It’s a Thursday night and I am bored and slightly angry. I am not sitting alone at home. I am not bored because I have no one to interact with. Fun fact, I am at a party. I know plenty of people here and I am having a good time with free drinks, nice catch up talks, small talk and so on. I am not complaining about the occasion – it’s the aftershow party of the German Echo music awards – I actually like being here. The show was awful and it feels like an abomination that a dubious band from Southern Tirol are given an award – but I am not here to complain about how Germany can’t do a proper award show, about the fraud and outdated mechanisms of the awards or about their predictability. What bores me is how an entire industry seems to be happy with the status quo. How could new music become so boring?
What I am missing is a willingness to dare and try things differently. To invest properly in new talent, in new music and to show the casual music consumer something new and exciting. How many more copies of copies can we bare? How many more deep house singles do we want to sound the exact same? How many instant stars do we want tv shows to produce? I’m heading outside for a cigarette to talk to some friends. Maybe they have an answer. Maybe they can explain why nothing seems to change or maybe they have something else we can moan about. The night is still young and that’s the best time for serious thoughts and conversations.
I. Copying a success story
It is old news really that labels love to have what their competition has. Think about Amy Winehouse for example. She released two successful albums full of Mark Ronson fueled retro soul. Almost over night this sound becomes the hit formula for the whole industry. The holy grail. The Heilsbringer. Duffy was the Welsh version, Corinne Bailey Rae was the super soft one and so on and so on. Think about the sound of Lily Allen and Kate Nash or the UK indie hype of the 2000s. You can say that these are scenes and if there is an audience, there is a record buying market. Fair enough, that is how this industry works. But can’t you be a little more inventive?
Especially when it comes to new artists, it feels like labels are just trying to use the same formula over and over again. Listen to these two examples. The first one is the German charttopping song by Berlin based singer Andreas Bourani. The song came into prominence during the football world cup in Brazil in 2014.
There’s a dominant guitar line, continuous marching drums paired with lush strings and a voluminous vocal performance. It’s the simple formula for a hit. All you need now is a ‚coincidence‘ like the world cup in which Germany did really well all while the song was repeatedly played as the tournament trailer by German broadcaster ARD. But now listen to this second exhibit by former casting show participant Max Giesinger:
Not surprisingly you can hear a guitar melody again. But it is buried deeper in the mix. Two years on and the music landscape has changed slightly to a more electronic sound. Obviously Giesinger and his team have to adapt their song to this. The strings are exchanged for a little organ. The marching drums are still very much present and the choir repeatedly singing add depth. It might not come as a surprise that a song alone is not enough. The videos is making use of German model Stefanie Giesinger to add glam factor. Her 1 million plus social media followers come in as a handy bonus on top when trying to break a newcomer.
But it is not only plain pop music that ideas are borrowed from. Sometimes a look to just beyond ones own sound can make for good inspiration. For fans of German music, this intro by newcomer Kenay must sound awfully familiar:
Yes, it souds exactly like this intro by successful German rapper Casper:
Fun fact: Kenay was working as a producer and songwriter for various acts before trying his own luck as an artist himself. Wouldn’t you have expected him to come out with something more inventive than that intro then? Or was it maybe a label decision? Has looking for the hit single lead A&Rs to believe they have to copy every success ever? And has this lead to songwriting becoming bland and formulaic?
Interestingly we are not talking about sheer music industry products that are then filled with music, but artists who actually write their own songs (at least in part). This fact makes it a little more disappointing in my opinion.
II. Track Business
The internet fucked it all up. Seriously. Track business has become one of the most important formulas for success. I remember how it changed my personal way of listening to music. When my parents got their first broadband internet connection and file sharing was a big thing it changed the way I consumed music. I didn’t have to go to the next town any more to spend my allowance on records by artists I didn’t really know if I liked them enough to warrant spending 16 Euros on a whole compact disc. I could just download a few songs and that was that. Or one of your friends gave you a data cd full with MP3 files. All of a sudden I could flick through thousands of songs in my Winamp library. I kept what I didn’t like anyway. It almost became an obsession and a competition with your friends – whoever ‚owned‘ the biggest library was king for the day.
Then came the legal download platforms. iTunes allowed you to download individual tracks from albums. Everything illegal downloading enabled found a legal platform. And people where happy to spend 1.29 Euro on an individual track. Better than buying a single CD for a fiver (who needs a b-side ey?).
