In the Marzahn-Hellersdorf neighborhood of Berlin, wedged between the highway and train tracks in an East German–era business park, stand several brutalist concrete buildings where hundreds of bands, producers, composers, and DJs practice, record, mix, and master music, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
This mecca for independent musicians, located on Frank Zappa Strasse, was first born in the late 1990s when a property company rented out spaces to musicians—mostly metalheads—in one of the buildings, the abandoned ORWO factory, an East German film, tape, and cassette manufacturer. In 2006, after years of organizing and fund-raising, musicians formed the ORWOhaus music collective and secured the use of the building. The next year they celebrated their victory with a tribute party to Zappa, officially renaming the street in his honor.
Other buildings offering studio space in the complex, which in total rents out some 500 music-rehearsal rooms, are privately owned, including ARTtraktiv—where rent for small, medium, and large rehearsal rooms starts at 150 euros a month. (Last year, ARTtraktiv added a second building containing 200 more studios.) Renters design the interiors all by themselves, often with supplies from the hardware store down the road. Small rooms provide just enough space for music producers to sit themselves in front of all the equipment they need, while bands find impressive ways to cram themselves into the 12-by-12-meter spaces. In larger rooms, couches allow for naps between long recording sessions. Although living permanently in the rooms is forbidden, the furnishings of some rooms signal something like a home away from home.
Over one weekend in May, we visited musicians at their studios at ARTtraktiv, knocking on doors and asking to photograph their spaces, as the faint thud, thud, thud, thud of electronic music reverberated throughout the hallways. Musicians working at ARTtraktiv come from all over the world, some hoping to find enough employment to turn their tourist visas into work permits. Others are Germans hanging on to a music scene that is vibrant but fragile; over the past decade, nightlife venues in Berlin have either been closing or moving farther from the city center in search of cheaper locations.
“Giving up is no alternative,” says King Kraut, the stage name of a punk musician who shares an ARTtraktiv studio with his music partner, Boombasstor. “What is there to do when you do not have the money or don’t like mainstream music? Sit at home, watch TV? Get drunk on the street and take it out on people or their cars? So we go on making music that we think is relevant.”
The Downtempo DJ
Sebastian Halle, 27, Berlin
I moved into ARTtraktiv in the spring of 2018. Before, I had a studio nearby, but the building here is cleaner and new. I share the studio with some friends from our collective, called Techno Obst. We organize underground parties in winter and open-air parties in the summer.
I love being in the studio with friends, happily looking to each other for thoughts after creating a track. Those are the moments I crave. I also enjoy the view from my studio. I can see the TV tower. The sunset can be inspiring, too. I lived for two years in Barcelona. I think if Berlin had no music scene, I would be living in a city with a beach.
The Synth Pop Band
Wyoming (David Stieffenhofer, Sascha Lukas, Manu Lukas), Lorch, Germany
We got this place right when we got here in September last year and are just so happy to have a place like this, especially after hearing that other big rehearsal buildings have kicked out their tenants. Things like this happen all over the place, and it really pisses us off when places of a big cultural value are being shut down for housing companies’ interests. So ARTtraktiv feels like a little oasis here.
The Brutal Pop Musician
Johannes Stabel, 34, Stuttgart, Germany
In Germany, it is popular to send your children to Musikalische Früherziehung [early music education classes], in which you learn the flute and triangle, so I probably started playing music when I was four. I came to Berlin several years ago to do music with a band: Berlin is the perfect place to find passionate musicians. People come here from all over the world for that reason. But it can also be very difficult for new bands to attract attention, because it’s so easy to get lost in the nightlife scene. For some years, I have been active with my band, XTR HUMAN. I call the genre of our music “brutal pop”: my individual mix between indie pop and post-punk.
Mano Camatsos, 34, Cape Town, South Africa
I was born and raised in South Africa until I was about 12. Then I was in America for seven years, Greece for eight years, with time in England and Argentina in between, and now I’ve been in Berlin for four years. There is a home for every type of musician here. I enjoy the presence of African musicians here, as well as musicians from Russia and Eastern Europe. Our band, Raiments, is temporarily using the space to rehearse our second album, The Golden Rat; we have been here for three days.
The DIY Instrumentalist
Emanuele Porcinai, 28, Florence, Italy
I play a combination of electronic and acoustic instruments, mainly bowed electric string instruments, including some that I build myself. I started trying to write music with computers around 14, and then progressively introduced instruments that I would teach myself to play. In my studio, I started building my own string instrument because I needed something sturdy and simple to play with a bow.
The Original Punk Rocker
King Kraut (his stage name), Aachen, Germany
Punk music has long associated itself with left-wing political views and social criticism, and it does so in Berlin, too. It’s about enjoying music as a means of having a party, and it is also about the expression of an attitude against the restrictions of capitalist society. The scene is generally more accepting of outsiders and bizarre persons. This lets you meet great people who are out of the ordinary, but you have to be prepared to also meet people with drug or mental-health issues. I see it as a place where I can feel free.
This year, two of the oldest alternative youth-culture clubs in Berlin, Potse and Drugstore, had to close their doors after about 40 years. One of them is being turned into a coworking space. Countless people spent their free time to make these clubs a place where young people can meet; it’s where my own band, Der Endgegner, got its first shot at playing shows. For the underground music scene, it means they have to move on to other places. People will always find some abandoned factory hall or a basement to gather and make music.