The engine of the new economy - Monocolumn | Monocle


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13 December 2009

If it’s true that information is the only natural resource Germany has to offer, then Berlin is quickly moving from the equivalent of mining city to refinery. Over 26,000 companies operate in the German capital’s creative economy, turning over more than €21bn a year. Some of them have now started to invent the culture industry’s new infrastructure, processing all those raw ideas floating around Mitte cafés, as well as serving the needs of artists and publishers around the world.

If you are a musician today, chances are you will work with hugely popular software Live that was created by the Berlin company Ableton. It runs on a laptop, replaces expensive recording studios and lets you tinker with songs at home, or in an airport lounge. Once you are happy with your opus you will probably use SoundCloud, a new online platform, to publish it. Here, you can upload big chunks of music-data for free and share it with the world. SoundCloud was started by two young Stockholmers in 2007 – in Berlin.

Perhaps the sector of the cultural industry that’s undergoing the fastest change these days is book publishing, with e-books opening up new distribution channels but also questioning the entire business model. Two of the most innovative start-ups in the sector are, again, from the city of bohemian tech-enthusiasts.

Textunes is based in the city’s Kreuzberg district and is run by Volker Oppmann who also publishes beautifully crafted art-books under the imprint, Onkel&Onkel. Back in 2008 he was thinking about how he could get his books on to the iPhone but couldn’t find any suitable technology. So Oppmann started Textunes and quickly became the go-to guy for major German publishers wanting to transfer their catalogues onto handheld devices. “I love paper books,” says Oppmann, “but on a smartphone you can carry your library with you while commuting or travelling. Also, authors can add audio and video.”

Unlike the US, where e-book-sales tripled this year, bringing in $46.5m between July and September alone, the German market is much slower. One reason is local publishers’ price-fixing for books that doesn’t allow for any discounts, often making e-books as expensive as paper ones. In addition, Amazon offers no German-language e-books by major publishers for its reading device, the Kindle – yet. Finally, the strongest demographic of book-buyers in Germany is over 50 and, according to a recent study, favours small bookshops. Only 65,000 e-books have been sold in the first half of 2009. With new reading devices numbers are expected to pick up soon, though.

Fittingly, Berlin’s latest culture-tech export is the e-book reader, txtr, on sale from 15 December for €300. Users will be able to download books wirelessly on to the slim, white device, just as with its famous competitor Kindle. But perhaps reflecting the capital’s free spirit, txtr will not lock readers into one shop or format but rather display all kinds of digital text. It lets users share reading lists and recommend books, articles or even quotes to friends, thus creating a collaborative experience. While paper may always be the superior technology for reading alone at home, book clubs of the future can be online and global. And that’s thanks to Berlin’s tech stars.


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