Concert halls of the future Spaces of possibility

Bar, club, concert hall at once: Hamburg's “resonanzaum” shows a possible way of building event rooms of the future.
Bar, club, concert hall at once: Hamburg's “resonanzaum” shows a possible way of building event rooms of the future. | Photo (detail): resonanzaum

10 Years of the c/o pop Festival “That is where it’s happening, economically speaking”

c/o pop director Norbert Oberhaus;
c/o pop director Norbert Oberhaus; | Photo (detail): © Norbert Oberhaus

Statistics say that concertgoers are becoming older and older. Initiatives such as 'resonanzraum' in Hamburg counter this with new concepts and lure the younger generation into concerts. A model with prospects.

Before, of course, everything was better and a lot was also easier for the concert organizer. He set a time and a classical program, without outliers from other genres, took care that there were enough subscribers present, and then the music was performed and after the applause someone dutifully switched off the lights. Although things still function this way in many classical concert halls, and although some rising new buildings have the ambition to do it better than the top dogs, one question worries the industry: what should we do and omit today and all the more tomorrow so that we don’t show ourselves to be, out of a pure sense of duty to the tradition, expendable and from yesterday?

Concert halls as spaces of possibility

There is only one way to remain contemporary and relevant in the balancing act between entertainment and serious music: venues must transform themselves into spaces of possibility, away from traditional formats, away from rigid evening slots. For a musical snack a little concert would do as well. Away from stiff subscriptions structures, which smack of compulsory attendance. Away from “chalk and talk” instruction in emotion. Away too from some cherished formulas for concert menus, particularly the now stale sandwich model with the indigestible avant-garde between more popular pieces of music. Instead: use what you have, do as much as you can with the site and the site-specific options. New concepts and longer-term, tailor-made artist residencies.

No other new concert house construction in recent decades has caused so much turmoil as has the Elbe Philharmonic Hall. It can be considered as Hamburg’s attempt consistently to re-group itself and to derive a commitment to musical excellence from its own tradition, from the Gänsemarkt Opera of the Baroque to the beer-showering punks of the Electro / Hip Hop band Deichkind. In the autumn of 2012 a performance of tremendous symbolic power already showed the hanseatic audience how much seductively creative energy can be generated in a place when you exploit its unique character. Ironically, it was not Christoph Lieben-Seutter, the general director of the Laeiszhalle and the the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, but the Hamburg Theatre Festival that imported from the Radialsystem in Berlin Jochen Sandig’s Human Requiem. The music of the Deutsches Requiem by Brahms, a son of Hamburg, staged as a theatral spatialization in the Philharmonic’s so-called plaza. Thirty-seven meters above the Elbe, the Berlin Radio Choir performed the piece, thrice sold out.

Model: resonanzraum

In October 2014 an ambitious alternative concert house experiment was started in Hamburg. With a great deal of luck, bold capital injections and the backing of the Hamburg cultural policy, the Ensemble Resonanz (ER) found a new home in Europe’s largest high-rise bunker in the Feldstraße. The brutally chunky concrete block stands between the Reeperbahn and the trendy quarter Karolinenviertel and the also near Schanzenviertel. It is filled with, among others, creative companies, the studio of the internet radio station ByteFM and the club Uebel & Gefährlich (i.e. Bad and Dangerous). And the resonanzraum (i.e. Resonance Chamber): a mini-concert hall with a well-concealed orchestra infrastructure behind the large swinging doors. Its design is a far cry from noble and classic, and is instead rough and hip, there is a bar directly next to the seats. The resonanzraum is a classic club for a clientele of twenty-somethings and late-thirty-year-olds.

Here this age group is quite natural to stop by a concert of the “urban string” series for a cold beer and some late Beethoven. There are drinks and short concerts, DJ sets in between, and the word “subscription” comes from a parallel universe. At the opening ceremony, the members of the ER could hardly believe, after years of roving through the city, how well this 650-square-meter location fit their intentions, much more their target group. First they played Bruckner, then lounge music from a laptop, after that early classical by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In the dim light of the bar a barmaid, with a revolver tattoo on her forearm, stopped serving. She wanted to listen.
“urban string” at resonanzraum, source: Ensemble Resonanz / Youtube

Cooperation instead of demarcation

Since then things have gone well for the ER. The concertgoers are as young as they are consistently excited. There are a dozen “urban string” concerts a year; the percentage of seats sold, with 230 to 250 visitors per evening, is one hundred. And then there are the concert series of other organizsers, including even the public service radio broadcaster NDR. Through a cooperation with ByteFM, the ER has gained a fine little information platform.

The resonanzraum is a “giant step”, thinks the ER manager Tobias Rempe, “for the city, to a whole new audience, to ourselves. The combination of good acoustics for chamber music and the club atmosphere is unique and ensures an overwhelming response. On the basis of this experience, we’re very much looking forward to the next big step: the opening of the Elbe Philharmonic Hall and our residency in its Chamber Music Hall. In the tension between these poles – the residency at the Philharmonic and the home base in St. Pauli – lies a fascinating opportunity for us in the music city Hamburg.”