The rise of dance and electronic music was another key driver for the blandness of our charts today. At the start of the 2000s Berlin had become one of the central hubs for dance music in the world. The post cold war Berlin with its cheap rents, plenty of empty buildings and sites offered a creative playground for the techno scene to grow. When I left school in 2007, plenty of people I knew had already moved to Berlin. When they came back to our small town they told stories. Stories about wild and weekend long parties, about clubs and sometimes there were whispers about drugs. Those friends were mostly a few years older and they wouldn’t share much. They made Berlin feel like a secret. Like a wonderous and exclusive place. When I went to Berlin for the first time in early 2000, the city still felt wrecked and torn. I understood that it was the capitol of my home country. But I didn’t understand why it was so important for my parents to go there and see it. The city was considered a bit dangerous back then. And that had stuck with me even when I left school half a decade later.
I went to Berlin after finishing my Bachelor for a long party weekend with some UK friends. It was actually them who really wanted to go. Berlin had created a reputation as being a party and techno city all around Europe and beyond the pond. The image I had in my head about this mysterious place had spread across borders and beyond. While I always wanted to go to New York, London or Los Angeles, people there had now heard stories about excess, hedonistic freedom and they knew the soundtrack to it all was techno or deep house. Seven years ago, my mom would have never thought of buying a cd with techno music on it. I remember her complaining about most of Nelly Furtado’s Loose record because it sounded too electronic. Two years ago I found the Robin Schulz debut album in her car. When I asked her about it, she claimed it was perfect driving around music. What started off as cool and exclusive has snook into mainstream culture, media and consciousness as the new norm.
So look at the German singles charts now. It’s mostly electronic tracks dominating them. The formula is quite simple and always the same. Take a deep house beat, add some semi-exotic instrument sample (i.e. saxophone, a steel drum), never forget simple piano chords and a dreamy voice. There you go, you’re pretty much going for the top of the charts. You don’t believe me? Listen to these examples:
If you want to take a different approach, then you just take a hit song from the past (no older than the 1980s, otherwise people won’t recognize it any more) and do a remix, edit or whatever you want to call it.
The possibility of quick and cheap success (and with the digitization also came cheap equipment) I would argue leads to phasing of a formula. Every major label needs to have their own hits. Every label is working on gaining more and more success in this sector, so they establish their own dance focused departments. Sony has a joint venture with B1 recordings and optional distribution deals with the likes of Ministry of Sound and Ultra music. Universal revamped AM:PM records in Germany and Kontor is the biggest indie almost solely focused on dance music signings.
But the track business has also lead to a change in A&R work. Especially in the streaming strongholds in Scandinavia, labels are looking into pure numbers to analyze what might become a hit. I have been sent numerous press releases and info sheets where numbers (audio streams, video streams, Facebook and Twitter followers etc) are used to show me how great a song or artist is supposed to be. And internally these numbers are used as indicators weather an artist should be signed or not.
If you take into consideration that major labels are businesses that need to turn a profit, it is no surprise that they are taking advantage of these tools. It simply minimizes their risk. If you know that a track or a certain genre is booming, then people are more likely to find pleasure in a similar sounding track. So economically it is viable. As a music fan and nerd my heart is bleeding. Are we really happy with the bland radio friendly music we get served every day?
Maybe the question has to be rephrased: Who are the labels catering for? Do they solely want to please the consumer who doesn’t buy more than two albums per year? Or do labels want to please the music fan who is interested in odd things as well? Especially if you are a major label with pockets of marketing money, wouldn’t it make sense to spend it on a variety of exciting artists who can truly create and write music themselves?
III. Casting Shows (yes, they still exist. Seriously)
It was the year 2000 when the first episode of a new show called Popstars airs on German television channel RTL II (later Pro7). That’s sixteen years ago… Castingshows would now be allowed to drink beer in Germany and they should probably do so because looking back, most of them are responsible for some awful garbage. Germany had witnessed the birth of the first tv casting show act: No Angels.
Fans were able to look behind the scenes of the music industry for the first time. They were able to see how much hard work an artist has to go through, how vocal coaches work, how hard it is to learn a dance routine, how exhausting a video shoot can be and most importantly: how literally everyone could become a star over night only by signing up for the casting process.
Since the early 2000s we had numerous copy cats of Popstars. Most of them global brands (our version of Pop Idol), X-Factor (not really successful), the Voice (the currrent biggie)). What is surprising is that the winners of each series don’t make it far past the first album in many cases. Instant success doesn’t go hand in hand with a long lasting career. Notable exceptions apart from No Angels are first Pop Idol Alexander Klaws who sold about 3.2 million records throughout his career and who is now performing in musicals, Beatrice Egli, the first pop idol to make a career in German language Schlager and members of Popstars‘ second season winners Bro’Sis who mostly work in the entertainment industry today.
