Pop and Electronic Music 2021
Where’s the booster?

Beach chair concert in Germany | Photo (detail): © Steinsohn
Beach chair concert in Germany | Photo (detail): © Steinsohn

2021 was supposed to be the post-pandemic year for pop music. Such was the prevailing hope as Germany’s Covid-stricken music and event industry embarked on a summer of culture in which, at least for a brief spell, everything seemed almost normal again. But then came the fourth wave and made one thing clear: optimism and creativity won’t keep anyone afloat if the money and strategy are running short.

It’s October 2021 at Munich’s Hofbräuhaus, where 142 people are performing the sun salutation – on mats laid out on the floor – to “LaBrassBanda-meets-yoga” music. The Chiemsee band led by trumpeter Stefan Dettl recorded their contemplative album Kiah Royal back in 2014 – in a cowshed. And now they’ve come out with Yoga Symphony No. 1, another infusion of ultra-relaxation with overtones of cultural appropriation, a Sonnentor tea bag gimmick and an accompanying live session under a yoga instructor’s expert guidance. It’s all “sound coming straight out of the body”, explains Dettl. And as for the thick mats under the conventional wood panelling, he seems to have got it just right after a year and a half of involuntary cultural slowdown. Meanwhile, relaxation concerts – certified by the German Tourism Award, no less – were booming in beach chairs all over Germany. Was this what Germany really needed in the would-be year of post-isolation pop music?

In any case, German artists and organizers certainly can’t be accused of losing their creativity along with their earnings. On the contrary, with the vaccination centres came the Kultursommer – thanks to the laid-off music and concert workers who helped out at Berlin’s vaccination centres. Meanwhile, the sound system over at Tegel Airport’s Terminal C made it seem like a night club there, and former venues like the Arena in Berlin-Treptow test-ran the first vaccination parties, replete with late-night DJ sets and programmes on stage to soften or sweeten the prick.

For another thing, the Kultursommer was jump-started by a €30.5 million stimulus package made available by the Federal Cultural Foundation in May 2021. It was primarily to provide direct support for freelance artists, the independent scene and local stakeholders, with a view to bringing online cultural life back into the urban realm. This Neustart Kultur – a reboot for the arts in Germany – provided a hefty shot in the arm for 117 projects, including open-air music events galore in 63 urban and 54 rural districts.

The wave between the waves

Under the pandemic conditions, streaming projects established themselves last year as safe, inclusive spaces worth maintaining for a wide variety of musicians and DJ collectives. One case in point was broadcaster HÖR Berlin’s Torhaus-Radio, a self-administered community space in a former gatehouse at Tempelhofer Feld; another was Ulm’s all-female FEMTASTIQUE Festival, which was livecast on the web despite formidable technical challenges. After the infection curve flattened out last spring, however, calls for a socially responsible return to business-as-usual grew louder – for the sake of individual livelihoods, but also as a collective demand for structural changes, including due recognition of culture as an important location factor and as part of the economic system.

In May 2021, the Bundestag’s planning and building committee officially recognized clubs and live venues as places of cultural interest. That was a long overdue glimmer of hope for the industry, but one that would remain mere lip service without the one thing needful to keep these places running: money. So, under the slogan Wir.Sind.Kultur. (“We.Are.Culture.”), a growing coalition of associations have been campaigning since June, with public actions and round-table discussions, for a law to promote culture and the arts in Berlin, a law that would see creative artists through the crisis and guarantee the redevelopment and long-term viability of the arts in Germany. To be sure, the Federal Government had provided a Neustart (“reboot”) subsidy of up to €7,500 to help freelancers, casual and short-term workers, and small companies make it through the first half of the year. But these were merely temporary stopgaps and mostly limited to individual beneficiaries. So a uniform long-term arts funding scheme was still sorely wanting in the second year of the pandemic.

That’s one reason why some of the so-called “club demo” boats paddled across Berlin’s Landwehr Canal once again in June, which was met with mixed reactions after a similar action the year before, during the Black Lives Matter protests, had by and large cast Covid precautions overboard to uncork the champagne instead. So did 2021 end up playing more of the same old song for the music industry, albeit with varying lyrics?

The live music situation was as spotty as the year itself. After the Fusion Festival was cancelled in May despite its sophisticated Covid protocol, club and showcase festivals like the Pop-Kultur at Berlin’s Kulturbrauerei were held as hybrid events in the summer. Others followed their lead, including the Reeperbahnfestival in Hamburg, 3HD and Atonal in Berlin and the Balance Festival in Leipzig.

