“You Have to See the Potential”

LONDON/BERLIN/NOVI SAD–As we barrel down the road in Dusan Kovacevic’s SUV, I mention how impressed I am with the acoustics at the Petrovaradin Fortress, the locale for the EXIT Festival, which is a four day long orgy of rock and roll, dance, hip-hop and reggae music that takes place in Novi Sad, Serbia every July. “Well you know the Austro-Hungarians built the fortress specifically for EXIT,” jokes Kovacevic, the 36 year-old co-founder of the festival, which was launched in 2000 as a protest against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Since those early days, EXIT has gone on to become one of the most important festivals in Europe—this summer’s line-up included Pulp, Groove Armada, Deadmau5 and Jamiroquai—and is growing and expanding every year.

One of the most recent additions to the EXIT family, which includes a music channel and also a foundation that supports educational reform in Serbia, is the EXIT Music label. Kovacevic says the label, which focuses mostly on artists from Serbia, grew organically from the festival. “A few of the artists who are close to the festival decided to share their music with fans through our channel, as hard copy CDs were becoming less and less popular,” Kovacevic tells me.  “As the label [gained] popularity, more and more bands followed that same path.” While Kovacevic admits that EXIT Music is not the leading label in Serbia for online music, he does believe it offers a chance for bands—that most likely would not be signed on by big international labels— to highlight their music to a wider audience.  “Major labels are more into making profits in the short turn, with [money] coming before music,” he says.  “Our philosophy is different and that is one of the reasons behind EXIT’s success.”

exitThat philosophy is something that is shared by a handful of labels across Europe that are focused on promoting music from central and eastern Europe (CEE). Berlin-based East Blok Music releases everything from Ukrainian electronica music to Polish reggae while Asphalt Tango Records, also based in the German capital, work mostly with gypsy and Balkan brass musicians like Hungary’s Besh o droM, Bulgaria’s Kottarashky and Romania’s Fanfare Ciocarila (who this summer have had a very successful European tour –“Balkan Brass Battle”– with the Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra). Other labels like Belgium’s Crammed Discs and  Piranha Records and Essay Recordings (both based in Germany) also promote and release music from CEE artists. “It’s an obvious way forward,” says Jo Frost, the editor of world music magazine Songlines. “If you look at big labels like, say, EMI, they may release something in the local market of a local band—say in [Poland]—but that band will not get a look-in on another market because [executives] just won’t think its worthwhile.  However these specialized labels have the expertise and they know the local scene.”

East Blok Music’s Armin Siebert and Alexander Kasparov used to be two such record executives. Or rather, they didn’t fit into the EMI mould, which was busily promoting Western artists like Robbie Williams and Britney Spears on the CEE market. “We were getting all this great music from CEE on our table and we were offering them this and that and yet no one was interested,” Siebert tells me during an interview in East Blok’s office in Berlin. “So there was no real cultural exchange. So in 2004 we decided to quit, set up our own label and do it the other way around—to promote central and eastern European music to the West.” Coinciding with them starting their label—which mostly focuses on compilation armin-738x1024albums—there were two genres of CEE music that were taking off in clubs and dance halls across Europe: Balkan brass music and Russian/Ukrainian disco music. East Blok began working with several artists from these sprouting musical styles as well as scouting for other types of music across CEE and Russia. “There is a never ending supply of good music from CEE but then there is the decision of what to release,” he says, leaning back in his chair and taking a drag from a cigarette. “You have to see the potential, it is a gut feeling that you get from having worked in this industry for many years. So that is why we do compilations because people see this as a visa to the whole region.”

Meanwhile across town, Helmut Neumann and Henri Urnst—the founders of Asphalt Tango Records— decided to focus their musical attention on Balkan brass and gypsy music.  Though neither man had a specific A & R background, they both had a great appetite and appreciation for Romanian gypsy music. They brought Fanfare Ciocarila for a tour around Germany in 1997 and after spending the next few years focused on managing and booking bands from CEE to play in Western Europe, they decided in 2002 to set up their own label and publishing house. “When we first started, the audiences were mostly middle-aged middle-class bourgeoisie who were maybe more interested in the ethnological aspect of the music,” Neumann tells me. “But now we have a real crossover. Teenagers who like to dance and their parents who were 30 years ago into punk.” I ask Neumann if there is much competition between the labels and if it causes any friction in a musically rich but fiscally small (yet growing) market.  “No, because we all are looking into different styles,” he says. “East Blok, for example, know the scenes in Poland and Russia really well but for us, that is far away from what we do. We focus more on roots music. Sure we are open to new things but it is good to have different people taking care of this music.”

1st photo courtesy of Asphalt records (Fanfare Ciocarila by Arne Rheinhardt), 2nd photo from Exit (personal archive of Ginanne Brownell), 3rd photo courtesy of East Blok Music (Siebert and Kasparov)