Sorry about the protracted absence; things have been just a bit nuts around here. Some of it, which involved getting a ghost-writing deal for a book finalized, isn't of much interest. And, when I finally got that settled, along came Popkomm again.
Since I am no longer much of a consumer of contemporary pop music, and have never been a consumer of European pop music to any large extent, Popkomm doesn't have much to do with me other than the fact that the executives of SXSW in Austin, for whom I do occasional work, come to town. Since these guys are old friends of mine, it's an excuse to hang out with them, hear their stories, and have a couple of very good meals.
The actual work I do at the conference here is simple: I'm the nut-catcher. While the Texans -- and our Irish-based UK rep and our Tübingen-based European rep -- run around having meetings with people who will be attending SXSW, in particular export associations of European countries who are interested in setting up showcases and trade-show stands, I keep track of where they are ("He said he was headed to Finland" -- meaning the Finnish stand, not, like, the actual country) and talk to people who drop by, most of whom are blissfully unaware of what we do or who we are. It's my job to interrupt their carefully-rehearsed sales-job for their band, event, service, or whatever and steer them into discussing whether SXSW has any value for them. It's also my job to make sure they leave a business card -- most of them have business cards, although I continue to be amazed by people who'd go to an event like this armed only with a stack of self-produced CDs -- because it's not my job to decide whether what they're pushing is of any value to SXSW or not.
I've been doing this for years, since Popkomm was in Cologne. Cologne in early September was usually a really nice place to be: drinking Kölsch by the side of the Rhine on a warm late-summer evening is an experience everyone should have. Now it's in Berlin, at the ICC convention center, having been bought by the city from the consortium who started it, just in time for the collapse of the record industry. Berlin: always such great timing. Still, this has meant that the music part of the conference, in clubs during the evenings, has expanded, which is good PR for the event, even though, from what I could see, the daytime part, the trade show and conference, is smaller than ever. (Rumor has it that the event won't be held at the ICC next year, and I'm wondering where it would be held, if not: Kongreshalle am Alexanderplatz? Maybe...)
My perspective, from the booth we were given (we do a trade deal with Popkomm, which represents at the SXSW trade fair), may have been skewed. We were almost in the corner of the hall, not terribly visible, between a royalty-collection service and an only-in-Germany merchandise provider called Deaf and Dumb, who were giving away t-shirts featuring a huge, well, it was hard to tell what it was, which wasn't a great advertisement for their printer. It appeared to be a star with wings, and I guess that's what it was. Once their freebie t-shirts ran out, so did their visitors. I wonder if they are even minimally aware of how bad the name of their company is: not only is it offensive to handicapped people (having had a father with tympanic sclerosis, I'm maybe a bit sensitive to all issues around hearing-loss), but giving a company a name which implies it can't hear you and is stupid to boot can't bring in many English-language-savvy customers. We were directly across from Music Catalonia!, whose impressive booth featured a mirrored wall with the group's logo on it, and it was a gas watching people coming into the hall stop to check that their image was right before walking on.
As always, the export agencies did well, mostly networking with each other, from what I could tell. Only two major record labels that I could see had stands: a modest one for Warner Records Group, and a much more ornate one at the other end of the hall from us for Universal Music Group, which had, to me, the coolest feature: a sign made out of water. Operating somewhat on the principle of a dot-matrix printer, this thing had a long tube high above the floor with many tiny holes in it which were lined up with the floor, on which there was a drain. Water pumped up the side was released in controlled bursts which turned the falling water into letters. It even had different fonts. Cool as it was, I'm just as happy we weren't situated next to the constant splash! splash! splash! the thing made.
The rest of the trade show was the usual mixture of junk-retailers (there's always some company which provides those out-of-copyright box-sets you see at discount stores), digital music services, merch retailers, we'll-get-you-on-radio services, trade publications, and miscellaneous doo-dads like the USB-stick concert-recording services, of which there were two, housed side-by-side in furious competition.
I stood (or sat) at our booth and watched the parade, such as it was, go by. (I'll wait for the final figures, but my guess is that this wasn't exactly the most-attended year of Popkomm by a long shot). Just down the way from us was the Icelandic national stand, and they were trapped in Berlin for three days while their country imploded. (They had set out some tortilla chips and dip, and, bizarrely enough, the tortilla chips were good. But were they Icelandic?) There are people who have been attending these things for years, the Conference Dogs, and I'm one of them. We all know each other and greet each other, even though, in my case, there's no way they're going to do any business with me or I have any business I can do with them. But they hustle around, renewing old deals, modifying current deals, getting new deals -- whatever kind of deals those might be.
