The sound of Cologne

Ole Löding
© Bob Sala

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cities all over the world have gone quiet. As a result, all that’s left to hear in urban soundscapes is the chirping of birds and the rustling of leaves. While the reduction in human-made noise pollution is undoubtedly a silver lining of the current health crisis, many people fondly reminisce about the “old days”, when cities were diversely enlivened by everything that we hear daily, be it people talking, kids playing, or school bells ringing.

Silence also permeates the world of music at the moment. As with many sectors, the live entertainment industry is under threat as the coronavirus brings venues, studios, and labels to a halt. In these times of hardship, it’s important and comforting that a great deal of music output has been shifted into the digital realm; however, no form of technology can compensate for shared sonic experiences because evocations of person-to-person collectivity and solidarity play a huge role in shaping local identity.

Indeed, the production of place through music is widely recognized. What isn’t quite so obvious is how acoustic properties shape the perception of a spatial environment: Do cities have a distinct music profile and, if so, what are its building blocks? To get a better idea of urban music ecologies, I sat down with German music journalist and author Ole Löding at the Stadtgarten in Cologne a couple of months ago, when the Rhine metropolis was still brimming with life. In reference to his book „Sound of the Cities“, he illuminated how to analyze a place not through the eyes, but through the ears by using Germany’s underdog music hub Cologne as an example.

Before we talk about the sound of Cologne, can you shed some light on the interplay between music, identity, and place?
No matter what genre, all music plays an economic, social, and cultural role in cities. This becomes clear when looking at the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing: When the venue was temporarily shut down as a consequence of the terrorist attack at Ariana Grande’s concert, the city was faced with a) economic repercussions, b) a decline in social activity, and c) a cultural brain drain. These effects go to show that music is not just a tangible moneymaker but also an intangible social and cultural asset that holds a community together and shapes its identity. Since the 1980s, more and more cities have built upon this realization by incorporating music into their urban strategies – not least because cultural vibrancy is now a main travel motivation for tourists. However, to make waves as a music hotspot, cities require a large infrastructure that consists of relevant artists, audiences, and professionals like producers, publishers, venue operators, club owners, ticket sellers, and so on.

Has the role of individual players within the music industry shifted over the past years?
Well, the music industry is changing all the time. Nowadays, artists and all their allies rely heavily on the live music business. For many artists, concert ticket sales have become the main source of income. Here, new players have come to the fore thanks to the digitization: Online ticket providers like Eventim are now profiting from a disproportionately large share of the cake. What’s just as bad as them capitalizing unfairly on the popularity of artists is that their pricing system creates an audience hierarchy because it favors dynamic over democratic organization. To work against social segmentation, other players in the music industry must focus on developing alternative financing models for artists from the bottom up. This will make up for the disadvantage of artists versus big corporations.

One last detour before we get to the sound of Cologne: Besides streaming services and ticketing processes, what impact has the digitization had on the music industry?
It’s difficult to hammer out a final answer to this because all digital developments are still in flux. However, what is clear even without the benefit of hindsight is the change in music consumption. While I’m not sure if streaming services are indeed destroying albums, it’s obvious that many artists have increased their output to quench the thirst for novelty. In the highly recommendable Netflix documentary “Miss Americana”, pop star Taylor Swift gets to the heart of this when she says that musicians are out of the picture unless they reinvent themselves every two years. What this inevitably leads to is fast-paced, often sloppy, music production that is geared towards meeting the taste of a global public. But to be fair, a lot of good things have come out of the digitization too, for example cheap(ish) technology and simplified means of music production have made it possible for artists like Billie Eilish to rise to fame from bedroom studios. Along with social media, this development has created a more level playing field that places the power of choice where it belongs – in the hands of artists themselves.

Alright, let’s now turn to the main topic of today. First of all, isn’t it difficult to match Cologne with a sound when the city doesn’t care for music trends and genre conventions?
You’re right about that. Cologne can’t be narrowed down to a genre in the same way as Berlin, a city that is intrinsically linked to techno-electro, or San Francisco, the true home of hippie culture. Some people associate the sound of this city with a particular type of electronic music that in essence is a counter-model to the very loud and very intense Berlin-school music. While it’s true that avant-garde electronic music runs like a red thread through Cologne’s history of sound, there are various site-specific styles because the city’s creative scene has long oozed with courageous individualism. As early as the 1950s, Cologne established itself as Germany’s media capital, attracting countless music magazines, radio and TV stations, venues, and industry events like Popkomm. The competitive strength of this infrastructure drew in artists from all over the world: Apart from Karlheinz Stockhausen and likeminded representatives of non-conformist electro, there was a big pop-rock community, comprised of bands like Can and producers like studio legend Conny Plank, as well as a buzzing jazz and an indie scene made up of music academy students and artists like Erdmöbel. Leaving aside Zeltinger, punk didn’t really play a big role in Cologne’s music scene, maybe because the other Rhine metropolis Düsseldorf sucked out all the rage energy that existed in this area. Heavy metal also didn’t make the cut, so I guess the sound of Cologne can be described as a mixed bag of music that excludes only “extreme” genres.

