Bis auf’s Messer
Berlin’s Bis auf’s Messer emporium has all bases covered. From two rooms in the Eastern borough of Friedrichshain, Robert and Stefan run a store and a mailorder operation, they organize gigs, and not one, but two labels: Stefan’s label is Vendetta, while Robert is head of the Adagio 830 imprint. Before visiting the store for the first time a few weeks ago, I had only been a regular mailorder customer. After one hour in the store I was already considering doing a feature for Foxy Digitalis, after another hour on the listening sofa I knew I would do it. By then it was 4pm and the small store was buzzing – on a Monday afternoon. All record players were taken, so Robert was in high demand to comment on releases he had just gotten in. And while his passion as a music dealer was obvious, he commented rather skeptically on most of the things people showed him. “Uh, this is typical singer/songwriter fare. I like it but the guy has already got some 17 albums out so it’s getting a bit repetitive.“ “Yes, this is very limited but I was shocked when I heard the price.“ “I love this project but a new release every other week is a bit much.“ Personally, I can’t think of any better sellling strategy than such authentic honesty. I left the store with a stack of vinyl, from Maurizio Bianchi (on Weird Forest) and Bruce McClure (on Olde English Spelling Bee) to the new Ättestupa (on Release the Bats), a Caskets Open lp (on Streaks) and the Rene Hell tape on Night People. There aren’t many shops in Europe that cater for such a wide range of interests. And I wasn’t even looking at the Crust/Hardcore section, which is a vital part of the store.
What, apart from my money, is the fuel that keeps Stefan’s and Robert’s engines going? To answer this question, and many more, Robert and Stefan spent two entire afternoons in conversation with Foxy Digitalis, via email. Thank you, guys!
Robert: We sold the HOOVER LP that Dischord just reissued, a Home Blitz 7", the new Hex Dispensers 7" and the new Julian Lynch 7" /CD – that’s four. Oops ...
Robert: It’s actually taken from a German saying "bis aufs Messer kämpfen", which means to fight til the bloody end. When we started the shop there had been some bad blood in town with two other record stores that weren´t happy that we openend up a store after I had been doing mailorder for so long.
Stefan: We try to focus on "underground" / diy related music, as we would like to give people the opportunity to get music they cannot find in chain stores and we love to deal with diy people, as we still see ourselves as part of this scene, so we want to support those people as much as possible.
Robert: We had labels / mailorder etc. before the shop opened up. The labels are still going strong and we still love to release records like at day one. Besides that we try to book tours for our bands, help them out with getting merch printed and from time to time we have instore shows, artshows and readings in the store.
We both think that networking is pretty important and that everything relies on each other. The whole DIY spirit is still the main thing that everything is built on ...
Sometimes its does get a bit tricky to coordinate all these things – but we try to stay on top and also say sometimes "NO" :)
Robert: Stefan and I have known each other for almost 10 years. We both grew up in the early / mid 90s punk / hardcore community, we were both setting up shows, did fanzines, took pictures at shows etc ... My label Adagio 830 started in 1995 with a release of an LP by friends – I think there were like 8 labels involved since we were all short of money. But getting that record out, starting to know new people, getting the record around, trading it, selling it etc. – and getting the feeling you give something back to the community you took so much from – all of that was great and I couldn´t stop. So more and more releases came out, the distro got bigger, I typed mailorder lists with my typewriter and mailed them out etc ... so now here we are in our record store ... you can say "a dream came true".
Stefan was also running a small distro and a label: Vendetta. He released records with my band and somehow one day we got the idea of opening a store. The mailorder I was running got too big, so a lot of stuff was lying around in my appartment and we both weren´t too happy with our situation as college students. So we put our stuff together and looked for a nice spot, which we found pretty fast and here we are – 4 years later and the store is getting more and more packed. We both love a lot of different stuff, which makes it sometimes a bit difficult to cover all genres we like – but on the other hand it helps us to focus on a big variation of stuff ...
