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Scene in Berlin

Dancing in Berlin to the music of...what?

As Berlin plays host to Germany's biggest music industry gathering, Popkomm, visitors may well be wondering what's happened to the music.

Scene in Berlin

Let's just get one thing out of the way first of all: I am a massive fan of Berlin's legendary - and now defunct - airport, Tempelhof, and so any event taking place there which justifies its continuing existence, gets a thumbs-up in my book.

Last year it played host to Berlin Festival, one of Europe's only inner-city music festivals and earlier this year it threw open its doors to the trend-setters for Berlin Fashion Week. This week, it's the HQ of Popkomm, Germany's principal music industry trade fair, back again after financial problems last year forced it to take a break.

Quiet card exchange

All well and good you might think. Well, not really. Wandering around the stands advertising online music TV platforms and merchandise providers, one thing that is immediately apparent is that there is a distinct lack of music. What, no music at a music trade show? Although, having been to Popkomm a number of times before, I was well prepared for not hearing a second of new music - particularly above the growling rumble of hotshot business types striking lucrative deals.

Entrance to Popkomm at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport

Berlin's historic Tempelhof Airport was the site of Popkomm 2010

But, in reality, is anyone striking anything here? Probably not. As one world-weary exhibitor pointed out, Popkomm has deteriorated into a mere exchange of business cards with no good intentions (or money) behind these vague offers of collaboration.

While the old guard were well represented at the event with slick, glittering stands (step forward Universal and lumbering artists' collection agency, GEMA), there was a notable lack of new music as represented by Germany's sprightly independent labels. Bpitch Control, Shitkatapult, Boys Noize Records, Pale Music, Dockyard, Snowhite - just a handful of some of Germany's indie imprints who, for financial reasons, were unable to attend.

Networking happens elsewhere

A couple of days before Popkomm's glittering launch, I caught up with Steve Morell, head of Berlin-based indie Pale Music who said he wouldn't be exhibiting at Popkomm this year: "Why should I? I can do all my networking online these days. Why should I pay around 600 euros (around $750) for a stand there when I could spend that money pressing a run of records? It makes no sense."

Morell does have a point. While this year's event still managed to attract around 47 exhibitors from 20 countries, rates for stands ranged from 180 to 8,000 euros per square meter - not exactly favorable for labels who are all struggling to weather both the global financial crisis and the changing landscape of a music industry rocked by the digital revolution.

I certainly don't subscribe to the theory that there is anything morally superior about an indie label over a major one; after all, were it not for major labels we would be denied great music by the likes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Pet Shop Boys and Arctic Monkeys, among others. What does tend to be true, however, is that the wacky characters, genre-defying music and devil-may-care business attitudes are all to be found in the lower strata of the industry - namely among the indies.

The offbeat personalities and vibrant creativity was something which was very definitely lacking at this year's event, a whole musical sub-culture squeezed out of the game simply because it was too expensive for them to go there.

The plight of the indies

I decided to take up this cause on behalf of my independent pals with Popkomm's director, Daniel Barkowski. Where I expected to meet some repugnant toad of a man with dollar bills hanging out of his pants, I actually found myself face-to-face with an eager 36-year-old who seemed to squirm in his obligatory shirt and tie.

While Barkowski admits he is "not a fan of giving something away for free," he does sympathize with the financial plight of the indies and wants to see them put in an appearance at next year's trade show.

"This is a new start for Popkomm. The concept we are doing right now will not be the same for 2011," he said. "Next year, we have to try to get [the independent labels] to the fair, to speak with them about what their needs are."

Records at a stand at Popkomm 2010

And the beat goes on...but not, it seems, at Popkomm 2010

Barkowski spoke with me for over an hour about what Popkomm could do to accommodate independent labels. While they will have to wait until next year to shine at Popkomm itself, it wasn't all doom and gloom this year for the city's indie labels. They did have a chance to present their wares at showcase nights all over the city.

While attending the trade show would have been pricey for the labels, the gig nights were potentially lucrative money-spinners. Book a night with a club where you have friendly connections, don't pay any rent, splash out on minimal promo, get all your bands to play for free and charge entry on the door: Everyone's happy.

And while these parties were indeed a highlight of the week - and a stark contrast to the lumbering boredom of the trade show - the fact remains that the indies and their music should have been represented at Tempelhof.

The music revolution

Although this year's event was yet another corporate bore-fest, sagging under the weight of its own tedium and overdosed on 15 tons of worthless business cards, the future may be bright. If Popkomm intends to make Tempelhof - slap bang in the middle of one of Europe's most exciting creative capitals - its permanent home, then it needs to embrace the freaks and quirky personalities that makes the city, and its music scene, what it is.

I'd be inclined to say that the solution to this particular problem is rather straightforward; let those poor, struggling indies attend Popkomm for free. But then again, perhaps a Popkomm with some interesting, racy characters would be considered just as revolutionary as a music trade show which actually plays some music.

Author: Gavin Blackburn

Editor: Kate Bowen



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