Interview with Music-business Expert Peter Draxl
How is the Austrian market for Schlager and pop-folk music developing?
Compared to other sectors in the industry it’s doing well, because it hasn’t been hit by the general drop in sales figures to such an extreme extent. The reason for this is that Schlager and folk-music fans tend to be more rural than urban and are older. They’re not as into technology, downloads aren’t as important in their category, they’re more physically oriented and want something they can hold in their hands.
Then I don’t understand why the sales of Schlager and folk music CDs have remained stable at about 9% of the industry total.
I don’t understand it either, because it’s significantly higher at our company and at Sony. You could say that we’re the leaders in the Schlager and folk music sector, and our share is 25-30%. And it’s grown over the past few years.
In what way have the shares shifted at your company?
I don’t have any figures at the moment, but in the past decade the total volume of CD sales has dropped by about half, while Schlager and folk music has stayed about the same. That can also be seen in the charts. When you look at the Austrian album charts from 10 or 15 years ago to see who was in the Top 20 and count the Schlager artists, there were a lot fewer than today, because the share sometimes goes up to 50-70% in the Top 20 now.
Schlager and pop-folk music are normally lumped together. Do record companies differentiate between the two genres?
We do. Some artists don’t want to be pigeonholed as pop folk, but as Schlager artists. We have a simple way to differentiate in house: Whoever wears traditional clothing does pop folk, otherwise they’re put with the Schlager (laughs). So the Nockalm Quintett, in their white suits, are Schlager artists, and the Junge Zillertaler and Marc Pircher are pop folk.
That’s hard to decide, with what Marc wears.
When he wears a typical Zillertal vest, he’s a pop-folk artist, and when he doesn’t put one on the next day, he’s a Schlager singer (laughs). You can’t really decide in terms of the music. The type of language or dialect they use might be another way to decide. Although most pop-folk musicians sing in High German these days.
How has the public changed over the years?
The public remained the same, then there was the great Gabalier effect, which attracted young people to pop-folk music.
Do young people listen to Andreas Gabalier exclusively or are they going to concerts of other folk and Schlager musicians too?
They’ve always gone to these events because there wasn’t anything else near where they live—and that’s still the case. When you live in Ybbs or somewhere deep in Styria, you have to take what’s available—and for generations that’s been Schlager and folk music. Because somebody like Bon Jovi or Robbie Williams isn’t going to perform there. But now, these young people have found their own star whose albums they can buy, and whose concerts they can go to, and they get themselves a Dirndl at the Eduscho chain and wear it to show how cool they think it is: That’s the Gabalier effect. Gabalier has in a way replaced Robbie Williams as the sex symbol for kids (laughs). But I don’t think—and believing isn’t the same as knowing, but it looks that way so far—that these teenagers and young adults are going to start buying the Kastelruther Spatzen next.
Why haven’t I seen any copycats trying to profit from this Gabalier effect?
There are some, but they aren’t becoming popular, the media makes sure of that. Copying someone has never been a good plan. You have to come up with something new, something that no one else has. There are always some people who don’t understand that.
Does that mean that if Gabalier disappeared right now, everything would go back to the way it was? No long-term effects?
He has definitely lowered the threshold: In completely normal big-city companies you now see important decision-makers wearing traditional jackets because it’s socially acceptable again. Five years ago you were considered an idiot (laughs), a hick. In that way Gabalier has definitely contributed to a cultural change.
Lots of people say that because of the shrinking CD market the business with live music is becoming increasingly important for musicians, though there aren’t any statistics to prove this.
That’s hard to determine because people don’t make their figures available, of course. But I know what our artists earn from live performances, or some of them, and of course the sales figures from CDs. You could say that roughly three fourths are made with live performances and merchandising and one fourth with CD sales.
How has this ratio shifted over the past ten years?
Fifteen years ago CDs were the main income stream. At that time the ratio was two thirds CD sales and one third live performances and merchandise. So the live and merchandise income has become predominant.
Is that why Universal is entering other areas of marketing?
Yes, of course that’s the reason. We want to have our piece of this pie. Because through album production we ensure that the artist is covered by the media—and the artist in a way cleans up through successful live tours that we don’t get anything from. Actually, that’s what’s behind these 360 models: After prefinancing a campaign we want part of what’s made through the value-added chain. Instead of just paying into something and then coming out empty handed (laughs).
Are these 360 models now the general trend?
Yes. Fifteen, twenty years ago the music industry didn’t really care, when everybody was making tons of money, because most of the public wanted to buy copies of their albums as CDs. But we care now!
Marc Pircher is extremely active and does most things himself. Is that a problem for the company?
Not at all, it’s a huge asset. The worst thing that can happen to a record company is an artist who signs a contract and then leans back and waits for something to happen. You can’t become successful that way, a record contract isn’t an excuse to be a couch potato, that’s when the real work begins. An artist like Marc is the best thing that can happen to us as a record company, someone who has as much energy as a nuclear power plant and is willing to work, who races around at top speed. An unbelievable person!
But it’s difficult to calmly consider strategy at that pace. Doesn’t that make it easy to not notice when it’s time for a change?
As long as you’re successful at what you do—and Marc is extremely successful—you don’t need to change a thing. You just have to take a break once in a while and think about where you come from, where you belong, how long this success can last, and when you have to reinvent yourself so that you continue to be successful in the future. You can ride a wave for a few years, or even quite a few years, but sooner or later there comes a time to change, though it’s never the same for every artist. Of course, there are some artists—and they’re the exceptions—who are successful because they stay the same. The Amigos, for example, have been doing the same thing for twenty years and that’s why they’re successful, because there’s a certain amount of permanence. You know what you’re getting, and it doesn’t change. That can be a recipe for success too.
In which direction will Marc’s career develop?
When he’s older, more mature and thoughtful, he might become more of a singer-songwriter than concentrating on all-out partying. He might want to express more with his lyrics than he does now, I can see that, it would be a logical development.
Maybe the next Sinatra? At times Marc’s voice sounds similar, because it’s so indestructible in the same way.
Marc has a great voice, but he shouldn’t abandon his language. He has to stay Austrian.
What dos the future have in store for the business?
Hmm… Well, the Schlager and pop-folk sector will always exist. There’s no way to ruin that, because it’s something that lives in the country and, like I said, there are no alternatives. In ten years Bon Jovi still won’t come to perform at a wine tavern in Grammatneusiedl. For that reason the chances are excellent that we’ll be able to withstand anything, no matter what happens in the music industry in the next few years. A nice thought: As a genre we’re indestructible (laughs).
What do you think of Schlager and pop-folk music, in terms of your personal taste?
I don’t have to listen to everything when I’m at home, I pick and choose what I listen to when I’m off work. But because I’ve been in the business for such a long time, I’ve always listened to this kind of music and can say that the titles are just good. You can’t get around that. If you just sit and listen to Zieh dich an und geh by the Nockalm Quintett or Gabalier’s Sweet Little Rehlein, those are great numbers. And everything that DJ Ötzi has ever done, they’re just extremely well-made feel-good songs, you can’t complain about that! And when you see all the cool kids dancing to Hey Baby, I sing a Liad für di and this “uncool pop-folk stuff” at the Universal Christmas party, you know that it works. After midnight and a certain amount of booze, it works, even if you listen to more progressive music during the day.
Peter Draxl is the Marketing and A&R (Artists & Repertoire) Director at Universal Austria.
As part of this position he’s responsible for the Austrian market in the categories of pop, rock, classic, jazz and Schlager/pop-folk music.
After completing his training as a business management assistant, he has spent two decades working in this field, which makes him the longest-serving executive at a major Austrian label.