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Scene in Berlin

Berlin music scene sheds no tears for Popkomm

There's more music going on this week in Berlin than one person can take in. But the Popkomm trade fair has been cancelled once again - and no one in Berlin seems to miss it, says DW's Gavin Blackburn.

Popkomm has been Germany's main music industry get-together since it first began as a low-key event for little known musicians in Dusseldorf in 1989. The following year saw it re-locate to Cologne, which would remain its home until it upped sticks and settled in Berlin in 2003.

But the event's time in Germany's capital hasn't been happy or stable. Its move unfortunately coincided with the first real hard knocks to the music industry: plummeting sales, illegal downloads, and a wealth of artists adopting a DIY approach in organizing their own management, publishing and distribution.

It generally took place in different venues, chief among them the International Congress Center in the West of the city. In 2009, it was cancelled, and then took place for two years in the spectacular departure hall of the decommissioned Tempelhof Airport as part of the annual Berlin Music Week. This year, Popkomm has been cancelled yet again, a bad omen for the future of the festival.

"It's no secret that Popkomm was cancelled at the last minute in 2009," said Tommy Nick, press officer for Berlin Music Week. "That's one reason why Berlin Music Week was created, so that Germany’s most important music center wouldn't be entirely without some sort of meet-up. I suppose you could say that Popkomm has never really recovered since that cancellation and hasn't really met the changes and expectations of an evolving market."

The official line from Messe Berlin GmbH, which organizes the event, is that Popkomm is taking a break to re-think its approach - the same reason they gave in 2009, in fact.

Music industry not mourning

"Messe Berlin told us in January it wouldn't be taking place this year," added Tommy Nick. "If and when it will happen again is something only they can answer. What is clear is that the music market is going through significant changes at the moment. The industry has been stumbling of late with all the changes that have happened."

But how many breaks does Popkomm really need to take to re-conceptualize itself and how long can it get away with that before people lose interest in it entirely? Casting around for opinions at some of Germany's independent labels, it seems that its loss isn't exactly being mourned.

"I'm not surprised it's not happening this year and I don't think it will come back either," said Grant Box of Berlin-based indie Snowhite, "We never went. The cost of having a stand outweighed what a label like ours could get from the festival. We just organized meetings in our office instead. Berlin Music Week has the potential to become bigger and attract more people from the industry."

Christof Ellinghaus, head of the label Cityslang, also pointed out the cost of attending Popkomm as prohibitive for an independent label.

"Yes, it's good to meet up with a lot of people once a year in one place, but it needs to be affordable and efficient," he said. "I think there are more interesting formats than a traditional convention in a hall where you have to buy a booth. We won't miss it."

Clubbers in Berlin

Berlin Music Week events are taking place at some 40 venues across the city

Tess Rochholz, who heads the Kulmbach-based label ADP Records, felt it was important to make the effort to travel to Berlin to connect with industry partners given their relative geographical isolation. But she also says that the new location was something of a double-edged sword.

"The move to Tempelhof in 2010 was good and bad I think," explained Rochholz. "It's a super building but everything laid out side by side along two vast walkways meant that this get-together feeling was lacking a bit."

Internet the culprit

The Internet is arguably single-handedly responsible for the diminishing necessity of an event like Popkomm. Once upon a time, you had to go to events like this to meet existing contacts face to face and make new connections with potential clients from around the world. Now they're all just a mouse click away. However, Rochholz thinks that a trade fair along traditional lines still has a place.

"The Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg proves there's still a need for an annual meet," she said, "And here in Franconia we have a small music trade fair with the clear directive of bringing together everyone in the region once every two years and making the public aware of what we do."

"Berlin Music Week has enough new ideas of its own to manage very well without the Popkomm, she added.

Music producer and label chief Mark Reeder was at that very first Popkomm back in 1989 and attended the event regularly in the ensuing years. He's wistful but realistic about its apparent demise.

Fans at a concert at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin

The week culminates with Berlin Festival at Tempelhof Airport

"Back in the 90s it was a very important platform for musicians and labels to connect with national and international colleagues regardless of status," he said, "There is nothing like the personal touch. Actually seeing the person you might have only ever talked with on the telephone suddenly standing before you was very important. This has all changed with telecommunication developments like Facebook and Skype."

Popkomm was originally intended to put small indie labels on an equal playing field with the major players, added Reeder, but soon the bigger labels started to dictate the industry and the event became too elite. "People won't miss for the simple reason that over the past few years it has already managed to fizzle out and make itself redundant."

Whether or not the Messe Berlin team will be able to successfully re-brand Popkomm for a return remains a mystery. Events like South by South West in Austin, Texas and Midem in Cannes prove that there is still an audience for a traditional music trade show.

While the B2B aspect of this year's Berlin Music Week is more fragmented and lacks a centralized location, the organizers have already been relatively successful at picking up where Popkomm left off.

"We’re hoping to offer more flexibility in the way companies present themselves," said Tommy Nick. "We're trying to offer an alternative way of doing things to consolidate Berlin's position as a city which musically has a lot to offer."

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