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Faith, pop and charity

Tobias Rapp on the new sense of optimism at Berlin's Popkomm trade fair

You could call it a good mood. When the Popkomm trade fair starts today in Berlin, this mood should be a good deal better than it has been in recent years. Not only because Popkomm's new concept seems to be paying off. Since the fair moved to Berlin from Cologne three years ago, the number of exhibitors has been on the rise and even the major record companies – conspicuous by their absence in recent years – are all here with stands. After years of steady decline, shrinking sales figures and what looked like certain death, hope has returned to the music industry. Could it be that all is not lost after all?

The Sonicbids stand at this year's trade fair. All photos courtesy of Popkomm 2006

The crisis in the music industry was never a crisis in music. It was a crisis in music production. And this is exactly where things are taking off once again. For years, if you wanted to talk about something that makes money you had to talk about mobile phone ring tones. But now a new buzzword has entered the field: Web 2.0. A chic new term from America roughly translates as: the Internet is changing. It's becoming more interactive, receivers are becoming broadcasters, and in the course of it all, new communities are taking shape.

The Universal Music Germany stand

And there's a good deal of truth to this picture. Just as the Napster music exchange platform played a key role in increasing the popularity of Web 1.0 in the late 1990s, music is also a major force in popularising Web 2.0. A good part of the dynamic that pages like and have unleashed comes from their music content. The communities that emerge on myspace often share musical interests. And one major reason for youtube being so attractive is that it shows music videos no longer being broadcast on MTV.

Finnish remix artist Jimi Tenor opens the Popkomm concert series at the Deutsch Oper

Nevertheless, much of the good mood is reminiscent of 2000, the year before the big crash. And even then it was clear at Popkomm that the industry was facing major problems, that digitalising music complicates music sales and that CD sales were on the decline. Nevertheless, venture capital was there to burn as if there were no tomorrow. Huge stands proffered the most senseless articles, with nothing to show but faith that you'd always be able to drum up money on the Net.

Brazilians Yamandu Costa and Armandinho at the opening party

For the recording industry, this promise turned out to be false. And that's not going to change, despite dynamic new talents like the British band Arctic Monkeys, who hit astronomical heights of popularity in the UK solely through self-promotion on the Net. When they finally made it to the top of the charts, the band sold as many CDs in one week as the next twenty on the list.

There's business to be done there, the record companies have been thinking ever since. One of the sessions at the congress running parallel to the trade fair is titled "Arctic Monkey Business - Fans in Focus." But a brilliant band like the Arctic Monkeys will always be successful, regardless of how things look for sales channels and value creation chains. But for the rank and file, that doesn't mean a thing. Now that music has been digitalised and almost every household has a computer with a fast connection, everyone can copy music without quality loss. And as long as copyrights are regulated as they are now, illegal downloading will continue. New marketing possibilities won't change a thing.

The Canadian band The Golden Dogs

The music industry is still in denial about the fact that it is basically a charity case. Everybody who buys a CD or spends money on the Internet for a download, does so because he or she wants to pay, not because there's no other way of getting hold of the music. In spite of all the scare campaigns, the p2p exchange still goes on. Almost every record can be tracked down on the Internet and downloaded gratis. Faced with this fact, the music industry should count itself lucky – I mean, who would pay for a toaster of their own accord if they could get if for free?

Interestingly, even this shift has long made itself felt at Popkomm: as the music industry increasingly loses clout, up jumps the state. After France founded the Bureau Export de la Musique Francaise, almost every other country has followed suit and founded a state-financed agency with a stand at the fair. This development is also reflected in the accompanying festival programme, with almost a dozen scheduled country theme nights. And what's more, because many labels don't have the money to fly in their artists, export offices have funded the travel costs. A fact that Popkomm has been only to happy to exploit: the interesting programme is taking place outside the official festival and in the Berlin clubs.


The article originally appeared in German in die tageszeitung on September
20, 2006.

Tobias Rapp is a DJ and music editor for die tageszeitung.

Translation: jab and lp.

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