Setting out to investigate the health of the budapest music scene i found the body to be frail, but the pulse strong.
Hungary is a small country. It has no industry, no… nothing. But it’s still a pretty good place to live. Nooneknowswhy.Soundfamiliar?Youmight have heard it from any of those merrily disenchanted, young Hungarians responsible for Budapest’s formidable energy and eclectic culture.
When it comes to music, there’s plenty to feel disenchanted about. While talent and enthusiasm abound, it appears the city lacks the fertile soil in which it can flourish. Today, there are perhaps as few as 10 bands and 10 DJs able to make a living out of their music nationwide (‘commercial’ music notwithstanding). A successful album will sell, at best, a mere 4,000 hard copies. Like any other industry, music has been through hard times of late. “Things now suck”, even for Csabi Kalotás, whose Realistic Crew are one of only a handful of bands to have gained notoriety outside Hungary.
But it’s not just a cash flow problem. The platform for a genuinely innovative and vibrant music scene simply isn’t there. How so? Try the short-sightedness of profit-hungry bar owners unwilling to accommodate (and reluctant to pay) DJs with new sounds, or the absence of any meaningful music press, or the shortage of sizeable venues dedicated to live music, or even apathy. As Kalotás puts it, this city has “a blossoming of underground culture” but “people don’t dare risk trying out new things.” The acts are turning up, but is the crowd?
Balazs Pandi is a booking agent at A38 (The Boat), easily one of Budapest’s best and most important venues, supporting Hungarian music as well as bringing big names to the city. “People used to whine about this and that band not coming here, that we’re not on the map. Now I think we’ve reached a point where we have a lot more to offer people but they still don’t come out to support things.”
It comes down to a simple fact; music, like the other arts, needs support. Be it to afford the calibre of artists who regularly tour in Vienna, Berlin, or Prague, or just to provide the home-grown talent with enough pocket money to break even. But this might be too much to ask of the city’s young and underfunded party-goers, inclined to drink only slightly more than they’re disinclined to pay entry fees.
And why pay for entry when there’s so much to see for free? Budapest rightly deserves its reputation as a city with a vibrant cultural life. You need only glance at one of the listings magazines to see just how much there is to see and do. But with so much going on, so many alternatives, no wonder competition has created a culture of free-entry. As a plus, the city is awash with opportunities for people to play their music… as long as they’ll do so for free. Such opportunity in turn spawns legions of new acts jumping at the chance for a spot on a stage. While this is a great thing for nurturing talent, it has nonetheless created a vast and proliferating artistic underclass, a musical mass struggling for the love of what they do and largely ignored.
THE EASTERN BLOKK
Magyar Dal Napja (Hungarian Song Day) took place earlier this month. It was a nationwide, daylong festival celebrating Hungarian music in dozens of venues across the country. I took myself along to Keleti Blokk (Eastern Block), and stumbled upon a most unique and encouraging creative enterprise.
The project is housed across three floors of an old ELTE university building and is described by one of its founders, Leo Menyhart, as a ‘factory’. The old offices and lecture rooms, some 2,000 square metres of them, have been converted into studio spaces made available to rent to artists of all kinds. In the last two years nearly one hundred bands, producers, artists and photographers have moved in, each with a dedicated workspace all of their own. The rent is low, set per m2, calculated to cover the buildings overheads and no more. The spirit of the place is one of community, costs and ideas are shared alike, collaboration and creativity prosper. But, as Menyhart wanted to make clear, “this is not a hippie place. It’s not for concerts, not for parties, it is a work place.”
By his reckoning, Keleti Blokk is now home to over 50% of the ‘important’ music produced in Hungary today. In bringing them together they have established “probably the best creating place in Hungary or even in Europe”. Menyhart’s demure enthusiasm was infectious. This ‘factory’, this commonwealth of creativity, is a kind of creative life-raft, keeping artists afloat in troubled seas. An underground Ark. Or better yet, the beating heart of Budapest’s independent music scene.
‘THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN’
If Keleti Blokk and the enthusiasm of its members gives reason to hope, there’s also an air of pessimism about the future of music (this is Hungary after all). With some acts, mainly DJs, allegedly giving up on the idea of success here and instead looking to the more developed tastes in the West, is Hungary in danger of a cultural brain drain? If Budapest is to establish itself as a genuine hub for music in Europe, the city needs to recognize its own potential, shake off its scepticism and embrace the new. Are you ready to be part of the change?
– Look out for the venue, Anker, opened in association with Keleti Blokk, dedicated to putting on the best, freshest live acts and DJs every night of the week. Fotos, courtesy of Leo Menyhart.