You touched upon a few protagonists involved in creating the sound of Cologne, but could you expand on the musical evolution of this city?
I think that one decisive musical train of thought in Cologne is the courageous avant-gardism that begins with Stockhausen’s electro-acoustic experiments and then leads on to Can’s boundary-pushing rock music as well as mainstream-defying movements like minimal techno. Next to this unconventional, often rebellious musical endeavor is an opposite extreme: A lighthearted sound that’s easily approachable. It manifests in post-war Carnival hits like “Wir sind die Eingeboren von Trizonesien” (1948) in the same way as it does with Cologne’s popular music of the 1980s or today’s electronic indie-pop. Despite differences in style, these types of catchy songs all have something in common, namely: No loud guitar riffs, no screaming, no swear words, no wild drumming, no long-haired rockers...Instead, you’ll find that they’re all flirting with the mainstream in one way or another.

What role does the Kölsch dialect play in the sound of Cologne?
Kölsch shouldn’t be overvalued because, at the end of the day, it’s just BAP who has managed to create a nationwide stir. Of course, there’s the Carnival too, but, let’s be real, it’s a local phenomenon. Bands like Bläck Fööss and Querbeat aren’t likely to ever play a successful tour throughout the whole of Germany, let alone Europe. Au contraire, Kompakt label artists, and DJs like Lena Willikens have global reach. One thing is for sure though: The dialect will continue to excite within its microcosm not only because it has a certain folksy charm but also because it plays a big role in the local identity construction – it stands symbolically for anti-bourgeois camaraderie.

Has Cologne’s sound undergone any major changes since the new millennium?
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cologne became quieter. A wave of artists left for the German capital because it was an exciting place to be and a low-rent mecca. In the early 2000s, Berlin’s poor but sexy creative scene was in full swing: Artists wanted to reinvent themselves completely and the club culture was pushing freedom to a whole new level. As Berlin became a symbol for the social, political, and cultural changes of the time, Cologne lost its music capital status – and important industry events like the Popkomm or music-television channels like VIVA.

What does Cologne’s music scene look like today?
Well, Cologne might no longer be perceived as a musical metropolis but there are a lot of artists and professionals here who put an incredible amount of energy and time into creating meaningful places of encounter and exchange. To counteract nightclubs dying off and other gentrification-related issues, many local music professionals have created innovative environments that encourage creative thinking. For example, Jan Lankish reinvigorated Cologne’s Stadthalle Mülheim, a venue that was as dead as a doornail, with the so-called ‘Week-End’ festival. Similarly, ‘Gebäude 9’ has developed from a former warehouse into a major driving force in Cologne’s club culture as it now hosts internationally acclaimed artists that range from indie-rock to dance and urban contemporary. One last role model that pops into my mind is the c/o pop festival as it does an excellent job of creating, supporting, and maintaining music spaces such as the Kulturkirche or the Bürgerzentrum Ehrenfeld. Thanks to the devoted commitment of individuals involved in projects like these, exciting things remain possible here.

Is there an artist that reflects Cologne’s musical zeitgeist today?
In my view, Roosevelt has been an internationally relevant protagonist in Cologne’s music scene for a few years now. His music is like an idiosyncratic seismograph that absorbs and adapts sounds which are characteristic of this city. Imagine electro with a pinch of DJ culture, transformed into something chart-compatible, and played live with an exciting band set-up – that’s Roosevelt in a nutshell. But just to be clear, he’s by no means all-embracing because the sound of Cologne is simply too complex!

How does Cologne sound to you?
That’s the most difficult question so far...I think Cologne sounds like Sven Regener, or rather his way of writing. And by that I mean: When you read his books, there’s a fluffy feeling of casual amusement right until the very end, when you realize that the words are actually full of wisdom and soulfulness. This is how I feel about Cologne’s music: When you’re enjoying it on a night out in the city, it’s happy-go-lucky and very easy-going. But if you pass the songs in review when at home drenched in sweat, the lighthearted fun becomes deeply moving art.

If you were to create an acoustic home portrait of Cologne, what would it sound like?
If I wanted to set Cologne to music, I’d choose a dull, wafting, slightly misty hum that stands forth in indistinct eloquence. The inherent vagueness and ambiguities of this city are what make it so attractive. Is it minimal techno? Is it indie-pop? Can I let go of my inhibitions or should I pull myself together? Blurred lines are what encapsulate the sound of Cologne.