Where Techno Lives

by Norbert Niclauss

It has been some time since the phenomenon of rave disappeared from the perception of the general public. Nowadays, when one speaks of the ‘techno movement’, one typically does so in the past tense. The images of Berlin’s ‘Love Parade’ are but faint memories, documenting how a carnivalesque subculture has been absorbed by the mainstream of a ‘fun-driven society’ (Spaßgesellschaft). That great musical current of the 1990s, it seems, has turned into a mere trickle.

View of the Berghain (Photo: Bart van Poll, used under cc-by-sa-2.0 Wikimedia Creative Commons licence.)

Tobias Rapp, in his book Lost and Sound, objects to this scenario of decline and attempts to show that, despite its reduced ‘surface visibility’, the culture of techno music in Berlin is alive and well. After the end of the hype, about ten years ago, the techno scene – this is one of Rapp’s central theses – withdrew from everyday culture and went underground, where it went through a period of renewal. One might think that Rapp is dealing with a niche phenomenon, which would be at best of local interest. But the author – who recently moved from being editor of pop culture at the Berlin daily Tageszeitung to a position at news-weekly Der Spiegel – argues convincingly that the clubs of Germany’s capital have shaped how German culture as a whole is perceived at an international level.

Tobias Rapp combines subjective first-person reports from Berlin’s nightlife with other passages that are written in a sober, more analytic mode. At both levels, he describes the astonishing attraction that Berlin has been exerting on DJs, producers, and weekend ‘Easyjet ravers’. Rapp estimates the number of techno tourists, who arrive each weekend on budget flights headed for one of Berlin’s airports, to be (‘not implausibly’) around 10,000. As a main cause for this boom, Rapp identifies not only the emergence of budget air travel, but also the oversupply of real estate in the German capital. Thanks to low commercial rents, a relatively egalitarian clubbing scene has emerged, which – ‘unlike in other major cities’ – does not target the celebrity and luxury segment of the market.

One can read Rapp’s study from different perspectives. As a book about Berlin, it may not provide touristic advice on the city’s hottest night spots, but it provides a well-researched survey of the clubs along the river Spree. To be sure, the author sometimes writes with the passion of a true aficionado, but for the most part he manages to keep a professional distance between him and his topic. Nonetheless, he hardly hides his satisfaction when he recounts, for example, the observation of a female club-goer, who describes ‘Techno in Berlin’ as ‘just like Reggae in Kingston’.

Rapp did not intend to write a music book that would describe the evolution of house, techno, and related genres of electronic music (although his recommendations of recordings, given in the appendix to the book, provide an excellent starting point). Rather, his interest is more in cultural-sociological findings: such as the ‘commune model’ that is being practiced at ‘Bar 25’ (‘Hippie de luxe’), or the only partial visibility of the clubs. Thus, at the ‘Berghain’, the leading club in its segment, a strict ‘no photos’ policy is in place, which not only gives the place an aura of exclusivity but also allows for an element of egalitarianism: what counts is ‘the celebration of a collective subject without celebrities’.

That Rapp’s concern is with general conclusions, not merely with Berlin-specific observations, is especially noticeable in his discussion of online communities. He describes in detail how ‘an authentic local subculture … becomes the topic of discussion in global networks’. This provides a good insight into the structure of a wider public of pop culture, which constitutes itself via the internet with its global reach. For example, in a relevant internet discussion group, Rapp encounters one 17-year old from Toronto who has never been to Europe, but knows everything about the current preferences of the DJs at ‘Berghain’, the place of his longing. One of the interesting aspects of the book is how it makes tangible – via the example of Berlin’s club culture –  the much discussed notion of ‘glocalisation’.

Lost and Sound is not a political book in the narrow sense. However, Rapp’s reference to the asymmetrical perception of techno culture – ‘hardly any in Germany, a lot of attention abroad’ – is nonetheless relevant to cultural policy-makers. With respect to the role of local politics and economic development, Rapp argues that the current boom of medium-sized clubs and venues was only possible against the backdrop of the failure of wholesale urban redevelopment policies in the 1990s. In a detailed and sophisticated manner, he describes how popular criticism led to a referendum against the large-scale redevelopment plans that had been drawn up for the bank of the river Spree. The fact that the controversy about the MediaSpree plans culminated in the slogan ‘place for clubbing or location for investors?’ may well be due to the specific conditions in Berlin. However, looking beyond the political sensitivities within the German capital, this case study may well contain general insights into the relation between, on the one hand, alternative culture with its hedonistic outlook and, on the other hand, institutionalised politics.

Not least from a creative industries perspective, the book is a worthwhile addition to the literature. Rapp describes the change in significance of record labels, which, in times of a crisis-like decline in record sales, have become an integral part of strategies of self-marketing, by DJs who team up with producers (and vice versa). He also explains how it is that certain record shop are able to maintain their economic and cultural function, even in times of crisis, because they cater to a specialised audience. Part of Rapp’s study is also concerned with the interdependence between club culture, fashion, tourism, and technology: for example, DJ software from Berlin is now being exported to the U.S. for use during church services. 

Regarding the clubs themselves, the author arrives at an upbeat conclusion: ‘With a bit of good will and some idealization one could say: the house and techno scene in Berlin has retained the good aspects of independent culture – economic independence, artistic integrity, and an unwillingness to compromise – while simply having done away with the bad aspects: simplistic anti-capitalism, glorification of self-exploitation, and lack of professionalism.’ In times of a global economic crisis, that is not a bad result.

Tobias Rapp: Lost and Sound. Berlin, Techno und der Easyjetset.
Suhrkamp, Frankfurt 2009.
ISBN-13: 9783518460443
Softcover, 268 pages, EUR 8.50

Norbert Niclauss works on music and cultural policy at the German Federal Government’s Commission for Culture and the Media (BKM), Berlin.

The German version of this article first appeared in Berliner Republik, No. 2/2009; translated and reproduced with permission. Translation: The Berlin Review of Books.