The room was overheated -- or perhaps the ICC folks were caught short by the unexpected good weather. For the first time, there were no food stands around the halls, which didn't exactly make us happy. I went on a trek to see what I could find and came up with some curling bagel sandwiches in the entryway, something called China Express way way back at the end of the exhibition area selling "Asia food," which is an insult to both Asia and food, a tiny stand selling coffee and cake, and, out in front of the building, a cart selling cold hotdogs in cold buns. Eventually, someone mentioned that there was another place in a room no one had looked in, and sure enough, there were two bars, one of which was promoting Swiss coffee, the other of which was selling cocktails. Although there wasn't a single sign announcing it, the coffee folks were selling ciabatta sandwiches (not bad at all) and pizzas (grim-looking) and the cocktail people had trays of the usual chemically-treated prefrozen sushi for sale. There was also a smoking area outside this room, at which some really ganky-looking Bratwurst were being fried. Note to Popkomm: it can't hurt to inform delegates who are forced to be inside the ICC all day that these facilities exist. Note to facilities: doubling the serving staff might cut down on the number of non-Germans yelling at you because they're missing their meetings because of having to stand in line for 20 minutes to get a cup of coffee or a sandwich. (And no, I don't mean me; I live here and am well acquainted with the German sport of standing in line).
I didn't see any music, didn't acquire a single CD (although a band dropped off a press-kit on a 2-gig memory stick which has been cleared and is awaiting use on my desk), I didn't acquire any cool swag (nobody can afford it) although the cigarette lighter-flashlight that came in the registration bags was nice, and, unlike last year, I didn't get offered any apartment tips in Montpellier. I did, however, run into a couple of old friends and hear some good stories.
Here's one: a group from out of town was staying in a 4-star hotel, a small one out of the center, with a small lobby-bar. Returning late one night after an evening of clubbing, they decided on a nightcap before turning in, and the night-clerk brought them some drinks. "So we're sitting around this little table," one of them said, "and we have our drinks and we suddenly realized we were out of cigarettes. Just then, someone noticed a pack of cigarette tobacco and some papers on a table, so we picked it up. Imagine our surprise when, opening it up, we saw not only the tobacco, but a nice bag of weed. So we thought, cool, this is a nice nightcap and began rolling a joint. Just then the night-clerk walked back from his office and saw what was going on and ran over and started yelling 'Give me back my weed, dammit! That's mine!' We were just flabbergasted. One of our people speaks excellent German and really laid into the guy. Wonder if he'll have his job when this thing is over..."
Then there was one which happened to me. I was coming home on the Ringbahn, and stopped off one station early to do some banking at the Sparkasse office in the Gesundbrunnen Center. After I'd done my business, I walked back home over the bridge which spans the giant cluster of tracks by what used to be the Wall. As I got to the bridge, there was a guy shouting at me, very excited. I got closer and he asked me if I had a cell-phone. As it happened, I did, but one of the things I'd done at Gesundbrunnen was to buy some more credit because I was down to four cents. I hadn't loaded it on yet. But this guy was yelling "Look down there! Quick, we have to call!" Sure enough, on a side-line there was an S-Bahn train, kept ready for an emergency replacement at Gesundbrunnen, and as I stared at it, I realized that it was being covered with graffiti, very quickly and very efficiently, by three tiny black-clad figures working with incredible precision and teamwork. The tags weren't much to look at but the way they were working was. "You have to report this to BVG!" the guy was yelling. "They'll give you €60!" But it was too late. Their work done, the crew signed it and, with a speed which announced how well they knew the territory, they were leaping tracks and third rails like a bunch of steeplechase horses, heading towards the housing projects of west Berlin. From what I could see of them, they appeared to each be around eight years old.
* * *
As for the moving project, I've been telling people it's an astrological problem. Three planets need to be in conjunction: Enough Money, Available Apartment, and that most difficult one, Trusting Landlord. It's almost impossible to convince French people that an American my age who's self-employed is a good risk, although currently things are going very well indeed for me. Only the Enough Money planet is currently in place (and of course the third one depends on finding the second one), but I'm still getting e-mail alerts (and, in fact, got one while I was writing all of this) and if the frequency picks up as I suspect it will in the next few days, I could be back in Montpellier waving cash in front of a landlord as soon as next week.