For major labels the instant chart and commercial success of these shows is evident. There is not much financial risk involved. The promotion and marketing is mostly run via the TV show. If a winner isn’t reaching the expected sales, the label can easily drop them and a next winner is already in the making for the coming year. In the meantime, shows like Pop Idol or The Voice have developed another important role for labels. They act as promotional outlets for the artists in the jury.
Rae Garvey, Nena, Xavier Naidoo, ex Modern Talking Dieter Bohlen, Sarah Connor, Mark Forster… the list is almost never ending. These are all established artists who have profited a big deal from their appearances on the shows. As a clever marketing move they release new music by the end of the series. Pop titan Dieter Bohlen could be seen as the German equivalent of Simon Cowell, stepping into the limelight as the grand zampano and making Pop Idol essentially his show. Or Popstars coach Detlef Dee Soost, who became a celebrity thanks to his rants and coaching tips on the show.
Overall casting stars feel like fast food for the industry. They are churned out on a regular basis without much hope of longevity. They are a quick cash fix for the labels but not the participants themselves. Just a bland blueprint to be filled by whoever has some leftover songs. It’s sad but true. Casting shows are as sustainable for the industry as a meal at McDonalds, Burger King or any other fast food chain. You’re satisfied for five minutes and then you regret having eaten there for the next few days. At least it was cheap.
IV. The TV-coop
A little while ago a friend and senior industry professional told me the story of how one of the (in my opinion worst but…) most successful German acts in recent history came about. It’s a story of coincidence, will for success and networking (a trait no one could do without in this industry) on the one hand but it’s also the story of how unscrupulous, revolting and repelling success in this industry is on the other hand. When he first hand said bands debut album he complained to his partner that he felt the end product sounded so blatantly rubbish they would not be able to sell a copy of it. His partner on the other end of the line calmed him down claiming that the German mainstream audience is so
dumb, they wouldn’t notice how rubbish the album was. With the right marketing tools, they’d easily have a gold record with it. In the end my friends business partner was right. The act has now sold multi platinum records.
This story is one of many I have heard over the years. The deconstruction of the image I had as a simple music fan when I was young was one of the hardest things I had to endure. Once you learn the mechanisms of the entertainment industry you can never go back to those early days when you believed in authenticity, music as an art form and all that. In the internet age, the mechanisms are easier to spot than ever before, but does the casual listener care? I doubt it. The majority wants to believe in the images they are fed, the constructed stories they are told and the glamour.
When that music exec I mentioned above is talking about the right marketing tools he could have meant a wide range of things. Print adverts, radio airplay, billboards, online advertisement, a brand tie-in. But what he did mean in that specific case was a tv-coop. Germany has a very strong free to air private television sector. Its healthy advertising revenues and stable reach have made the big two RTL Media Group and Pro7Sat1 Media powerhouses even beyond German borders. The latter is now the first Dax noted media company, making it join the exclusive club of Germanys top 30 companies. TV is for a long time just one cornerstone of the company. Others include online (investing in startups, a youtube MCN amongst others) and music. Starwatch is the name of Pro7Sat1’s own music department, label and artist management. Starwatch works as their own label as well as having set up various joint ventures with majors & bigger indies. This has lead to an impressive artist roster including Passanger, Alanis Morissette, Chris de Burgh, Santiano, Katie Melua or Scorpions.
Why would it make sense for labels to form such a company? The key is tv advertising. As part of a tv company, the joint venture is able to push its artists through tv ads. And there’s nothing a major loves more than big numbers (see the part on track business above). But while tv ads do not equal sales, the key demographic of the various tv channels helps a lot. And the sheer volume of spots makes it impossible to bypass certain acts in times of the big promotional push. They are reaching an audience which is still willing to buy physical products, merchandise and attend shows. None of the acts are catering for a young audience even though the channels are tending toward a younger one.
In an ideal case, the impressive media spent then helps to sell the artist, album or song to other media as well. It’s a statement of intent. Of the labels willingness to spend. And the more you spend, the more you believe in an artist.
It’s not a reinvention of the wheel. Not at all. Especially when most of the artists are already established ones. But it gets interesting when you take a look at the newcomer acts coming through those deals. Santiano, Oonagh, D’artagnon, Die Priester and so on. These are all artist I still can’t get my head around. When I’m thinking about their audience I just tend to end up baffled and perplexed. Who actually buys into an artist singing in German / Elbish?? Who buys into a group of singing priests? A group of fishermen singing about their hard rock fishermen and pirate life? Seriously they sell a lot of records. What kind of person can relate to this? Apparently that audience watches tv. And they don’t care about authenticity.
