“German quota” on the radio The endless debate

The appeal for a German quota law fell on deaf ears for the most part.
The appeal for a German quota law fell on deaf ears for the most part. | Photo (detail): © FreedomMan - Fotolia.com

Should radio stations be obliged to play German music? People have been arguing about whether to introduce a German quota law for 20 years – and yet it may already have long since become superfluous.

Ever since the mid-1990s, there have been repeated discussions in Germany about whether to introduce a law stipulating that radio stations play a certain proportion – or “quota” – of music in German. Supporters of such a move criticize the fact that radio stations predominantly play music that is in English, claiming that this puts German musicians, especially young artists, at a disadvantage. Its opponents see the quota as a form of the nanny state, and as an infringement of the freedom of radio broadcasting.

“Petty nostalgic sentimentalism”

It was German singer-songwriter Heinz Rudolf Kunze who sparked the public debate in an interview with German news magazine Spiegel back in 1996. He explained that he was a fan of Anglo-American music and actually found the idea of a quota “disgusting”, yet “the flood of foreign music, and indeed foreign trash” meant that no-one was listening to young German musicians any more. While established musicians such as Herbert Grönemeyer joined him in demanding a quota, it was precisely those less well-known bands – which Kunze wanted to help to attain broader appeal – that turned against him. Sven Regener from the Berlin-based band Element of Crime recalled the GDR with its dictatorial regime, where a 60 percent quota for home-grown music was enforced. In a statement, Hamburg pop group Blumfeld declared “that we continue to be unavailable for this kind of populism and for any type of patriotism.” Later, the rock group Tocotronic made similar comments, describing the German quota as a form of “Germanomania and petty nostalgic sentimentalism”.

A question of personal taste

When the music industry found itself in crisis at the start of the new millennium, the debate was exacerbated by economic arguments. In 2002, for example, Bavaria’s conservative governing party, the CSU, called for more opportunities for German music producers. Private initiatives such as the Verein Deutsche Sprache, the German language association, also criticized the insufficient proportion of German-language music on the radio, and campaigned in favour of the quota.

In 2004, the majority of parliamentary groups of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the liberal left-wing party Alliance 90/The Greens got behind the quota. Questions of personal taste became part of the discussion. Antje Vollmer of the Greens party for instance complained about the monotony of radio programming, talking about the “annoying elevator music” and “excruciating format radio”. Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, requested that radio stations commit themselves as far as possible to playing music in German for 35 percent of the time. Yet this appeal fell on deaf ears for the most part.

A French-style quota – a good example?

Supporters of the quota often cite France, where radio stations have been required since 1994 to devote around 60 percent of programming time to European and 40 percent to French productions, half of which must be new music. The law came about as a result of the then minister for culture Jacques Toubon, who wanted to protect the French language from Anglicisms and also justified the introduction of a quota by saying that the production of French music had declined in the preceding years. Even today the quota remains controversial in France: private radio stations in particular resist the law, while others see it as responsible for the success of home-grown artists. “Without the quota we would not have had such diversity for more than 20 years”, claims the French society Sacem that represents the rights of more than 100,000 musicians.

Conflict concerning the “Helene quota”

In Germany, the debate continued in February 2015: Franz-Robert Liskow, a politician from the conservative Junge Union in the northeast of the country, demanded “more German music and especially German Schlager” on the radio, saying that the German music industry had produced more and more German songs over the last few years. Liskow thus proposed a quota of 30 to 35 percent of German music, which radio stations should voluntarily commit to upholding. Because he admitted to being a fan of Helene Fischer, Germany’s most successful Schlager singer, his proposal became dubbed the “Helene quota”.

The critics did not take long to speak out: the head of a music editorial department in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) for example argued that German Schlager music is not very popular with listeners and said that the proportion of pop music in German has increased even without a legal quota, artists such as Mark Forster and Andreas Bourani enjoying ever greater popularity.

Do we actually need a quota these days?

Indeed more and more people are rejecting the quota, saying that German pop music these days is popular enough in any case. “Nobody would be surprised any longer to switch on the radio and hear German pop music blaring out”, German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote in 2012. It claimed that although the globalization of the music market has resulted in a monoculture of mainstream pop, German artists are countering this with national diversity. What is more, the German language has been adopted in all genres: hip hop, punk, rock and pop.

The statistics confirm its popularity: according to a report issued by the Bundesverband Musikindustrie, Germany’s federal music industry association, eight of the top ten albums in the official German yearly charts were in German in 2015, while no less than 60 percent were German in the top 100. Alongside Helene Fischer, the most successful artists include the pop singer Sarah Connor, the DJ Felix Jaehn and the rapper Cro. However, this is hardly reflected by the majority of radio stations, the article continues. Yet they no longer need to, at least from an economic perspective, as German music has long since returned to the mainstream of its own accord – even without the quota.