Nostalgia is the enemy. Don’t ever think about falling for it. ‘It kills teenage dreams’, Dave Haslam says. The acclaimed author and DJ icon tells it like it is during his speech on early Friday evening at Berlin’s infamous Berghain. Haslam is closely connected to the history of his hometown Manchester, Factory Records and the legendary Haçienda which might have been a blueprint of what the Berghain is now. Later on during that evening he was joined by Bernard Sumner of JOY DIVISION and NEW ORDER as they reminiscent about Ian Curtis, Tony Wilson, and those golden but gone days of rave and pop culture. Late at night Haslam spins classic Madchester hits at the Panorama Bar. Nostalgia might be the enemy but it’s one you’d love to hang around, right? Same goes for Swedish pop legend NENEH CHERRY who performed at a hall next to the techno temple. She warned the audience about that nasty son of a b*tch, nostalgia, as well. Ironically, right before she performed her 1989 hit Manchild.
Still, the first ever Pop-Kultur Festival in Berlin made it quite clear from the beginning that it wasn’t about looking back but more about celebrating the here and now while maybe even risking a glimpse into the future. Well, at least that was the perfect scenario. Pop-Kultur Berlin was designed as a follow-up to the Berlin Music Week while basically making everything new. It was meant as an experiment that ignites interdisciplinary exchange while also leaving a lot of space for a contemporary discourse on music, society, and the development of pop culture. With the Musicboard Berlin in the background, the government-funded event was also meant to be an alternative draft to all those mainstream events taking place. ‘You are part of something new’, Musicboard boss Katja Lucker proclaims at her opening speech, ‘This is the sound of something new.’ But, hey, don’t forget the nostalgia, right?
Without any doubt, the idea of the Pop-Kultur Festival itself is pretty exciting. Mixing various artists in separate modules somehow made the audience look beyond their own interests. Where else would you get to see dream-pop band FENSTER performing a hypnotic and haunting live-soundtrack to their low budget sci-fi film Emocean next to buzzing German indie-rock sensation ISOLATION BERLIN and crafted musician OWEN PALLETT who was joined by the STARGAZE collective. However, this weird mixture of audio-visual arts turned out to be one of the true highlights of Pop-Kultur Festival as it embodied progress as well as freshness. While FENSTER’s Emocean reveals the band’s love for the absurd, the musicians at the same time created a perfected version of their dream pop sound as the soundtrack to the movie works well without any vocals.
The abstinence of big names was one of the positive aspects of the Pop-Kultur debut. Yes, NEW ORDER were present, but rather as panel guests instead of their role as musicians. However, Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris were let down by host Heiko Hoffmann who asked uninspired questions without having a common theme that made OWEN PALLETT and Daniel Miller look a bit out of place. On a positive note, fresh up and coming bands like Irish noise pop heroes GIRL BAND, Spanish garage rock girls HINDS or psychedelic guitar pop outfit NOVELLA from London played side-by-side with buzzing German acts like post-punk outfit MESSER or Hamburg-based alternative chanson girl duo SCHNIPO SCHRANKE. The musical program was a celebration of the young and restless newcomers. A potential future of pop culture?
“We barely listen anymore because there’s too much noise”
Obviously, there was nothing entirely new which kind of makes you think whether there’s ever going to be something new or we’re stuck in a revival spiral for eternity. Acclaimed electronic producer Matthew Herbert opened the talk sessions in form of an exchange with André de Ridder. And it was kind of interesting that he started the praised Pop-Kultur event with his pessimistic perspective on the whole musical culture of the year 2015. In his own words, music has become dispensable. Making music and releasing it to the world has basically become so simple that the market is flooded with copies of other copies – clones instead of revolutionists and just too many mediocre material. We barely listen anymore because there’s too much noise. You can produce a piece of solid music with an ordinary laptop and a cracked Ableton software within hours just before uploading it to Soundcloud. Everybody does it, nobody cares anymore. Herbert’s advice? ‘We should all stop. Just stop.’ Stop making music to avoid its ruin? What a brilliant start to the event. Of course, the audience didn’t applaud. It was a rare moment of naked truth during the festival’s premiere.
