What Does It Take to Make It in the City of Techno Dreams?
If Berlin is calling you to be the next Paul Kalkbrenner, you have to first know your options. The German capital offers plenty of opportunities for DJs, but a newcomer has to learn how to exploit them. We already covered the Berlin Techno scene, when we took a look at some of the venues that offer young DJs opportunities to show their skills. This time, we talked to a few underground producers in Berlin to get the answers straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak.
“I always say Berlin plays in its own league. I think it has to do with the willingness of the clubbers to join you on your musical journey. They don’t come expecting your hits or a certain sound. They're just there to enjoy their time and experience new sounds. I love that. In many other cities, people go out to get laid or drink excessively. In Berlin, it's all about the music. I know that people are also taking forbidden substances in clubs, but it is not the primary reason they go to clubs,” explains Ali Khalaj, better known by his stage name Namito.
Don’t move there too early
“Berlin is probably the biggest hub worldwide for our kind of music, but I rather recommend people NOT to move to Berlin too early in their career. The city is full of really good artists, and the competition is rather crazy. There are endless possibilities to party. Some people just get lost, instead of making progress,” he says, adding: “Now, it was a different story when I started DJing. Back in 1989, there was no career to be made as a DJ. We were a bunch of crazy kids living the moment. That moment suddenly became our life. And I must say, there were way fewer people in the Electronic club scene, which made things easier than they are today. On top of that, it was all about your music, and not your looks or marketing budget.”
On the other hand, Andreas Henneberg, who has been behind a unique mix of Techno and House since the 1990s, thinks it doesn’t even matter where you’re based: “It’s fantastic to live in a city like Berlin, as it's become the melting pot for Electronic dance music in Europe. I don’t think it’s important where you are located in the age of internet, email, and telephone, though. In Berlin, you’re just one of the thousands of music producers and DJs.”
“Imagine you're a painter, and the only thing you're painting are flowers. You’d probably go crazy at one point. Paint everything! Don’t just listen to other genres; try to use them for yourself,” counsels Andreas about infusing your work with different genres.
Have fun at first, then make a career
We also talked to Mike Dehnert, who's released numerous EPs, singles, and 11 albums since he started in 2007. He thinks that the key to becoming big could be to just enjoy it. “I started DJing when I was 16 years old. I organized parties just for fun, then started to produce music. My first 12" release came out when I was 17 years old, so my parents had to sign the contract. Berlin was the perfect place for me to grow up and experiment, to find my sound, my performance. But it was mostly a hobby, until the Tresor club reopened in 2007. When I became a resident there, things opened up for me,” he says about his early days.
Using aliases might be a good idea
Robert Babicz came to Cologne from Poland as a child, and started to follow his musical dreams in the early 1990s. Even though he’s not living in Berlin, he knows the scene inside out, and DJs from all over the world ask for his advice on sound, mixing, and production in general.
He's used a bunch of aliases during his career, and we asked him why: “There were two ideas behind this. I had my first label, called JUNKFOOD rec., and I was ultra-productive, creating 2-3 tracks per day. I thought I couldn't release Rob Acid every month, so I created all these different names. The label looked like I had a full family of artists. But in the end, it was all me, having fun focusing on a particular sub-style. This way, I was able to develop different production techniques.”
Many famous DJs also use aliases when working with different genres. Eric Prydz, for instance, uses his name for commercial releases and Cirez D for his underground work.
Using aliases for different projects makes sense, but some DJs also recommend using them at the beginning of one’s career, when you maybe have to do gigs you wouldn’t want your names attached to, like playing the latest hits at weddings or corporate parties. “For me, all the different names gave me artistic freedom, as people tend to put you into one category, and as a beginner, you need to experiment and learn as much as possible. Then later, when you feel more secure, you can change to one name. Maybe it’s not really business thinking, but I am an artist, not a businessman,” adds Robert.
Although Robert might be thinking from the perspective of an artist, the business point of view is not far away. Experts would tell you it’s a good idea to keep separate brand names, especially if the products are radically different. Let’s say certain fans like your Dark Techno; they might be put off by the House you also enjoy producing, so it’s a good idea to use different names for each project and tap into both pools.
Get the word out there with social media
Social media are a musician’s greatest tool for getting the word out. Most artists use their channels to inform fans about gigs and parties, but those that utilize their full potential go the distance and do something innovative. They artfully make their followers part of their team.
