in Frieze | 10 SEP 97
Featured in
Issue 36

Mixed Fortunes

The changing German techno scene

in Frieze | 10 SEP 97

A couple of years ago, the German media began to see techno as an economic phenomenon more than a cultural one. Big commercial brands eyed the huge crowds of happy and enthusiastic young people and their alleged purchasing power; even British expert Matthew Collin was led to describe the scene across the channel as a place 'where rave flyers resembled Formula One motor racing cars, spattered with brand-name logos, the graphics of Camel or Philip Morris competing for space with DJ line-ups'. While sponsorship still prevails, the atmosphere has recently changed, and the techno boom is gradually turning to bust.

The nail in the coffin was the demise of Frontpage in April this year, a magazine that had started in the late 80s as a few photocopied A5 sheets and eventually became the world's most successful techno magazine. Frontpage's editor, Juergen Laarmann, felt techno was a coherent movement that could give life real meaning, often speaking about the Rave Society. While techno is often criticised for its musical simplicity and the fans' hedonistic enthusiasm, Laarmann saw a sense of transcendence. The basic tenets of the Rave Society were to create a world of their own ('Our Techno World' was Frontpage's subtitle for a time) and enjoy themselves while doing it. Unlike previous youth movements - the student uprisings of the 60s and Punk of the 70s - Rave's renunciation of political aims provided the actual political content: a social Utopia created by giving up ideology. This stance made the mainstream media comfortable with the phenomenon, losing its traditional fear of contact. Laarmann took the logical step and founded Technomedia GmbH, a company that functioned as a publisher, online service, events organiser and consulting agency.

As techno became commercialised and media-friendly, a counter-movement inevitably began to form. The distinction between mainstream techno and the indie scene with its associated anonymous sponsor-free parties, clubs and labels, is now clearly established: as with rock, there is an underground and a mainstream. Frontpage had to deal with these changes. It had to fan the hype that had been generated, acting as a forum and an advertising medium for totally commercialised events such as Love Parade and Mayday. At the same time it had to cater for the readership interested in the ever-increasing mass of discs, each pressed in an edition of 1,000. On a dancefloor, creating a united atmosphere by playing different types of records is routine; in a magazine, it's not so easy, particularly when the movement is acquiring new facets as rapidly as techno did. This diversification also made advertisers and sponsors uneasy, as it was no longer possible to identify a target group.

Laarman's final effort to prove that techno had become an integral part of the mainstream was his decision in 1996 to sell Frontpage through normal magazine outlets. Up to that point it had been a free paper, available in clubs and record shops, with a print run of 100,000. These final few issues reveal a clear attempt to steer the magazine away from techno into a more general lifestyle magazine. Sales sank below 15,000; Camel, the principal sponsor, cut its budget and Technomedia GmbH declared itself bankrupt. The malicious articles that followed failed to see that the demise of Frontpage signalled the end of techno as a cultural phenomenon, since it was often argued, not least by Frontpage, that techno's major contribution was the rejection of the split - typical of youth cultures up to that time - between mainstream and underground.

The void left by Frontpage is currently occupied by a new book, Mix, Cuts & Scratches, written by the DJ Westbam and writer Rainald Goetz. Westbam began to DJ in the early 80s as Westfalia Bambaata, and was one of the first people in Berlin to play the house records that started arriving from the US around 1987. Today he is the best-known German techno DJ and is co-owner of the Low Spirit label, which brought the Euro rave genre into the charts with techno-pop acts like Marusha and Mark Oh. Goetz is a good ten years older than his friend Westbam and as author of the novels Irre (Mad) and Kontrolliert (Controlled) and the plays Heiliger Krieg (Holy War) and Kolik (Colic), he is a favourite with German arts editors. His writing's eloquent revelation of the senselessness of everyday conversation seems at odds with his enthusiasm for the hedonistic, inarticulate culture of techno.

The book is based on conversations between Goetz and Westbam, and provides a history of techno unclouded by the developments that finished off Frontpage - techno as a permanent success, as the teleological route to paradise. Both authors seem to believe that if you actually think about techno, you will never be able to understand how happy it can make you. Techno that does not work on the dance floor is castigated as a regression into intellectualism, as affected insider interest from the underground. Westbam and Goetz try to retain rave's sense of innocence and in doing so seem not to notice that the kids who came later were never the slightest bit interested in this aspect of the movement. The book reads like a manifesto, but is tinged with nostalgia for an idea whose time has passed.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is its publisher, the Berlin-based Merve Verlag. This small company was the first to translate important French post-Modern theory, such as works by Lyotard, Foucault and Deleuze, into German. People like to quote these philosophers when trying to explain the cultural impact of techno. Words like 'desubjectification', 'deterritorialisation' and 'nomadic thinking' have been doing the rounds for some time; in Frankfurt there is even an experimental techno label named 'Mille Plateaux' after a key work by Deleuze and Guattari. Its founder, Achim Szepanski, uses his long sleeve-notes to try to resist a techno that in his eyes brings a dancing mass into line and is thus structurally fascist.

In one of his texts Westbam remembers 1988, when he was booked by Szepanski for the Omen club in Frankfurt and writes: 'Omen, Achim and me, a combination that is scarcely imaginable today'. The line precisely describes the problem that Westbam and Goetz are ducking: at a time when techno is riddled with self-reflective currents that call its own history into question, nobody can behave as though the night of the first ecstasy tab is still going on. Anyone who does, though, will be pleased to see that a million people came to this year's Love Parade in Berlin, an event whose primary functions are to polish up the image of the city and to fill its empty coffers.