Author: Peter Nachtnebel
Published:
REPORT. Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, July 2004

Peter Nachtnebel (1975) studied history and politics and works as a free-lance music promoter in Vienna.

 

Tamizdat

“Is there anyone here who, like, knows about music, say someone from the independent scene?”

Ask the Prague/NY culture organisation Tamizdat

For five years now the Prague and New York-based culture organisation, Tamizdat has been making a name for itself as a kind of central switchboard for labels, bands and distributors from the so-called Eastern European reform countries. What started off in 1999 as a non-profit making project has turned out to be so eminently suitable for development that one or two investors could potentially make a small fortune out of it.

The recent expansion of the EU that formally took place on 1 May 2004 means that Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and the six other new member countries are now officially regarded as part of the Western hemisphere. This integration (which is long since a fact in the area of military defence) was rushed through at a breakneck pace on the economic and political levels. In cultural terms it happened equally rapidly – partly as a result of the unrestricted access to Western pop culture in these countries after 1989. Not only were the musical and aesthetic developments of the 1990s perfectly copied and developed in the Eastern European countries, they also left behind – above all in the Czech Republic and Poland –independently functioning national pop industries. Therefore it seemed only a question of time before major record companies would enter this new sector, lend Eastern Pop an appropriate image and integrate it in the global market. At present, from a commercial viewpoint, the situation is rather depressing. If one looks around “well-stocked” music shops and mega-stores the most one generally finds from Eastern Europe – apart from contemporary or experimental music – is klezmer music and music for female choirs in the “world music” section. At a time when, in the area of pop culture, the necessity for the Anglo-American seal of authenticity is gradually yielding to a “globalized” perception of music, “alternative music” from Eastern Europe is still regarded as too unimportant and too hard to sell for it to find its way into music shops in the West.

People need information!
Heather Mount and Matthew Covey, a pair of New Yorkers in their late thirties that christened Tamizdat in the second half of the 1990s, don't exactly see a rosy future for mainstream or alternative bands from the East. They think that the prejudices are simply too strong. “People think of either Beatles cover-bands or of Laibach. But there is so much more!” Matthew emphasizes, berating the ignorance of Western music critics and consumers. Together with Heather he made innumerable trips to Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Hungary and Rumania, formed an overview of the variety of the local scenes in these countries and returned to the USA with stacks of demo-tapes and CDs, but has repeatedly been confronted by a downright rejection of Eastern Pop. Tamizdat wanted to do something about this situation. This is where a story starts that sounds completely matter of course for the Internet age still in its infancy. You meet people, talk to them, discover mutual interests and want to set up an information exchange service and then you put your first website on the Net.

This non-commercial enterprise, initially aimed at providing names, addresses, details of inexpensive hotels, and tour buses, develops into a well-functioning platform that also offers musicians the chance to sell their CDs through tamizdat.org and to organize their concerts – and all more or less free of charge. Encouraging communication was the organisation's primary goal. Tamizdat believe that young bands from, say, Poland should know partners in the next city 50 kilometres away, which was often not the case. A communications deficit that Heather and Matthew see as prototypical for the mess that many Eastern European bands find themselves in. “Far too many people here simply hide their information. How can that ever lead to a music and culture scene that functions on even the most basic level?” ask the bewildered New Yorkers, who – and this is where the early history of Tamizdat starts – in the best American pioneering spirit wanted to get to know the Eastern Frontier and therefore eleven years ago took jobs as English teachers in Trenčín (a town in the newly founded Republic of Slovakia). It wasn't long before they gave up their jobs as they were very busy with their band “Skulpey” and no longer had any interest in answering tedious questions from students about the number of motorcars and televisions in America. The Indie pop band made extensive tours through Slovakia and, after launching their debut CD “Liz” in 1995, returned with their drummer to New York where they continued to practice and organized concerts in the surroundings of the Knitting Factory . Their excellent connections to Polish and Czech communities in Brooklyn led them bringing the avant-garde rockers "Už jsme doma" across the Atlantic for the first time ever and two years later they organized the US tour of the former spearhead of Czech counter-culture, the “Plastic People of the Universe” (for whom Vaclav Havel, among others, once wrote texts).

In the intervening period their longing for Eastern Europe continued to grow until the pair finally decided to fly to Prague, rent a minibus and just drive off into the blue.

Direction: eastwards. Duration: as long as it takes. Purpose of journey: establishing contacts
Matthew: “Okay, we started in Prague and wanted to drive to the next large city, which was Wrocław. We were then in Poland for the first time, we parked our car on the main square and looked for the next music shop. We go inside and ask the staff as naively as perhaps only Americans can: 'Is there anyone here who, like, knows about music, say someone from the independent scene?'” Bullseye! The pair were given the address of one of the key figures in the Polish scene who, somewhat bemused, made them a list with hundreds of places, groups and people they should meet. After driving the length and breadth of Poland they were hardly able to carry the amount of CDs and tapes they had been given and then flew off home again.

Eastploitation?
Back in New York the Tamizdat project was to become more concrete. Analogous to the Samizdat movement that, during the time of the Iron Curtain, distributed critical Eastern European literature in the West by means of matrix copies (Vaclav Havel was one of its members), they called themselves Tamizdat. The simple message behind this made-up name was that it should be just as easy to hear elsewhere music that was originally released (izdat) there (tam). tamizdat. org was intended to function as an intermediary.
A notebook filled with the addresses of people who had similar plans and interests was merely a further incentive to realize the Net project as fast as possible. Then the first difficult questions cropped up: for instance whether they might not unintentionally be carrying out preliminary fieldwork for the major companies who could then drop in to take the pickings. To avoid this danger (and because, after all, the rent has to be paid somehow or other) Tamizdat decided three years ago to become commercial themselves – even though the non-commercial aspect in the form of exchange of information is still a central focus – and expanded into distribution that was built up in Prague and New York. As a major chance for all involved (labels, musicians etc.) they have been attempting for some time to expand into Germany, the world's third largest music market. On the other hand Tamizdat wanted to contact consumers directly which is why they opened a music shop not far from Václavské námĕstí (Wenceslas Square) in Prague that offers the entire Internet catalogue and more. One target group here is interested tourists who want to pick up a few music bargains on a stroll through the old town. Another strategy aimed at encouraging interest in music from Eastern Europe led to cooperation with radio stations, for example with the famous “Resonance FM” from London and “Radio 1” from Frankfurt that presented multipart features about music and culture from the new member countries of the European Union. On “Resonance FM” the organization offers current music and cultural news from the Eastern European area with their own radio show “Tamizdat Radio”. And, as if this weren't enough, there is the opportunity to stay musically up-to-date via “Radio Free Tamizdat”, a 24-hour online broadcaster. Recently they have been working on building up an “Archive of Central and Eastern European Dissident Music” that will document the history of pop culture behind the “Iron Curtain”. Tamizdat wants in this way to get back to its roots as an idealistic, non-profit making enterprise, which has brought in 10,000 dollars from the funds of the American company NESsT that they intend to use for a UNO project.

The future of this rapidly expanding enterprise is more than exciting. American pioneering spirit, paired with a healthy dose of idealism – which is also manifested in their collaboration with NGOs – as well as good business ideas have produced excellent results so far. A regular look at www.tamizdat.org will convince you of this fact.