Avant la Musique

Following France’s Lead, Austria Could Be Just 40% Away From a Renaissance in the Local Popular Music Scene

Austria’s Christina Stürmer | Photo: Photo: Creative Commons

I am sitting in a small café in Paris with a friend. Over the sound system, a song is telling the story of an unemployed man, un chaumeur, alone, discouraged, tout seul et déprimé,. As the singer takes up the striking refrain, the husky voice was gruff, not wanting to feel the pain.

How nice, I think, that so many cafés in France play their own music, instead of simply turning on the radio. There is something about French chansons, a quality that no others can reach. I listen contently for some ten minutes…

Suddenly, an announcer interrupts the music. It has been a radio program all along –but without the usual pop songs and oldies in English. The waiter tells me it is “Oui FM.”

“All the stations play beaucoup de musique française,” he tells me, surprised that I don’t know something so obvious.

Over the next few days, I discover that no matter what station I lend my ear to, I hear modern French music – written and produced by French musicians and performed in French. This would never happen in Austria, where it can be hard to find new Austrian music on the air, and then it’s only “yodel rock.”

Since 1996, French broadcasting laws have required that French songs have to account for 40% of the total program, of which another 50% must be by a “new talent,” or a new production released on a mass market station within the previous six months.

Though we love music, we have no such law in Austria.  Why?

Opponents argue that such a law restricts freedom of expression and influences the audience’s choice by making it listen to 40% of French music. But without a quota how much choice does an audience really have? Unfortunately, with the mainstream radio stations in Austria, the term “variety of international music” actually refers to two countries only – the U.S and the U.K, where popular music is controlled by a handful of large media companies and producers, and one language – English.

Austrian radio stations play the first twenty to thirty songs of the charts in random order all day long and provide little choice. These stations create in effect, US-UK niche audiences, conditioning them to the popular Anglophone music and in the end helping to convince people there is not much else to listen to – especially no Austrian or German music.

In France, thanks to the “40% Law,” radio stations` range of chart songs is much wider and, most importantly, is enriched by songs of their own culture, in their own language

“The introduction of a music quota has helped to support French musical culture,” former French culture minister Jacques Toubon told a German parliamentary committee in 2004, “and has proven to be very positive for the artists and the music market.” Toubon also participated in a forum at the PodKomm German music industry conference about the possible introduction of a music quota for Germany.

Industry officials estimate that only 10 percent of German radio’s play lists is sung in German, according to the Deutsche Welle, falling way short of France, Italy and Spain’s 50 percent native language ratio.

“It is often said that whoever makes good music will get on the radio, but that is just not true,” Bjoern Akstinat, president of the German music export office, told the radio station, a view shared by musicians at the conference.

“Our record was at number three in the charts for weeks but our promoters had to fight to get the song played on the radio,“ agreed Micha Rhein of German band In Extremo.

With the size of Europe’s German language market – about 100 million people – there is no question of economic viability. However, Cultural minister Christina Weiss, while welcoming the debate, has been reluctant to take a position in the proposal, hoping for an industry consensus, and no draft law has yet been proposed.

In France, the industry had similar fears. “When the Law was announced, broadcasters claimed they did not have enough quality material to air and argued that their audiences would decrease significantly,” admitted the French Music Bureau in 2003. “However, the latter claim appeared to be wrong as most radio stations’ audiences increased after the quota was introduced.”

French artists like Alizée, Daft Punk, Mc Solaar, or Manu Chao – yes he is French – have benefited from the 40% law, which helped them to international fame.

Being exposed to a lot more national music has apparently been welcomed by French audiences, too, as since then the percentage of music by French artists has risen dramatically in the charts. One of the most spectacular results reported by the French Music Bureau came from the youth-oriented radio network Skyrock that blossomed as the lead promoter of French Hip-Hop.

In Austria, while private radio stations appear hesitant to introduce alternative national newcomers, it is rather the leviathan ORF, the national broadcasting system, with its powerful and long-standing commitment to Austrian culture – both traditional and evolving – that dominates and sets market trends. And here the picture is a mosaic of channels, each with a different programming mission and target audience:

Ö1 for classical music and literature; Ö2 for the regional programming; Ö3 “Hit Radio”, and FM4, ORF’s alternative music station directed at the youth market. And while FM4 includes music and trends from all over the world, they also place a special emphasis on encouraging new names and sounds on the Austrian music scene through competitions, sponsored events, and possibly most important, through an open source internet platform called Sound Park, where individuals and groups can up load songs for public access.

