A conversation in Montreal about the Munich image problem

The debate about the image problem in Munich is extremely interesting, and more than necessary. I strongly recommend to read the initial article, the counter-article, the Keno answer and the follow-up before reading this article.

Yesterday, I sat down in the Montreal Atomic Café with Dennis Kastrup, a friend of mine that also shares his time between Germany and Canada. Dennis is a music journalist that work primarily for radio stations in Berlin. He has followed the image problem debate, and accepted to meet me to continue (publicly this time) our year-long talk about the Munich Scene : a conversation in slightly broken English between an insider and an outsider.

Emilie : First thing first, do you snob Munich?

 Dennis : No I don’t snob the music scene, I never did this, I never approach music by city. I don’t feel anything particular about the Munich music, I actually feel more snobby about the music from Berlin, or for example, when people say “Ooh, I’m from Berlin, I’m from New York” It’s stupid because people try to label themselves to cities to look cooler. For example, there’s this solo act from Berlin who in the first years of his promotion, he pretended to be from Iceland, because bookers were more interested by Icelandic electronic music then. Of course, some people use this as a selling point. New York, Los Angeles… I always hated this. So for me, Music from Munich or whatever doesn’t make any difference. However, there is something that the city is not selling very well. I think maybe it has to do with a certain lack of confidence? But they would never admit this. There is this weird shyness.

E : Berlin is very self-confident about its music, same with Hamburg. Even if the Hamburger Schule is a long time ago, the press is still surfing on this wave even today. Even decades later, some labels or press people are still trying to use the Munich Disco thing to promote new music – but it’s so far away from today’s reality that it does begin to be quite out-dated.

D : There is also of course a proximity problem : Cologne, Hamburg being closer, we feel more connected with these cities. We have the same problem with Stuttgart than with Munich for that matter. Going more South, we have a little bit of a “distance”, cultural and geographic. As a person from the outside, I feel like Munich is very “close to itself”. For example when Berlin is doing something, Hamburg is there, and vice versa.

E : It happens a lot that Munich is not in the touring agenda. It’s way easier for Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne. The promotion is also a very big problem. How many gigs just stay under the radar and get lost because they were only promoted through one Facebook event? It’s very hard to reach new audiences when your only vehicle for promotion is based on people you already know and even then, things get lost in social media algorithms. It’s very hard to access information, actually. You need to spend a lot of time to find out when and where your own friends are playing : I can’t imagine for casual music-lovers.

 D : You could play 15 gigs in Berlin and play for 15 different audiences.

E : For the specific scenes that I’m interested in, there’s only a handful of blogs actually taking the time to make a calendar of events worth seeing, and even then, it’s always because these blogs are also acting as promoters themselves, and promote their own events through that. When I think about Montreal, I cannot even count the number of blogs that give weekly recommendations about events worth seeing in the city. You have plenty of people with very different tastes that tell you “Go see this, go see that” and can give you plenty of point of views. In Munich, I feel like if you don’t actively follow promoters, bands or venues, you won’t get this kind of information no where else. There is no machine that works well there for everybody. It’s just for a certain type of audiences, those that pay 35-50 Euros tickets a couple of times a year but don’t really have any interest in local curiosities…

D : I feel that the Scene you promote, particularly, is very small and withdrawn and it’s also very hard to make it special. Another thing, what Munich didn’t have in these last decades, is a renewal. People are still living from the 70’s. Berlin grew with techno and the public image of clubbing all day, all night, with cheap drinks and cheap club entrance. I understand why Sebastian Schnitzenbaumer would say the image of the city is being a problem to him because yes, the image of Munich is the Schickeria and the P1, so I understand what he sees there as a problem. But, to give you my impression about this, the act itself of suing the city is ridiculous but if it’s made for publicity it’s kind of cute.

E : It’s reactionary. Sure. For me, the important is not his personal quest, but the debate and conversation it raised. Let’s talk about the differences between pop culture and subculture a little. The two of them got really mixed up in the following articles this week.

D : You know what, to me, sub- and pop-, it’s one and the same. I always say, everything that you do is pop culture. The moment that you take it out of yourself and record it and put it out, it’s not subculture anymore. There’s always potential to make it pop/popular.

