Sunday, October 03, 2004

Pop's Komm and Gone

Not that it's safe to walk the streets of Berlin again, but at least you can do it without bumping into some record-biz guy who's here visiting PopKomm, which closed its doors Friday evening. I know I said I was going to blog live from the event -- which would have been fun -- but although there were two wireless networks available, only one was available to event-goers for a price of (gasp) €350 for the event, more than I pay for a year of DSL service!

I got to attend thanks to the good folks at SXSW, who show up because it's a good opportunity for them to discuss next year's plans with the various national bodies which promote European countries' popular music. They all show up at PopKomm because it's the biggest event of its sort in Europe's biggest record market, and getting a toehold in the so-called GAS Territories (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) means you sell a lot more records and make a lot more from touring.

On the other hand, these bodies tend to be as conservative as any other governmental body, and they tend to play politics as much as any other governmental body. I've sat through hours of discussions about both the Danish and the Dutch organizations, mostly because I know performers in those countries who either are or aren't getting on with them, and, thus, are either getting to go to events like SXSW or not. I'm of two minds as to whether these organizations promote mediocrity or not. I have to say, I've yet to hear a first-rate band on any of the sampler CDs I've gotten from Finland, Holland, Denmark, and so on over the years, although I've heard first-rate bands from each of those countries. Sort of like the avant-garde music that the Staalplaat label releases, much of which is subsidized by the Dutch government. Subsidizing rock and roll, which is one of the most capitalist of all art-forms, is an inherent contradiction, isn't it? Subsidizing the avant-garde certainly is. (On the other hand, I've gotten tipped to a lot of good folk music from these agencies, but folk music isn't in quite the same situation).

Germany, though, doesn't have one, which may be one reason that PopKomm's been so successful. The main reason, up until recently, has been that it's been a love-fest for the German major labels, few of whom have to do anything more than just rubber-stamp decisions made in L.A. and London and sell Anglo-American rock music to the GAS territories. They put out a few home-brewed albums a year, but the real money comes from Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Norah Jones, and the usual suspects. Sure, in the next 60 days, the usual German rock stars will put out their annual albums and do their annual tours, but mostly people here buy what people buy everywhere there's Western pop music.

This year, though, PopKomm was a bit different. For one thing, the partners who founded it years ago in Cologne finally gave up on it and sold the name and the concept to Messe Berlin, the Berlin city organization which puts on the other trade fairs here: Grüne Woche, the big food show; the IFA, the biennial consumer electronics show; the ITB, the annual travel fair. It makes sense for the thing to be here, since Berlin is where Universal, the world's largest record company, has its German headquarters. (Sony did have its headquarters here, but moved to Munich after the merger with Bertelsmann, and I think they'd have to nuke Hamburg to get Warner's to leave there).

Lord knows if anything actually got done, although the first day was marked by an announcement (recounted here and here and here) that discussions were about to open to set a quota of German-language music on radio stations here.

This is exactly the kind of boneheaded thing I've come to expect from the industry giants who come to PopKomm. I remember one year I was walking past a fence, and there were a bunch of posters declaring that if you copied CDs on your computer for your friends, you were committing an illegal act. At that moment, I realized that PopKomm had ended the previous weekend. The fact is, setting a German-language quota isn't going to do much. There are already too many other sources of music around, so the radio has started to decline in importance, for one thing. For another, the example of France that's given in these arguments is off. The French weren't so much concerned about the language as about the local recording industry, so that a lot of the "French content" on the radio is made by immigrants: lots of hip-hop in French and other languages, Algerian singers, Moroccan singers, and all the many wonderful African acts who get sold as "world music" outside France. This has not only lifted the French record biz out of mediocrity (people still laugh at French rock music, but not at Angelique Kidjo or Khaled or Youssou N'Dour), it's also provided an image-polishing opportunity for the country to advertise itself as truly multicultural. Whether that's the case or not, that's the image.

But the conservative forces in Germany would never stand for that. At some point very, very soon, a European-based teen idol is going to emerge singing in Turkish. It's inevitable, with the number of Turks in Europe, and the increasing wealth they possess -- not to mention that there's now a third generation of European-born Turks growing up in European cities. The natural place for our Mehmet Superstar to emerge would be Germany, and the natural route would be his getting his singles played on German pop radio thanks to a quota like the French one. But if you restrict it to German-language records, he's not going to have a chance. (Of course, if he lives in Germany, he's also never going to be able to vote, despite the fact that his father and his grandfather both lived here and his father was born here: German citizenship is based on blood.) German teens are already comfortable enough with Turks to buy this record, and I'm certain MTV Europe would play the video. My money is on the label being Dutch, though.

Other than that, I'm not completely sure what, if anything, happened at PopKomm. I do know that the SXSW crew reported that they couldn't use their registration badges to get into showcases in the evening, even though the clubs weren't nearly full (good to see that some old PopKomm traditions made it over from Cologne!), but the majority of people who come to PopKomm aren't much interested in seeing showcases. A lot of the exhibitors in the trade show, where I spent my time at the SXSW booth, were support industries: manufacturers and the like. Very few indie labels exhibited, but then, they figured out long ago that they were just barely tolerated at this shindig. The best booking agent I know of in Germany, Berthold Seliger, boycotted it.

But one thing I can say for certain: having a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker right up front on our stand brought us a lot of smiles from passers-by.

1 comment:

Shona said...
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