Electronic Music 2011 “Prosper in this Fortune’s Glory”

For Tobias Thomas the electronic music year in Germany was dominated by politics and business. This is a review of the ambivalent developments on the “Island of Good Fortune”.

Paul Kalkbrenner, Wuhlheide Berlin 2011 Paul Kalkbrenner, Wuhlheide Berlin 2011 | Photo: © Andreas Mühe 2012, Courtesy Dittrich & Schlechtriem Berlin The year 2011 was quite definitely not a year in which electronic music underwent drastic musical change, in which pioneering new albums were released or in which new artists and genres hit the scene. It was the year when apparently everything seemed to focus on politics (revolutions, enraged protest, corruption scandals) and the global economy (crisis, crisis, crisis). It was also the year of the disaster at the Duisburg Love Parade that , in addition to the tragedy of so many people losing their lives, also led to the fear that the whole events sector (especially mega-events) would now be hampered by all the new, stricter organisational regulations. Not exactly ideal conditions, one might think, for a type of music that, allegedly, requires “good times” and a “feel-good atmosphere”.

On the other hand, despite these economically apocalyptic times, the impression was given of Germany once again being one of the last “Islands of Good Fortune”. The country, compared with its European neighbours, was in fact in fine fettle - its football stadiums full, its bars and restaurants full, its clubs full, its festivals and concerts all sold out.

However, electronic music , once an island within the “Island of Good Fortune”, can no longer afford to simply withdraw from reality and now has to face up to the painful realisation that everything is connected with everything - technology, economics, politics. It has all become deadly complicated.
In 2011, more labels, distribution companies, clubs and record shops disappeared for ever from the local scene. In the meantime, however, it is not only the producers of beer, cigarettes and energy drinks that nevertheless have taken Germany’s pop and sub-cultural underbelly under its wing, but also some of the institutions at federal, regional and local-government level.
 

Rich man, poor man - the sound of globalisation

In those countries that have been hit much harder by the global economic crisis, like Spain for example, the impact on club culture has been particularly pronounced. When young, culturally curious people end up with no training, job or income, going to a concert or a club to check out an expensive foreign DJ soon becomes a luxury they cannot afford.

This in turn then soon leads to DJs who live in affluent Germany and who up to that point had had the pleasure of doing a few lucrative gigs a year in Spain finally realising that their bookings are starting to dwindle. Small clubs with fine programs have closed, promoters who used to be committed and not afraid of taking risks have become much more cautious, reducing the number of events and paying at best only half of the fee they used to pay in the boom years.

At the same time however we encounter an ever booming global club industry, mostly in places where earnings from mass tourism or funding from private sponsors are poured into clubs and festivals. This keeps the machinery working at full throttle and enables the popular and most prestigious DJs in particular to profit from the exorbitant fees they earn.

The musical repercussions are unmistakably obvious: over the last few years and in the relevant places this has led to the fine, reduced structures of the popular Minimal Techno that was above all popular, and also partly created, in Germany at the end of the 1990s and all the socio-revolutionary impulses of electronic dance music being transformed into a digitally souped-up mixture of extremely powerful, highly compressed beats, monotonous bass runs and - for the highly repetitive climax - strange vacuum cleaner noise. This mix emits a permanent flow of signals which has had a sustainable impact on the listening habits of a whole generation. It has become a mass-produced commodity, free of any historical ballast (soul, disco, funk) and disturbing connotations (innovation, divergence). One file is very much like another.

Berlin - the melting pot

Party at the drum’n‘bass club Icon in Berlin. Having fallen victim to the gentrification process in the Prenzlauer Berg district, the club had to close down after 15 years of existence. Party at the drum’n‘bass club Icon in Berlin. Having fallen victim to the gentrification process in the Prenzlauer Berg district, the club had to close down after 15 years of existence. | Photo: © Icon Even in Berlin, one of the epicentres of electronic music, you can enjoy this all-purpose club music all over the place and, if so desired, for 72 hours on end. This is the place, it has to be stressed again and again, where the club and music scene is still unique - whether you compare it on a national or international level. Every weekend the city gets tens of thousands of newcomers, locals and tourists on the dance floor, providing work for hundreds of DJs, producers, agents, graphic designers, caterers and suppliers. Despite the global economic crisis and any other cultural debates - when it comes to electronic music, Berlin is still the Land of Milk and Honey.

With all the pessimism around at the moment it has to be expressly underlined that in this “paradise” (and, what’s more, beyond Berlin’s city limits, in the whole of joyful Germany) new niches are continually being formed, old niches are being revamped. At the same time it also has to be emphasised that new music, new ideas, aesthetics, social structures and networks are still coming into being that take a stand against the digital mainstream and that command a highly knowledgeable, musically educated audience.

Urban conflicts

In the three big German music cities - Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne - the buzzword “gentrification” generated certain conflicts in 2011 and is still causing more and more of a stir. Higher income earners, attracted by the throbbing pulse of life in the big city, buy themselves some property in one of the up-and-coming trendy districts in order to then transform it into a family-friendly urban idyll. These districts however are often the places where electronic music in Germany first came into being, where it was further developed and where it was lived to the full and they are, among others, the ones that fall by the wayside.