Initiative Musik’s APPLAUS Award paid tribute to the ingenuity and initiative of many organizers, with special prizes for creative formats, whilst the Clubcommission provided money and infrastructure for various pilot projects in Berlin, such as the LINK event series for more diversity and safe spaces, held in association with Raiders, a ghetto-house DJ collective based in Marzahn. Berlin’s Senate Department for Culture and Europe and the Clubcommission also commended the initiators for the premiere of the Clubculture Reboot, an experimental set-up that drew on medical expertise from Berlin’s Charité university hospital. From August 6 to 8, PCR-tested indoor events were held at six clubs with a total of 2,110 subjects to show that party nights could be held safely even under pandemic conditions.

After the ban on dancing at clubs in the German capital was officially lifted by Berlin’s administrative court in August following an urgent appeal, it seemed for a few weeks as though almost everything was back to normal. But the Berghain was the site of a coronavirus outbreak in October just after the famed techno bunker had reopened. After some confusion about state- and event-specific “3G” (geimpft, genesen oder getestet – i.e. vaccinated, recovered or tested), 2G+ (vaccinated or recovered plus tested), and 2G (vaccinated or recovered) regulations, large-scale events were cancelled, first in Saxony and shortly thereafter all over the country, despite the exemplary safety protocols.

One such cancelled event was the Transcentury Update in Leipzig, a festival that had already been postponed in 2020. Anika, one of the most exciting experimental artists and DJs of the year, was supposed to present her new album with the promising title Change there. She was allowed to appear at Berlin’s Synaesthesia Festival during the same period, however, which points up one of the main problems with different pandemic policies in different parts of the country: the decision to prioritize a gig in one city over a gig in another has become a gamble and, depending on the local incidence of Covid cases, it can mean money gained or lost from one day to the next. At any rate, unused tickets in Leipzig, as in many other places, won’t be usable next year this time around. As a result, the fourth wave may well have finished off many an unsubsidized DIY music organizer.

Collapse, escape and a little optimism

But a break from live performance and self-imposed or mandated isolation also gave a number of German and German-language artists time for creative output. After moving from Austria to Berlin, the pop band Ja, Panik, who are famed for their discursive lyrics, put out their first album in six years: Die Gruppe (“The Group”). It features saxophone, borrowings from Roxy Music, and allusions to Covid-19 and to climate and system collapse in their characteristically apocalyptic songs, some of which were written in 2019, but now come across as commentary on the present times. New albums by Max Rieger from Esslingen (aka All Diese Gewalt), by Isolation Berlin, and by Drangsal, whose Exit Strategy may be schlager-inflected in form, but whose content continues to revolve around the dark sides of human existence in the big city juggernaut, at best reflect the silver-lining notion that things could always be worse. And there’s a glimmer of hope, at least in the name: School Of Zuversicht (“School of Confidence”), a Hamburg-based old guard indie collective, put out some fresh agnostic pop last year. Then again, the album title is less sanguine: An allem ist zu zweifeln, i.e. “Everything is doubtful”.

In February, the life and work of French musician and author Françoise Cactus were brought to an abrupt end. Though she described herself as stateless, she had adopted the city of Berlin. The mastermind behind the iconic synth-pop band Stereo Total, Cactus died of breast cancer far too young, at only 56 years of age, leaving behind innumerable radio plays, books, paintings and objects in addition to several albums. Like Cactus, the West Berlin dark wave band Malaria! fronted by Bettina Köster and Gudrun Gut, who would later join Stereo Total, were part of the Geniale Dilletanten scene, self-styled “brilliant dilettantes” who, in the 1980s, fused avant-garde art with music and the communal squats in the basements of Kreuzberg with the nightclubs in Mitte.

To mark their 40th anniversary, Köster, Gut and bandmate Beate Bartel came out in November with M_Dokumente, a voluminous book project published by Ventil Verlag about the three underground bands Mania D, Malaria! and Matador. Above all, it presents the female take on the late 1970s and ’80s DIY music scene. In the year of #DeutschRapMeToo, Sandra and Kersty Grether, who are both journalists and musicians, took a similarly contemporary feminist look at East and West German pop history in Ich brauche eine Genie (“I Need a Genius”), published by Mikrotext. These two former writers for the pop culture magazine SPEX have put together a revealing, nostalgic and yet critical anthology of lyrics by over sixty women songwriters (including Malaria!) of various decades and genres, replete with accompanying chords, photographs, record covers and archival material. And another piece of music history was written in 2021: the Tresor club, a veritable institution in Berlin, celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2021.

Looking ahead, it remains to be seen whether the booster shots will provide fresh impetus for the music and club sector in 2022. In any case, bookers, promoters, techies, music producers and fans can listen to their own story and those of various and sundry fellow sufferers on the 2021 podcast Our House – Clubs und ihre Geschichten, produced by DJ Gigola and Spotify. And, for the third year in a row, they can hope for the best.