From Klimt and Freud to Mozart and Strauss, waltz through the annals of Austrian art and you can hardly blame the country’s conservative infatuation with cultural heritage – Austria’s biggest asset for tourism. Yet while its hills may be alive with the sound of classical music, its underground – having festered in the shadow of high culture for too long – is alive with change.
“I don’t like to call it a ‘scene’,” explains festival organiser, Tim Ertl, in reference to Austria’s shifting musical landscape. “It’s more than a scene, it’s a movement. We’re breaking down walls and reacting against the status quo like never before.” Strong words, perhaps, but Ertl knows what he’s talking about; he’s the head of Springfestival, an urban electronic arts and music event that took place last week in the scenic setting of Graz – a student city (one in five of its population) 91 miles south from the cultural flagship of Vienna.
“The most heated argument,” according to Ertl, “is that Springfestival and electronic art and music are not ‘cultural’ enough to get greater funding – that people are not sitting like in classical concerts. They don’t support or recognise party culture.” With 90% of the state’s art budget going towards high culture (or “dead culture”, as one gig-goer labelled it), it appears to be an attitude echoed on a national scale – something perhaps unsurprising seeing as the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is capable of playing to more than 100,000 people in a single night. “Our Viennese high culture is world famous and brilliant,” he continues, “but it eats all the money so we can’t develop anything else or move forward. Nobody wants to take risks.”
Austrian alternative music currently survives on an infrastructure of small labels and independent clubs, with collaborations and crossovers between rock, hip-hop and electronica being the trending modus operandi, but not one that’s made any sort of impact yet. Also, apart from a rare internet-fuelled No 1 last year for Austria’s first hip-hop group, Trackshittaz (yes, as in “they shit tracks”), pop music doesn’t seem to have fared any better. With its chart inherently linked with Germany, imports from the UK and America, not to mention the power of Eurovision, Austria’s most notable pop moment still remains Falco’s 1986 international hit, Rock Me Amadeus. “It’s a strange and conservative popular culture,” says Ertl. “But it doesn’t matter any more, the youth are detached and making their own culture. And I think FM4 has helped with that.”
He’s right. Broadcast via ORF (Austrian Broadcasting, the equivalent of the BBC), FM4 is Austria’s only alternative radio station and its influence is incredible – effectively propping up alternative music to the extent where its listeners don’t consider themselves fans of indie music, but “FM4 music”. In fact, it’s been suggested that FM4’s creation in 1995 was so significant that it helped shape the current generation of Austria’s music-loving youth who grew up with it – before then there was no radio station supporting exciting new music that, as Ertl points out, people didn’t even know how to dance to.
“I’ve definitely noticed that we’ve changed the listening habits of the people of Austria,” says FM4’s head of production, Matthias Schoenauer. “Listeners have a certain trust in the filter FM4 has and the music we introduce them to.” Existing somewhere between 6Music and Zane Lowe (but with a more principled, socially conscious outlook – interesting considering the rise of the far right in Vienna), their devotion to new music is not only tenacious but impressively diverse, with genres such as dubstep and UK funky all getting a spin alongside the expected run of indie-pop and Austrian acts such as Soap&Skin, Kreisky and the more recent Ja, Panik and Ginga – all of whom owe their record deals to its early support.
FM4 or not though, it’s uncertain whether Austria’s movement will ever really gain the cultural recognition it craves. Some, such as Schoenauer, believe it never will yet Ertl is just waiting for that certain something, a spark that will put Austria on the map. “Until then,” he says, “we’re just bubbling under the surface.”