MusicBoard Berlin: Government Interventions in Berlin’s Music Scenes

Some tile-work inside the Abgeordnetenhaus, where the city’s senate meets and does business.

Musicboard is a cultural policy and funding initiative created by Berlin’s municipal government, with the stated goals of supporting the city’s music industry, presumably in a way similar to Berlin’s Medienboard for film and media industries. According to its official website, the project is supposed to “make Berlin more attractive as a site for popular music.”  Starting in 2013, the city of Berlin will make 1 Million Euros available towards supporting these goals, but the debates have already started about how this money will be distributed, what the role of Musicboard should be, who should be running it, and even whether the project will improve or worsen the conditions of music-making in Berlin.

There’s already been far too much discussion and debate on this topic for me to summarize here, but I can point to a few issues of importance to Berlin’s EDM scenes as a bit of background. When this plan was first announced in early 2012, a lot of the coverage was rather shallow and distorted (especially what little English-language coverage), often sporting headlines like, “Berlin’s City Hall Gives Money to its Nightclubs to Keep Them from Dying!!!1!” From the outset, the project was supposed to support the entire city’s popular music scenes, so it says something about the symbolic and cultural significance of techno in Berlin that the media jumped from “popular music” to “nightclubs” to “techno.” Admittedly, there had already been a fair bit of talk in both local and international media about the phenomenon of Clubsterben (club-death), which has to do with the increasingly frequent closures of long-standing music venues in Berlin as gentrification raises property costs and creates noise-related conflicts with newly-settled residents.

But beyond its depiction in the media, the project has been subject to both positive and negative responses in the city’s electronic dance music scenes. At a midnight panel discussion in early April (audio here, in German), some expressed concerns that the money would be doled out in ways that would create a sort of Senatstechno, only supporting venues and producers that please the city bureaucracy in some way. Others criticized the lack of transparency in the actual creation of the Musicboard itself, as this was a project started unilaterally by the governing socialist party, without consultation with any of the other political parties active in the city’s parliament. Others saw the amount of  1 Million Euros as far too little to make any difference. Others complained that this was the city throwing chump-change at a problem in order to pacify the nightlife sector, without changing the issues of urban space that are most pressing for Berlin’s EDM scenes. As the moderator put it during the opening of the session, Berlin’s nightclubs don’t really need financial security—they’re mostly doing great business—but they desperately need Ortssicherung (location-security). Most nightlife venues are closing due to legal conflicts with their landlords and their neighbors, and the hike in property rents is really a symptom of a larger fight over urban space in the city’s center.

Nonetheless, there were also people at the meeting who argued in favor of the Musicboard project, pointing out that the simple fact that the city is recognizing the problem is already a step in the right direction. They also argued for close participation in the early development process of Musicboard, in the hopes of ensuring that the project will implement useful and constructive policies. For smaller and newer music venues (and musicians), the Musicboard might also provide an opportunity for them to get access to legal representation, renovation/construction help, and other issues that larger clubs can handle more easily. In the end, it seemed that much of the debate had to do with either rejecting any form of government support/intervention altogether, or  ambivalently participating in the hopes of turning Musicboard into something more than yet another grant-giving, bureaucratic pacifier.

The main atrium of Berlin’s Abgeordnetenhaus

In April and May, the Senate’s office (Senatkanzlei) had two public hearings that were supposed to provide an opportunity to collect expert opinons as well as to allow interested parties to have their say. (Hearings website: note that the documentation links for the 1st and 2nd hearings have been erroneously switched.) The theme of the first meeting was “How do we shape a music-friendly city?” while the second meeting was themed, “How do we sensibly support up-and-coming music(ians)?” I didn’t go to the first hearing—I hadn’t even heard about the first one, despite it being public—but I managed to make it to the second one on May 23rd. I was absolutely destroyed with a massive cold, but I dragged myself out there and took some notes.

The format of the hearing involved some opening comments from the organizers, a set of brief presentations from experts, and then a series of questions/comments from attendees. There were about 64 people in attendance, of which about 24 appeared to be invited participants sitting at tables with microphones. Many of those asking questions seemed to have been put on the meeting agenda ahead of time, as the moderator called most of them by name, so there were only a few spontaneous interventions by attendees near the end of the 2-hour meeting.

The presentations from the experts (Sachverständige) were sometimes pretty interesting (see a PDF of the list here). For example, several of them underlined that the challenges for musicians, labels, and venues in Berlin has primarily been one of space: rehearsal spaces, performance spaces, event spaces, etc. One presenter suggested possibly encouraging live music venues to commit to booking a certain proportion of young music acts, with financial support from Musicboard. The same presenter also suggested that Musicboard serve as a clearing-house for listings for up-and-coming music bands (although I would argue that a lot of underground music scenes already have this in place in Berlin, just not through official channels). A representative from BureauExport Frankreich (a French organization that helps French music acts to enter into the German music market) told of how France raises money to support new musicians by levying a surcharge on tickets for large-scale (i.e., “mainstream”) musical events. A representative of Swiss Music Export (the same thing for Switzerland) warned the panel that a similar project in Canton Basel spends nearly 50% of its budget on administrative overhead, which would be crippling for a project like Musicboard, which only has 1 Million Euros to start with.

I noticed that, during this hearing, most of the presenters and politicians were speaking a language of music as Wirtschaftsfaktor (economic factor). This clearly comes out of the internal-political process of justifying “popular” cultural policy as good for the city’s—as opposed to “high” culture, such as opera or theatre, which does not need to justify itself as a growth-sector in the city’s economy in order to get public funding. Nonetheless, it was disconcerting to see the city’s vibrant music scenes so persistently reduced to yet another sector for economic exploitation and market-like “management.” Also, I noted that the talk of public funding focused much more on funding individual musicians and bands, rather than supporting performance venues, rehearsal venues, or other establishments that would secure urban space. With their shiny new grants, these musicians might be able to afford rehearsal and performance space, but will there still be any? Will they have to relocate their studios to Potsdam or Fläming?

Towards the end of the meeting, one of the invited question-askers (associated with SO36, I think) made an interesting suggestion. As he points out, there already exist municipal and federal grants for artists in Germany. But one of the biggest problems for starting musicians is that they have almost no “bureaucratic literacy”—that is, they don’t know what state support programs exist, they don’t know how to find them, they don’t know how to write a successful application, they don’t speak the language of these grant-giving bodies. As a result, some very talented musicians are probably passed over every year because they don’t know how to ask for support. And so, he suggested, one of the services that the Musicboard could offer would be as a mediator between young musicians and the massive and complex German cultural bureaucracy.

But finally, one of the most critical questions was asked nearly at the end of the hearing: who will choose grant-recipients and how will they be chosen? It is clear from this hearing that different actors in Berlin have starkly different ideas about what shape Berlin’s music scenes should take, and the composition of the Musicboard itself will likely have a strong impact on how it intervenes in the musical activities of the city.

Some palms near the exit from the Abgeordnetenhaus, after 2 hours of “hearings”

Further Reading:

If you read German, you can take a look at this round-table discussion at Creative City Berlin, which asks representatives of the concerned parties: What do you want from the Musicboard?

If you read French, here are some thoughts by a Berlin-based French blogger at, starting with the initial announcement of the project (which repeats some of the media’s assumptions about the project being primarily directed towards the city’s nightclubs) and the revelation of further details.

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