A report by Leila Cobo for Billboard.
At 12 noon on Thursdays, you can find Abdel, better known as La Esencia (“The Essence”) in a tiny room in his home in West Havana, furiously copying music and videos onto a hard drive. Someone knocks: It’s an artist wearing heavy gold chains and wielding his new single, which he hopes La Esencia will add, in a prominent spot, to one of the many music lists he curates for this week’s El Paquete.
Many things have changed since Obama eased restrictions on Cuba in 2016, with tourism increasing exponentially and Internet hotspots popping up around the city. But high-speed Internet remains a rare commodity, and streaming music, much less streaming video, is a luxury very few can access or afford. Enter El Paquete, or “the package,” the name Cubans have given to a massive, 50-gigabyte hard drive that is curated weekly and includes nearly 100 folders packed with videos, TV series, award shows, classified ads, and music.
“It’s the Cuban Internet,” says renown Cuban composer Edesio Alejandro, who regularly uses El Paquete to promote music and tours. “It has good stuff, it has bad things. You pick and choose. And it works.”
In a country with no widely accessible Internet, El Paquete is the saving grace, the only reliable means of cross-country distribution, advertising, and promotion of multimedia content.
“It started some eight years ago with promoters who wanted to share music through the entire country,” says Rafael Valdez Toyos, a university professor who also runs the music charts section of the weekly Cuban lifestyle magazine Vistar. “Then they realized there was a need in the market for content distribution and they expanded. El Paquete is the country’s main source of entertainment.”
This is how it works: During the week, different “experts” like La Esencia gather content for their respective verticals: music, film, TV, Netflix, awards shows, magazines, classifieds, and so on. The content comes from various sources: high speed Internet for the few who have it, bootlegged copies, friends in Miami. At any given time, three to five Paquetes will be in circulation in Havana, produced by different people but assembled the same way: On Thursdays, all the content aggregators gather in one location (obviously, sending big files via email is not an option) to upload their bounty to a single hard drive: El Paquete.
At around 7 p.m., the first tier of customers knock on the door and drop off their own hard drives to copy the content of El Paquete. By the end of the evening, those first distributors will have taken their copy of El Paquete to hundreds of people who will download the contents to their own hard drives. In turn, they’ll distribute that content to hundreds more people, who will then share it with even more people, and so on.
Down the line, paying customers can decide whether they’ll copy the entire hard drive or simply download choice folders to their memory cards or pen drives. While the initial distributors pay around 5 CUCS (the Cuban convertible peso), or roughly $5 for the entire package, the price goes down with each passing day and with the level of content. By Monday, some version of El Paquete can be found in even the most far-flung corners of the island, where customers pay 1 CUC for simply copying a few files onto their pen drives. While those amounts are not exactly peanuts in Cuba, the real revenue source in El Paquete is less about what people pay to get it, and more about what people pay to get on it.
“Entire families live off this,” says Robin Pedraja, the founder and creative director of Vistar.
While a show like Game of Thrones is a must-have in any Paquete, local or new artists need to pay simply to be included, or to be included in key folders and in certain positions on a playlist. There are also fees for adding videos and photos and for guaranteeing that your music will remain in El Paquete all the way to the second or third distributor. Pedraja, for example, pays around 150 CUCS a month, which covers the cost of positioning his magazine and events and ensuring that they’ll be included as El Paquete goes down the chain.
“Music is a big deal because El Paquete is an avenue of publicity for artists,” says La Esencia. “Film content is for consumption only. Music content is for consumption and to promote the artists themselves.”
Although Cuba is known for its music, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry doesn’t report numbers on the Cuban market. But according to a 2017 report by Cuba’s Center of Investigation and Development of Cuban Music, the island has four record labels (plus foreign labels with offices there), five music publishers, five recording studios, and 18,388 active musicians that play in over 3,000 groups. There are also 29 institutions, companies and agencies that represent talent; 303 live concert venues; and 286 commercial establishments that sell music.
The holy grail, of course, is touring and selling abroad, where Cuban musicians can enjoy critical acclaim — a few artists, like Gente de Zona and Osmani García, have even entered the Billboard charts in the past three years.
For that to happen, however, the first step is recognition at home. La Esencia estimates it costs a new act around 20 CUCs per month to be included and promoted properly in El Paquete. But the advent of the Internet is starting to make a dent on Cuba’s most popular source of entertainment. Pedraja, for example, is already shifting some of his CUCs from El Paquete to digital advertising.
“There were no hotspots three years ago, and back then, the magazine was consumed only through El Paquete,” he says. “Now, many people invest their money on an Internet card and watch El Paquete content online.”
The end, it would seem, will be inevitable at some point. But for now, La Esencia isn’t concerned.
“When you add up how much an hour of Internet costs you, El Paquete is a much better deal,” he shrugs. “Maybe Internet is more profitable for an artist, but for the people, it’s all about El Paquete.”