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Stefan Goldmann- (Pitch) Bending the Rules to Survive & Thrive (interview)

Reported by Joshua [Trackitdown] on August 17, 2012

“The propaganda that the future will have us all giving away music for free in order to make a living on gigs has been proven wrong by reality. Because basically everybody does exactly this and still doesn’t get booked all over (or not often enough, as with most “mid career” artists.” click here for a fascinating read-

Chatting about the state of the electronic music industry for the ever-growing army of producers and DJs last year, acclaimed avant-garde Berlin techno type Stefan Goldmann was blunt about the dire circumstances many face, though uplifting with his solution for making a living through art in 2012 and beyond.

“All you have to do as an artist is to unleash disproportional waves of creativity,” he suggested, “Since nothing promises secure success anymore, all considerations to what “works in the marketplace” can be freely dumped and forgotten. The more out there you get, the better.” 

Chatting to Skrufff today, he admits he’s even more convinced of the futility of playing it safe.

"Even if you produce the most streamlined tech-house track you’re still unlikely to attract that mega-audience, or the support of 2000 DJs across the board suddenly playing it, so you might as well take a chance and try something new,” he urges.

“The misconception I feel many producers have is 'Oh, I can't do that because those DJs won't play it'. But if you make tracks like the ones they’re already playing then you're competing with the two thousand other tracks they can choose from that week which already sound similar. So you really can take any chance, in reality.”  

As a Panorama Bar resident and critically adored Berlin producer (De:bug Mag recently branded his label Macro ‘the leading avant-techno label’) he’s far more likely than most to find mega-audiences whatever he releases, though practicing what he preaches, his new album 17:50 provides a masterclass in experimentation.

Remaining based around the stripped techno he initially built his career and reputation on, the album also utilizes odd Middle Eastern style detuned synth sounds and melodies throughout, differing dramatically from the usual detuned techno sounds that have dominated dance music for over 25 years.

Or as 17:50’s accompanying press release puts it (more poetically); ‘the whole Western harmonic standard is thrown overboard and replaced by pitch systems of beautifully alien yet incredibly catchy melodies, bass lines and chords.”  

“In a field of music whose innovations seemed to have come to an end, pitch bending opens up radically fresh possibilities,” it adds. (Click here to listen to snippets of Stefan’s new album (via Soundcloud):

Reflecting 17.50’s highbrow concept, it’s no great surprise that on first impressions, Stefan is somewhat of a nerd, though meeting him on a sunny afternoon in Kreuzberg two factors highlight additional aspects of his personality that sets him apart - his charisma and choice of meeting spot.

Sparkling with confidence, his eyes communicate the certainty of someone who’s discovered exactly where he’s going and what to do to get there and he’s friendly and open from the first. And then there’s the location, a scruffy, though fantastic kebab shop in Kottbusser Tor, one of Berlin’s most notorious districts.

Enter Kottbusser Tor in Google and the next predictive phrase it suggests is ‘Kottbusser Tor for drugs’, reflecting (as wiki puts it) the area’s ‘bad reputation for the relatively high, mainly drug-related crime rate, instances of which have recently become quite rare in most other parts of the district.’

Today though, it’s quiet and though somewhat grim, lacking in the menace common to comparable quarters in cities such as London. Stefan, half Bulgarian and German by heritage, is clearly a man who knows good kebab shops and sitting down outside, he expertly runs down the menu, recommending a lamb tripe soup as he orders a Turkish Calzone style pizza named Lahmacun.

Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff(: Reading your press release it sounds like you've put a lot of time, energy, love, blood, sweat and tears into the new album, how did you first conceive it?

Stefan Goldmann: "I spent large amounts of time listening to all sorts of Balkans electronic music, in particular in Bulgaria. The music from there employs lots of Turkish, Arabian and Greek elements and I listened and tried to learn about how the music developed.

In essence, it grew simply due to a lack of money, because musicians in those countries couldn't afford to have a whole band playing in some tiny club with a tiny turnover. So more often than not there would be one guy performing with an electronic keyboard. Then those guys would start thinking ‘how can we get these machines to sound like our traditional music’ so they started using the pitch bend wheel to retune everything so it got some soul.

I found this process enormously fascinating because you end up with electronic music that sounds totally different from what we know. For a long time I just had some fun, eating, drinking and listening to music in those places until I found something I could use for my own music, to find a new way to design melodies in a techno context, essentially.”

Skrufff: What prompted this search?

Stefan Goldmann: "For the last few years I've felt electronic music, especially house and techno has become less and less melodic, it was more about the loop. Around 2005 and 2006 you had all those melodic tracks from the likes of Luciano and Mathew Jonson coming out whereas nowadays most dance music is based around rhythm. Maybe because all those melodies don't sound fresh anymore, it looks like we've exhausted our potential to make melodies.

