9 Lessons The World Can Learn From Berlin

Europe’s nightlife capital didn’t earn its reputation just by partying. Here’s how it nurtured its creative community, and why we should all be taking notes.

9 Lessons The World Can Learn From Berlin

This year, Berlin clubbing institution and record label Tresor celebrates its 25th anniversary. During its lifespan, it has witnessed the German capital grow to become one of the 21st century’s top cultural destinations, especially for anyone with an interest in electronic music. Today, with a population of about 3.5 million, Berlin boasts so many nightclubs—190 according to tourism site Visit Berlin, including Berghain, the most famous techno club in the world—that there’s a version of the city’s U-Bahn map where stop names have been replaced with the hottest spots. A staggering amount of clubbing goes on in Berlin every weekend. And within this ecosystem of music, techno is the driving force.

But to understand Germany’s contemporary cultural hub, a close look back at its history is required. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 not only marked the end of the Cold War, it also ushered in a new era for “poor but sexy” Berlin—as former mayor Klaus Wowereit described the city in 2004. Berlin’s reputation for hedonism and decadence dates back at least to the Weimar Republic—the era between the two World Wars immortalized by Christopher Isherwood’s book The Berlin Stories, which itself was the basis for Broadway musical and film Cabaret, as well as being a massive influence for the likes of David Bowie.

Before the Wall fell, West Berlin was the post-punk, industrial city of Einstürzende Neubauten and Nick Cave’s Birthday Party/Bad Seeds, but it had already tasted techno. The DJ and producer Westbam had been advocating for it since 1985, and the infamous Love Parade street party, which would go on to attract over a million attendees annually in the late ‘90s, started in the summer of ‘89. While there was a small explosion of techno clubs that opened immediately following the fall—for reasons we’ll discuss—the simplest way for non-residents to historicize our current understanding of Berlin techno is to start with Tresor.

"Detroit techno was the music that started the reunification between the kids from East and West Berlin."—Dimitri Hegemann, Tresor

Back in the early ‘90s, Tresor made its name by digging deep into the roots of techno, championing the Detroit artists that invented the sound in the first half of the ‘80s. This was during a time when much of Europe was—and remains—enamored with hardcore, trance, and gabber. As such, Tresor co-founder Dimitri Hegemann often gets credited for popularizing Detroit techno in Europe.

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“When we opened Tresor, I did not know if Detroit techno would take off,” Hegemann recalls. “But it was a unique sound that transported so much energy into Berlin. Detroit techno was the music that started the reunification between the kids from East and West Berlin. I told [founder of iconic Detroit group Underground Resistance] Mike Banks, ‘There are all these kids waiting for your music, come to Berlin and help us.’ He and his members came and blew everyone away. The euphoria in Berlin was so intense because of the opening of the borders, and the need to express this joy of freedom was there when Detroit techno arrived in Berlin. [The music] became a peacemaker in a smart way.”

Today, clubbing is a huge cultural and economic force in Berlin, a subculture so widespread that many of the world’s major newspapers and magazines have commented on it. What are some of the conditions that have made this possible? And what can other cities learn from Berlin’s lead?

1. Cut the curfew, increase the freedom

The city’s lack of a curfew, abolished in West Berlin in 1949, is clearly one of the main reasons Berlin is now a clubbing paradise. It's something that Hegemann recognized a long time ago: “The fact that Berlin was open all night helped to establish the new movement for techno in Berlin, then Europe and all over the world," he says. "It was an experience to feel techno magic all night long. No violence, no crime; techno presented a new peaceful generation.”

While the U.K.'s embrace of acid house led to rave culture, Berlin's unique conditions gave us durational clubbing (perfect for minimal techno, the famed Berlin offshoot of Detroit techno). For instance, every Saturday night, Berghain opens at midnight and doesn’t close until at least 8 a.m. on Monday morning. Even more impressive: when illustrious club and venue KaterHolzig closed its doors a couple of years ago, its goodbye party lasted six straight days.

2. Why have just one economy when you can have two

Even the clubs that aren’t open for 24 hours or more at a time don’t crack their doors until midnight, meaning that Berlin operates a true night-time economy alongside the normal daytime economy that all cities have. And this is something that has been germinating for decades; long before techno was the big night activity, the creative youth of the city—who generally had no real jobs or money—were keeping those same hours. Now that techno is big business, club tourism brings in hundreds of millions of Euros to the city each year. Think about it: a visiting clubber spends money on accommodation, restaurants, and all the other things people do while enjoying a city. The ingrained club culture also means there are more people on the streets at night, which makes the streets safer.

