Berlin's Music Industry and Berlin's Musicians


Music is Worth 500 Million

Though Berlin is known for its electronic music, there are plenty of other types to be heard in the city. Not only that, but since reunification in the 1990s, Berlin has also attracted music industries to the city, including BMG and Universal. These industry players have been lured to the city through generous subsidies, including the MediaSpree project, as part of a larger focus on attracting so-called creative industries to Berlin.

In terms of economic activity, the city’s efforts over the past decade-plus have begun to pay off. Berlin’s government reported last month that more than 12,000 people now work in the music industry in Berlin alone, the biggest number of any German city. Those 12,000 employees generated total sales of 544 million euros, which does not include revenues from either BMG or Universal. It wasn’t clear whether those 544 million euros include live performance revenue.

What you won’t find in the government’s report is any mention of the cultural impact of Berlin’s growing musical industry. From the government’s perspective, what counts are the numbers: number of jobs, revenue, and profits. The city markets itself as a musician-friendly town, but really the main issue is money.

Thinking about these numbers, though, I got to wondering what life was like for musicians here in Berlin. In the policy field you often hear about how many “creative workers” there are in Berlin, but you don’t read many interviews with them. Is it easy for them to support themselves? Where do they come from, and how long do they stay? Do they receive any public funding?

The Interview

To answer some of these questions, I sat down over beer and scotch with a musician named Doug MacGregor. I’d met MacGregor about a year before and was immediately struck by his decidedly non-club-style music. I wanted to ask him why he’d moved from Scotland to Berlin, and what his experience in Berlin had been.

We met at Wendel bar on Schlesische Straße on a Thursday evening. He lives around the corner and told me that he occasionally pops in to the bar when they host live music. We sat for a couple of hours as he told me how a London-born, Scotland-raised, university-educated person had ended up playing music in Berlin.

MacGregor is 27 years but looks much younger, even with a recently grown beard. He has a shy demeanor that slowly fades away when the subject switches to music. He began composing music when he arrived at the University of Glasgow to study politics when he turned 17. At Glasgow, he joined a band called Punch & the Apostles.

The band stayed together through university, and post-graduation they performed in Glasgow. MacGregor told me that they enjoyed moderate success and had attracted a dedicated, if small, following. The problem? “In Glasgow, you can only play once every three months,” MacGregor says. Otherwise, even your most dedicated fans get tired of you.

After a year, members of the band began feeling restless. One of them wanted to move to Berlin and suggested that the rest should follow. Five of the seven relocated to Berlin, four years ago this fall.

I asked him why he’d wanted to leave Glasgow when he’d been successful there. He shrugged his shoulders and said “to make it more difficult for ourselves, I guess. To learn a new language, as a challenge, to gain more experience.” The city was bigger, the music scene was bigger, so my guess is that the band wanted to get in on the action.

Unfortunately, Berlin “wasn’t the same story” as Glasgow had been. Punch & the Apostles had a much harder time than they’d anticipated. MacGregor thinks that Berlin had too much art – too many other cultural opportunities for people to be distracted by. The band couldn’t cultivate a fan base the way it had in Glasgow. The language barrier and difficulty “knowing the right people” made finding success in Berlin difficult. After a time, Punch & the Apostles began to drift apart. Of the five who moved here, two of them moved back to Glasgow.

Even with the demise of Punch & the Apostles, the music didn’t stop for MacGregor. He continues to compose pieces, and he began teaching English part time to pay the bills. He is grateful for the opportunity, because the part time work allows him to “focus on the artistic side of things.”

His current project is called Urban Exploration Field Recording. The premise is that musicians – both MacGregor and others – find unused or abandoned spots in Berlin and record performances. He tries to find places that are “architecturally cool, acoustically amazing, and historically significant.” He says that the sound in studios can be dead, and that computer effects are needed to add vibrancy and depth.

To MacGregor, the buildings immediately make the recording more textured. He says that it’s a “way to make a recording into a performance that’s alive.” He told me that as a performer, when you get into that kind of space it affects you and affects the music that you make. One venue was an abandoned tuberculosis sanatorium where Adolf Hitler was apparently treated after being wounded during the First World War.

MacGregor finds this new aspect of being a semi-professional musician difficult: self-promotion makes him deeply uncomfortable, and of course one possibility of ambition is rejection. He doesn’t want to find a manager: good ones are hard to find, bad ones can screw you, and both types are expensive.

When I asked MacGregor if he received any direct or indirect public support, he said that he didn’t. He’s aware of them, and knows that “there is money out there,” but that the application process is confusing and there is no guarantee of success.  “Why would [an arts council] give money to me?” he asked.

The Future

Towards the end of our conversation, I asked MacGregor how long he planned to stay in Berlin. He surprised me by saying he’d considered leaving permanently after Christmas. The barriers to entry were too high, he said. He didn’t have the time to do enough self-promotion. His German wasn’t good enough to make headway into the music scene. Glasgow was small, but a musician like him could make a living there – or at least a better living than in Berlin.

It seems clear to me that there is a disconnect between small musicians like MacGregor and the broader city-based musical industry. Presumably, the industry would like to cultivate and promote Berlin-based musicians. The city, too, has a clear interest in making Berlin the home not only of the music business, but of musicians themselves. I wonder if, in the future, the city government might play a larger role in connecting musicians like MacGregor with the industry. Whether that would mean more public grants, or simply providing a networking service, is difficult for me to say. 

Regardless of whether Doug stays or goes, Berlin’s other musicians will continue playing in dozens of venues across the city. The big industry players like Universal and BMG will keep churning out new artists from all around Europe, and the rest of the industry will (hopefully) keep growing. Berlin will continue to attract young musicians like Doug who want to make a name for themselves. Not all of them will find their dreams here, and not all of them will stay forever. But they’ll keep trying, and Berlin will be happy to have them.

Douglas MacGregor on the Web