Scene in Berlin
Twenty people in a dim, narrow, smoky room, each focused respectfully ahead as the musician sings and plays his guitar. Charitable applause follows when the refrain ends, people grab their drinks, light up again, a few more enter the room. It's a Monday night in Berlin, the back room - more a cupboard - of a bar where local musos ply their trade, a room below an apartment that won't sustain amplified music, unless the bar is looking to get shut down.
Berlin forces its musicians, and audiences, to compromise - and improvise. Apart from the bigger main venues and purpose-built concert halls, the rabbit warren of small bars-cum-music locales in Berlin are forces of innovation, nocturnal caves, cubbyholes and basements willed improbably out of the chaotic, crowded tenement-scape. The spaces are intimate, but also surprising. You never know what you might find when you open the door; whether you'll be led into a dungeon or a melodious wormhole.
One thing is certain: It will be dark in there.
Berlin's inner districts are the highest density in Europe and, wherever people find a place to perform, residents are inevitably close by. You rarely see a drum-kit at these shows. And no noise after 10:00 pm. Remember, babies are asleep upstairs.
"It's like they're on the stage with you," said Ned Collette, an Australian singer-songwriter who has a residency at Valentin Stüberl in the Neukölln district of Berlin. He teams up with both Berlin-based and traveling artists fortnightly in a room that holds 30 people, a room with no ventilation, punters crying from the smoke by the time the show ends. It's always a great night. I find there's a special kind of focus and respect in that room; and as Collette implies, there's little or no separation between audience and performer. Maybe it's why he doesn't mind that he's not playing regularly to a couple hundred people, as he did in his hometown of Melbourne.
"It's a very devoted scene," he said of the small acoustic rooms around town. "It can be really nice … and really difficult."
You can discover some wonderful talent playing with Collette at Valentin Stüberl - like Susanna Berivan, a native Berlin songstress with a hybrid blues/soul/gospel sound said to evoke the "dark beauty" of Billie Holiday. This inspiring young musician can be found mid-week in Berlin back bar rooms like Ä (also in Neukölln), with a few dozen people packed around her, accompanied sometimes by a small band, but usually solo on guitar.
And tickets fees are routinely exchanged for donations as the hat is passed around. The well-trodden Madame Claude in Kreuzberg, where the acts happen in a shoebox deep in an underground cellar, charges between 2 and 6 euros ($2.70 - $8.00) at the door - but you decide what to pay.
Claude has a fine nightly roster of music from Berlin and beyond, but in summer you can hardly breathe down there, and noise is a real problem. Where I come from (Melbourne), which is blessed with a surfeit of big rooms with proper sound systems, it would seem crazy to perform under such conditions. But Berlin's small spaces seem to fit the sense of struggle, of scarcity, that the city represents. Make do with what you have, make it happen, improvise, play gigs in your lounge room if you have to.
And yes, apartment gigs are de rigeur these days in Berlin, 20 or 30 people having a good time in someone's living or even bedroom as solo musicians and bands croon unplugged in the corner. I've been to several, a friend Sam Wareing (also a noted performer - under the alias Wasp Summer - in the Berlin small venue scene) running regular Sofa Salons in apartments across the city where the bar's usually set up in the kitchen - smoking on the balcony please.
The motto: Improvise! And keep costs to a minimum. "I quite like it; it starts to feel more like a living room," said Eliza Hiscox of Royal Chord, an Australian electro-pop duo intermittently based in Berlin for over four years. "To play in bigger venues is something completely different. In these smaller places, it's less intimidating, it's actually more comfortable; I actually prefer it."
Hiscox tells me you don't play for the money in Berlin. The scene here feels more like an incubator, people experimenting with material in relaxed, under-the-radar spaces before heading out to tour Europe, or to finally record that album.
But maybe I'm also romanticizing the idea that musicians and venue owners have built this selfless, gemütliche (cosy) music scene out of nothing in Berlin. Barry Cliffe, editor of the Berlin gig guide blitzgigs.de, who promotes shows in various venues, fears that musicians are being exploited. He says it's all "very charming and loose and relaxed," but he believes venue owners are profiting while the musicians typically starve. "They essentially are cashing in on many talented artists playing these shows where payment is passing around a hat at the end."
I'd met Cliffe recently at one of the venues in question. It was only later that he told me his real fears for Berlin musicians: "The crowd are throwing money over the bar and the venue is raking it in. It's ridiculous." He says bar owners should properly promote and pay musicians, but don't due to "the sheer volume of people moving to Berlin to make music and who will play anywhere, anytime, just to get a show."
Berlin's vibrant, ad hoc music scene is adored by audiences, and the musicians that perform largely for the love. But like many artistic pursuits in Berlin, it isn't necessary sustainable for the artist, and that's what should change. Berlin creates so much for so little, and that's what makes the city so special. But if musicians were paid properly, the scene might be even richer.
Author: Stuart Braun
Editor: Kate Bowen