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GOIÂNIA, BRAZIL — For his first show in Brazil since early 2020, promoter-manager Marcos “Marquinhos” Araújo went big. Fifty-six thousand people attended the second BBQ Mix festival on July 3 to hear sertanejo — the country music of Brazil, originally driven by 10-string guitars, that remains the nation’s most popular genre — and to eat beef. There was plenty of both, with 10 acts performing and 52,000 servings — more than double the Guinness World Record for the most barbecued beef served in eight hours that was set at the first BBQ Mix two years ago.
Araújo is one of Brazil’s most influential music entrepreneurs, as well as one of its most inventive. He founded the Villa Mix festival over a decade ago, expanding it from a single event to 27 cities at its peak. He created BBQ Mix as a way to refresh the genre he helped popularize. “I realized the sertanejo market was becoming too much of the same thing,” Araújo says. “The idea of gathering meat, beer and music sounded like something new.”
But both Araújo and sertanejo itself have experienced challenges lately. Araújo’s top artists have defected during the last two-and-a-half years — including sertanejo acts Gusttavo Lima and Jorge & Mateus, as well as international dance-music sensation Alok — in part due to management contracts where Araújo has taken up to 60% of his artists’ income.
And sertanejo has been caught up in a national controversy over whether local governments were paying overinflated prices — using public funds — to stage country music shows. Local politicians can use such shows to boost their popularity, and the sky-high artist fees may generate kickbacks. The controversy flared up in May after supporters of singer Anitta lashed out at another sertanejo duo, Zé Neto & Cristiano, for criticizing her butt tattoo and called out sertanejo shows contracted by local mayors.
Scrutiny over publicly funded concerts has come in a highly charged political atmosphere ahead of elections in October. Since May, state prosecutors across Brazil have investigated, temporarily suspended or canceled at least 81 publicly funded sertanejo shows for potential contract irregularities involving high artist fees despite city officials failing to provide basic services like sewer and public health.
The probes have mentioned some of the genre’s biggest stars, including Lima, a Sony Music artist, and Wesley Safadão, who have been paid up to 1.2 million reais ($218,000) by local governments, according to public documents.
Bruno — of the Latin Grammy Award-winning sertanejo duo Bruno & Marrone — says he feels the investigations unfairly target the genre. “Artists from other genres also do publicly funded shows,” he says. “This is very hypocritical.” Neto e Jr, another duo that played BBQ Mix, fear “dishonest people” may affect sertanejo’s image. “The artist can’t ask where the money comes from every time,” says Jr. “If he does that with every contractor, he will end up playing nowhere.”
Sertanejo’s wealthy stars have become targets of a populist backlash because the genre dominates pop music in Brazil, the 11th-biggest music market, with total revenue in 2021 of 2.1 billion reais ($382 million), according to label trade organization Pró-Música Brasil. Over one-third of the songs on Pró-Música’s top 50 streaming chart in June were sertanejo tracks, including three of the top 10. In 2021, Sony Music paid $255 million for Brazil’s biggest indie label, Som Livre, which controls the recorded-music catalogs of several of sertanejo’s biggest stars.
Originally seen as a kind of cowboy music of Brazil’s agricultural heartland, sertanejo rose to popularity in the 1990s, spreading from the country’s interior to cosmopolitan coastal cities like Rio de Janeiro. Sertanejo is an “amalgamation of many genres” that incorporates everything from rock to funk to forró, says Gustavo Alonso, who wrote a book about the genre, Cowboys do asfalto: música sertaneja e modernização brasileira (Street cowboys: sertanejo music and Brazilian modernization).
It’s hard to imagine a town where sertanejo is more adored than Goiânia, which is often called “Brazil’s Nashville.” In March, the city council designated it the “capital of sertanejo” — a nod to its growing importance as a cultural and production hub for artists — and an estimated 100,000 people attended a wake there in November for Marília Mendonça, the genre’s biggest female artist, after she died in a plane accident.
Araújo grew up in Goiás, the state where Goiânia is, working as a local radio and house music DJ before discovering talent like Lima and Jorge & Mateus. He forged a strong partnership with WME agent Rob Markus, who believes sertanejo has crossover potential. “When we showed some of the sertanejo music to people in Nashville, there was definitely some interest,” Markus told Billboard in 2021. “It is going to take some clever strategizing because, at the end of the day, these are big pop stars [in Brazil].”
Part of the challenge is convincing Brazilian artists to learn English or Spanish — as Anitta did — and to focus on regions outside the lucrative Brazilian market, where they can do 250 shows a year. (Jorge & Mateus told Billboard in 2021 that they don’t plan on making that kind of investment to go global.)
Araújo used Villa Mix to engineer the national popularity of some of the genre’s biggest artists, but in 2019 he began losing them over contract disputes and a trend toward self-management. His contract terms, which he says range from 10% to 60% of earnings depending on the artist, are not unheard of in Brazil, particularly for new or developing artists, and because the manager, agent and promoter roles are often intertwined. Still, some sources in the Brazilian music industry criticize Araújo, accusing him of greed and strong-arm tactics in his negotiations.
“I have always fought for my artists,” he says. “I have never gotten back what I have invested [in them].” Araújo also says he is not alone among manager-promoters who have recently lost artists wanting to manage their own careers, a decision he says he has always respected. (Henrique and Juliano, another big sertanejo duo, announced last week that they would not renew their contract with WorkShow, the Goiânia-based artist agency where they started their careers.)
The entrepreneur’s real passion is organizing shows, not managing artists, and the bulk of Araújo’s income, he says, comes from his vast agricultural holdings, especially cattle ranching. But the challenge of launching new artists still inspires him.
Araújo believes he can create a sertanejo crossover act with management client Kevin Brauer, a Brazilian American dance music DJ-producer who performs as Sevenn. Brauer — who grew up in Rio de Janeiro speaking English — also took the stage at BBQ Mix, and Araújo has encouraged him to form a sertanejo band. “If he understands the American audience and starts singing sertanejo music in English, then it will take over,” Araújo says. (“There are so many good melodies in sertanejo,” Brauer tells Billboard. “I’m just trying to figure out how it would work for the [U.S.].”)
For now, the national debate over publicly funded sertanejo shows has become a discussion topic in Brazil’s congress and on the campaign trail. On July 13, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the left-wing former president who is running to unseat President Jair Bolsonaro, weighed in on the controversy. “Mayors spend a fortune on artists who charge 1 million reais [$182,000] and aren’t able to spend 30 reais [$5.50] on a local theater group with local music,” Lula said at an event for the arts sector, “because this is a society formed by an incomprehensible ruling elite.”