V. The Rapper
July 23rd 2007 marked a significant change for the German music industry. From this day forward charts were not based on sole units sold anymore. The system had been replaced by a revenue-based model. The music industry argued that this switch would keep an element of current trends in the charts. It was also the date when digital track sales were included in the single charts, while digital album sales weren’t yet accounted for.
If you take a look back at the charts over the last couple of years, one specific genre has profited most from these changes back in 2007: Hip-Hop. Rappers have been at the forefront of making the best use of social media in Germany. While pop and rock artists could still rely on radio airplay and traditional marketing to build a solid fanbase, they widely neglected how effective and important the social media channels would be in a digitized world.
Hip-Hop was largely neglected by traditional media after the 2000s hip-hop bubble burst. After the genre had reached its commercial peak at the start of the new century, an oversaturation and overpenetration of the market took place and the major labels lost interest in the genre. Hence less money was available to buy magazine or TV ads. The scene consolidated itself and entrepreneurs in the scene had to come up with new ways to gather audiences and release music.
Founders of label Aggro Berlin, which had considerable success with acts like Sido, Fler or B-Tight was one of the first ones to seize the opportunity of a certain video platform to generate revenue and aggregate millions of views for their videos. Other rap labels and artists followed swift. But also the (in Germany) underdeveloped Twitter platform is full with local rap artists with impressive reach compared to acts from other genres. And Facebook is no different, even though it might be less visible.
Another coup is how rappers have make use of the vale-chart system. After amassing a strong and really engaged fanbase, it is down to the artist to sell his music. Instead of releasing their music via a standard CD, download and stream, most rappers offer high-priced limited products, the box-sets. When you take a look at the biggest physical retailer Amazon and go to its pre-orders section, currently five out of the top 10 bestselling pre-orders are box-sets by German rap artists. And even iTunes, as a digital retailer has its pre-orders dominated by hip-hop.
It is no surprise then, that rap has dominated the German charts for years now even before the mainstream media rediscovered its interest in the genre and subculture. The value charts play a major role in this, as well as the young audience consisting of digital natives. In recent years the major labels have caught on to that trend. Next to marquee signings of individual artists (Heftbefehl, Sido’s continued major label success), label acquisitions (Four music merged into Sony a long time ago, more recent deals prominently involved Selfmade Records) and distribution deals (Bushido’s Ersguterjunge label is distributed by Sony, Banger Music is now distributed by Warner). All to get a piece of the very lucrative hip-hop cake. It seems like a nobrainer then, that rappers are continuously signed by the major labels. Keep milking the cow as long as possible. That by now not every rapper is really worth signing doesn’t seem to hinder the industry though.
VI. So where to from here?
So how can new music become exciting again? What is there left to do? Let us first state that there are a lot of music loving people working in the music industry. There are plenty of competent A&Rs wokrking at indie and major labels. And yes, the music industry especially in Germany is a healthy industry. So it all cannot be that bad, right? Yes, the record buying public seems to be very happy with the status quo. But as mentioned in the introduction, it could be a lot more exciting. There is plenty of new music out there waiting to be discovered. There are plenty of acts out there that call for a bigger audience and deserve their chance of hitting it big.
Maybe one way of changing the monotony could be a look at traditional values. How about building your audience through playing as much as possible? Take a look at AnnenMayKantereit for example. Although their debut album only recieved mixed receptions from critics, this is a young band who built a big fanbase by relentlessly playing live shows. They became one of the industrys most hyped bands. And they don’t come from a casting show. They don’t make electronic music. They didn’t profit from a big TV marketing campaign. They just write their own songs, sing about topics that interest not only a particular group of people but span generations. And they have a brilliant voice in Henning May.
Another example are the countless bands I hope this blog has showcased. These might not be bands for the big mainstream, but they show that there are people who care about such music. Take a look at Drangsal, the young guy from the middle of nowhere in Germany who just released his debut album and a profound love for the 1980s. He catches the attention of pretty much every media outlet just by being a little more provocative than his peers. By being a young kid who might go a bit too far in his statements. But he speaks his mind and that is a lot more than the majority of bands out there.
Maybe it is also a matter of giving people not what they think they want. A matter of challenging the public. A matter of taking risks and believing into music having a cultural relevance. And relevance is not created by sustaining the way things are. Relevance is created through distortion, through challange and through risk. I would hope that the industry takes more risks. And I would hope that major labels increasingly take those risks. Despite the digitization and despite the potential liberty the internet age has brought upon us, it is the old guard who still keeps tabs on the power. I hope it is time for a change. I truly hope the safeguarding of the status quo will come to an end. We are in serious need of it.