E : It makes a lot of sense, it contradicts my initial statement that yes, the image of the city is hurting the subculture. But of course, if the subculture wants to bring stuff out there and be listened to and bought; the subculture wants to be pop culture. A majority of the musicians that I know in Munich wants to a certain level to reach broader audiences because they want to be able to live from their art, of course, but there is no machine properly working there to be able to reach these audiences for this non-commercial music. The idea of subculture/counterculture is about staying hidden in a way, and telling the monoculture that they don’t care about them, but it’s impossible to make a living out of this. And nobody wants to play for an empty room.

D : You want to go on stage and have people there. Oma Hans, one of my favourite punk bands from Hamburg says : “If you really want to follow that subculture line, you should – let´s say if there are more than 150-200 people in the venue – leave the band. Quit it!” So that is exactly what they did. If you want to do this, that’s cool, that’s ok. But if you are honest, everybody wants more audience.

E : So, what should the pop culture be in Munich, now, versus what it actually is, this bland, mercantile product that sounds the same in any big city anywhere in the western world. And what is the turning point? When do you realize that you have a “Hamburger Schule”, a “Weilheim Sound” or a “Munich Disco” thing going on in your city?

D : It is a self-confidence issue. When what you have is good, you stand up and you are proud of it and it speaks for itself, and any opinion anybody has about you doesn’t mean anything because you don’t care, you just do your thing.

E : Oh, Munich does have self-confidence problems. Just an example: it happens a lot that an artist needs to show that they have some outreach outside of the city first, in order to get some credibility points in their own city. Right now, there is a big trend of releasing Munich bands on labels from other cities in Germany or in London, for example. And I think it’s more than just the structural issue, or the financial one that already exist.

D : Also, if you are a musician, you don’t move to Munich, in the last 15 years people moved to Berlin because it was cheap, but it’s too expensive in Munich. Probably that during the Munich Disco years it was still cheap but right now people still go to Berlin, but it’s already changing right now like it changed in Hamburg a couple of years ago, but people don’t think about Munich for a second when they think about moving to a city that is cheap to make music there. People are not mixing up, it’s a big isolation problem.

E : Yes, it’s something that has been written about this week : the availability of “free spaces” to make music in Munich. In fact you need to know very specific constellations of musicians and producers if you want to produce good music there, it’s very hard to “get shit done” in Munich without money or connections.

D : I don’t understand why it is not working in Munich, for that. Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles are all comparable to Munich in terms of expensiveness, but it is working there. We should look closer at what the cities create there to help the pop culture, because right now it seems like there is no space available for that in Munich, and it takes a lot of freedom away. Of course, in these cities, there’s a history of greatness there for more than 20 years now, people moved in, the culture promotion is self-sufficient, the machine is working there. What about the last 20 years in Munich? What we hear about it is that great things are closing down instead. There is no growth.

E : Indeed. Venues close down. The rents get higher and higher and everybody struggles and complains more and more every single year. We are in a capitalist system, any stagnation or decrease in offer is a failure by itself because you need to grow all the time. The city really needs to do something about it, it’s a worse problem than the image problem. Maybe there’s a machine working for some artists there, but it’s harmful to say that the problem doesn’t exists if this handful of bands have good numbers in turnout at gigs or album listens. Growth shouldn’t be about efficient music sales, but about a diverse cultural offer.

D : And as we said, people are not moving in to Munich. People are moving out of Munich. It is not good for the inner workings of a scene when good people move out all the time, the scene feels it and it is bad energy. Maybe the discussion shouldn’t be about the image but about the availability of spaces. A good example of this : the Gängeviertel in Hamburg, where people were fighting for new spaces and the city allowed it. Pudel is another example, and in Berlin it is the same. I don’t feel like the city of Munich is giving this to the people fighting for it right now.

So here we are. I cannot help but wrap this up with a bunch of what should be rhetorical questions but are not :

  • Does Munich only have just a image problem?
  • Are there enough resources and spaces available for a culturally rich life that attracts more artists and audiences to the city?
  • … And last but not the least : should the Munich scene stick together more and make things move as a group, instead of viral lone-wolf initiatives that make some noise only temporarily?

Follow the Monokultur München series for more juice in that debate.