Making a Szene

As regular Vienna rock and pop concert-goers will know, there are few better places to experience live music in this city than the Szene Wien. This year, however, has seen a change of management and a clash of cultures at the Szene that raises questions about the city’s commitment to alternative forms of artistic expression.

Over the past 20 years or so, this 500-capacity hall in the far-flung environs of the 11th district has established itself as the most reliable and respected medium-sized rock venue in the city. The Szene received a shot in the arm in 2000 with the extension of the U3 eastbound to Simmering. Before then it was a pain to get to by public transport, requiring a lengthy journey on the snail-like tram 71. But even in those days audiences would make the effort to get there, attracted by the friendly alternative vibe of the place, the excellent acoustics in the hall, the simple but reliable home cooking available at the bar and the large unkempt garden at the back. Above all, though, people went to the Szene because of the music, an eclectic mix of indie rock, avant-garde noise, world music, hip-hop and reggae. The Szene was controlled from City Hall and given generous levels of funding which allowed its defiantly uncommercial programming to continue. And the city operated a light-touch policy, enabling the local management team to concentrate on building a remarkable level of loyalty and goodwill among audiences.

One kind of music that was rarely heard at the Szene was heavy metal. However, fans of this eternally unfashionable genre were happily catered for across town at Planet Music in the 20th district. Even more of a challenge to reach by public transport than the Szene, Planet Music was by any standards a dingy and unattractive place – the only venue in Vienna that conformed to the British model of ugly, smelly halls covered in sponsorship logos, with unfriendly staff and crap, overpriced beer served in flimsy plastic glasses. For years the place subsisted on a diet of metal gigs, tribute nights and battle-of-the-bands contests, with occasional forays into alternative rock and pop. Those few exceptions were invariably poorly attended, unsurprisingly so given Planet Music’s image and reputation. When experimental folk pioneers Six Organs of Admittance played there earlier this year, no more than 50 people turned up; had they played at the Szene instead, the place would have been bursting at the seams. Ironically, these two diametrically opposed venues were set on a collision course.

Back at the Szene, the city funders were getting worried. Audience numbers were down from 32,000 in 2004 to 27,000 in 2007, a decrease of 15%. Only 44% of the Szene’s available nights were being utilised. Hard commercial realities were beginning to intrude, and in May 2008 the city took drastic action. They brought in the Planet Music management team, led by experienced music industry insider Josef “Muff” Sopper, to run the Szene. Under Austrian employment law, the new management would have been obliged to retain the Szene’s existing staff for a period of time; however, the existing staff chose not to work with the new management, and instead resigned en masse. Planet Music the venue closed down (a loss that few will mourn) and transferred its operations to the Szene.

As a result the Szene’s programme is changing significantly, and with it the character of the venue. There has been an influx of heavy metal and local-type gigs at a venue that rarely used to book them. The City Hall and the new management undertook not to abandon the Szene’s existing style of programming, insisting that the utilisation of the venue would increase to 80% and that alternative/world/indie gigs would be retained alongside the kind of gigs that were previously the stock-in-trade of Planet Music. As Alfred Wihalm of Planet Music points out, the programme for the rest of 2008 is split roughly one-third each way between alternative/indie/experimental, world/ethnic/reggae and hard rock/metal gigs. And certainly the new bookers of alternative and world music, Wihalm and Claudia Köstl, have a wealth of knowledge and experience in their respective fields. But the alternative and experimental music schedule contains fewer internationally recognised names than it did before the takeover, an ominous trend given that autumn is normally a very busy time for high-profile touring bands from the US and UK. Some of those artists are instead appearing at the WUK in the 9th district, a venue that seems to be raising its game in response to the changes at the Szene.

Quite apart from the apparent marginalisation of avant-garde and alternative music signalled by the takeover, it is the manner in which it was carried out that has upset many. A petition calling for the old Szene team to be reinstated has attracted 3,700 signatures, a remarkable number for a minority issue of this kind. Vienna-based photographer David Murobi, one of the signatories, points out that there was no open competition for the management of the Szene – the city handed the job to Sopper without giving anyone else a chance to apply for it. Alfred Wihalm says that Planet Music never wanted the old Szene team to resign, and in fact expected to retain their experience and expertise in running the venue. As well as being entitled to keep their jobs for a certain period (an entitlement they chose not to take up), the old team were offered jobs elsewhere within the city’s entertainment arm.

Murobi adds that the appointment of Sopper, who also runs the Gasometer venue and the annual Donauinselfest, further feeds an undesirable monopoly of music booking in Vienna. After the ill feeling generated by the takeover has died down, people will be looking carefully at the programme of the Szene to see whether Planet Music sticks to its promises not to sell out the special character of the venue. The problem for the new management is that in taking over the venue, they are faced with the daunting task of measuring up to public expectations based entirely on the standards set by the previous team. The new management faces a difficult challenge in trying to convince Vienna’s concert-goers that the future of the Szene is in safe hands.

(This article was originally published in the October 2008 issue of Ether.)

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