The last weekend of April saw the 20th anniversary of the c/o pop Festival. From Thursday till Sunday, 36.000 people wandered through Cologne Ehrenfeld to catch some of the festival’s countless acts, workshops as well as convention talks or just breathe in the bustle accompanying the first glimpses of sun. With the festival’s focus on newcomers and the panels on diversity, equality, sustainability and other (unfortunately still) future-oriented topics, the overall air was filled with novelty. The first year when everybody felt truly free to breathe without a mask again, many artists played established stages for the first time and all led by the thought of how we can create an environment that is built on community and awareness – what a lovely sight!
Ehrenfeld is in a state of anticipation. Especially the kiosk and kebab owners and close-by supermarkets are stocking up for the flood of people that’ll soon queue up in and around their shops. On Thursday evening when I’m heading to artheater with my roommate, it is still relatively quiet, but come Friday the bikes and e-scooters will pile up around Venloer Straße while the parks will be filled with friend gatherings, families, the smell of weed and bottle collectors. If you’ve lived here, even if only for a little while, you’ll run into at least three people you know and you’ll recognise a dozen from your everyday commute. I’ve been living here for almost two years and the festival gave me many moments demonstrating that I’ve arrived and been welcomed.
We Change Pop So Pop Can Change Us
Though I only visited the festival’s concerts, we managed to chat up Conventions Director Ralph Christoph to ask about this year’s talking points and his expectations and impressions attached to it. In 2020, the c/o pop team had decided to move their offices to Ehrenfeld but only last year this plan saw reality and with it, the convention became a focal point for 2023’s discussions focusing on the wants and needs of the next generation conquering the music industry.
“Out of the large selection of events, issues such as climate activism, diversity and newcomer promotion stand out as some of the most highlighted subject areas – how do you feel about that and how do you think the convention can help emphasise these topics?”
Christoph: “Our industry always pretends to be very cosmopolitan – pop culture always wants to be glamorous, interesting, exciting and ultimately relevant. But if you look at the status quo in terms of, for example, the proportion of female-read people on festival stages, it still looks staggering. And the topic of DEI (Diversity, Equality, Inclusion) is still in its infancy in large parts of the music industry. That’s why it’s enormously important to address it – and where better to do that than at events like the c/o pop Convention? It was nice to see that a young and, in part, diverse community is coming together here that is activist, networked and on the move. The same applies to the field of ecological sustainability, of course. It is always important to give the protagonists a stage, a voice. And not just to talk about them.”
Another space where the festival has given a voice to young professionals is their Youtube channel. There are four videos informing about the status quo of female-read and diverse line-ups at international festivals as well as interviews with Domiziana, Becks, IUMA and MARYAM.fyi who have all graced the stages of this year’s edition. Each of them shares the sentiment that many things have changed but more still needs to change. The questions circle around how to build an inclusive community, their experiences of sexism and prejudice in the music industry and what they are actively doing to open the world wider for their fellow female and/or queer artists. Though, it is important to highlight young and upcoming professionals and their opinion, there is little concrete advice in these presentations. When everyone agrees on what has to change but doesn’t offer a more nuanced vision, it is hard to find a starting point.
The Future Of Recruiting?
Another thing where the festival initiated a starting point this year is the MUSIC PEOPLE event, where recruiters and job seekers may connect. Ralph Christoph summarises his experience and how he thinks events like this influence the future of recruiting:
“The format clearly stands out from classic application scenarios. We had the maximum number of participating companies, from DAX-listed companies to owner-managed creative agencies, and we also had to stop at the applicants, because otherwise the boutique character of MUSIC PEOPLE would have been lost. Another success factor is that the event is now also held as part of the Reeperbahnfestival. Therefore, you can say that we have already left the experimental stage.”
From Stage To Stage
Now, onto the artists I’ve got to celebrate during the festival and these weird neon-painted mannequin-bodyparts beside or on every stage – I have yet to ponder on their symbolic or literal meaning. Anyone who has been to the c/o pop Festival knows that well-curated plans of who to see are probably not realistic, learning this lesson latest by Friday evening when the queue of the next act is streaming around corners. It can be annoying if you’ve purchased a day ticket and don’t get to see your favourite band but it also encourages everyone to explore and let serendipity take over. It promotes the freedom that festivals exude. Each concert is around 45 minutes long, mostly without an encore, while the next one(s) are only a few meters away.
The first act hidden in the basement of the artheater is the French electronic-driven Hip-Hop crew of Uzi Freyja. With remarkable energy and fifteen minutes into the set, the crowd shouts along to “Fous-moi le camp / (Get the fuck out)” while frontwoman Kelly Rose teases the (lack of) anger and passion of her predominantly white crowd. When a man comments on the singer’s word choice “Easy Peasy” with “Nobody’s says that anymore”, a bad Walking Dead-joke that certainly didn’t land nor was still popular enough to be known by everyone, she asks him to repeat and state his authority of claiming this ‘fact’. He’s trying to argue, everyone ignores him and thinks he might better leave, we party on. It’s a pleasant start and presents the anticipated intimacy of an unknown band plus a small venue. The moments in between are filled with the upstairs booming of Ameli Paul’s set so that at times the roof as well as the floor seem to be shaking of reverberations.