Retuning and bending them was like finding a ground zero again. Where we can use really simple melodies and they sound fresh and new again. That's the starting point for the album; to say 'OK, I've found a way to bring melody back that's not cheesy or worn out’.

Whenever I check out some commercial music now, like this wave of trancy R’n’B or US dubstep, the melodic content feels kind of shallow or cheesy. It probably sounds fresh to someone that's 16 and hasn’t heard much else. But when someone's is 25 or 30 they're just like 'that's lame, that melody has been done over and over again since 1920.’ It becomes impossible to enjoy listening to it once you are aware of how often this type of melody has been around. I wanted to find something for me that breaks out of that."

Skrufff: Some people make tracks in hours, others take months, when you're making music how are you deciding 'OK, that's finished?

Stefan Goldmann: "There are two levels, one is intuitively, if it sounds good, it's good. Then also you're trying to create a new category in music, to say we have a new way of doing something that hasn't been done before in our cultural context. So for example, I felt that using a traditional Arabian tuning has so much more impact than a randomly detuned scale. Using these traditionally detuned sounds really works, there are reasons they became “traditional” because the melodies emerging from them have some kind of effect on listeners which has been proven over time. But applying this to electronic music is still new and fresh."

Skrufff: On the album’s press release you describe your new music as: '“probably the first new melodic concept to enter house music since the days of acid”: a bold statement; how much do you expect it to have a similarly huge impact?

Stefan Goldmann: "(chuckling) It really doesn't mean that just because it's new it's going to be important. But essentially for the last 20 or 30 years we haven't had many new basic ideas of how to shape a melody. Acid was a great concept because it was in a way random - you could just press some keys on your 303, let it play and be like 'wow, that's interesting'. Since then anything has either been based on standard Western melodic concepts or randomly tweaked synths. What I do here is different in that it isn’t random, yet it is different. If some other producers think that sounds interesting they might want to try it too.”

Skrufff; Are you on your own or part of a group of people developing these ideas? 

Stefan Goldmann: "Ermm, I don't know really. Anyone between Morocco and Indonesia is exposed to those kinds of tunings, so it would be very unlikely if this doesn’t shoot up somewhere else too. In my specific environment, I was experimenting with my friend KiNK in Bulgaria, he's from there too. He's totally into that stuff too but didn't get his head around producing in that style (yet). I decided to make a move and do it. We did some parties in Sofia and it really connected with the people there. There are some Bulgarian DJs now mixing techno, house and chalga – which is the Bulgarian electronic music style.”

Skrufff; So they recognised some of the melodies?

Stefan Goldmann: "Oh yeah they did. Some of the parties were small bars, others were in old cinemas. I hope it develops as something local as well."

Skrufff: You also regularly DJ at Panorama Bar, how did it go there?

Stefan Goldmann: "Actually quite funny, because some people come up and relate to it, Turkish people, for example. They say: this is Turkish music – and I’m like, no, this stuff is everywhere from Albania to Pakistan – and now a bit of Germany too."

Skrufff: What about your regular Panorama Bar house and techno heads?

Stefan Goldmann: "I’m not sure I really know what “regular Panorama Bar people” are, it's such a mixed crowd. A track like “Adem” seems to work in lots of different places, whether London, Japan or anywhere else."

Skrufff: You talked about the across the board collapse of sales for electronic music in the Little White Earbuds article last year, is there a specific marketing plan for this album?

Stefan Goldmann: "I don’t have a marketing plan as such but I always keep in kind the thought that anything that is overly available in the marketplace is doomed to failure. So it doesn't make sense for me to sit down and do something like thousands of other people have done already. So I try and do things that haven't been done without thinking too much about whether it makes sense or not. I’m happy enough if I think I identified some tiny new spot that’s been just overlooked. Then I ask myself, can I do something with it, can I find a concept in it and can I make music that I like myself? 

So I was staying loosely within the techno context but not thinking much about whether it will sell or not because you can't know that anymore anyway. It's not like 15 years ago where you could play your music to some marketing people and a distributor and they'd say 'yeah, we can move 5,000 or 50,000 copies of this- no one can tell anymore.”

Skrufff; The whole earlier article was about how to make a living through music, how are you managing these days?

Stefan Goldmann: "My income has changed a lot from just playing gigs and selling records. Selling records in the past meant that people split the bill for the time you put into making records. Now a lot of my work shifted towards the deep pocket market.”

Skrufff What's the deep pocket market?

Stefan Goldmann: "It's a term referring to one person or institution picking up the bill. Like in art you have an artist doing a picture and the gallery sells it to just one collector or one museum.  And that one collector or museum pays the bill. Then everybody else gets to enjoy the work by going to the museum or gallery. So I'm doing a lot of commissioned works. It's often a company having some budget to do events and that might say 'we want a special music concept for one particular event'. So I come up with a concept and it might take three months putting it into practice and they pay something like the equivalent of my living costs for those three months.

