The Micro Boys slip on stage almost unnoticed. Eventually, the 60-strong crowd shuffle forward through the haze of cigarette smoke to look at the band on the small stage in the back of Berlin’s Magnet Club. A boyish-looking 42-year-old wearing white trousers and a tank top chaperones his wife and 14-year-old daughter through the fug as the Micro Boys wail into their first chorus. Tim Renner squints as he begins sorting out the young band’s mix of rock and electro, looking for gaps and judging whether they might be worth signing to his label, Motor Music or playing on his radio station, Motor FM.
“The audience here is a Motor FM audience, that’s why it’s interesting,” says Renner, surrounded by twentysomethings in skinny jeans and T-shirts who have come out to one of Motor’s monthly music nights. “It’s not a spectacular, but a sensible tool to test a band.”
In more than 20 years in the music business, Renner’s appraisals have made the careers of everyone from Germany’s successfully exported heavy metal giants, Rammstein to the techno DJ Mark ’Oh. His love for alternative music movements, from punk to techno to indie rock, and gift for earning money out of them, contributed to his rise from a radio and print journalist to the CEO’s chair at Universal Music Germany in 2001, at the age of 37. Now, three years after he abdicated his throne at the height of the music industry crisis in 2004, Renner’s new project is both a return to his underground roots and a response to industry upheaval.
Equal parts record label, music news site, radio station and music video platform, Motor is a “next generation” music company made possible by the spread of broadband internet and the sinking costs of production and distribution. At a time when major labels are scrambling to hold on to their disappearing might and looking for new revenue streams, Renner is convinced digitalisation will offer niche artists as much chance at success as the Coldplays and Kanye Wests of this world.
Together with his wife, Petra Husemann-Renner, and partners Mona Rübsamen, a former MTV executive, and Markus Kühn, a music and marketing consultant, Renner’s project aims to link the analogue and digital world and create a profitable and authentic brand in the coming flood of MP3s and music sites.
With almost everyone technically able to put together an album, record a video and broadcast both online, Motor offers budding artists and their fans a one-stop shop channelling the spirit of the underground on to a massive platform.
“Our project lives between the traditional, analogue and digital media worlds and is a springboard for getting people into the online world,” says Rübsamen.
Listeners tuning into Motor FM at work or in the car can later download music or podcasts from the motor.de website. Those more predisposed to streaming radio on their desktop can turn to Motor FM to filter the glut and pick out the gems. Viewers can turn to Motor TV to watch both established and unknown acts, and bands can upload their own videos for consideration.
Sales from music downloads on the website and marketing collaborations with companies that sponsor hours on Motor FM, cover the station’s costs. With digital rights management soon to become a thing of the past, Kühn expects motor.de’s download sales to rise. Until recently, the station was loath to run ads, preferring to maintain its underground cachet.
“We want to reach the kids in the back of the school bus, the ones far from the authority of the teachers,” says Renner, who has the wry humour of a Berliner and the polished delivery of a PowerPoint-versed executive. “We want the opinion leaders, not the rest of the bus.”
Given the global upheaval in both the music market and radio industry, observers see big prospects for Renner’s idea. Labels that were once able to dictate taste thanks to their control of everything from the production of music to the marketing and distribution of their artists, are seeing their grip loosened by MP3s. Most radio, once an important platform for new talent, is a turgid promise of the hits of the 1980s, 1990s and the best from today. A situation that, despite the considerable taxpayer-financed budgets of German public radio, plagues the country.
“You’re more likely to hear a new band on a blog or on MySpace,” says Gerd Leonhard, a technology consultant and expert on the future of the radio industry. But in Germany, radio’s potential is still considerable thanks to a strong analogue audience. Unlike the UK and the US, Germany is dragging its heels on digitalisation, ensuring a closed, regional market for some years to come.
With Motor FM on air in Berlin and Stuttgart, and plans for the southern state of Rhineland-Pfalz, Renner can spend the next few years building up a loyal group of listeners, and unearthing new bands for Motor Music.
“If we force growth we also increase the costs, and the higher the costs the less freedom we have to do what we want,” says Renner. “I prefer developing things slowly, but thoroughly.”
Launched during the music trade fair, Popkomm, in Berlin in September 2004, Motor FM debuted with provocative ads trumpeting its underground commitment. “Plague. Cholera. Mainstream,” read posters, inferring the last would soon go the way of the preceding two in the western world. A TV spot showed a panicked stewardess bursting into the cockpit of a terrorist-hijacked plane in order to change the radio dial to Motor.
