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Culture

A Swan Song for German Folk Music?

Two icons of the German-speaking popular folk music scene are retiring this year: Heino and Karl Moik. What will their departure mean for the future of this genre?

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Heino wants to leave before the party's over

After more than 50 years on stage, Heino shocked the folk music world last month by announcing his retirement. The platinum-blond singer with his trademark dark glasses is one of the most successful German recording artists, selling over 50 million records worldwide.

At the same time, the famous folk music television show "Musikantenstadl" informed host Karl Moik that it was not renewing his contract. Unofficially, the 67-year-old is being "sorted out" and will most likely be replaced with someone younger.

One might think that the departures of these old stars could be part of a push to give folk music a younger face -- and consequently, younger followers. But Stefan Kahé, spokesman for record label Koch Universal, which holds a 70 percent market share in this sector, said it was simply a normal development.

"It's basically something very natural to retire," said Kahé.

Letting the sun in

There are certainly enough young stars waiting to follow in Heino's and Moik's footsteps, though.

Deutsche Volksmusik: Gesangsduo Stefan Mross und Stefanie Hertel

Stefanie Hertel and Stefan Mross have been a couple professionally and privately for years

The young dream couple of folk music, singer Stefanie Hertel and trumpeter Stefan Mross, have become extremely popular over the past few years.

Günter Tolar, head of the Working Group for Promoting Musical Entertainment in Austria ARGE, which organizes the annual folk music competition "Grand Prix der Volksmusik," said Heino and Moik had been role models for a long time.

"But one can't overlook what huge shadows such 'greats' cast, which block the sun for the subsequent generation," said Tolar, a former presenter for Austrian television channel ORF.

Still, age was not the issue here. "Whether an interpreter is popular and attracts viewers doesn’t depend on their youth, but rather charisma and what message they are communicating in their songs," said Tolar.

Music with traditional ties

Many people may find it difficult to understand the long running popularity of folk music. But it is a central element of German-speaking culture in Europe.

"Folk music is not just a marginal phenomenon of music," said Dr. Gisela Probst-Effah from the Institute for Musical Folklore at the University of Cologne.

Bayrischer Bauer mit Traktor, Berge, Agrarpolitik, Landwirtschaft

The mountain landscape relates the feeling of an ideal world

This genre mostly involves newly composed or adaptations of traditional music and songs. They often generate regional associations, like yodeling, or contain texts with a hint of dialect and are preferably presented in a rural idyll in traditional costumes, like dirndls or lederhosen.

"This look gives the appearance of ties to tradition, timelessness and independence from changing fashions," said Probst-Effah.

According to Kahé, popular folk music is precisely about passing on tradition.

"It's about something preserving, something conservative," he said.

The concept of an "ideal world" also plays a role. "These songs deal with topics like nature, Heimat, happy love or an idealized childhood in an ideal world with intact social relationships," said Probst-Effah.

"I portray the ideal world in my songs because I want to have an ideal world," Heino has said in interviews. "But it was clear to me that I would never get the Nobel Prize for my lyrics." Heino said he is retiring to spend time with this wife, who suffered a heart attack last year.

The media's strong influence

Figures by the German Association of the Phonographic Industry showed that last year, German pop Schlager and folk music made up for 9.8 percent of the total sales of 1.75 billion euros ($2.19 billion) on the German market. In comparison, pop music was responsible for 38.8 percent of sales, and rock for 18.5 percent.

ARD: Das Weihnachtsfest der Volksmusik

Folk music duo Maria und Margot Hellwig have appeared in television shows for years

But while these sales figures appear marginal, popular folk music's true success lies in its media presence. This genre would not be what it is without the media, in particular highly commercialized folk music shows on television. Programs such as "Musikantenstadl" reach millions of viewers.

While there may not be such a strong trend towards younger recording stars, there is "a changing of the guard" in the media sector, said Kahé.

Mross, 29, hosts a weekly show on German public television. Florian Silbereisen, who started his career at age 10 playing the accordion on "Musikantenstadl," is now a regular presenter of various folk music shows. At 24, he is the youngest show master on German television.

"You can't revolutionize Saturday evening."

Despite these young stars on screen, the viewers are mainly older. According to the German Music Information Center in Bonn, over 40 percent of those who buy Schlager and popular folk music recordings are over the age of 50. The average age of viewers of folk music shows are around 60 years old, said Tolar.

"Still, older people would also like to have something nice to look at," said Kahé.

Deutsche Volksmusik: Karl Moik

Karl Moik is known to be outspoken at times in poor taste. His calling Italians "spaghetti gluttons" in a show was not received well

Moik presented "Musikantenstadl" -- which means "musician's barn" -- for the past 25 years. It is one of the most popular folk music television shows, and not just in the German-speaking world."Musikantenstadl" has also given guest performances in non-German speaking cities, including Moscow, Toronto, Cape Town, Beijing and Dubai.

Moik said his show was aimed at older people.

"The young public goes to the disco on Saturday nights," Moik told the Austrian paper Kleine Zeitung. "We're a show for people over 40. I am not going to do a show for 17-year-olds. I'm too old for that."

Moik said he doubted whether a younger presenter could attract younger viewers.

"No, you can't revolutionize Saturday evening," he said. "You can't get it younger, not even with a younger host."

Continue reading about the future of German popular folk music.

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