Berlin is considered the mecca of free, untamed techno. But for how long? The clubs are taking a beating from big investors, gentrification and techno tourists. Politicians appear powerless to stop it.
Every week, thousands of techno fans from all over the world flock to Berlin's legendary clubs. They come for the diverse venues, the quality of the music, the special free atmosphere. Yet, 30 years after the techno scene awakened at the first Love Parade, Berlin club culture is increasingly coming under threat.
Among those sounding a warning is one of the world's most prominent DJs and techno producers, Zak Khutoretsky, better known as DVS1. An American with Russian roots who considers Berlin to be his second home, Khutoretsky regularly performs at Berghain, still the most revered techno club in the world. But DVS1 sees a Berlin techno community now struggling for survival.
"At a certain point the bubble will burst," he told DW. "Either you find a solution or the whole thing goes down the drain."
Berlin's endangered clubs
The DJ's concerns have many potential origins. Are techno tourists destroying the character of Berlin clubs that are falling victim to the global hype? Or are big property investors driving the clubs out of their longstanding locations? Perhaps it's the gentrification that goes hand-in-hand with increasingly unaffordable rents? Or local residents' complaints about noise pollution that have forced some venues to close?
Of the estimated 100 techno clubs in Berlin, four folded last year, according to the Club Commission of the Berlin Senate. Another nine clubs are considered to be endangered. These include Griessmühle in the south of the city, founded by David Ciura eight years ago.
The 30-year-old today can point to a proud record. As it often goes in Berlin, it began with a few people's desire to express themselves in glorious isolation. The grounds of the Griessmühle, a vast former pasta factory, seemed the ideal place to do so.
The club now organizes 150 parties a year, employs 70 people and its annual turnover of €2.1 million ($2.4 million) euros continues to rise steeply. Ciura's parties, especially his monthly CockTail d'Amore, have hit a nerve with techno fans.
But what hardly anyone knows is that Ciura never gets more than half-yearly contracts, making planning difficult. Currently, his rental contract has only been extended until the beginning of 2020. And this is no isolated case in Berlin.
The famous Tresor club, for example, is said to have only received rental agreements for a period of three months. "Long-term leases are no longer available in the inner city ring," complains Ciura, who speaks of the ongoing "fear of being thrown out." That could happen, for example, if an investor offered so much money for the Griessmuehle location that the owner of the site decided to sell.
Fight for the right to party
According to Ciura, the techno clubs have helped pull Berlin out of its slumber over the last decade "And now, after such a short time, it would be a pity to have to sacrifice it all," he says.
If it were up to Ciura, the Berlin Senate should send a clear message of support for the city's club culture — and not only back prestigous projects such as the €600 million ($680 million) reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace.
"I think it is imperative to fight for every square meter for culture events, for open space in this city, to fight for every club," Berlin culture senator Klaus Lederer told DW. But politicians have reacted far too late, he added in a critique of his predecessors.
Lederer admits that politicians can do little to fight against the power and influence of billion-dollar investors. At the very least, the Senate now supports the clubs with subsidies for noise reduction measures. But this alone will hardly be enough to ensure the clubs' survival.
There's a lot at stake: Berlin arguably possesses the world's most distinctive and lively club scene, not only because of legendary headline clubs such as Berghain, Tresor and Watergate, but also due to the constant emergence of new clubs — some of which spring up illegally.
Techno = Freedom = Berlin
These new grassroot club culture foundations are an expression of the freedom that Berlin still represents today. "In Berlin, you can be freer than anywhere else in the world," Ciura gushes.
"It's about people's freedom to feel the way they want, to escape from their office jobs, to open up and simply enjoy their lives," adds DVS1. This includes the freedom of the DJ's to play their sets without commercial constraints.
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This is still possible in Berghain, Berlin's world-famous techno mecca. "Like me, I think Berghain tries to protect the aesthetics of the underground," said DVS1. "No cameras, the complete freedom of the people inside, the freedom for the artists to play longer sets."
Such freedom extends to the dreaded bouncers who sometimes deny visitors access to the club, which DVS1 believes is also necessary to preserve Berghain's underground bona fides.
But Berghain is in a league of its own. The question remains whether other clubs can sustain their character, and economic existence, despite the many threats.
DVS1 is optimistic that Berlin can remain the capital of free, untamed techno. "If there's a chance anywhere in the world that this will survive, it's in Berlin."