Skrufff: So you're making your music as a marketing device to attract these kind of jobs?

Stefan Goldmann: "No I actually just have people contacting me, because that's just what happens when you manage to do stuff that's kind of unique. I don’t even mean great, just unique in the sense of “being first” and being able to name what you are doing. So when you make avant-garde projects you attract people looking for avant-garde qualities, not mass appeal. There are lots of arts programs that aren't interested in having the latest techno track but are interested in something that has the potential for moving culture forwards.

I can't claim that anything I do is super-important, or will necessarily influence anyone else but I'm trying to concentrate on something that at least I can say others aren't doing. And that's what a lot of those deep pocket decision makers – institutions, art programs, companies -  are interested in, seeing something that's very focused and very individualistic. Because they want to do events that are different from just a club night, so they're looking out for people that can deliver something different. 

For example, I did a Stravinsky edit some time ago, and there are some people looking out for music in between electronic and contemporary classical music, so that prompted a lot of calls. Because there are not that many musicians working at this junction of styles. At that time there were only Carl Craig, Moritz von Oswald and Jeff Mills fitting that category. Well, and me. So if you do a three day festival on that and have to fill a program, you will definitely call me.  

Often what sounds totally commercial, those tracks that producers make to fit into as many DJ sets as possible, it doesn't work. It’s counterintuitive. Whereas if you do something that sounds like commercial suicide to most, where there's no apparent market, you sometimes just need one guy saying 'I want to do this or that' and it becomes instantly worthwhile to many people instead of just to yourself. It gives you way more freedom than trying to be as up-to-date dance floor friendly as possible. It’s also more fun, just trying out things for yourself first."

Skrufff: Have you ever been broke, or lost faith in your ability to survive through music?

Stefan Goldmann: "I've been really close to that point especially around 2008 when essentially anyone writing to me saying 'do you want to do a remix, do you want to do an EP, do you want to play a gig with us?’ or basically anything was trying to pitch me saying there was no money in it but it would be good advertising for whatever else I did. But since everything else was starting to be offered on the same basis- for free- it was getting ridiculous. 

I'd get calls from small clubs in Berlin saying ‘well we charge the audience one euro at the door but you can play whatever you want. The DJ budget being 50 euros. Though actually you'd have to split it with all the other DJs on the night.’ There are really places like this which is OK for beginners, but they tried to expand this to everybody except Tiesto. I would have ended up spending more money on cab fares and certainly on the records I would play than I would make on the night. 

Or people would say 'do you want to do a remix, but we've got no budget, maybe we could do a swap?' There was a point when I was seeing this huge operation of clubs making money from selling beer, of beer brands making money from being consumed in the environment of cool music, real estate owners and the electricity companies making money, whereas as a producer you had to pay to get mastered or press up vinyl, for example, and no one would give a shit. 

It was kind of a bonanza for anybody who wanted to make money exploiting the easy availability of music. Just put up two speakers and sell some beer and you’re in the game. The demand for music was too easily satisfied. The attitude widely was: if you don’t do it there are hundreds of others waiting in line. It was getting a bit tense for me at that point. I still had international gigs and licenses, but I was seeing more and more income streams of what used to be my livelihood financially drying up. So I had to change something.

Which was good in a way because it forced me to question what I was producing. I think it helped my music making because I started to think about what meaningful music is and what's really worth something. Not in terms of money, but in terms of potential - and whether people would want to interact with the music, to really care about it. And if they want to interact they will make it possible for you to continue what you're doing. 

It has always been like this. Get people screaming for more. It comes down to: what do you want me to do today: shall I flip burgers at McDonalds, or shall I play you some music? If nobody wants that music, I’ll either rethink what I’m doing or I’ll happily flip burgers. I can’t help but thinking that if everybody is complaining that people don’t pay for music, that’s just revealing that people don’t care. It’s that simple. One can’t be whining about it. So I concentrate on those who care and sometimes it only takes a few of them to get a lot of stuff happening.

Demand gives you leverage to influence the terms of delivery. It has become like a game to me not to give in into the ruling principle of letting multi-billion-dollar internet companies suck out people’s money by exploiting my music. Half of my music now doesn’t get released at all but is presented at live events, where festivals commission exclusive performances. It is bringing me closer to the audience again. We share something without being filtered through Facebook, one on one.” 

Click here to listen to snippets of Stefan’s new album (via Soundcloud):

Macro Recordings (STEFAN GOLDMANN "parameter" dvd preview: analog drum machine beats)    

Jonty Skrufff: