spotify’s Top 200 Brazil list, according to Som Livre. A single from the album, “Lance Individual,” reached No. 176 on Billboard’s Global Excluding U.S. chart in January.

Despite a painfully slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations in Brazil — the country has the second-most deaths from the virus, and just over 30% of the population is fully vaccinated — the duo is eager to get back on the road, pre-pandemic they averaged 150 shows a year.

They are set to perform Saturday (Sept. 4) in Miami at Summer Festival at Virginia Key Beach Park, and in Brockton, Mass., in early October. (The Brockton show was pushed back from Sept. 5 after a spike in COVID-19 cases led local health officials to limit events to 300 people).

Jorge & Mateus spoke to Billboard — via zoom from their native Goiás — about their year in a pandemic, the challenge to bringing sertanejo to global audiences and their decision in late 2019 to split from Araújo, their longtime manager, who owns Villa Mix.

What has changed in Brazil for sertanejo to emerge as pop music on a national scale?

Mateus: Sertanejo started more than 30 years ago. The roots of sertanejo come from farms, from the rural part of the country. Usually, we hear a lot of stories about brothers who lived together since they were little and started to sing together, doing duets. When the country started to open up, and began to improve economically, we had contact with other cultures and there was more access to information through the media. People who sang sertanejo on the farm began to do the same thing in the big cities and listened to other [types of music] as well …bolero, Mexican music, Latin music in a way — and started to incorporate other elements into this rural music.

What is the challenge for sertanejo to have more success outside of Brazil?

Jorge: The Portuguese language. We live on an island where Portuguese is spoken, and we are surrounded by the Spanish language on all sides. We took a long time to absorb a little of this culture from our neighbors. Perhaps we have a much stronger connection to Anglo-Saxon culture than to Latin culture itself. This is an island of continental dimensions that occupies a good part of our time. We play abroad for people who speak the same language as us. We are going to do shows outside Brazil where there are large colonies of Brazilians who immigrated from here to there.

Have you had discussions with executives in Nashville about doing collaborations with U.S. country artists?

Mateus: We are a little afraid of having illusions about an international career, precisely because of this language barrier. Our music is musically simple and is obviously not Tom Jobim's music. It's a very specific audience, a niche. Our music is popular, our music is commercial. But if you have this barrier of not being understood in terms of lyrics, it's a very big barrier for us to be successful in building an international career. And we've seen several examples of Brazilians -- great artists -- who tried to make an international career and it really didn't work out very well. And we believe it is because of the language barrier.

Do you have any plans to sing in other languages? Spanish? English?

Jorge: Not right now. For now, we will focus on this old Portuguese.

Mateus: I'm going to enroll Jorge in an English class so he can sing in English. [Chuckles]

Jorge: It's complicated because of this little accent here. When people hear Brazilians speaking in other languages, it sounds scary to them.

What was the inspiration for the new album?

Mateus: We like to produce eclectic albums and projects that transit in various styles, various rhythms, various BPMs, various textures. When we produce an album, we want people to listen from the first song to the last like it's a sequence of a great play list that isn't boring, that isn't repetitive. This album is an example of that. It's an album where we play with all kinds of influences.

Did the pandemic hurt or help you, as far as music production?

Jorge: For us during the pandemic, it was cool because we had time to dedicate a little more to defining the repertoire in the production of songs in terms of arrangements. We didn't have that time with other projects. I would come off the road, we spend one, two days in a studio, it's always very busy, always running from the studio and going out on the road again to do a show. We had this longer period during the pandemic where we recorded without an audience, which was also a different thing for us. … We managed to redirect this feeling of castration by dedicating ourselves more to our work.

Where did you record Tudo em Paz?

Mateus: In the interior of our state of Goiás, in Pirenópolis, a historic city with traditional [colonial architecture] and a sensational mountain range. We symbolically recorded under a tree that is typical of our state. We mainly chose the location because there are these symbols there.

Last year you officially split with your longtime manager [Marcos Araújo]. Are you two self-managing your careers now?

Jorge: For the first time in 16 years we are controlling the reins of our company and our brand. Mateus and I are very similar. We have to touch everything — from the agenda to future planning to the main decisions. We are the ones who sit down and exchange ideas and solve everything. When you live on the road doing shows and are only concerned with the artistic part, you get a little alienated from the administrative part of [the job]. … The pandemic made this very clear to us. If we are aware of everything that happens because we can plan, then we cannot be taken by surprise. ... This is a wonderful moment of personal and professional maturation for Jorge & Mateus.

There are others who split from Araújo, like Gusttavo Lima and the DJ Alok, who are also self-managing, right?

Mateus: I believe it's a trend. With all this information, with all this globalization, the music industry today is much more honest. You can see how many plays your music has. The trend is to decentralize the power of the entrepreneurs and artists who are taking over this network. Because you don't make money these days just at shows. You obviously earn money from [streaming] platforms.

Jorge: We don't see the need for an intermediary. If long term you build a structure and good relationships, a network, that makes it easier for you to get things done. At the end of the year, our main contractors in Brazil come to our office with us and formulate the entire agenda for the following year without the need for this manager, this intermediary between us and the contractor present at the shows. In the end, we have met a lot of people, we have the know-how to do it ourselves.

Are you still on friendly terms with Araújo?

Jorge: We wanted to go in different directions. This is like an amicable divorce where you no longer have the legal relationship, but there are other ways to maintain a relationship.

Are you itching to get back on stage? Is it tough to plan your shows right now?

Mateus: The most important thing right now is that people stay healthy, that they get vaccinated. … We don't want to force it. We are starting to do shows little by little with the expectation that next year will be a year back that has a nice effect, the champagne effect, where people want to leave the house and have fun.