Local Heroes: Playing to the Beat of a Different Drum
Some call it “alternative”, some call it “indie”: Vienna’s scene has more variety, soul, and potential than first meets the eye
They’re young, optimistic and down to earth. Not your usual rock stars, these are a new breed of "indie" artists, and they clearly love what they do. Making it as a musician in Vienna is common for classical artists, opera singers and the occasional jazz band, but when is the last time a global pop phenomenon came from Vienna? Falco?
Today’s artists who hail from Vienna, like the impish Violetta Parisini, a bittersweet, thoughtful singer-songwriter, or the more eclectic band Gin Ga, who combine lead singer Alex Konrad’s guttural voice with Emanuel Donner’s gypsy-like violin and falsetto harmonies, could be defined as independent artists or "indie".
At the Kleines Café on Franziskanerplatz, Singer Songwriter Circus organiser Clara Blume laughs at the term. "When we say indie rock, we think of Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, or Franz Ferdinand... they are commercial, so I think you have to free yourself from that thought."
The band Gin Ga consists of four unassuming young men. In their barn-house-turned-studio in Vienna’s 21st District they exchanged ideas about being part of an as-yet indefinable genre. It began as a melding of two bands into one, when the drummer Mathias Meno and guitarist Klemens Wihlidal joined Alex and Emanuel. "You do what you want to do and then someone asks you what kind of music you play. That’s when the question of genre comes up," Emanuel explains.
Violetta Parisini sees media attention helping the scene grow. "In the ‘90s you started a band, and in the 2000s you sat in front of a computer to make music [as a DJ]," she muses, "at some point it became fashionable to be a singer-songwriter."
This is a very personal breed, a genre centred around the singer. Violetta listened to Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone for inspiration. But her style varies. "I’m always authentic," she says, "but sometimes I can be polished, sometimes not. And if I’m having a bad day, the audience can tell."
This may seem like vanity art, but for Violetta it’s more about sharing, not with the "masses", but with certain people, certain groups. "For me, songs are always public contemplation."
Gin Ga’s influences? "Nirvana, and Nirvana, well…," Klemens is at a loss. "Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash," Alex quickly jumps in. "We even listen to EuroDance," all four laugh. Maybe definitions are overrated.
Keeping it real
There are worlds between the commercial hit radio Ö3 and the more "underground" or "alternative" station FM4, and many artists fall between. "Sure, I heard a FM4 reporter once say, ‘Yeah, she’s gotten too commercial’, but I think it’s not about being commercial, it’s [just] about fitting FM4’s image." Violetta is not alone in her frustration with the limited identity of Vienna’s two main radio stations.
This is what Clara Blume has been up against as she began organising the Singer Songwriter Circus. "What is missing in Austria are platforms for young artists that are not just pre-selected by radio stations," she explains. "There’s nothing comparable to the ‘off-theatre scene’ for music. It’s just limited; they limit themselves."
If this sounds like a lot of complaining, think again. Each frustration is met with suggestions, and creative ways of widening their horizons.
Bridging that gap is Clara Blume’s Singer-Songwriter Circus, a flashy, in-your-face event for a personal, no-fuss genre. Still, returning to live shows for revenue is a challenge. "The Viennese are totally spoiled," Blume smiles. "They’re used to not paying for pop music, like at the Popfest in July. So if they’re going to go hear a singer-songwriter, it has to be for free, or cannot be very expensive." The Viennese will pay for international acts with "prestige", but Vienna doesn’t value its own products. "But this is changing."
Alex from Gin Ga agrees: "In Vienna there is not really a ‘concert culture’." By that he means a wide selection of bands and venues that make it easy to discover new acts. "There is a very mature scene for classical and Schlager music" Emanuel adds, "but for pop, or indie, that consciousness is just being established."
"Schönberg also never made it to the Konzerthaus, but he did get big in California," Mathias says, but not as a complaint. "It’s a small country, so not as many outlets for niches, radio stations and the like… That’s why they called the Popfest what they did, so no one differentiated between indie, alternative, pop, etc."
"Vienna puts 90-95% of all the cultural financing towards classical music. So it’s 1,000 times easier to get a scholarship to study the violin, than to get €1,000 for an event."
Money is always an issue, even for those with measurable success, like Violetta: "I’ve often found myself wondering how much energy I still have to work this much for so little money." Both she and Gin Ga have received financial support from the Österreichscher Musikfonds to help produce their first albums. "But we do most of the work," Klemens interjects. They all laugh. They are big believers in working for it. "There was only a certain period in history where you could make money from record sales, and now it’s just back to touring and playing concerts to earn money."
The general feeling is that many things are possible, but nothing comes easily. Violetta sums it up: "There are concert organisers who are idealistic, but have no money, and then there are those who make money, but have lost their idealism," she smiles. Gin Ga’s members also don’t want to be complainers. Alex, who has both Slovak and Austrian citizenship, says it’s a choice:
"If I want to sudern (gripe), I use the Austrian passport," he laughs.