I still consider myself a punk in how I see things and how I work as a label etc. – cause I really hate all that semi professional schnickschnack that got practiced over the last couple years ... For me this whole DIY idea is still what I can rely on most of the time and that is still where my passion is. I think music without passion is dead and if you don´t have the passion about the things you are doing – there is no reason to continue.
Robert: There are all those small labels that want to do it super professionally and think there is no other way – but most of them fail. I mean, all those stupid promo sheets etc ... It’s more like a big bubble and nothing really behind it. Like small labels that have one release and that did just start but play the game like the big ones, as if they were Universal. I don´t wanna say names but maybe you know what I mean ...
It’s about how to handle the business of your label, about what your ethics are. Also, a lot of new bands don´t see anymore that you have to work for your success. They want the full package from the beginning: a full length, a world tour, 4 colored shirts and all that. There are so many bands that don´t release demo tapes anymore etc ... you know what I mean?
Robert: I think the DIY scene got a bit more professional – if you can say it like that. It has good and bad sides. For me punk and DIY was never an excuse to deliver a cheap-looking or a low quality product.
DIY and punk should be the opportunity to do things right in a way you want and that gives you the full influence on the product you wanna release.
In the last years with internet etc. a lot has changed. More things got more accessible for more people. It’s easier to find out where to press records, distribute them etc., which is pretty cool because you don´t rely on big distributors anymore and you can a do a lot of stuff direct – which is pretty important to us as a label still. It keeps records etc. cheaper if there are a not many middle men involved that wanna make their cut.
On the other hand – tons of new labels started and millions of records get pressed that have to get sold and for us as a store it’s sometimes hard to filter all those new releases for quality releases. As we all know, according to the labels all new records "are the best records ever" :)
Stefan: It's way easier to get in touch with people nowadays through the internet. We made a lot of new friends and met a lot of good bands / labels. On the other hand things are sometimes too fast, relationships need some time to develop and since it's so easy to get in touch with someone now, it's easy to lose them again. The diy scene is still the same, it got more professional, in a good way, and it developed a lot, like there are people who make noise music nowadays, and are still part of the diy community, or sludge or ambient. The musical horizons developed a lot, which makes it all the more interesting.
On the other hand, as I said before, there are labels / bands coming out of nowhere and they use our community for their "business"... and as soon as they get "big" – they forget where they came from or who helped them in the beginning ...
Robert: We both love vinyl and we both think CDs are crap and a cheap, dumb format. Maybe dumb is the wrong word but I think the way it is used and sold sucks. The pressing of a CD costs almost nothing compared to an LP but the CD gets sold for almost the same and sometimes for even more than the vinyl release. CDs are made for mass production and high profit, with – most of the time – awful layout.
CDs would be cool if they were sold for a low price – like 5 euros or whatever. That would be fair and would still even out the production costs.
Also, the vinyl record is a long-lasting, beautiful object that you can hold and with a cover that gives space to the artist. You can feel something and it sounds and feels warm – even if that sounds too dramatic. But it’s just the perfect format and you have to put some effort in it to play it ... It’s made for people that love music and we love music – which brings us back to the passion thing. That’s what music should be about and the vinyl record can hold the passion best because you have to put much more effort into pressing a nice lp than a cd.
Robert: Yes, but we had been focusing on vinyl & tapes all the time. Even when CDs got big for a while and some records didn´t get released on vinyl anymore. I never bought CDs for the distro. All the stuff I loved got released on vinyl anyway, most of the time. So I never cared when no one cared about vinyl. As I said it’s one of the best formats – I mean look at a 7" and a CDep. Haha!
Of course vinyl sells better again and it’s great to see people start buying vinyl again and regret that they sold their turntable for cheap and now have to buy a new one :)
This shows that quality lasts forever. Trends will come and go but quality survives. After all, people still care about Kraftwerk, Iron Maiden, Cluster, and Madonna.
