QUITO, Ecuador -- When you spin the radio dial in this high-altitude city you could almost be anywhere. The airwaves are crowded with the likes of Beyoncé, Shakira and Pitbull, just like you were cruising a highway in Miami or Manhattan — rather than tooling through the snow-capped Andes.
But Ecuador’s airwaves are about to undergo a domestic invasion. Thanks to a recently passed communications law, half of all music played on the radio will have to be homegrown.
The move has station managers scrambling for local talent, musicians tuning up their guitars and long-languishing record companies dusting off their equipment.
The government hopes the law can turn this nation of 15 million — perhaps best known for the Galápagos Islands and as the first asylum choice of NSA-leaker Edward Snowden — into a musical powerhouse capable of fending off talent from Colombia, Argentina, Mexico and the United States.
Local artists have been crowded out of the market for years, said Karina Santiana, general director of the Ecuadorean Society of Artists, Interpreters and Musicians, or SARIME. Payola — having to pay for airtime — was rampant, she said, locals couldn’t break into radio and it deflated the entire industry. As producers, studios and distributors fell into the doldrums, the airwaves were flooded with imported pop.
“It’s created the sense that we don’t have talent in Ecuador and that we’re not going to be able to compete,” she said. “But this is going to force radio stations to seek out local musicians…And it’s going to force musicians to improve their quality.”
Before the law, which was passed in June, national artists got less than 10 percent of the airtime on major radio stations, according to Mercados y Proyectos, a media monitoring service. Even when small rural stations — that do play traditional Ecuadorean music — are factored in, local tunes still occupy less than 15 percent of the airwaves.
While neighboring Colombia has generated global stars like Shakira and Juanes, few Ecuadorean artists have made it beyond the country’s borders. Perhaps Ecuador’s best know musician was Julio Jaramillo, a beloved composer of somber pasillos and boleros who died in 1978. His songs still get heavy airplay in boozy cantinas. He’s so popular that many Colombians and Venezuelans often claim him as their own.
More recently, Juan Fernando Velasco was nominated in 2010 for a Latin Grammy in the Folk Album category and Danilo Parra has been invited to play in the United States but they’re not global names. One of the few local artists who can claim a regional following is Delfín Quishpe whose techno-cumbia beats and kitschy videos sometimes go viral — but not necessarily because of their quality. His campy and slightly surreal ode to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Torres Gemelas, has been seen more than 10 million times on YouTube.
That’s not to say that Ecuador doesn’t have world class musicians, they’re just not on the radio, said Ecuador’s Vice Minister of Culture Jorge Luis Serrano.
“This is a country full of talent, the problem has been the lack of industry, the lack of support from the government. We have it now,” Serrano said. “We think this law is going to help in a really good way improve and [strengthen] Ecuadorean talent.”
There are already signs of a rebirth. One of Ecuador’s only record companies, Fediscos, was launched in 1964 and recorded some of Jaramillo’s seminal work. But it went bust in 2004 amid the changing digital landscape and widespread music piracy, said Antonio “Pancho” Feraud, who began trying to revive the company in 2009.
“Ecuador has to be one of the few places in the world where you can buy a pirated CD and they’ll give you a legal receipt,” he explained.
Feraud said the media law — which had been under debate for two years — has been breathing new life into the company. Musicians are hopeful they can monetize their work, so they’re forking over money on studio time, Feraud said. Fediscos is launching a number of new bands, including Feraud’s own project Abbacook.
While he’s grateful for the new law, Feraurd said getting government support isn’t particularly rock and roll. It would have been better if local musicians had organized and demanded more airtime on their own.
“I’m not a person who believes that we should rely on the government,” he said. “When politics gets in the middle of things you never know where it’s going to lead to in the end.”
Regulating airtime is just one aspect of the sweeping and controversial media law. Since winning the presidency in 2006, President Rafael Correa has gone after the media, winning multi-million dollar lawsuits against newspapers and reporters. He’s accused them of abusing their power and illicitly playing politics. After easily winning reelection in February, he made the new law a priority.
Along with putting media outlets on a tighter leash and breaking apart conglomerates, the new law establishes a range of quotas. Sixty percent of local television broadcasts will have to be nationally produced, and all television stations , including cable providers that carry local channels, are required to purchase and broadcast two Ecuadorean-made movies per year. In addition, 100 percent of all television and print ads have to be produced in Ecuador. That means companies like Coca-Cola and Samsung can’t roll out global, or even regional, ad campaigns.
Serrano said those changes will generate long-term, quality jobs in the country, and guarantee that artists get paid for their work. And creative quotas aren’t a novel idea, he said. Argentina, Venezuela and Uruguay all have music quotas, as do France, Canada and Australia.
“We are not reinventing, as we say, warm water,” Serrano explained. “This law will help Ecuador build its [artistic] muscle.”
Parra, a Guayaquil-based singer and songwriter, studied music business at Miami-Dade College and has put out four well-received albums. While he’s managed to get airtime, he said radio stations have always favored international music. He said the new law is an opportunity and a challenge: It’s going to give local artists a platform but also make it painfully apparent how they stack up to global stars.
“This new law is going to force us to compete,” he said. “And we’re going to have to invest so that we sound as good as they do.”