Jumping into Club Bahnhof Ehrenfeld, the Swiss Indie-folk band Black Sea Dahu have just opened their set. From the kinetic to the melancholic, the crowd here revels in Janine and Vera Cathrein’s voices and guitars. While preparing for the next song, an impromptu bit starts of them trying to sell their merch, especially the very expensive towels of which only one has been sold yet during their extensive touring. Thursday closes with their last song and favourite I Am My Mother.
On Friday I stay at yuca, normally a club and bar right beside Club Bahnhof Ehrenfeld, for Christl and Nashi44. Christl who won 2018 The Voice in Austria as Christiane Rechenmacher, bellows sweet and corny ballads with her chest voice. She tells the audience that she’s been writing a book and about her past few weeks but struggles to find a rhythm of the conversation. Though she’s been on bigger stages and live TV, this setting seems to intimidate her but the crowd does their best to ease of her nervosity. After the gig, I end up sitting in a circle of Christl’s team and friends while listening in on their everyday small talk. She seems relieved and just met someone she hasn’t seen in ages. Far from nervous, though appearances are deceptive, is Nashi44 who bounces onto the stage. The first row consists of three women who know every lyric and become the artist’s point of contact. The rest bob along more or less enthusiastically until Aus der Pussy starts. Staying on topic, I walk over to see the performance of Berlin Stripper Collective but Friday evening has officially started and I can only squeeze into the room during the last ten minutes of the show and ask other participants about their experience. As someone who has been doing pole dance (which is not equal to stripping!) for the past three years, their tricks were simple and effective for a crowd who has probably not seen much of either.
My third day started with one of the festival’s most-anticipated events – The Trailblazer Ball by Crystal Saint Laurent & Father David Elle. Including a ball in the line-up of c/o pop eases and celebrates all the talk of diversity and equality. The Live Music Hall was packed and the categories were open. From 3.30 until 7 pm, the families walked, danced and presented themselves in all their beauty. Of the people I’ve met in my time in Cologne so far, almost everyone shared moments of this event in their Instagram stories – it makes me feel happy and at home. Further down the road at the BürgerZentrum (BüZe) and what turned out to be my favourite act of the weekend, played QuinzeQuinze. With several synth systems, three drum pads and an analogue kit, keyboard, and microphone the five members create their intricate loops and composition from scratch. The Tahitian heritage of Tsimin and Ennio is a focal point of their compositions through Polynesian narration and instrumentalization, QuinzeQuinze grow video- and soundscape which is live and digitally all-encompassing, moving seamlessly between dystopian and utopian scenarios. Each musician was so immersed in the moment that everyone around couldn’t help but sink with them. After this beautiful concert, there was no disappointment about trying in vain to get into any other venue.
On the last day, most people including me wandered through Ehrenfeld, slightly exhausted and content with the world. Maybe catching a glimpse of a friend’s friend’s synth-y improvisation at the Kulturraum or walking up the Heliosturm, a brick tower watching over Ehrenfeld, to breathe and look at the masses all around. Later that night, my roommate (aka Hytrek) played a DJ-set at Kolbhalle, an artist community space since the 80s also in Ehrenfeld and in no relation to the c/o pop but sought after by many familiar faces of the past few days. A band from Leipzig Thier played there as well. To me, they are now part of the c/o pop, simply because of timing and location. With their distortion-driven and endless, mostly instrumental songs, a frontman looking like Bjarne Mädel playing trumpet dressed like all members in long black monk’s habits and who describe their sound as Kraut Hop was a remarkable contrast to the past days of extravagant, clean and fashion-forward presentations.
Here And Now
From organisation, to structure, venues, information, accessibility and kind staff, this year’s c/o pop Festival is a great representation. And for all the cosmopolitan claim pop culture, pop culture seems to be obliged to, the team is aware of its significance in Germany, as Ralph Christoph states:
“From the very beginning, it was part of the concept of c/o pop to adequately represent local and regional newcomers. This is important because NRW alone is roughly the size and population of the Netherlands. This poses much greater challenges in representing certain scenes than, for example, in Hamburg or Berlin. That’s why c/o pop, as a central lighthouse event, has a greater significance, but also a greater responsibility.”
When it comes to initiating discussions on change and furthering connections, institutions like the c/o pop Festival are vital but for actual implementation, the people in powerful positions of the industry have to make daily decisions on who to employ, how to ship goods, giving platforms on non-commercial/advertisement-driven platforms, research new technologies and who to invest time and money in. There is hope but the challenge is to convince these people that they can only profit from inclusion, diversity, and sustainability. I hope some of them were invited.