Pop and Electronic Music 2020
The figures aren’t everything

"Tomorrow Is the Question", a banner by the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija | Photo (detail): © Noshe
Tomorrow Is the Question, a banner by the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija | Photo (detail): © Noshe

2020 was a year of great upheavals, a turning point. The pop and electronic music sectors had to grapple with the basic question of how to make a living amid a pandemic, ensuing crisis and concrete policy decisions. The coronavirus made all the new rules and that was a game changer in every respect. Though one constant did emerge in this unpredictable year: constant change.

By Arno Raffeiner

When the theme music introducing the Tagesthemen starts up at 9.45 pm on 23 October 2020, it doesn’t sound the way it usually does. It’s louder, distorted, even aggressive. Yep, no doubt about it: the nightly newscast is opening with rock guitar and drums. In the studio, the camera pans to three musicians with bleached backcombed hair: Die Ärzte, one of the most successful German rock bands of the past few decades, are opening for one of the most-watched broadcasts on German TV. This is how far pop culture has come under pandemic conditions: the Tagesthemen goes punk rock. Only for one night, but still…

This is a small but conspicuous sign of the times, it speaks volumes about how much changed last year. About the fact that since March 2020, the parameters and prevailing conditions of culture in general, and of pop and club music in particular, have been turned topsy-turvy by a bolt from the blue.

Later on, Die Ärzte use the interview they give to the Tagesthemen presenter to appeal to the TV audience, to call their attention to the precarious plight of the entire event industry. Since the pandemic hit Germany, no festivals or club nights at all have been held in their usual setting, and the only concerts that actually did take place, during a few months’ respite in spring and summer, were held under unusual conditions too, and hardly turned a profit. There was no way to do “business as usual” and plan ahead with even a modicum of certainty last year. And the situation will only gradually start to change in 2021. In a newspaper interview in early December, German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz encouraged promoters to plan concerts… only for the second half of 2021. Which means precious little hope of any concerts before July.

Drinks cash-and-carry coming soon!

Many musicians earn the bulk of their living by performing live. So they were stripped of their livelihood overnight by the measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic. And they weren’t the only ones. "Drinks cash-and-carry opening here soon," it said on the marquee over the entrance to the Columbiahalle in Berlin. The jest was meant as a warning. The venue, standing room capacity: 3,500, had been deserted for months. And business has come to a standstill not only on stage, but throughout a whole sector of the economy, the bulk of which remains behind the scenes, out of sight, or is taken for granted: organizers and promoters, booking agencies, sound engineers, security, catering, bar staff.

In the wake of the crisis, it clearly transpired that musicians, DJs and in fact the performing arts as a whole can’t depend on a lobby comparable to that of other, similarly large industries. This realization led to the creation of an initiative called Alarmstufe Rot (Red Alert) in July to try to remedy the situation. Its protest campaigns may have succeeded in getting the word out by now about the sheer magnitude of the contribution to the German economy made by the multitude of small scattered companies and lone wolves in this sector. "We’re the sixth largest industry in Germany with €130 billion turnover and over a million jobs," Alarmstufe Rot says on its website with regard to the event industry, which also includes business sectors such as conferences, trade fairs and sporting events.

According to Berlin’s Senate Department for the Economy, the German political and cultural capital has 250 venues; tallies using other criteria come to as much as double that figure. With roughly 45,000 events a year, the industry was reporting €170 million in turnover until the pandemic struck. Not only does the city's pop and club scene have international pull, it even counts as a so-called "location factor". But it all fizzled out in 2020, and the repercussions will plague a city like Berlin, that lives on services, tourism and culture, for years to come.

€0.00018 per view

The digital sphere has become the main cultural arena during the coronavirus crisis. Online platforms have now taken over as alternative venues, streaming live and recorded events in various formats with little or no live local audience. The chief beneficiaries of this development are the digital platforms of global corporations like Google, with its YouTube video portal, and Facebook, with its Instagram concerts.

Spotify, the biggest music streaming service, has also reported a growth spurt. In the third quarter of 2020, the number of monthly active users was up 29% and subscriptions up 27% on the same period in 2019. And revenues increased 14%. But only a pittance of that goes to the musicians. This is a long-standing grievance, which is naturally exacerbated when gigs get cancelled in times of crisis. Spotify pays them about €0.0029 per stream, YouTube about €0.00018, which is less than a tenth of that amount, per music video click.

United We Stream has established itself as a prominent alternative to YouTube, Instagram and the like. It’s a series launched by a Berlin interest group called Clubcommission in association with the German-French TV channel Arte. DJ sets from over a hundred cities around the world are now being streamed for an international audience on Arte and the website unitedwestream.org. Revenues are generated on formats like these primarily through calls for donations, but ticket sales for online events are also on the rise.

