Electronic music 2012 Bad news for Berghain & Co.

Electronic music in Germany 2012: Bad news for Berghain & Co. In 2012 Germany became a major hub of electronic club music again – even as GEMA, the German music copyright watchdog, announced a rate reform that set off an unprecedented wave of protest. Meanwhile, young musicians have been bypassing opinion makers to establish a new pop-geared mass-appeal club sound under their own steam. Berlin’s techno infrastructure was bolstered last year by the advent of Soundcloud, a key new distribution platform. A look back at the year in electronic music by Alexis Waltz.

Berlin's heraldic bear guarding “its” Berghain club Berlin's heraldic bear guarding “its” Berghain club | © Initiative Save Berlin and Berghain In the wake of the Love Parade’s decline after the year 2000, electronic dance music had ceased to reach the pop-loving mainstream of the German population. Club music from Germany was getting more public attention in the international scene, however, and German DJs were playing Barcelona or London instead of the German hinterland.

The domestic situation moved back to centre stage in 2012 after GEMA announced a rate reform that poses a threat to the very livelihood of the club scene. Its struggle for survival has made club culture a focus of mass media attention in Germany again for the first time since the 1990s.

Also, for the first time since the techno explosion nearly 25 years ago, musicians like Wankelmut, Alle Farben and Fritz Kalkbrenner, with their combination of soft house grooves and catchy pop songs, succeeded in developing an electronic style that caught on especially in the German-speaking world and reached an audience of millions.

GEMA rate reform jeopardizes clubs

In April 2012, GEMA (Society for Musical Performing and Mechanical Production Rights) notified discotheque owners that a new licensing fee schedule would take effect on 1 January 2013. The object of the rate reform was to reduce the number of different fees for musical events and divest discotheques of the advantages they enjoy over cultural events. GEMA does not deny that some rates could go up by as much as 1,000 per cent, but argues that these cases are exceptions. In GEMA’s estimation, the costs should go down for most clubs.

The news of the rate reform caused an outcry. The Cocoon Club in Frankfurt am Main says its annual fees would skyrocket from €14,000 to €165,000. Berghain and Watergate in Berlin are in for spikes of 1400 and 2,000 per cent, respectively. According to the German music event organizers association, only very small clubs and one-off events would benefit from the reform.

Many club owners said the new rules would force them to the wall, hence the unprecedented protest prompted by GEMA’s announcement. The owners had never before faced such a direct threat to their livelihood. An online petition launched by discotheque operators was signed by over 250,000 people. The activist coalitions Kultur Retten (“Saving Culture”) and Fair Play coordinated nationwide demonstrations. The one in Berlin drew a crowd of over 5,000 people.

Clubs are not Discos

In safeguarding the rights of music producers, GEMA performs an important task in the club context: whereas DJs get paid a fee by the organizers, those who produced the music they use in a club are not sufficiently remunerated by record sales.

So the debate about the rate reform does not question this redistribution itself. Rather, there are doubts as to whether the fees paid to GEMA actually reach the musicians in question. For under the so-called “GEMA presumption”, every organizer is required to pay licensing fees – even if none of the authors of the music used in a particular venue happens to be a GEMA member. This monopoly position was recently backed up by the Bundestag when it rejected a petition to do away with the GEMA presumption. In the course of the debate, Sven Väth said 80% of the music he plays is GEMA-free, and Ricardo Villalobos said 50% of the music he uses hasn’t even been released yet. So in this regard, GEMA is wrong to treat club music as discotheque music. We need discotheques to hear music we already know, and clubs for music we don’t know yet. Discotheque music includes the latest singles by Rihanna or Cro as well as all-time favourites like It’s Raining Men by the Weather Girls. So it’s not surprising that the GEMA discotheque music database with its 15,000 titles permits an assessment quota of 95%. Call for the anti-GEMA campaign in Berlin Call for the anti-GEMA campaign in Berlin | © Initiative FAIRplay The appeal of club music, on the other hand, lies not in the recognition of familiar tunes, but in the heterogeneity and up-to-dateness of the tracks played. Every DJ has to set himself apart from his predecessor to justify his being booked in the first place. Beatport, for example, the online MP3 music store specializing in club music, has over 700,000 tracks in its catalogue.

GEMA challenged by desktop musicians

The GEMA structures are designed for a small circle of professional musicians. Hence the recurrent complaint that the licensing fees which clubs are charged only benefit a handful of pop and rock stars. But the number of active musicians is steadily increasing in the electronic music scene in particular. Nowadays every computer user with adequate software has a professional studio at their disposal with which to produce usable club tracks – and this really blurs the line between hobby and metier, between amateur and professional. It’s harder to make a living out of music now than it was before the Internet age, whereas it’s much easier now to draw attention to yourself.

Many musicians have come to accept making music as a hobby, and an appealing one. After all, distributing music nowadays is a breeze, and is bound to be rewarded with a couple hundred clicks as well as some friendly and encouraging comments from kindred spirits on sites like Soundcloud. When music by these musicians gets played in big clubs, the owners don’t even consider reporting those tracks to GEMA. But if GEMA’s approach were to have any credibility, it would have to cover this whole set of musicians as well.

