Reeperbahn Festival On a Voyage of Discovery

The Ensemble Resonanz at Mojo Club.
The Ensemble Resonanz at Mojo Club. | Photo (detail): RF / Stefan Malzkorn

Over 400 bands at more than 70 locations – the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg. Whoever throws himself into the fray can be fairly sure of making exciting discoveries.

A visit to the Reeperbahn Festival always carries with it a small risk: it might happen that you come home with plenty of favourite new bands in your ear and their records under your arm. This year more than 400 artists, DJs and bands stood on the stages of 70 clubs round the Reeperbahn at Germany’s biggest club festival. Most of them were newcomers and had never before performed in Hamburg or even had a record deal. For discovering the new is the idea behind the Reeperbahn Festival. Long before their breakthroughs, for example, the American indie folk musician Bon Iver, the songwriter Jake Bugg and German artists such as DJ Boys Noize and the singer-songwriter Gisbert zu Knyphausen first really got started after their appearances at the Reeperbahn Festival.

Conference meet festival

It all began in 2006. Modelling their event after the South by South West Festival in Austin, Texas, the organizers wanted to establish a club festival in Hamburg where the promotion of young talent took centre stage. Initially started as a purely musical event, it added a business platform for companies and organizations in the music industry three years later. In the meantime the Reeperbahn Festival has long become one of the most important industry meetings in Europe, which attracts market leaders in the branch as well as independents: in 2014 all the major record companies, Warner, Sony and Universal, presented themselves for the first time at their own evening. 2,973 trade visitors and 450 media representatives from 39 countries were there for the weekend – more than ever before. There were 170 events especially for them, including panels, workshops, networking events and a keynote talk by Herbert Grönemeyer, who commented on current business issues.

Not only the trade visitor but also the 30,000 paying guests got their money’s worth at the Reeperbahn Festival. This year too the musical programme was wide-ranging: indie, pop, rock, folk, singer-songwriter, electro, hip hop, soul jazz and even classical music – the Ensemble Resonanz performed, for example, works by the New York composer Bryce Desser. Among the international highlights were undoubtedly the Australian synthie pop band RÜFÜS, the British band Wild Smiles with their Ramones sound and the Irish songwriter Hozier, whose songs are influenced by Americana and folk. It is quite possible that in a few years they will be filling up big halls. The first evening of the festival, on the other hand, followed the motto Wunderkinder – German Music Talent. It focussed on talented maverick young bands from Germany, including the Munich indie pop band Claire, the Berlin folk-pop band Still Parade, the twenty-one-year-old Jesper Munk, whose deep Blues voice stunned the audience, and the band Oracles, which sounded like a cross between Pink Floyd and The Beatles, and appeared in the atmospheric setting of the Imperial Theatre.

Diversity as programme

That is also part of the Reeperbahn Festival: the unusual venues. The Slow Show from Great Britain filled the St. Pauli Church with its melancholy indie rock, the New Zealand musician Liam Finn gave a thrilling concert intermediary between indie and rock at the clubhouse of FC St. Pauli, the Icelandic singer Lay Low sang songs full of feeling to an unamplified acoustic guitar in the small auditorium of the School Museum, and there was live music even on the launch Frau Hedi, which sailed through the Hamburg harbour during the festival.

Thus for four days the Reeperbahn was transformed into a place possessing an aura. If the neighbourhood is usually full of beer bikes and partying kids from the Hamburg burbs, a special atmosphere prevailed during the festival. From every little pub sounded music, on every street corner stood a musician performing his or her songs. Visitors talked shop about the best newcomer, exchanged tips and compared their festival plans. And instead of stag and hen parties, Stefanie Hempel and her Beatles tour or the art tour Street Art Walk roamed through the streets – only two of the 70 items on the agenda from the areas of visual art, media art, literature and film that supplemented the music programme. With so much on offer, the visitor inevitably missed things that he would liked to have seen; but in return he discovered plenty which he had not expected. Those fared best anyway at the Reeperbahn Festival who simply let themselves go in their search for surprises.

The tenth edition of the Reeperbahn Festival will take place in 2015 from 23 to 26 September. Marking the round anniversary, it will have for the first time a focus country theme: “Out of Finland”. By then the St. Pauli Clubhouse, with five new floors, will also have been completed.