‘Rather a class trip than serious career advice.’
While the newcomers had to stick to their performances, the talks were left to the oldschool professionals, that is people who have been in the business for a long time. Nothing against legends like Mute’s Daniel Miller but we would have really loved to hear the opinion of artists like KERO KERO BONITO or Barcelona’s MOURN on why they decided to become musicians, what they hope to achieve in the future and how they want the music industry and landscape to change. Getting branded by big companies and selling your songs to the market has become an ordinary thing unless you got institutions like the Musicboard on your side. Well, it feels a bit as if they got used to it. ‘I’m a product. I want you to swallow me’ is the key message of ISOLATION BERLIN singer Tobias Bamborschke in the band’s opening song on Wednesday. Is this the life?
Nonetheless, the future of the industry was present as well in the event’s ‘Nachwuchs’ program which was held during the day. The new blood of musicians, journalists, producers or managers were invited to several workshops in the studios of Bühnenservice der Stiftung Oper Berlin, next to the Berghain, where they got professionally trained by some heavy names such as Matthew Herbert, ÓLAFUR ARNALDS or music producer Moses Schneider.
“The program of the festival was as diverse as its participants.”
On Wednesday morning, Tim Renner, the former Universal Germany boss and current cultural secretary of Berlin, told the 150 young participants of the program about the importance of Berlin as a cultural capital. Of course, he didn’t forget to praise the DIY-culture of Berlin’s underground scene during the 1990s. Within the next two days the talents had to reconsider themselves how hard it is to get into the music industry 20 years after Tresor’s and Motor’s heyday. But while German print journalist Jens Balzer told the youngsters about the financial downside of culture journalism, Marcus Engert from the online-radio detektor.fm encouraged them to follow their own visions. Panels and workshops were held on music business, producing, festival, club management, law, and journalism. The program of the workshops was as diverse as its participants. The Pop-Kultur responsibles chose 150 young people out of 400 applications, among them international talents from India or the Philipines. Few of the participants already had their own professional festival in the making, others just started their own blog or studied in the media field. Still, after two days, the Pop-Kultur ‘Nachwuchs’ program felt more like a class trip of Germany’s young music industry scene than serious career advice.
‘A little oldschool island in the current sea of digital uncertainty’
In the end, can we give a general statement about the state of pop culture following three days of gigs, readings, and talks at the Berghain? Well, we’re not more optimistic than we’ve been before. Matthew Herbert might agree on this. It feels a bit as if pop music and all the technical changes it undergoes are doomed at the moment. Still, with the help of the Musicboard and, well, let’s tell it like it is – a lot of tax money the Pop-Kultur had the luxury of not being forced to kneel down in front of the rough festival market, big sponsors, questionable marketing deals, and uncool headliner bands. They were not even forced to use cashless money to gather information data from its audience like the Berlin Festival did earlier this year and the first ever Lollapalooza in Berlin will in a few weeks. And since you aren’t officially allowed to shoot photos in the Berghain the ban of smart phones almost had something quite relieving. We didn’t see any selfie-stick but rather people who were carefully listening, paying attention as well as enjoying what was going on. What a rare event this has become.
A focus on art, its subversive power, and emotional force – that’s what Pop-Kultur Berlin reminded us about more than once. A little oldschool island in the current sea of digital uncertainty that the music industry is. The absence of major label power and people who want to sell you their forthcoming music and event app was another relief. Not everything was perfect at the first ever Pop-Kultur in Berlin, but it offered an alternative by taking two steps back and setting another focus. Nostalgia might kill your dreams and limit your ambitions but maybe it’s a great ally when you are looking for an answer to the question of music’s future. Pop-Kultur Berlin was such a nostalgic reminder of that power and former glory and maybe, in a quite ironic way, therefore offered a possible path for the future. We could definitely think of worse places to celebrate the often declared decline of pop culture than the Berghain last weekend. We’ll see if the Pop-Kultur Festival is here to stay.