Back in the offline "physical sphere", a lot of different approaches have been tried to make music events pandemic-proof. Mainstream acts like the rapper Sido have tried giving concerts at drive-in movie theatres, for example. For the rest, concertgoers are seated wherever possible instead of standing. Some organizers even have bands play twice in a row to separate smaller-size audiences. However, since it’s impossible to make a profit selling tickets at acceptable prices to audiences scaled down on average to 20 to 25% of their usual size, these strategies shifted for the most part to publicly funded venues. Independent promoters and agencies repeatedly had to postpone and reschedule festival programmes, DJ line-ups and concert tours. In many cases, however, the rescheduled events ended up getting cancelled anyway.

Andreas Oberschelp, whose Puschen company sets up indie music concerts, reported in Zeit Online that he is now making less than 5% of what he usually makes streaming concerts of acts he represents in Germany. As for advance ticket sales for 20 gigs to be held this past autumn, Puschen sold only four tickets in the second week of September.

Rubber dinghy rave vs. safe space

The club scene has come to be viewed by many Germans as a nuisance and a public health risk. The term "corona party" caught on as a widely-used term of opprobrium even back in the spring. Oftentimes, as a matter of act, the club crowd don’t do their own cause any favours, and they hit rock bottom in early June with a “floating party” to protest against the shuttering of Berlin’s clubs. Whilst a #BlackLivesMatter rally against racism and police violence was going on simultaneously just a few miles away, around 3,000 people sitting in inflatable dinghies on the canal – in front of a hospital, of all places – demonstrated against supposedly unnecessary restrictions on their personal liberties. One banner actually read "I can't breathe": the last words of George Floyd, the African-American killed by the police in May 2020 during an arrest in Minneapolis, degenerated there in Berlin into an open-air party slogan.

So techno made it onto the Tagesthemen newscast too, albeit not in quite the same way as Die Ärzte. Meanwhile, headlines about such actions eclipsed the clubs' efforts to reinvent themselves as versatile venues. Besides stopgap solutions that increasingly revolved around gastronomy, they turned chiefly to the visual arts, repurposing dance floors into exhibition spaces. One particularly prestigious exhibition was Studio Berlin, a showcase for the contemporary art scene in the German capital organized by the Berghain techno club in association with the Boros Collection. The opening in early September made quite a splash: the time slots for showgoers were sold out weeks in advance – until all the concert and exhibition spaces had to close down again in November.

So the new restrictions put a temporary damper on the clubs' backup and reinvention strategies. And the investment in these new business concepts did not prove crisis-proof. It was already a foregone conclusion in the spring that some venues unable to morph into beer gardens or showrooms would disappear for good. Thanks to emergency relief programmes, many proprietors have managed to hold out till the end of the year. But in all likelihood, the imminent wave of bankruptcies has merely been put off till 2021. Particularly in the club sector, this means the permanent loss of safe spaces where marginalized groups could come together, free from discrimination.

This socio-political dimension was drowned out in the wider public perception by high jinks like the "rubber dingy rave". And that fits into the overall picture, for the measures to contain the pandemic also imparted, between the lines, an underlying value system. Federal relief efforts at the beginning of the crisis only aimed to cover operating costs, so they overlooked the real working and living conditions of many musicians. The bottom-line message: culture is not "too big to fail". The powers that be deem culture less important to people than, say, shopping: culture is ranged with leisure activities that we can and should forego under certain circumstances. But the figures aren’t everything. Not only are the livelihoods of many creatives and their staff and suppliers in jeopardy, but they are being stripped of their role and importance in society.

Learning to mutate

Many of the new developments in 2020 are here to stay – precisely because some institutions and habits are disappearing. 2020 marks a turning point, the events of last year will have lasting repercussions. In the meantime, one thing’s for sure: there’s no going back to the way things were, at least not completely. New conventions and resulting routines will have to develop gradually. Wide swaths of the public are likely to remain cautious and avoid crowds for some time to come, which means a much smaller turnout for live, in-person concerts. The digital ersatz, however, has already lost much of its initial appeal. Hence the need for the oft-invoked hybrid formats to evolve and prove their merits on both sides: in production as in reception. The public, too, must abandon some preconceptions and adapt to new offerings.

"Tomorrow is the question" is the motto emblazoned in giant letters on the front of the Berghain club for its Studio Berlin exhibition. This banner by the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija points to the main imperative now: to invest in a different future. Economically speaking, but also creatively. Creating new parameters and infrastructures will also provide an opportunity to think more deeply about problems that have been deplored for years on end and, ideally, to remedy social ills and injustices: to call out sexist and racist dynamics in the music business, create autonomous digital spaces that guarantee more participation, and to do social ecology and social sustainability.

So the paramount new issue for pop culture in the aftermath of 2020 is change. "We must go from a state of forced mutation to one of chosen mutation," wrote philosopher Paul B. Preciado in an essay at the start of the crisis. Many artists have been ringing the changes for some time now. Aérea Negrot is a case in point. A Venezuelan artist based in Germany, Negrot has been shuttling between the poles of club music, opera singing, theatre and performance art for years. Most recently, she DJed a streaming event for the Berlin CTM festival. The follow-up, slated for late January, will be a "pandemic edition" in a new hybrid form for us to discover. The overarching theme of the festival will stay with us for a long time: "transformation".