9 Lessons The World Can Learn From Berlin Underground Resistance co-founder Jeff Mills, Tresor's Dimitri Hegemann, and French techno producer Laurent Garnier at Tresor, 1994.   Photo by GvH/ Tresor
3. Don't let landlords rule your city

Like many cosmopolitan cities around the world, Berlin is experiencing rapid gentrification—a process aided by an influx of middle-class expats. Rents have risen about 50% in the last five years, more than 70% in desirable neighborhoods. Though the city is less poor than it used to be, the Social Democratic Party, who have governed locally since 2001, at least pay lip service to the idea that it should not belong only to the rich: last year they passed a rent cap stating new leases could not be 10% above the local average. It may not be enforced well, but it’s an important statement—one that underlines that Berlin needs the creative community as much as they need it.

4. Instead, enable the creative community to put empty space to good use

After die Wende (German for “the change” or “the turn,” shorthand for the fall of the Wall), there was an incredible amount of empty buildings in central locations. The Wall cut through the center of town, making two separate cities (it actually encircled West Berlin entirely). For almost 30 years, the areas by the Wall were the edges of those two cities—much of it, especially on the East, was unrenovated after the war. Almost overnight, it became a city center once again. A lot of ambitious young people, like Hegemann, got a leg up getting space for cheap or free—temporarily or otherwise—opening not just clubs, but galleries, cafes, shops, and offices for small, creative businesses. Not all of them succeeded, but enough did to create a vibrant culture of independent entrepreneurs outside of the mainstream.

The authorities had their hands full with the incredibly complicated process of reunification, so much of their leniency in granting licenses for city property was circumstantial. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t smart enough to realize that putting empty space to use was a good idea. Hegemann cites giving space to creative people as his number one lesson from his experiences.

5. Smart government support means everybody wins

Recognizing the success of Berlin’s cultural community spurred the government to take a more proactive approach by forming the Berlin Musicboard in 2013. Funded by the city, the organization exists to strengthen the local music scene “by supporting projects of national and international scope which are able to enlarge the visibility of Berlin as a center of artistic productivity.” Usually, this takes the form of grants allotted to artists and events. Economically speaking, it’s obvious that music activities have brought a lot of money to the city (see point 2), and the Musicboard is an investment back into that important revenue stream—ensuring Berlin maintains its reputation as a destination location for music. But as Lisa-Marie Janke from the Musicboard office also explains, “companies applying for our funding have to be Berlin-based, of course. The money the city invests flows back into the same infrastructure: first of all the musician gets paid correctly when playing gigs and shows in funded projects/concerts, etc, as well as technicians, lights, engineers, graphic designers, video/film people, sound studios, etc. But for the scholarships [artist grants], for example, the country of origin does not matter. You just have to be registered in Berlin.”

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While similar governmental arts funding exists almost everywhere (the U.S. even has the National Endowment for the Arts), Musicboard has made a point of supporting emerging artists operating in underground music. American expat acts Lotic, M.E.S.H., and Laurel Halo have all been recipients of Musicboard artist grants. As Janke points out, "[funding] is really necessary in electronic music, or the pop music sector, because it has existed for years and years in classical and jazz music. Now it’s time that those artists be valued as strongly as the classical or jazz artists.”

Another recipient of Musicboard funding was December’s 3hd Festival. 3hd promoters Creamcake started out as a queer, feminist party, and have been organizing events locally for several years, gravitating naturally towards digital culture—3hd as their first festival exhibited all of that in a very fresh, friendly way that felt modern and vital. Over four days, they hosted performances including the world premiere of ADR’s Deceptionista, and a number of talks featuring FADER contributor Adam Harper. As Creamcake founders Anja Weigl and Daniela Seitz tell me over email, “It was Musicboard Berlin who gave us the the resources and perspective to move forward with our vision. The grant helped us to realize 3hd Festival as a cross-media platform, and endorse artistic abilities and professional skills in our community.” A government agency that not only recognizes but values the impact of youth culture feels very rare indeed.

6. Embrace diversity, for all of our sakes

One key component to Berlin’s success is the strength of the gay community. The most visible example of that is, of course, Berghain (the early '00s incarnation of which, Ostgut, was in no uncertain terms a gay club). There’s a general agreement in Berlin that gay parties are the best parties; if there’s no gay element at your party then it’s a more staid, straight-laced affair. And, anecdotally speaking as a woman, Berlin clubs feel less predatory—a welcome side-effect of a higher percentage of gay clubbers.