Global digital music distribution as an opportunity

Back in the age of physical sound carriers, a different distributor had to be found in each country to market the music there with localized packaging, pricing and marketing. Naturally, this distributor had the local copyright associations in their radar too. But nowadays, smaller labels in particular sell their music worldwide via online MP3 stores like Beatport. The smaller margins often do not allow for any more complex marketing efforts than that. Now that music is globally marketed, national copyright associations are disappearing off the radar.

But all that does not mean that present-day music production simply can’t be traced anymore. Once a piece of music pops up on the Internet it can be processed as a source of information. GEMA need only find a way to use this information. A few lines in Beatport’s deals with its musicians and a few clicks of the mouse would suffice for 700,000 titles in Beatport’s database to be 700,000 titles in GEMA’s database. The jury is still out on the matter. GEMA has postponed the reform to 2014.

Grey-area remixes reinvent electronic pop music

Since the 1990s, no electronic music style has caught on as widely as techno back in the heyday of the Love Parade. Since the turn of the millennium, club music from Germany has been getting more international attention. But for pop-loving Germans, it has also grown easier to ignore it. Last year, a young generation of musicians succeeded in coming up with a mass-appeal club sound. Sidestepping established labels and clubs, they developed an eclectic dance sound combining snippets of songs drawn from every phase of pop history with house grooves. The spectrum of music they have seized on ranges from old swing numbers to current R&B hits. Two of the leading artists in this scene are the DJs Hannes Fischer and Alle Farben.

These artists made a name for themselves at the summer festivals in particular. The media in this scene include blogs like trndmusik and various Facebook pages. Most of the pieces are distributed non-commercially on the web. In the old days, they would have had to be commissioned, by the singer or rapper’s label, to do an official remix, else they’d be outlawed as bootleg. Now they are put up with as denizens of a legal grey area. In view of the spate of remixes, some labels have given up any plans to take legal action against this appropriation of their intellectual property. Others figure that the edits actually bang the drum for the original songs.

“One Day/ Reckoning Song”: Internet phenomenon takes radio by storm

The apogee of this phenomenon to date is Wankelmut’s One Day/ Reckoning Song. This Berlin DJ/philosophy student put a folk rock song by an Israeli singer to an exceedingly charming house groove, which placed Avidan’s vocals and the guitar figure in a completely new light. Within the space of only four months, the song was heard nearly 50 million times. For purposes of comparison, current independent club hits released by trendsetting “elite” labels seldom garner more than a million clicks.

The peculiarity of One Day/ Reckoning Song lies in the fact that, after its legalization, it was the first song of this kind to make the leap back onto the old media and actually topped the official music charts in Germany.
Fritz Kalkbrenner may not belong to the generation of these artists and he does use conventional distribution channels with his Suol label. But what their music and Kalkbrenner’s contemplative songs have in common is a pop-laden electronic sound that can be grasped even without club party experience and specialist knowledge about music. Although Kalkbrenner sings in English, it is the German-speaking public that is the most responsive to his songs.

Berlin-born software for music production and distribution

In the 1990s a unique techno infrastructure emerged in Germany, bringing the music even into the most backwoods ballrooms. This network, with its hub in Berlin, now underpins the worldwide club scene. That includes not only record labels and booking agencies, but also music equipment.

The foremost software developers in the field are also located in Berlin: the Berlin-based British firm SoundCloud Ltd, Native Instruments GmbH (NI) and Ableton AG. NI leads the market with its DJ software called Traktor and it manufactures various software synthesizers. Ableton, with its Live sequencer, which is geared to doing live gigs, could outstrip market leaders Apple and Steinberg in the electronic music sector.

The decisive feature of all this software is that the programmes are not designed for professional studio engineers who know from training and experience how to use them, but for DIY musicians who have to rely on their intuitive understanding.

And all these programmes can be used to produce music not only for private enjoyment: Ableton Live is designed for production as well as live performance, and DJ sets mixed on Traktor can be livecast on net radio. As for SoundCloud, it is at once a content platform and a social network, where musicians can publish and publicize their tracks in no time and dialogue with peers and fans. In other words, the site is a music distributor, advertising platform, record store, fan club and expert forum all rolled into one.

Farewell to a Frankfurt institution

In closing, some bad news: Frankfurt’s Cocoon Club, probably the most ambitious newly-built club in the country, had to close up shop.
Opened in 2004, the club sought to leave the basement and car park parties of the ’90s behind and come up with a more mature form of revelry. The futuristic, fantastical soundscape of electronic music was to be reflected in the venue’s architecture, design and gastronomy. The idea was to satisfy, under a single roof, the needs of different generations of Frankfurt residents to party, socialize, to see and be seen.

As a nearly worldwide booking and event agency, the Cocoon Club’s attempt to ground itself with a world-class club in its home town turns out to be outmoded. As a result, the regional techno scene has lost a landmark. It seems that clubs of this size can only last these days in global party hubs like Berlin, Ibiza and Las Vegas.