These conflicts pitch long-established locals, new arrivals and residents in need of peace and quiet against noisy tourists, preservationists and gentrifiers in a more or less irreconcilable battle. No wonder the three largest advocacy groups for club and live music -clubcommision (Berlin), Clubkombinat (Hamburg) and Klubkomm (Cologne) - are on the brink of founding a national association, in order to have more of a say when it comes to political and social matters.

Deep, tender and melancholic – Underground in Germany

Whenever the focus is not on politics, but more on what is happening at the moment on the club scene, people in Hamburg for quite some time now have been saying on the quiet that the scene is actually “dead” - apart from the big scene magnets of course like Übel & Gefährlich, Golden Pudel Club, Dockville and the Reeperbahn Festival. Surprisingly so, one might think, as two of the most important electronic labels are still based in this city on the banks of the Elbe and the Alster - the first being Dial, and its sister-labels Smallville and Laid; the second is DJ Koze’s Pampa Records, which in 2011 brought out some of the most outstanding Techno d’Auteur albums to be produced in Germany: Meine zarten Pfoten by Ada, Thora Vukk by Robag Wruhme, as well as Well Spent Youth by Isolee.

Isolée - Paloma Triste by Pampa Records Accompanied by innovative newcomers like Die Vögel from Hamburg and Axel Boman from Sweden, along with a few of DJ Koze’s own productions, in 2011 Pampa Records became one of the most relevant electro-labels of the day in Germany. It might well be the case that DJ Koze has not been spending his time in Hamburg for the last few years, just as the founders of Dial, Peter Kersten, Paul Kominek and David Lieske (a.k.a. Lawrence or Pavel or Dave) also seem to prefer life on the river Spree in Berlin, their labels that are strongly associated with Hamburg are however still living proof that there is a life beyond the beaten track of the capital. The same also applies to important platforms like Gomma, Permanent Vacation (both Munich), Desolat (Düsseldorf), Freude Am Tanzen (Jena) and Running Back (Darmstadt).

In 2011 Dial succeeded in releasing an eminently convincing Techno d’Auteur long-player that in contrast to many other electronic productions also managed to attract somewhat broader attention from the media - it was Roman Flügel’s album Fatty Folders.

These days, even though electronic music in Germany has been completely integrated, and accordingly recognised, in the mainstream of pop culture for quite some time, it has to be said that it is still the “old” genres like rock, pop, folk and hiphop that dominate the charts and the headlines of the cultural pages - that is of course if anything is written at all about pop culture. Apart from Paul Kalkbrenner, who is still playing in a league all of his own, and to a lesser extent the German version of the French duo “Justice” - Digitalism, the German electronic scene has not produced any real new stars for quite some time. There has been no Casper like the one sired by the German hiphop scene in 2011, there has been no dubstep/pop crossover like the one launched by the Englishman James Blake - the German electronic scene is still and will remain an underground scene. Even such respected albums like Modeselektor (Monkeytown), Fritz Kalkbrenner (Suol) and Apparat (Mute) have not been able to change this.

Nostalgia and new territory

The middle ground of the electronic dance music scene was dominated by a return to nostalgically hissy Deep and US House, just as it was in 2010. The music was released on a number of small and specialised labels, distributed on edits, bootlegs and dub plates, many of which were only available on the Internet (or only on vinyl).

A whole new generation of young music fans, DJs and producers delved into the legacy of 30 years of Techno, House and electronic music and managed to learn some interesting and innovative lessons.
Last year it was the resident DJ at Berlin’s Panorama Bar, Dutch-born Steffi, who made a great contribution to the scene that went way beyond a mere restoration of House with her melancholically frisky album Yours & Mine (Ostgut Ton). A further contribution was made by the South African-born doyen of electronic music, Portable, with Into Infinity - both of them released by the Perlon label that has been based in Berlin for quite a few years now.

In Cologne, where people like their electronic music mixed with a healthy measure of pop, the Kompakt label, considered for so long as almost “too German”, focussed in 2011 on the albums of international artists like Gui Boratto, John Tejada, Rainbow Arabia, WhoMadeWho, GusGus, Walls or The Field. The eagerly awaited album by the Coma duo from the Rhineland however is still a long time in coming. One of Kompakt’s icons - Wolfgang Voigt - was the only one to keep the flame burning with his Kafkatrax 12inches.

Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble feat. Emika- Pretend by !K7 Records

The Brandt Brauer Frick trio, who first saw the light of day in the breeding grounds of Cologne, but then emigrated to Berlin, all of a sudden found themselves to be once again in a totally different orbit last year. It was primarily their techno-acoustic project, The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble, one of the figureheads of the new “Electronic Music For the Concert Hall” movement, that enabled the three young men, always neatly attired in collar and tie, to perform all over the world, for example, at Glastonbury and at the Coachella Festival in California.

It goes without saying that electronic music in Germany cannot be merely reduced to the big trends in the fields of Techno and House. The Drum & Bass und Dubstep scenes in Germany are flourishing, Munich’s Schlachthofbronx, the indefatigable Daniel Haaksman, as well as the transnational Cómeme label continue to work on a fusion of pan-American and European dance music; finally there are also some magnificent artists (both new and old) in the fields of Ambient, Electro-Acoustic and on the fringes of the New Music scene. One particular highlight worth mentioning here is the album Salon des Amateurs (Fatcat) by Düsseldorf pianist and producer, Hauschka. The title is a tribute to the club of the same name in the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf.
Naming a record after a sociotope like this is also a political statement.