GEORGIA SPECIAL: VISIONS OF ZHIVA IN TBILISI
Georgia is having a moment. There’s been much hype around this beautiful Caucasus region country this year: Travel websites ranked it among top destinations to visit and lifestyle magazines seem to have found in Tbilisi the new capital of cool after the alleged “death” of traditional culture hubs such as London or Berlin. Meanwhile in Tbilisi, young people are raving for social change and 4/4 has become the soundtrack for a progressive revolution.
Tourism and techno paving the way to Europe
Tourism and techno are Georgia’s main attractions from the Western viewpoint and they are slowly paving the way into Europe for the former Soviet republic. But the journey only just began and the path is long – and Russia is always keeping an eye. 2018 marks ten years since long-term tensions between Georgia and Russia escalated into a short but devastating war, while the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain occupied to this day. Outside of the numerous clubs and alternative venues that culture up former factories and other grim looking Soviet-era structures, the country remains largely conservative. Marijuana consumption has been decriminalized earlier this year, but getting caught with some MDMA may still land you up to eight years in prison. For the LGBTQ community, public space continues to be an “enemy territory”.
On a Saturday night in May, policemen with machine guns stormed the country’s most prominent electronic music venues Bassiani and Café Gallery as part of the crackdown on drug sale. Bassiani owners were arrested that night and later released. Deprived of their safe space, ravers took to the street and danced in front of the Georgian parliament in protest. This generated international press coverage and the international DJ community was quick to express their solidarity, which cemented Tbilisi’s spot on the world club map. Despite the obstacles posed by the state’s conservative institutions, these are exciting times for Georgian electronic music. “The local scene is absolutely booming with talent that’s searching for an outlet. Anyone who pays any attention will see that there’s something very special brewing here,” says singer and producer Dudey.
Electronic music rocks and indie/rock is stuck
“Whatever is connected to club scene can count on much bigger exposure than other styles of music. That’s what happens when you succeed in basic organization of things,” music journalist Sandro Tskitishvili tells me. For the others, the future doesn’t look that bright. As Giorgi Marr of the indie band Black Marrows points out, with the rise of electronic music and rave culture, live indie/rock music became less important for young people. In Soviet Georgia (and other Soviet and Soviet-controlled countries), rock music was a means of dissent. “From late 70’s to the end of the 90’s indie/rock music in Georgia became a tool for fighting against the system,” Marr explains. Many interesting bands were active in the time and unofficial, “underground” festivals were held across the country. Tskitishvili adds that “unfortunately, recordings by Georgian ‘underground’ bands are very scarce”. In the nineties, rock music could spread freely and eventually penetrated mainstream. Marr recollects his own inspirations at the time: “We were amongst the young lads in that period who grew up watching MTV in 90’s, heard grunge and Britpop and picked up the guitars and made music”. Tskitishivili notes that “at the turn of the millennium, things started to change and first few labels appeared. Mostly they would cover pop music and presented basic means of promotion”. He goes on to explain that “because the industry was not so commercially advanced to stratify mega-selling pop and underground rock music, surprisingly some underground artists got their spots in the beginnings of music industry, which was, in retrospect, quite welcome.”
But the “humble industry beginnings” soon disappeared due to the “advent of the internet and political changes” and created a vacuum which cripples Georgian music till today. Nowaday, Marr says, there are “less venues equipped for guitar music and less small bars playing indie records, so indie music scene is quite stuck for now, even though there are lots of bands and lots of good tunes out there.” Tskitishivili agrees that good music exists in Georgia “in quite a portion”. What is lacking is infrastructure – there are no independent labels apart from those tight to the electronic scene, which means that musicians have to release their music themselves. Without label support, they are left alone to handle all the tasks and talks related to promoting themselves and it is hardly surprising that band members are often inexperienced in fields such as marketing and PR. “In the state of complete absence of any formal musical industry, there’s nothing much that sets, say, a metal band apart from a pop singer in regards of promotion, recording and selling CDs,” Tskitishivili continues.
Is it hard to find for Georgian musicians to find audience abroad? According to Tskitishvili, who is also an active musician, it is and there are several reasons why. The absence of support that would normally be provided by label and lack of experience in handling matters of promotion and organization on one’s own are at the same time reasons unsurprisingly crop up again. “Geographical and political remoteness to the part of the world that contains active live music circuits” poses another, possibly even more crucial problem. Not being part of the EU obviously further worsens this. Giorgi Marr cites organizational and financial struggles: “If you are a solo electronic/ambient artist it is probably easier. You have less travel expenses, less equipment to carry – compared to a four-piece band with many guitars and pedals.” Not even festivals can provide enough opportunities as the smaller and independent one are only a few and the bigger ones are notoriously hard to reach. “Then if you reach them and get invited you have to get there, right? You have to sleep somewhere and so on. The Internet is full of millions of bands from all over the world, it’s not like somebody will discover you and make you a star…”
Dudey believes that in this day and age, it’s hard for anyone to reach out to a foreign audience, at least not online. “You’ve got the whole world underneath your fingertips, all you need to do is upload a track and if it’s really good the word will spread around. Yes, the competition is crazy but that’s how you get better. It was never meant to be easy.” You can tell from her own social media presence that she has mastered the craft of putting herself out there. But that’s not the case for everyone. Tskitishivili notes that there are many great bands in Georgia with a poor or almost non-existent online presence. “You would even struggle to find the most famous Georgian musicians’ albums in such universal and comprehensive databases as Discogs or RateYourMusic. And today, if music is not searchable online, functionally it doesn’t exist,” he continues. Spotify is not much of a thing either. If you were to put together a playlist featuring artists named in this article, you wouldn’t get far. Reasons for this are presumably similar to why was the CD industry predestined to failure, namely a deadly cocktail of low wages and world-leading rate of internet piracy. Though CDs will not ever make it anymore, streaming services might – but let’s not get into that.
When it comes to booking gigs abroad, Dudey identifies the same problem as Tskitishivili – the lack of music industry infrastructure. She believes that “booking gigs is more challenging for us since there are not that many promoters and booking agencies here. In general, the music industry as such is practically non-existent here but hopefully, this will change soon.”
Europe is easy to travel but her cultures are hard to access if you don’t speak respective national languages. On similar grounds, it is not easy for musicians to reach listeners beyond their country of origin. Visions of Zhiva is an English speaking zine presenting artists from Central Europe to broader audiences.
Zhiva is the anglicised spelling of the name Živa (also Živena, Siwa). The Slavic goddess of life and fertility was worshipped in the region of today’s Poland, Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia before the arrival of Christianity.