Robert: When we started the store mailorder was around 70% and the store was like 30%. Now it’s like 50/50. It’s just sometimes funny that we sell totally different stuff in our shop than in the mailorder. The stuff we sell in the mailorder is more obscure and in the store it’s more average stuff or it sells later than through mailorder. Its seems the "trend" picks up later in the store than in the mailorder.
Stefan: We're very lucky since Berlin got very trendy in the last couple of years, so a lot of people want to spend their vacation in town. A lot of them come along to our store and I think for some people we are at the very top of the list of things to do in Berlin. And maybe we got a bit of a name as a good store... which is nice and we really appreciate all the support.
Robert: That is true. There have been some rough times and lots of ups and downs over the years. The "golden years" are definitely over for stores and for music as a sold product. We try never to be too whiny. I think a plus for us as a store is that we both are used to low income and that our girlfriends also both have jobs :)
It’s definitely more difficult than it used to be. There are so many records and new releases every week and it’s hard to stay on top sometimes. Records got more pricey over the last years with all those extras, super limited runs etc. and people have to think twice what they buy and how much they can spend every month. We always have to be aware that we sell a luxury product and if people lose their jobs or whatever they start making a cut, starting with culture and those kinda things.
We try hard to focus on our customers’ needs and try to focus on service. I think there are so many unfriendly and unhelpful record store owners out there, who always think they know better and the customer is always wrong or doesn´t have enough knowledge. There is, for example, a store in Berlin that kicks you out if you start browsing through the cheapo section. That’s lame ...
As for a perspective: We want to stay in business, meet more new people, get more records, open up more genres, find interesting new bands / records, do new art shows. Release more stuff and have more instore shows. There really is a need for a nice showplace in Berlin for small acts.
Robert: I think there are just 3 cities in Germany I could imagine living in (Leipzig, Hamburg and Berlin). In Berlin a lot is going on and lots of people still move here. However, a lot of not so cool things come along with it. Rent and other expenses are getting higher and it’s much harder to get small part time jobs because of the demand etc. A lot of places had to close down because of that or because of people that moved here to experience the "urban lifestyle" but can´t handle the things that come with it, like noise – which kind of sucks.
It has indeed gotten harder to set up small shows but there are a still lots of great places that host sweet underground shows like the Madame Claude, the NK, some new Bars etc., and then for bigger but still underground bands we’ve got the West Germany etc. The BangBangClub has more and more "trend" punk shows going on.
In the end it’s a great city to do your thing as an artist because there are still more possibilities than in other towns – sometimes we just forget about them because we may be a bit spoiled with all that is happening.
But I think Stefan might have more to say since he is one of the few original Berliners :)
Stefan: Berlin's scene has changed a lot, especially in the last 5 years. There are so many people who just come here for a while and then move on. You can see people for some months and then they disappear again... Sometimes we learn about artists from Berlin through distros or zines in foreign countries, as there is no real "scene" anymore, as everything is too fast in my opinion. It’s weird if you find out about bands that rehearse like 10 minutes from here but you’ve never even seen the people before.
There used to be tons of good venues, but most of them had to close down for several reasons, but still there is a lot of good stuff going on, and you have the chance to see something interesting every day if you really want to and keep your eyes open.
Robert: I don´t know if I ever made a top 3 list. I´m not a fan of that stuff :) I like so much different music and it changes all the time ... still loving Bruce Springsteen though :)
MELVINS / ISIS split LP,
ZOLA JESUS / LA VAMPIRES LP,
TOUCH & GO Book
Robert: V/A “Cold Waves And Minimal Electronics Vol. 1“ DLP, and Expo 70 CD
Stefan: Laibach "opus dei"
Robert: Thanks a lot for your support and of course say Hi when you are town. Hit us up if you wanna play our store or have something interesting that might fit in our store... and keep up listening to good music :)
-- Jan-Arne Sohns (1 September, 2010)