But as Namito says, don’t get lost in social media and forget about the most important part: “Social media seem to be very important, but I promise you, in the long run, the quality of your music and sets is much more important. I mean, people will listen to your music years later, nobody is going back on your social media timeline to see what you had for dinner, or what your studio looked like. My advice is to spend all your energy on becoming a unique artist. It normally takes a long time, so start right away!”
“Sometimes, it feels that social media are more important than the music itself,” says Andreas.
“I get a lot of complaints from my friends that I'm not super active on my social media, which is weird, as I feel the opposite. I use social media, especially Instagram, to keep my followers and fans informed about gigs and releases. I used to express my political opinions, but have reduced that. The amount of time you spend leading useless conversations is insane. But many promoters contact me on Instagram, which I forward to my manager, so it's well worth it to be present there,” adds Namito.
Andreas Henneberg is very much aware of the importance of social media, but has his reservations: “Social media have, unfortunately, become a very important part of the whole thing. Sometimes, they feel even more important than the music itself. When I started making music, there wasn’t even the internet. If you're a DJ, you should do recordings of your sets and promote the hell out of them. Use social media platforms and spread them all over the place. People who like your sets will come to see you at your next gig. Still, I use social media to update everyone interested in new records, gigs, or videos. That’s it. Everything else is just eating into your time to be creative or meet real people.”
To join or not to join a collective?
Although it sounds like something out of a Star Trek episode, joining a collective can be a good idea. Young DJs often form collectives to help each other, with knowledge, financially, through connections, and even by merging their fans and sharing equipment. If you can find the right group for you, you could be off to a great start.
Still, our interviewees have mixed opinions about collectives. “It depends on what kind of personality you are. Some people are just too much of a lone wolf, but some feel great as part of a collective. I'm rather the first one, even though I used to live in a commune with 50 people and have the necessary experience. It's a very personal decision, really,” says Namito. Mike agrees with him: “It’s a decision everybody has to make for themselves. I prefer doing my own thing.”
Andreas Henneberg is, on the other hand, quite sure about collectives: “Absolutely a good idea! Especially when you're at the beginning. Sharing equipment, music, and experiences is super important.”
A few tips on how to network
Most established DJs recommend that the best thing for newcomers is to become regulars at the venue they’d like to perform at and get to know the resident DJs and owners. Buy them a drink, engage them in conversation, and learn from them as much as you can. Even if that doesn’t get you gigs, you can get priceless info and tips about the business. Also, assess the situation. Sometimes, DJs and owners get annoyed when bothered too much. Rule of thumb: start talking business only after two or three conversations.
Namito’s tips on how to approach him or musicians like him: “Never send mass emails. Be polite and say hello, how are you, first. Don’t just drop a download link and say nothing. NOBODY will listen to that. Don’t ask the next day where the fucking feedback is. People have their own lives and struggles. Yes, even your favorite DJ. Don’t be offended about negative feedback, especially from us Germans. :))) We say what we think. If you can’t take it, don’t waste our time. But basically, be nice.”
“Never send mass emails. Be polite and say hello, how are you, first. Don’t just drop a download link and say nothing,” says Namito.
Mike says that he can only speak for himself: “I don’t make a big deal out of it. Just write or ask normally, and I will always answer.”
Andreas knows it’s a challenge for someone who’s just starting to get connections: “This is a problem everybody has. If I like an artist and want to get in touch with him, what can I do? I think most people try to avoid conversations with strangers on social media. There's no recipe for that. Just try to be a nice person and leave a message somewhere.”
What about bookings?
When it comes to bookings, Andreas says that you should let things come as they will: “Keep doing your thing, and don’t put any pressure on getting gigs. Music is the most wonderful hobby in the world, and if you're good at what you're doing, the gigs will come.” Mike, on the other hand, thinks that you should consider agents: “I think the important thing is to have an agent. The agent works for you, and you, as an artist, can spend your time on music exploration, developing and creating.” Of course, the million-dollar question is how to get a booking agent, but don’t worry, we’ll be covering this topic in the future.
“Europe’s coolest city”, as it’s sometimes called, is a place where the big girls and boys play, so to think that an unknown DJ can just waltz in and get a residency at Berghain or Tresor is beyond naive. Still, there’s no place like Berlin to learn the trade and have fun while doing it.
Cover photo: Jason Leung (Unsplash)
Remember, networking is key, and if you're an artists, you can start by registering and claiming your profile at Viberate.
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