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Legendary Berlin Clubs Face Closure
The Quietus , July 6th, 2012 08:16

Some of Berlin’s most revered clubs could face closure due to new copyright fees. Sign the petition to stop it here

Say the word 'Berlin' to anybody under the age of 30 and they'll likely come straight back with 'techno'. The German capital's clubbing culture is one of its defining characteristics and the backbone of its tourist industry, with more than 35% of visitors citing the city's nightlife as a major reason for their visit, according to the Guardian.

Lately, the city's club scene has come under threat from the insidious effects of gentrification, with disgruntled yuppies and predatory property investors (a combination familiar to New York and London residents) putting pressure on many established clubs to move or shut down. But the German authorities - unlike their UK counterparts - typically recognise club culture's financial and cultural contribution to the city, and are in the process of setting up ”MusicBoard”, a €1m fund intended to support clubs and venues through turbulent times. It's perhaps the country's relatively sympathetic view of clubbing as a legitimate form of cultural expression - in stark contrast to the puritan policy-making of UK governments over the past two decades - that draws so many British residents to Berlin, making it a club music mecca with international reach.

In the last few weeks, though, a new threat has reared its head. GEMA, the organisation responsible for collecting mechanical copyright fees on behalf of some 65,000 artists in Germany, have announced a price hike which could spell the end for some of Berlin's most revered clubs. If the changes go unchallenged, the legendary Berghain - facing a fee hike of 1,400% - will shut after its NYE party this year; the similarly monolithic Watergate is likely to go the same way, claiming its mechanical copyright fees will be increased from €10,000 per year to €200,000.

And all this as a result of changes which, GEMA claims, are intended to increase fairness in the system and put more money in the pockets of artists. In the new scheme, commencing 1st January 2013, the complex existing system of eleven different fee structures is being replaced with just two: monthly charges will be calculated as a percentage of ticket price and relative to the size of the venue. There will, however, be a 50% surcharge if events last longer than five hours, and a similar increase after another three hours. Der Spiegel calculates that, "for an average Berlin club with 410 square meters of space, charging €8 entrance and running two events per week from 10 p.m. until 5. a.m, the price paid to GEMA will rise from the current €14,500 to some €95,000 - an increase of 560%”. It seems evident that these plans favour venues (such as bars and gig spaces) with shorter opening times, placing a disproportionate financial burden on clubs. Legendary spots like the Berghain, renowned for the kind of marathon all-weekend sessions largely prohibited in the UK due to stricter licensing, will fare the worst.

GEMA's argument is that the current system is unfair: for example, as it stands, a club that runs two events per month pays the same lump sum as one that runs 15. They also point out that the extra revenue as a result of the changes will be fed back to musicians, benefitting them in the long run. Speaking to Der Spiegel, GEMA's regional manager Lorenz Schmid seemed unconvinced by the risk to clubs, suggesting that the new rates should be well within their financial means. "The way I see it, [clubs have] been paying far too little in the past”, he said. "I see no problem for a club manager if he has to pay €1.20 out of €12”.

But the consensus seems to be that the funds GEMA collect are largely siphoned off to major labels, whose exposure can easily be measured through national radio play and the like: in other words, the exorbitant fees will be lining the pockets of Adele, not the Berghain set. As a result, producers will lose an essential source of income without any viable substitute rising up to replace it. Ultimately, many argue that the unwieldy, centralised system employed by GEMA will never be an adequate substitute for dance music's own cottage industry, where artists subsist through payment for DJ bookings and labels support themselves through relatively small-run vinyl releases. GEMA's attempt to protect artists' copyright may have good intentions behind it, but the decades-old structure they employ is largely incapable of dealing with the amorphous, fast-moving nature of a flourishing club scene.

The Berlin community aren't taking the change lying down: on 25th June, 5,000 gathered to protest outside GEMA's summer party; on the 30th, more than 2,000 clubs across the country stopped the music for five minutes to raise awareness of the new fees; and an online petition (which you can sign here- Google translate is your friend) has so far gathered over 220,000 signatures. High profile artists including Alec Empire, Blawan, The Black Dog, Mike Paradinas and Steffi have spoken out against GEMA's plans. The German patent office are apparently investigating the legality of the scheme, but they won't reach a decision before the fees come into effect - which may be too late for many of Berlin's clubs.

GEMA - the equivalent of the UK's PRS-MCPS (except, it seems, about three times the size and far more powerful) - has a reputation for aggressive price hikes. In 2009 they revised their fees for hosting music on YouTube, asking for a rate 50 times that of the PRS; as a result, the music of many major artists still can't be accessed on the site by those inside Germany. Such a hardline approach clearly causes more harm than good, leaving both artists and consumers with a sense that well-enforced copyright laws are a bureaucratic obstacle rather than a central pillar of any cultural industry. It remains to be seen whether the organisation's current plans can be reversed.

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