From the up-loaded cuts, the station chooses talent to play on their regular programming, often included with on air interviews and presentation at live events like the Donauinselfest.

“We take the domestic music industry very seriously,” said Dr.Werner Dujmovits, head of customer relations at the ORF Radiokulturhaus.

“While we don’t have a 40% Law, even without a quota, a great deal has already happened.  We have always had a very strong commitment to our national cultural scene, we are constantly active searching out and supporting new music.”

Young people generally acknowledge these efforts.

“A lot of groups have gotten their start on Sound Park,” said Nikolas Jilch, a student at the Fachhochschule for Journalism in Vienna. “FM4 has a lot of power over the Austrian market. And they are brave enough to pick a range of things – some not so mainstream – things that would not be played anywhere else.”

Still, few think it is enough, and fewer still are the musicians – with the stunning exception of Christina Stürmer, launched on ORF’s Starmania – who ever make it past the intimate underground world of the iPod, nothing like the revolution that has taken place on the French music scene.

In France, leading music labels report an increase of 100% in their turnover and the French market for radio broadcasting has grown by 4.5 % since 2003, reaching 1.9 billion Euros in 2004. This growing demand encourages French musicians to develop beyond the tastes of the current audience, and experiment beyond superficial songs and lyrics.

French popular music today is often politically motivated, criticizing the French government or society’s morals, in ways reminiscent of folk music of the 1950s and 1960s and the powerful early years of Rock.

French Rap artists describe the problems in France’s banlieux, giving voice to important issues as part of the public dialogue. Their lyrics talk about the high rate of unemployment, the feeling of having been forgotten by the government and hopelessness that causes increasing frustration and a high crime rate.

In contrast, Austrian artists are trapped in a market that insists on mainstream tunes that fit in with the Anglophone majority. Without a music quota, the contemporary German music culture be- it Rock and Pop starting from Ajano to Zander, original songs by Mey and Wader, Rammstein, Puhdys, City and Karat, Mila Mar or Hip Hop by Söhne Mannheims turns to a musical underground, heard only at insider concerts, or over the internet.

Following the French lead, quotas for national music content already exist in 19 countries, including the Netherlands, Ireland and Portugal in western Europe, the Czech Republic and Lithuania in the east.

A music quota could revolutionize the German language music scene, according to Philip Eschenbach, songwriterof the German Rockband “Ultima Ratio Regis”.

“Through German songs, singers and audiences can rediscover the power of their own language and dialects,” Eschenbach explained.

“You wouldn”t think so but writing lyrics in German is far more difficult than in Engllish because the majority of the music we listen to, is in English; that’s a real shame for in the end the German lyrics are incredibly forceful!” At best, Eschenbach agreed, a music quota would also support integration, encouraging immigrants in Austria to produce new music using the German language in order to draw attention to their needs and problems-just like the  the Moroccan –French rappers do in France.  Sitting in a Kaffeehaus in Vienna, one of those French rap songs lingers in my head – a catchy, lilting tune that tugs at me as I enjoy my “melange.” Vienna`s lovely old cafes are just as charming as the French ones, I know, and for a moment I am distracted from the song, as my eyes wander from the beautiful Art Nouveau facades of the buildings around me to the tourist guides dressed in 17th century Mozart frock coats, advertising one of the numerous concerts that Vienna offers.

How nice it is, I think, that in Austria we can look back on such rich cultural heritage in which we take such pride to this very day. But then I think of the café in Paris and the French rap song chants its way back to the fore, interrupting my thoughts again.

And I wonder, “How is it that Austria, so proud of its culture and artists of the past, has not taken any steps to support its artists and musicians of today, of whom it could be proud of tomorrow?”

My gut feeling tells me that we are in a time when people and governments increasingly follow the main stream, where only a few companies seem to dominate many parts of our lives – including the music business.

The question is whether the Austria of today has the political will to be different. A new musical renaissance might only take 40%.

Additional reporting by Dardis McNamee

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