Photo by Erica Löfman
For aspiring musicians, Berlin is a catch-22. Full of opportunities to play and like-minded people to collaborate with, there’s just one thing that’s missing: money. From busking to Broadway to the dreaded day job, here’s how they manage.
It’s a mild September afternoon on Kollwitzplatz; at the Ökomarkt, kids are blowing bubbles, dancing and begging their parents for a euro to drop in the guitar case of Miss Stereochemistry. Adopting her “alien” persona, she launches into an introduction: “This song is for the bravest of all earthlings, you depressed people out there! Statistics say that’s 30 percent of Prenzlauer Berg...”
Looping her voice for backing vocals and drawing a bow against the strings of her guitar, the Belgrade-born Neuköllner – 31-year-old Karla Hajman when offstage – would rather perform here than in her own neighborhood. “Maybachufer is oversaturated with buskers.” At Kollwitzplatz she wears a demure dress, but playing bars and basements at night she dons a tutu – or, for the release of her crowd-funded album Ruins in Bloom, head-to-toe body paint – and indulges in shockingly filthy stage banter.
It’s a far cry from her past life as a biotechnology researcher, which she gave up five years ago. “I loved science, but music is my mission.” And not an easy one. Despite a well-established web of contacts and working seven days a week, she still has to think twice before buying a coffee. During her crowd-funding period last fall, she barely slept and spent long, chilly days playing and handing out flyers on Warschauer Brücke; she raised nearly €5000 from the campaign, but had to deplete her savings to finance the recording.
Although she seldom stays in Berlin longer than a month at a time, embarking on sporadically lucrative tours of neighbouring countries, she considers herself to be settled down here. The ultimate proof? Paying taxes and being a member of the Künstlersozialkasse. The bureaucracy involved in being a self-employed musician in Germany is no cakewalk. “In the end, I ended up sleeping with my Steuerberater.”
Even though Hajman believes the street “is the best performance school”, she’s planning to drop the busking as soon as she starts earning enough from paid gigs, CD sales, downloads and royalties. “I wouldn’t really mind making it big, I wouldn’t mind making it medium and I wouldn’t mind making it small – as long as it allows me to live with dignity, have a family and continue working as an artist exclusively.”
I wouldn’t mind making it big... I wouldn’t mind making it small – as long as it allows me to live with dignity and continue working as an artist exclusively.
DIY solo success
Living off music on your own terms is possible if you’re ready to struggle. A few years ago, quirky “off-kilter folk queen” Mary Ocher was in the same boat as Hajman; now, she’s sailing wilder oceans. Russian-born Ocher came to Berlin from Israel in 2007, eager to make her way through as a musician despite not knowing a single soul in the city. She played every show she could snag and busked to get by, never once resorting to a side job. “I was always very comfortable with very little... but also, the city was a lot cheaper then.” It wasn’t an easy start, especially having to rely on shows that would pay very little, if anything. “The conditions sometimes wouldn’t be very good – I would be asked to play as background music, not as a musician that they actually cared to listen to.”
Ocher became her own self-made manager. “I had to learn how to do all the logistics and the research and how to make things happen because otherwise it never would. I now have a booking agent that helps me with certain parts of Europe. But I still have to find a significant chunk of shows myself. I do pretty much everything by myself.”
Hard work – and mentorship from Berlin-based garage godfather King Khan – paid off, and Ocher has made a name for herself in her adopted city, setting her sights now on the rest of Europe and America, where she tours for months at a time. “It feels like Berlin is not connected to anything. If you do something in English, you’re isolated from the rest of the world. If you want to make it big, you have to get out!”
Strength in numbers
Living on a shoestring for the chance to ‘make it big’ one day doesn’t suit everyone. Bristol-born singer Lyndsey Cockwell is also making her living on music in Berlin – just not the way she first intended. Tuesday nights at Monster Ronson’s karaoke bar, under a solar system of disco balls, you can find her conducting the 100-person Berlin Pop Choir; bringing the community choir concept from London but with Berlin flair: beers encouraged, queer-friendly, covers of Bowie and Kraftwerk.
Schooled in classical piano, which she abandoned for the guitar, 40-year-old Cockwell started as a singer-songwriter, producing her own records, having friends create the covers, always working extra odd jobs on the side. “I felt a bit like I was banging my head against the wrong wall – something just wasn’t clicking. I loved music and performing but it felt like too much hard work.” She left for Berlin in 2008, thinking she’d “be happier here”. Touring around the city but soon running out of money, she thought, “Maybe to earn a little on the side, I could do this choir thing” – her only prior experience being a one-time hangout with a friend who was a choir teacher. The choir began in 2009 as three friends in a Kreuzberg living room. After two years of tirelessly searching for new recruits (including waking up at 6am to plaster the city with posters), she’d acquired a steady troupe; though she continued writing songs, her own solo career became gradually overshadowed. She’s now making “a good living. Berlin makes it a lot easier. Also because I work so hard and I don’t party as much as I used to.”
