German pop and rock music is suddenly making a comeback -- thanks to good bands and better media coverage. The industry hasn't been this excited since a girl named Nena sang about 99 red balloons more than 20 years ago.
Wir Sind Helden lead singer Judith Holofernes
Were it not for the German-speaking DJs and ads, there would be nothing to distinguish German radio of the past few years with stations in Britain and America.
The playlists read like they were copied from the US Billboard top 20 charts, the main artists, world stars like Puff Daddy and Christina Aguilera. Then a Berlin rock band with a female vocalist and the modest name "Wir Sind Helden" -- we are heroes -- exploded onto the scene last summer, riding to the top of the German charts and selling a stupendous 500,000 records. Suddenly, rock auf Deutsch was all the rage -- again.
"They opened the gate," said Hannes Ross, pop music critic at Stern, the magazine with the largest circulation in Germany. "All of a sudden the record companies were waiting in line, wondering, 'Why don't we have a band like that under contract? We also need a German band'!"
Since then, German bands have stormed the charts. A combination of weariness with the mainstream pop piped in from America and songs that promoters and radio programmers say are more intelligent and polished than in the past has led to a flood of media coverage -- and improved sales.
German music steps up
Though illegal downloads and stingy German consumers still meant music sales in 2004 were down 3 percent from 2003, the figure was a far cry from the 20 percent decrease in sales between 2002 and 2003, according to the German office of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).
German music "had a big part in that" turnaround, said Hartmut Spiesecke, spokesman for IFPI Germany. Bands like Silbermond (photo), from the eastern German town of Bautzen, and Juli, from the city of Giessen, near Frankfurt, have sold hundreds of thousands of albums.
"Silbermond" from the East German town of Bautzen (left to right): Thomas Stolle (20, guitar), Stefanie Kloss (19, vocals), Andreas Nowak (21, drums) and Johannes Stolle (21, bass)
Releases by German bands made up 30.3 percent of the albums on the charts in 2004, the highest percentage ever, said Spiesecke. Singles by German artists made up more than half of the singles on the charts, the second-highest in history.
"It is really amazing," said Aditya Sharma, director of programming at the Berlin radio station Fritz. "What the bands have done is make people believe that the German language and pop music are compatible."
Deutsch suddenly cool again
Fritz's young listeners by and large rejected German music in the past, said Sharma. The reason: music in English sounded, well, cooler. Then came Wir Sind Helden, whose
Eva Briegel, lead singer of the band Juli which, like other popular German bands at the moment, features a female lead vocalist and a bunch of guys playing back up
debut album, "Die Reklamation," or "the claim," packed lyrics about being young in an economically-downtrodden Germany with an upbeat mix of guitar and electronic sound.
Ross said the band "hit a nerve" among students and other young people.
Alternative radio stations in Germany, like Sharma's, began playing WSH's music in 2004. Before long, the band had cobbled together 1,000 euros ($1,300) to produce a video that got regular airtime on MTV.
"They came from the underground, and if the lyrics are good and people connect to it, why shouldn't they be successful?" said Matthias Reimann, whose company was the first to heavily promote Wir Sind Helden, sending a representative to radio stations across Germany with a small bundle of CDs.
Juli and Silbermond followed with double plantinum albums of their own. For all the hype, Germany's pop phenomenon isn't expected to jump the Atlantic, as British and French pop songs sometimes have, finding success in the US.
National, but not international, success
"The competition (in the international pop scene) is too tough," said Reimann. "Especially the pop music that comes out of America. It's much more polished, and the quality is higher."
Retaining supremacy in the national music market is more likely. The test will come in the next few months, when bands like Wir Sind Helden and Silbermond release their second albums. But things are looking good.
Industry insiders said there hasn't been this much hype surrounding German pop since a teenager named Nena sang about 99 red balloons in 1984.
"The last time things were this big was the Neue Deutsche Welle, 20 years ago," said Sharma, referring to the string of German bands that made names for themselves internationally in the mid-1980s. "And the bands nowadays -- at least their lyrics -- are much better."