Artist and experimental-house musician Steven Warwick, aka Heatsick, attests to the gay community’s influence. “Since the Wall and the end of Stasi surveillance, ‘freedom’ was the buzzword and people could finally embrace their sexuality,” he told me. “When I moved here [from the U.K. in 2006], it was one of the first times I could go to a club or art opening with a largely non-hetero crowd. It was really refreshing. More and more parties opened up with good music. Not like in London where the music is pure trash and you just go to pull.”

Although homosexuality was outlawed in Germany in 1871, “[physician and sexologist] Magnus Hirschfeld pioneered homosexual and transgender rights [here], starting even in the late 19th century,” Warwick continued. “During the Weimar Era, he coined the intersex theory positing that sexuality and gender isn't on a fixed scale.” Persecuted under the Nazis—like Jews, the Roma population, and most people who were “different”—homosexuality remained illegal until 1969. But since then, it’s flourished across the cultural board (check out the gay Turkish night at renowned punk club SO36) as openly gay entrepreneurs have helped stoke the city’s economy. The idea of celebrating and benefiting from diversity might sound weird for a country with Germany’s history. It must be said that there’s still a distinct lack of racial diversity—which is also related to the country’s inability to become a colonial power following the wars—and the specter of racism continues to loom large here. It’s ironic, then, that techno was invented by black artists, and Berlin’s economy owes so much to them.

9 Lessons The World Can Learn From Berlin Detroit techno artists Juan Atkins, Blake Baxter, and Eddie Flashin Fowlkes at Tresor in the '90s.   Photo by GvH/ Tresor
7. Always pay it forward

Since Tresor and Berlin have benefitted so much from Detroit, Hegemann wanted to give something back. Hence his Detroit-Berlin Connection project, which is an attempt to reinvigorate the economically depressed, real-estate flush city of techno’s birth using lessons learned from Berlin’s rise (and the major inspiration for this piece).

The DBC team—including members of Underground Resistance—is initiating the development of a new venue in Detroit, the former Packard Plant, which they also plan to line with locally-owned, independent businesses. They’ve also met with Detroit city officials to present them with their advice and experience. “It's a slow process, it won't happen overnight," says Hegemann. "But if we can manage to convince the decision-makers in Detroit to give space, to change the 2 a.m. curfew—even just a test to 6 a.m.—then investors or owners would also come. Detroit would definitely change in a positive way.”

8. Invest in cultural supporters, not just stars

Alongside the DBC, Hegemann has a whole other side-project, Happy Locals, that is intent on helping spread these kinds of lessons in small cities in Germany. In particular, Happy Locals’ Academy of Subcultural Understanding focuses on young people with the desire and energy to help move scenes and communities forward. They send “coaches” to these communities and will even bring a “prime mover,” as he calls them, to Berlin for hands-on training and advice at his own ventures.

“These prime movers are very important for culture business,"says Hegemann. "They have passion, and they are ready to take risks. And they learn to organize. They are not artists, but they're very important in this machinery. We only take two or three highly motivated young people, around 20 years old. They learn everything in a dual system: all the details how a club, a gallery, a bar or a bigger production works. They get special coaching for three months, and then for an additional six months they work in different departments of our company.” After which they go back to their hometowns and begin their real work in earnest.

9. Clubbers want to go to clubs run by clubbers

Big cities like New York or London can make you feel like you’re being squeezed for every penny. While that’s a reflection of the economic reality of those cities, it often feels like club owners are more concerned with maximizing profits over ideals like music, enjoyment, and nurturing a scene. Berlin clubs, on the other hand, generally feature decent sound systems, less in-your-face drinks branding, and less intrusive security (once you get past the bouncers, of course).

Hermione Frank, aka house and techno artist and DJ rRoxymore, moved here in 2011 from France because "it's less commercial and more low-profile," she tells me. "And it's cheap to buy drinks in clubs, which is amazing. But it's still big business—the whole city lives off of this.” Another thing she appreciates about Berlin nightlife is its respect of privacy: "Cameras are forbidden in most of the clubs. You have the freedom of being yourself without ending up on Instagram the day after. Ten years ago, it might not have been a problem, but today with the intensity of always putting everything on social media, it's really nice for the party to be this bubble cut off from the rest of the world.”


9 Lessons The World Can Learn From Berlin