Talking Culture, Money, and Music: Anti-GEMA Protests

The view from somewhere near the stage, back over Boxhagener Platz

Yesterday, there was yet another anti-GEMA demonstration held at Boxhagener Platz in Friedrichshain, just in front of the bar/club Stereo 33. There have been an ongoing series of these demonstrations in Berlin since at least late spring, but this event was interesting for how it mixed music and talk, as well as themes of culture and money.

For those of you who haven’t been living in Germany over the past year and haven’t been bombarded with chatter and media reports and magazine columns and so on: GEMA is a music rights organization that manages the collection of royalties for the performance of music in Germany. Much like the BMI/ASCAP in the US, it is essentially a private monopoly of media corporations and music-makers, with a set of rights to collect dues and fees based on state laws regarding copyright. In any venue where live or recorded music is played, they collect fees that are then distributed to its members through a hierarchical scheme.

Nightclubs are one sort of these venues, and German clubs pay a per-event fee to GEMA that is calculated based several factors, such as the price of entry, the size of the dancefloor, how long the club stays open, and how many events you have per year. But in early 2012, GEMA announced a set of tarif hikes (or tarif “reforms,” as the organization called it) that changed the way that performance fees were calculated. There’s certainly no space here to go through the changes in detail, but the most notable ones included: raising the percentage of the entry/ticket price that goes to GEMA; multiplying the fees on a per-hour basis for how long the club stays open; and counting the entire club’s surface area as “taxable,” instead of just the dancefloor. (If you can read German, check out this GEMA-Tarif Calculator here to get an idea of what fees will be in 2013. You can also compare them with previous years’ fees.)

All the usual pun-based anti-GEMA slogans were here, too.

So, back to yesterday’s event. I was struck by some of the contrasts it made with an earlier anti-GEMA demonstration that I attended back in late June, held in front of the KulturBrauerei (in Prenzlauer Berg), where GEMA was having their summer-break party. Sure, the same pun-based anti-GEMA slogans were on display at both events: “GEMA nach Hause” (c.f., “Geh’ mal nach Hause!” / “Go on home!”), and “GEMA kacken” and so on. But the demonstration in June was a moderately-attended and rather low-key affair, while yesterday’s demonstration took on the tone and size of a street festival. The weather was admittedly far better yesterday in comparison to the scattered rain showers of the late-June date, but the significance of GEMA members physically present on the way to their summer-break party should’ve motivated something lively and packed. Also, the organizers of yesterday’s demonstration circulated a flyer that resembled a rave flyer, with a line-up of DJs that would play at the event (along with a supportive blast from Kater Holzig‘s news mailing list the day beforehand), while the earlier demonstration posted a simple, plain-text call to arms on Facebook and several club websites (including Berghain’s).

One notable difference was the balance between music and political talk. Electronic dance music is a style of music that is (in)famous for rarely making its politics explicit (although there is plenty to be had if you’re willing to look), and so a political EDM event needs to be supplemented by a lot of political talk, in order to be taken as a “true“ political demonstration. At the earlier event in June, there was a stage set up right in front of the KulturBrauerei, where a long list of political and industry speakers gave long and detailed speeches. Between the speakers, an MC would read paragraphs from the new 2013 GEMA tarif rules, explaining how they would impact Berlin’s local nightlife scenes. And during the short moments of downtime between the speakers and the MC, they would blast some pounding techno. At the same time, nearly a block further down the street and well away from the action, they had another stage set up with DJs constantly performing. As a result, the crowd in attendance was divided between standing around listening to long political speeches, or dancing to music.

At yesterday’s event, the political-speech stage and the music stage were the same thing. DJ sets alternated with political speakers—but the ratio was quite different. DJs played for roughly 50 minutes each, while the “main” speakers came on for 5 minutes between sets. They occasionally interrupted the DJ sets to put on impromptu speakers who make a few remarks in a minute or so. I later found out that this was because the police told the organizers that the ratio of political talk to partying was too low, and that they risked losing the event’s status as a political demonstration (which is much easier and cheaper to organize than a purely “fun” music festival in Berlin). Indeed, the organizers of this demonstration had clearly made an effort to incorporate political discourse into an event-format more typical of EDM scenes, but it wasn’t easy. On the one hand, it drastically reduced the amount of political talk that was possible within the time-frame of the event; on the other hand, it forced the more party-minded attendees to at least be present for the political activities while also making for a far more photogenic and lively event. As far as PR is concerned, it worked like a charm.

The DJ line-up for the outdoor portion of the event, along with the “long” speakers.

Another interesting contrast that I noted happened within yesterday’s event itself: the balance between themes of culture and money. Many of the shorter, impromptu speakers focused exclusively on how the GEMA tarif changes would threaten “our” culture, casting Germany’s EDM scenes and nightlife in general as a special culture that deserves protection. This clip of Marco, manager of the club Frida’s Büxe in Zürich (Switzerland), is a pretty good example of what I mean:

“We party. This is our culture. This is our life. And we won’t let that be taken away.”

There’s a brief mention of the fact that our special culture is under financial threat, but that’s about it. The longer speeches also insisted on the distinctiveness and value (and collective ownership) of EDM culture, but these speakers greatly emphasized the financial details of the problem: they pointed out the perversity of a redistributive system that collects money from “underground” music events and distributes the income primarily to established, mainstream rights owners; they demanded a fairer allocation of monies collected through the GEMA tarif system; they pointed out how the reforms hit nightclubs harder—and Berlin’s larger, more frequent, longer-running clubs the hardest; and they provided some figures to give an idea of just how massive the fee hikes will be for many clubs. Here’s an example of a longer speech given by Benno from the Postbahnhof club in Berlin:

“This isn’t just a party. This is about your party-culture and your music-culture in this city of Berlin.”

0:50 “[These reforms] mean higher entry prices for you guys, and so on, many clubs will need to shut down.”

1:10 “Berlin definitely survives on this nightlife- and club-culture. We are a cultural city; we have no industry here. We survive on this migration thing—regardless of where people come from, we have endless party-tourism, off of which we survive and SO DOES MAYOR WOWEREIT!”

2:00 “In the future, we want a just distribution of GEMA fees—not that some fucking Dieter Bohlen lives off them…”

2:18 “And, in 2013, we want a just distribution [of costs] for nightclubs. A 1200% hike in dues for nightclubs is a travesty.”

3:09 “We would really like—and this is why we’re all here—that politics grapple with this monopolistic organization called GEMA. Greetings to Rosenheim, to the 18 fucking executives that have been there for years and make decisions for more than 300,000 artists about who gets how much money! It’s an absolute travesty.”

That just about sums it up. Actually, somewhere around 3:00 into the recording, the next DJ tries to fade in the music, and the speaker says, “I’m not done yet!” And, at several points during his speech, he reminds the crowd that this event is “not just a party.” Again, there’s an interesting balance struck among these speakers between a perhaps more pleasing, self-congratulatory call for cultural specialness and a pragmatic, aggressive call for fiscal justice. I don’t know if this is necessarily a new model for how EDM-related political demonstrations will take place in Berlin, but it certainly made for something memorable, visible, and—perhaps most importantly—not un-fun. Making politics fun and being political about your fun are both difficult tasks.

Anti-GEMA organizing posters over the entrance to Stereo 33, the club hosting this event.


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