The GEMA Grinch: New Fees Could Destroy Famed Berlin Club Scene

By Jochen-Martin Gutsch and Wiebke Hollersen

Part 3: A Crumbling Empire

So far, GEMA has survived every sea change, including the cassette, the CD, German reunification and the USB flash drive. But now things are getting more complicated.

All of the registrations of compositions no one plays anymore today are stored in wooden drawers in GEMA's archives in Berlin. They include 1927 hits and songs with names like "The Farmer Has a Dovecote."

Silvia Moisig heads the Documentation Department. She can tell the story of German rock musician Udo Lindenberg, who came over from the Hotel Kempinski in the 1980s, rode around the hallways on roller skates and had a song registered. Or there's the story about TV host and musician Hugo Egon Balder, who once tried to register the musical scale as a composition because he wanted to prove that there were idiots at GEMA who wouldn't notice.

The world was clear and manageable in those days. Today, there are breakaway movements everywhere. The GEMA empire is beginning to crumble, at least along the edges.

A few weeks ago, a few Berlin club owners, including Hack, sent a stack of playlists to Schweda. They were lists of the songs that various DJs had played in a single night. The clubs were conducting a test. They wanted to know whether the old GEMA and today's electronic club music had anything in common anymore. They wanted to see whether the music played in the clubs that are soon supposed to pay higher fees was even registered with GEMA anymore.

Schweda looked at the lists and saw names of artists like Richie Hawtin, Peace Division, Phase and M.A.N.D.Y. Schweda, who likes to listen to Supertramp, gave the lists to Silvia Moisig. Moisig, a fan of aging German pop star Peter Maffay and a 27-year GEMA veteran, dropped off the lists in Room 165, which she calls "the youth room."

There are four young GEMA employees working in Room 165. They're disco experts. They spent a few days checking the playlists. They counted 542 songs, of which they found 287 immediately. There were traces of 76 other songs in the database. In the process, GEMA came to the surprising conclusion that, even in Berlin's wild techno clubs, more than 50 percent and possibly as much as 70 percent of the songs on the playlists are in the GEMA repertoire.

Next to Supertramp and Peter Maffay -- and Marco Resmann.

The Generational Divide

There were three songs by Resmann on the playlist submitted by the Watergate. He is 35 and has a studio in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. The small room is crammed full of equipment, including synthesizers, a drum computer, a 32-channel mixer and shelves full of records. Resmann is a producer and a DJ, and he owns his own label, Upon You Records. He also composes techno tracks.

In other words, Resmann is an artist -- precisely one of those supposedly threatened figures needing protection for whom GEMA is campaigning, and for whom it is picking a fight with everyone.

Resmann produces five records a year on old-fashioned vinyl. If he's lucky, he'll sell 500 copies of each record. The money is about enough to pay for production, the record cover and possibly the studio -- but nothing else.

Resmann also signed the petition against GEMA. "Help, the rate reform," he says. Resmann, an artist, also feels threatened by the new rates.

He doesn't make his money selling records, but as a DJ, often working at the Watergate, where he is a resident DJ. He composes songs because it's required for getting good DJ gigs. If the clubs reduce his pay or even shut down as a result of the rate reform, Resmann will have to look for a new job.

Resmann has never had much use for GEMA, and now he sees it as a threat to his model of life.

For artist Konstantin Wecker, on the other hand, GEMA is a blessing. The 65-year-old singer-songwriter has been making music since the 1960s, including records, film scores, musicals and concert tours. He's a classic, old-school musician, and he's been a member of GEMA for 40 years. In June, when people were talking about "disco death," he became a member of the GEMA supervisory board.

Wecker is a traditional artist. On his website, he writes: "Without GEMA, I would have no security in old age and no social benefits for emergencies. If the day comes when I am no longer capable of playing more than 100 concerts a year, I won't be able to survive without this organization."

One can appreciate the positions of both Wecker and Resmann's. But no one can say what the future holds.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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