Designing Media - Bargeld & Zhu

This is the fourth interview in Chapter 2 in my new book, Designing Media

Erin Zhu and Blixa Bargeld, December 2008

I read a piece in the paper about the way that Blixa Bargeld and Einstürzende Neubauten were able to survive by fan subscription, thus avoiding the traditional perils of the music industry. I sent an email request for an interview to Blixa through the band’s Web site and was surprised to receive a reply from his wife, Erin Zhu, who pointed out that as the webmaster for the site she was responsible for most of the design decisions that they had made as they developed an Internet-based model of direct fan financing.

Einstürzender Neubauten in performance

Blixa, former guitarist with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, leads this innovative industrial Goth-rock band from their base in Berlin. Band members work with whatever ready-made scrapheap objects they can find to act as musical instruments, hence the label industrial rock. The band has survived for decades, but even with an expanding and loyal fan base, Blixa was unable to support the expenses of production using the conventional contract system with record companies, so he and Erin developed a new economic model based on subscriptions from fans, bypassing the traditional music business.

Industrial Rock using metal tubes as instruments

The breakthrough came when Erin said that they should go directly to the fans for contributions toward the next album. This simple idea has worked for three iterations of new material. In return, supporters have had more intimate access to the band, with webcam views of rehearsals and recording sessions; the opportunity to comment in real time online through a moderator; and access to one another through the chatroom on the Web site. The first time that they did this they created an album, the second time an album and a DVD just for the supporters, and the third time an album for the supporters plus a smaller version for the public, a DVD for the supporters, and a monthly track to download. By this time they had expanded to 2,500 supporters. Thank you, fans of the band! Here’s another (as well as Pandora) way to give hope to impecunious musicians. How ingenious of Erin to realize the potential of a subscription model enabled by the Internet—and thoughtful of Blixa to see that the community of fans could be rewarded by closer connections to the performers.

Blixa has his eye on you!

Blixa likens this subscription model to the tradition established for books, where members of book clubs purchase work in advance of publication. He is also interested in the evolution of formats and the way they influence musical structures, with the twenty-minute session dictated by the vinyl long-playing record and the short pop song coming from the 45. How will the unstructured possibilities of the Internet influence change? Perhaps the design will relate to people instead of formats. Erin sees a future with an infinite virtual library of music in the cloud, accessed by subscription from any device that is connected to the Internet.