eyond Germany’s borders, the debates over GEMA and its new tarif system rarely get much coverage, only spawning the occasional under-researched, “Will Berlin’s Nightclubs Perish?” sort of articles in the foreign press. But Berlin is an increasingly international city full of expatriates—many of them “creative” workers that have personal and professional links into the local music scenes here—and some of them have been blogging about this issue in their own language, explaining the issue to readers in their countries of origin while also informing their fellow expatriates in Berlin. I’ve been up to a bit of that myself in English, writing on recent anti-GEMA protests and translating pieces of German–language news items. But I can also translate from French and Spanish (among others).
So today, I thought I’d move laterally and cover how the GEMA issue in Berlin is being represented to reading audiences outside of Germany. In this case, I’m looking at a pair of French-language blog posts, both of which are playing the role of cultural/political/linguistic translator in different ways. One is a more emotional and political call to arms that makes its arguments through appeals to cultural value and the preservation of utopian, minority-protective spaces. The other is a more detailed, procedural, and policy-wonk-ish while also reporting on how German opposition to GEMA has been taking shape.
“Save Berghain!” Coussin-Grudzinski at Minorités
In his polemic, “Sauvons Berghain !” for the French-language political website Minorités, Philippe Coussin-Grudzinski makes his position clear from the first paragraph:
When we know that our marvelous, stinking cheeses are part of UNESCO’s world heritage, we might well ask ourselves what they’re waiting for, to include Berghain on that list.
Throughout his article, the author frames the GEMA issue in terms of Berghain in peril, one of Berlin’s foremost and internationally-known EDM nightclubs. He insists on the unique and culturally valuable aspects of Berghain, the critique of GEMA remaining largely one of its consequences rather than how it operates. In many ways, this mirrors a common awareness-raising strategy among GEMA opponents here in Germany. In a bid to mobilize an audience that prefers to focus on fun rather than politics, these activists highlight how GEMA’s new tarif system affects their lives directly, i.e., how it impacts their fun. This in involves highlighting (and often dramatizing) how, through this new tariff regime, OMG YOUR FAV CLUB IS GONNA CLOSE! COME PROTEST! One shouldn’t dismiss this approach too quickly, though, as it seems to be rather effective in catching the attention of both partygoers and the national media. It also works as a more urgent, simpler, more quotable counterweight to the boring (but essential) analyses of GEMA policy.
In any case, Coussin-Grudzinski offers a variation on this theme, arguing first for the specialness and uniqueness and capital-C cultural value of the club (“because even the coat-check is a work of art”), in order to highlight the stakes of GEMA’s impact on Berlin’s music scenes. While certainly written in a polemic register, his tone becomes more poignant as he considers the social stakes of Berghain, particularly for sexual minorities:
Because Berghain is a dream in a city. Because the location is a drug in itself. No need for MDMA to keep going. You leave, you stuff your face with a kebab with white sauce, and you come back. There’s nobody there to look at you funny; it’s too dark, too smoky. Nobody to tell you to put out your smoke. Nobody to judge your look. It’s an ultimate anonymity that quite a few gays from the countryside search for in vain upon arriving in Paris.
He goes on to describe how his own musical tastes were radically transformed by his encounter with Berghain, crediting the establishment with providing a sort of education that he admits to have its own kind of elitism. But he also draws attention to some concrete details that he thinks also create greater social accessibility: the anti-glam dress code, the lack of mirrors inside the club, the strict ban on photography, the relatively low price of drinks, the absence of bottle service / VIP areas / table reservations, and the ability to leave and return to the club repeatedly while it’s open.
GEMA, Mirror of SACEM: Bishop at Substance-M
In Bishop’s contribution to the music-political blog Substance M, entitled “Le mouvement anti GEMA en Allemagne ou le miroir de la SACEM,” he(?) explains the GEMA issue in Germany by comparing it to its parallel institution in France, SACEM (Sociéte des auteurs, compositeurs, et éditeurs de musique; Society of Authors, Composers, and Editors of Music). At the same time, he also covers some of the anti-GEMA activism here, showing how they point to issues that are also pertinent to critiques of SACEM in France. The article is long, relentlessly detailed, observational, but also sometimes angrily critical or outraged at the ways both institutions operate. In some ways, GEMA has managed to “accomplish” more, in that it has successfully managed to have broad swathes of YouTube blocked in Germany, based on whether the video clips sound like copyrighted material. But SACEM also seems to have been leading the way in prosecuting small-time downloaders and developing layers upon layers of bureaucracy that happen to line the pockets of well-connected bureaucrats. In both cases, there’s a murky blurring of the boundaries between legally public and private institutions, raising concerns about guild-style monopolies.
While many of the details described here will not be new to those who’ve been reading some of the English-language coverage (like this rather detailed 3-part story in Der Spiegel), Bishop rightly draws attention to an aspect that is not often highlighted among all the concerns about Clubsterben (“club-death,” i.e., the increasing trend of nightclub closures in the face of rising operating costs): the question of redistribution. Leaving aside the problems associated with how (and how much) GEMA collects from music-using establishments, how are these collected monies distributed and who gets the larger share?
Beyond the numbers and what they portend for Berlin, there’s also what they represent in real terms, what they mean. Much like with SACEM, the collection of money is very well organized, but to whom the money is paid and in what proportion—well, that’s a whole other story. Who gets a payout? Especially in the particular case of clubs? For this issue, GEMA uses a sub-contractor, Media Control, which uses a “cross-section” of 120 clubs, whose names are not made public allegedly in order “to avoid cheating.” And in these clubs, they record… one hour a week. And the best thing about all of this, according to the article in Der Spiegel? These recordings are processed by humans, listening and verifying. Awesome… And then we can add other factors [affecting distribution] like TV, radio, et cetera… What we’ve got here is a makeshift, approximative approach that cannot be fair, that is inevitably fragmented and open to numerous doubts. What about the relationship between Media Control and the major corporations? What about the integrity of the company itself? We’re not talking about a couple thousand euros, but hundreds of millions. This artistic vagueness rather reminds us of another kind of vagueness, for example that of the Hadopi [French law and government organization enforcing copyright on the Internet] and its one-but-then-ten thousand monitored files. Which ones? Where? In what proportion? How many major labels? How many independents? It’s no surprise that the first conviction [under Hadopi] was for Rihanna, due to nothing shadier than the choice of Hadopi itself, which must feel the weight of top-tier actors like Universal, Sony, or Canal+ all the time. Equity? Justice? Forget about it.
Throughout the article, Bishop raises similar issues of policy and procedure for both GEMA and SACEM—issues that are hard to sell to a crowd of hedonistic party kids or to quote on a poster or at a protest rally or in a newspaper interview. Both within Germany and without, it seems that the approaches of both of these authors play important and complementary roles. One is deeply personal, attention-getting, urgent, and memorable, while the other is thorough, analytic, and descriptive. But both evoke anger and frustration, albeit in different shapes. Coussin-Grudzinski’s urgent anger is constant, there from the beginning to the end, outraged that he should even have to argue for the protection of Berghain from GEMA. Bishop’s anger emerges gradually out of a process of piling one objection on top of another, until what seemed like a few separate quibbles about procedure becomes a mountainous aggregate of injustice.