The constant hunt
For musicians who want to stay active in the scene without sacrificing financial stability, the key is to diversify. Forty-nine-year-old jazz drummer Yorgos Dimitriadis, from Thessaloniki, has been playing professionally since age 21. After 12 years in Paris, a musician friend and a good jam session at jazz club B-Flat brought him to Berlin. “I was introduced to a scene I didn’t know existed – you could find people to play with all day long if you wanted to.”
Dimitriadis was soon involved in the house band of the “always packed” Kreuzberg jazz venue Wendel. In addition, he started teaching drums in music schools. He can now be found at clubs all over the city, playing with four different experimental jazz bands – Glue, Grix, Fabric and the Red Dahl Sextet. He has contributed to 17 different records for various small labels, two of which were released this year. “Having albums out is important because it helps you reach people, gets you reviews that can get you gigs where you can sell CDs. You can get radio airplay and some royalties. Economically it contributes – not a lot, but it is still always welcome.”
He’s now living what seems to be a rather attractive bourgeois bohemian existence in Prenzlauer Berg with his wife (who’s a painter) and two daughters. Still, he says, jobs come and go and getting gigs is an on-going hunt. “The Prekariat is our state, you know. But it’s a choice I made... I wouldn’t survive with an office job.”
The commercial side
Adam (name changed), a bassist from Cleveland, has left the gigging life behind in favour of more reliable income. “Being in a band, even if it’s great, can all end in the blink of an eye! There is no stability with it. I made a great album with this woman who had an amazing voice, then she became pregnant and bam! At the snap of a finger any thoughts of going further were completely out of the question.”
Being in a band can all end in the blink of an eye! There is no stability. I made a great album with this woman who had an amazing voice, then she became pregnant and bam!
Playing intermittently in bands since college, Adam arrived in Stuttgart 20 years ago to study abroad and soon fell into the Broadway scene. Scoring a job in the orchestra of Cats, he toured for years across Europe and the US. When the production ended in 2001, Adam decided to settle down in Berlin together with his wife (a dancer) and young son. Through contacts, he was soon hired by a musical theatre. Branching off into music production, film and TV soundtracks and corporate events, he’s been able to build a lucrative musical career – at least enough to support his family. Which doesn’t mean he’s lowered his standards: “Musicians can’t ever take half-measures. Everything you do, you have to do it the best you can and all the time.” He also still plays with some bands. “It helps keep your creativity levels up.”
The office bandolele player
To recap: as a musician in Berlin, you can pursue your art without compromise whilst hustling constantly, you can create a side project that eclipses the music you came here to make in the first place, or you can cobble together income from various band gigs and commercial projects. Or, of course, you can get a ‘day job’ – a last resort for some, but a route Julia Kotowski prefers.
A graphic designer and art director at a concept agency, 28-year-old Kotowski also performs as the “one-woman lo-fi orchestra” Entertainment for the Braindead. This quiet girl who can make a whole room go silent when she plays – everything from ukulele to clarinet, delicately layered with a loop pedal – has inspired a fiercely loyal cult following, including a fan site. Music was something Julia simply fell into after arriving to Berlin from her hometown of Cologne in 2011. “I never had to work too hard to get by on my music. It has all come so naturally.” Why not pursue only that, then? “I’m afraid that one day it will come to a point where I have to decide whether I want to make music that is pleasing to myself or to mass audiences, plus the lifestyle of a musician would be too hectic for me.” Yet hectic is something she can’t escape – in addition to weekend rehearsals on the other side of the country (she’s also a multi-instrumentalist for Honig, a Düsseldorf-based band that played this summer’s Haldern Pop Festival alongside Patti Smith and Conor Oberst) and an upcoming tour, she finds herself recording songs with her ‘bandolele’ (a self-invented combination of a baritone ukulele and a bandola) after-hours in the office.
Contrary to the stereotype of the lazy Berlin transplant who comes here to make art and winds up on drugs, the city is full of musicians who are devoting more time and energy to their craft than most people do to office jobs. It may not be glamorous – but in their case, music means ‘work’.
Originally published in issue #131, October 2014.