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Supporting unknown artist

Anne-Sophie Brändlin, CologneAugust 15, 2014

Most clubs want to sell drinks to as many people as possible. But one club owner in Germany is breaking the mold and putting young musicians ahead of money. His project is catching on - thanks to the local community.

Club Bahnhof Ehrenfeld, Copyright: Mirko Hopfner
Image: Mirko Polo

I meet Mankel Brinkmann, a 35-year-old half-German half-Chilean club owner, on a very hot summer evening in Cologne. He orders two surprisingly strong coffees from the barkeeper, who's working beneath the arches formed by the subway track near the Ehrenfeld train station. The club and concert venue is simply called Club Bahnhof Ehrenfeld (Club Station Ehrenfeld), or CBE for short.

Brinkmann founded CBE four years ago together with three friends underneath the station, where they host a range of cultural events - from concerts to parties to poetry slams and art exhibitions.

"It's very important for a city to have spaces for people who want to do artwork," says Brinkmann while taking a large sip of his coffee. "But," he adds with a pause, "Cologne has a big problem - it doesn't have these spaces."

Taking a risk

Helen Kaiser is one of Cologne's young up-and-coming artists. She has just released her first LP as an electro-pop singer-songwriter and agrees with Brinkmann that it's difficult as a relatively unknown artist to find ideal venues in Cologne.

"It's really important that small, unknown artists have the chance to perform in a location where the sound quality is good," she says. "But that's very rare. There are a few small locations in Cologne where unknown artists can manage to fill up the entire room, but often the sound quality isn't great or the atmosphere isn't right."

According to Kaiser, many organizers don't offer locations to unknown artists because they're worried they won't bring enough customers.

Manuel Brinkmann at Club Bahnhof Ehrenfeld, Copyright: Cedric Icassain
Brinkmann believes community can make a change and 'from now on everything will be different' - as this sign saysImage: Cedric Icassain

Brinkmann had similar experiences as a student when he was trying to find club owners to host his Latin American parties. His search eventually led him to open his own club, the CBE, because no one wanted to risk hosting a party that wasn't established yet.

Building smaller spaces

But now Brinkmann and his team are facing the challenge that they have a relatively large venue - up to 2,000 fit between the arches beneath the station - but they want to support newcomers in an intimate setting.

"If you have someone perform in front of 200 people in a huge hall that's meant for 2,000 guests, then the atmosphere gets lost," Brinkmann says.

Then, of course, there's the money problem. "Not filling your club means you'll have a loss and you won't manage to make your minimum turnover," he adds. But, he says, he doesn't want to make decisions based only on economic factors.

"Hosting events shouldn't be about money, it's about catering to the community. So we decided we need a place to introduce new styles of music that aren't mainstream yet."

Getting creative

That's why the foursome now wants to expand their club with a third, smaller arch to give unknown and up-and-coming artists a place to perform and develop themselves. But they didn't want to do it alone. They wanted to get their community involved.

Club Bahnhof Ehrenfeld construction site, Copyright: Mirko Hopfner
CBE's third arch is nearly complete, thanks to its crowdfunding campaignImage: Mirko Polo

"We didn't just want to go to a bank or an investor and then have our arch plastered in advertisements and logos. Our idea was that we already have a community - a huge community that supports us, so why don't we ask them to help us out," Brinkmann says.

The next step was a crowdfunding campaign, where they asked their community to donate money to build a new space suitable for smaller art events.

And CBE's community rose to the challenge. Hundreds of art and music lovers contributed more than 27,000 euros ($36,000) in the end, which is enough to finish the construction of the third arch by the end of 2014.

Brinkmann is excited about the success, but what he's even more excited about is people's reaction and support. "There are a lot of people from all over Germany who support our idea, most of them of course from the cultural sector, and they spent a lot of money. The average donation was 80 euros and I think that's a lot."

Community feeling in Cologne

Brinkmann and his team didn't just want to open a new club; they wanted to build a community. "Everyone who supported us will come to the new arch and know that a part of the club is a part of them," he says.

Mankel Brinkmann in front of Club Bahnhof Ehrenfeld, Copyright: Mirko Hopfner
The whole community helped finance the new archImage: Mirko Polo

One of the crowdfunding donors is 25-year-old musician and producer Marvin Beraneck. He says he donated because "Cologne hardly has any good concert locations for small gigs and especially not quality locations that unknown artists can afford to play at."

Beraneck thinks crowdfunding was a great tool to get people involved. "It made me feel like I'm a part of it and I think that's beautiful."

What's special about Cologne, he adds, is the interaction of musicians in the city that support and inspire each other. It's this feeling of belonging to a creative community that triggered Beraneck's decision to move to Cologne.

"Cologne doesn't offer as much free space as Berlin does, for instance, but we have a community feeling here, we're a family," says Beraneck. "Everyone helps each other out and that's probably also why the crowdfunding project of CBE worked out."

For Brinkmann and his crew, it looks like they'll have no trouble filling the third arch with music fans, once it's completed.