Can Hamburg in general and the concept of the resonanzraum in particular serve as models? That is a difficult question. After the forbidding planning and cost disaster of the Elbe Philharmonic, municipalities barely still dare to plan new concert halls. The debate about the construction of a concert hall in Munich takes a long time, in spite of purported decisions. The new Music Centre in Bochum contains, as befits a new building, a multifunctional hall; but the decisive thing will be what is done with it.

For the Ensemble Resonanz, on the other hand, this is the beginning of exciting times, because the Chamber Music Hall of the Elbe Philharmonic will become their new home in January 2017. This is a clever move in several ways. On the one hand because it executes an image transfer from an off venue that could give the Elbe Philharmonic, a grave of alleged billions, a good dose of coolness. On the other hand because the string ensemble then will be in the enviable position of being able to tailor-fit even better its offerings and concepts in the dazzling freestyle grey zone between repertoire and risk to the respective venue. A win-win situation for classical music, which could hardly be more classical.

The c/o pop, Germany’s leading pop industry convention, has just celebrated its tenth anniversary. In our interview, its director Norbert Oberhaus talks about influences and trends in the music business.

The c/o pop, which is short for “Cologne on Pop”, was first staged in Cologne in 2004 as a reaction to the relocation of the Popkomm trade fair to Berlin. While its focus was originally on electronic music, the event nowadays presents a very broad spectrum of pop music.

To mark its tenth anniversary in 2013, 80 concerts were held at 40 venues in Cologne from 19 to 23 June 2013, featuring 170 artists and bands from around the world. As every year, the industry was able to discuss pressing issues at a conference held parallel to the festival, the C’n’B – Creativity & Business Convention. In 2013, the c/o pop organizers first staged an event entitled Interactive Cologne, allowing the Internet community to share views and ideas in the run-up to the festival.

Mr Oberhaus, what were your personal highlights this year?

DJ Koze, as far as dance is concerned. Musically speaking, I was particularly impressed by Apparat, Nils Frahm and Aufgang. I found Efterklang very touching – perhaps precisely because I had been somewhat sceptical in advance.

The truffle pig of the music industry

You once said that the c/o pop had much the same job as a truffle pig, allowing people to experience bands in Cologne before they made it big. Who do you think is destined for great things following this festival?

In Germany, Ok Kid should certainly make it into the national spotlight. And I very much hope that Aufgang embark on a successful international career – this is just how I believe contemporary pop music should be.

This c/o pop was the tenth festival. Was it also a success?
Audience of Retro Stefson Audience of Retro Stefson | Photo: © Tobias Vollmer Overall, it was certainly another success.

How do you measure its success?

Against a number of factors: the reaction of the audiences and the media response, and not least the satisfaction of the musicians themselves. Everything went as smoothly as could be. Then there is the commercial side – although there is always room for improvement, we can be perfectly satisfied this year.

Can you give us some figures?

I can’t give any final figures as yet. We had a total of 25,000 visitors, plus around 800 professional C’n’B Convention attendees from 25 countries. In addition, 1,200 visitors came to the first Interactive Cologne event, which took place ahead of the C’n’B.
Giving creative and clever answers

What does the Interactive Cologne have to do with the music industry?

Over the years, we simply noticed that the question of digitization has a crucial bearing on the music industry. The Internet economy and the pop business are increasingly interlinked and find themselves up against the same kind of problems. What is more, we get the impression that there is a dynamism in the Internet economy that no longer exists in the music industry. Take the most important industry event, for example – the SXSW (South By Southwest) festival in Austin in the US: it is clear that the interactive section there now attracts significantly more professional visitors than the music section. One might even say that that is where it’s happening, economically speaking.

Which issues dominated both the C’n’B and the Interactive events this year?

The overriding theme was: Being creative in a disruptive world, that is to say finding creative and clever answers to questions raised by a constantly changing world. What will the world of work be like in the future? How does politics intend to respond? What alternative financing models might exist? Which innovations could help us shape them? And which trends outside Europe should we be focusing on to a greater extent?

A rocky but successful road

What are you particularly proud of when you look back over ten years of the c/o pop?

The fact that our hard work and dedication not only allowed us to get the c/o pop ball rolling but also to firmly anchor it in the cultural heart of this city. Back in the first two years we tried to stage concerts at the Schauspielhaus theatre, various museums and the Philharmonie, but the people in charge were simply not interested. Nowadays just about everyone upon whose door we come knocking is willing to cooperate with us. We have succeeded in combining the serious with the light music cultures here in Cologne – that is what I am proud of.

Honestly though, would you ever have thought ten years ago that the c/o pop would last so long?

Definitely not. The founding of the c/o pop was a spontaneous and defiant response to the Popkomm’s relocation to Berlin. There was never a plan for the following ten years – there was never even a plan for the c/o pop to become what it has become today. It was a rocky but successful road. That is quite clear from the fact that the Popkomm has not survived but we have.

What did the Popkomm do wrong and what did you do right?

We made the festival the focus right from the outset, and this is something that still sets us apart even today. What is more, we recognized even ten years ago that conventional trade fair events in the music industry are a thing of the past. The Popkomm’s successor project, the Berlin Music Week, no longer uses the trade fair format, and nor does the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg. Furthermore, it is essential to have a discussion in the conference section that consistently crosses industry boundaries – this is also something we did right from the start. Our colleagues in Hamburg and Berlin have now followed our lead, thereby confirming that our approach could not have been entirely wrong.