Indie Music Labels in Germany The Alternative to Mainstream

Gunther Buskies (Tapete Records) at work
Gunther Buskies (Tapete Records) at work | Photo (detail): © 2016 Tapete Records

The spectrum could hardly be broader – In Germany there is a vast number of companies that publish music – and every one of these labels seems to have a unique profile.

In Germany, many independent companies, so-called Indie labels, have succeeded in establishing themselves on the music market. The Association of Independent Music Companies (VUT in German), which was established in 1993, now has more than 1,300 members. 52 percent of the members in the lobby organisation are labels. The organisation also embraces distributors, publishers, booking agencies, individual artists and bands under its umbrella. And the Indie scene is growing in Germany – five years ago, the VUT recorded fewer than 1,200 members.

There is a wide variety among German Indie labels – also in terms of economic strategy. Let us take the Tapete Records and Karaoke Kalk labels as examples. In his Hamburg-based company Tapete boss, Gunther Buskies, employs eight full-time employees and publishes up to 40 albums per year. He focuses mainly on rock music from Germany, but recently also managed to get the English singer / songwriter, Lloyd Cole, under contract. Cole has been an icon of the Indie scene since the 1980s .

For the love of music

Thorsten Lütz, on the other hand, established his label in Cologne in 1997 and has lived in Berlin since 2004. He is not only the boss, but also the only employee of Karaoke Kalk, which is famous both for its selection of hard-to-digest, austere sounding electronic music, as well as its catchy, extravagantly arranged “broadband” pop. Since 2014 Tapete Records has produced about 100 albums – it took Karaoke Kalk two decades to produce the same number. Nevertheless, no matter how  different the two companies may be, the motivation is similar. “Even after 20 years I am still enjoying putting good music on the market," says Lütz. “We are independent and we publish only the music we like,” says Buskies.

Relying more on one's own taste, and not going for more business potential – this attitude is particularly widespread among German Indie labels. This is also the reason why Indies mainly produce albums, even though albums hardly pay off in the short-term. That is why the founder of Tapete, Buskies, tries to think more on a long term basis. He wants to build up an artist over a period of several years and, as a result, develop the best possible back catalogue, i.e. accumulate a repertoire of already released albums with the relevant publishing rights. A large number of licensable songs that can be used, for example, in commercials or television series, increases the likelihood of being able to finance new releases.

An all-round package for musicians

Concert booking or the merchandising business are also becoming increasingly important. As hardly any money can be made any more with the direct sale of music to the consumer, be it in the form of classical recordings, downloads or streaming, more and more companies are now offering their artists an all-round package which enables their artists to benefit from all the possible revenue opportunities. The big major labels, such as Universal, Warner and Sony, which still supply a large part of commercial music in Germany with all their many sub-labels, offer a so-called “360 degree deal”. This is highly controversial among artists, because, depending on the structure of the contract, it may result in an adhesion contract, which binds an artist to the entertainment group so strictly that their artistic freedom is limited. Many Indie labels offer these all-round packages as well, but they allow the musicians much more freedom when it comes to decision-making.

Artistic self-determination

Allowing artists to determine their career moves themselves, was often the causative reason for the emergence of independent labels in Germany – producing for a sophisticated niche audience is generally not in the interest of the major labels. Instead of adapting to the mainstream, however, many musicians preferred to keep their business concerns in their own hands. In 1996 the most commercially successful rappers of the country, Die Fantastischen Vier from Stuttgart, founded Four Music. Again and again the company released number-one albums, but in the meantime no longer acts independently, but has become part of the Sony Group. Herbert Grönemeyer, the biggest German pop star at the moment, has been running his own Indie label since 2009 – Grönland Records. And Grand Hotel van Cleef, a rock label whose albums regularly make the top ten, owes its 15-year-long existence primarily to the fact that the founders could not find any record company for their former bands Kettcar and Tomte.

One of Germany's most exciting labels

Maurice Summen, along with his bandmates from Die Türen, went down a similar road back in 2003. They founded their own label in Berlin with the name Staatsakt. “As a musician I somehow stumbled into the world of business management,” said Summen, who now manages the label alone and has turned Staatsakt into the currently fastest growing and most exciting artistic label in Germany. Summen releases such things as hedonistic party rock'n'roll by Bonaparte and the depressive laments by Isolation Berlin, meditative avant-garde by Erobique, as well as the elegiac pop of Die Heiterkeit. Meanwhile, the mini-company based in Berlin has also become home to Dieter Meier, the voice of the legendary Swiss electro pop artists Yello, and veteran German pop music legends like Andreas Dorau or Die Sterne.

“We are creating alternatives to the industry and to the mainstream,” says Maurice Summen of Staatsakt, “but most of all it is about the love of music.” This philosophy, propounded by Staatsakt, probably applies to all Indie labels. It is not the money you can earn with music that should be the main driving force, but the music itself.