Before they moved to decidedly slicker offices in Berlin’s Mitte, the station was broadcast out of cramped rooms in an old factory building in the multicultural neighbourhood of Kreuzberg. Motor FM DJs worked out of an improvised radio booth powered from an outlet in the women’s bathroom across the hall.
In its short existence, Motor FM has managed to build up a respectable listener base. Around 16,000 Berliners an hour tune in, 8,000 an hour in Stuttgart and more than 23,000 an hour online, according to Kühn. In July, Motor FM was included in the bi-annual Media Analysis study, by the non-profit group ag.ma for the first time, and made quite a debut. Motor listeners in Berlin represented a quarter of those tuning into established market leaders like Energy and Kiss FM.
Hunched behind flat screens that have miraculously found space on cluttered desks, programme planners Ueli Häflinger and Lars Winkler sort through promo CDs, websites, blogs and MySpace pages in their search for new music. The emphasis is on independent rock, pop, punk and electronic sounds, both known and obscure. A typical Motor playlist might include the Björk-esque duo of American sisters CocoRosie next to early 1990s German indie-rock group Tocotronic, alongside an unknown such as Polarkreis 18, a band of electro-rocking twentysomethings signed to Motor.
Though Motor FM features many new foreign artists, Winkler and Häflinger make sure that around a quarter of the music played is made in Germany and that a portion of that is made up of new releases from unsigned bands.
“There are people that love to look for songs on the net but the masses are grateful, I think, when someone can take them by the hand and show them,” says Häflinger. Motor FM’s mix has won it a global online audience for its live streams and podcasts, and Gerd Leonhard thinks it might not be too long before they begin offering broadcasts in other languages in order to break into new markets. “I bet you money, before too long Motor will be in French and English. This is really about their expertise.”
Few things have been as helpful to Motor as Renner’s glamour factor. The son of a Bible publisher, Renner initially signed on as an artist and repertoire manager at Polygram in order to gather material for a muckraking book on the record industry. But Renner never got around to writing the book. Instead, he soon proved adept at using the power of a major label to discover and exploit the potential in niche music scenes.
When he signed the Teutonic heavy-metal band Rammstein – who went on to sell 2.4 million albums in the US – his reputation as a hit-maker was guaranteed. Even Der Spiegel mourned Renner’s departure from the top spot at Universal, commenting that it, “marks a new low point in the German music industry’s crisis.” In a cathartic book entitled Death Is Not So Bad, Renner chose a biblical metaphor to describe his resignation: he, as Adam, being banned from paradise by God. Renner now explains that God, “was the team from Boston Consulting”.
Renner’s flair for self-righteousness and savvy at self-promotion have earned him more than a few critics, some of whom see Motor as little more than a vanity project. “He has to rescue his own heroism in the whole thing,” says Markus Giesler, a marketing professor at Toronto’s York University who has followed Renner’s career. “He used to be the rebel but the world has changed so much that his rebel status is under scrutiny.”
“It’s a high-wire act,” admits Renner. “But we hope it won’t get as unfunny as quickly as it did at Universal,” he adds with a smile. Given the turbulence of the industry in which Motor is trying to position itself, Renner’s calm is puzzling. Then again, he seems happier managing a company that can both respond quickly to his vision and grow without the profit pressures of a major. Along the way, he’s once again able to burn the midnight oil watching bands he’s interested in, in musty clubs that remind him of the punk dives of his youth. Although nowadays, it’s more likely to be a family night out – with daughter Viktoria in tow.
“She’s interested in it, and we have her third boyfriend to thank for that,” he says, ordering another Becks before joining his family in the crowd. “She was in a rebel phase and dated a hockey player, then an American football player and the third was, thank god, a guitarist in a punk band. We were both, like, “phew”.
Six of the best: Monocle’s recommended radio
KCRW — Santa Monica, California
Listeners: 458,000 (broadcast); 306,000 (web).
Home of Nic Harcourt’s trendsetting Morning Becomes Eclectic show.
Nova — Paris
Listeners: 1.3m (broadcast); 75,000 (web).
Broadcast from a leafy courtyard, Nova showcases the best of music and culture.
FM4 — Vienna
Listeners: 2.1m (broadcast); 200,000 (web).
FM4’s youthful audience get current affairs and music in German, English and French.
Triple J — Sydney
Listeners: 968,000 (broadcast); 41,250 (web).
Launched in 1975, Triple J was the first Australian station to have a female DJ.
Pandora — Oakland, California
8m users; 2.5m listeners a month (web only).
Pandora’s “Music Genome Project” matches songs to your taste.
Last.fm — London
15m listeners per month (web only).
Listeners “scrobble” – say what they’re into to refine the service and link up users.