Czech indie rock declares independence from nothing.
“Don’t forget to drop by our table at the back of the room where we’ve got
Squall CDs, Squall t-shirts, Squall coffee mugs, Squall douche bags and lots
of other stuff, all for sale...”
Tyson Cosby, Squall’s front man, mumbles into the microphone as the last echoes
of an overdriven E string fade into the corners of the Futurum music club in
Anděl. It’s the same jaded spiel you’ve heard at the end of every performance
by every independent band you’ve ever seen. That table in the back, affectionately
dubbed the “merch table,” is where the word is spread. That’s where local legends
build followings and, sometimes, turn into national acts – one CD, one t-shirt,
one douche bag at a time.
The merch tables in the Czech Republic look the same as they do everywhere else,
only here they’re more important.
The recording industry really is a lot like Rob Reiner depicted it in his classic
movie This is Spinal Tap. There are plotting, greedy managers. There are promoters
who care about nothing but profit. There are vapid, no-talent artists more concerned
with their hair than their performances. And everywhere, the mind-bending idiocy
of spending millions of dollars to convince the public to buy an album or concert
ticket, regardless of quality.
The idea of freeing music from this machinery is noble, and it works. Bands
can market and sell themselves effectively and profitably, assuming that their
music stands on its own two feet. Most Czech bands have little choice. Promising
young Czech musicians, for the most part, are not courted by the “music industry”
because there’s very little “music industry” to speak of. The indie path is
the only one open for those who want their music to be heard.
In 1994, a band named Sunshine hit the Czech music scene running. For eight
years, the foursome from Tábor in South Bohemia has pounded through hundreds
of delirious shows and released four albums, mostly recently Necromance on the
local Day After Records label. They have been compared to bands like At the
Drive In and Murder City Devils, and their energy has built an enormous following.
Sunshine has been one of the main catalysts in helping push other post-’89 Czech
acts down the indie path.
The indie music world loves a band that works hard, and Sunshine’s efforts earned
them a November 2nd date at the College Music Journal (CMJ) festival in New
York City, a schmoozefest invite-only gig that can break an indie act with a
single performance. But while the tiny Day After Records band will be showcased
in one of the world’s brightest indie music spotlights, it’s not the only Czech
label worthy of attention.
Back in the Czech Republic, far from nicotine-stained contract wrangling in
the shadows of CBGBs, the clubs are anything but silent. In Prague alone, the
number of “alternative” live music venues continues to grow. Clubs like the
venerable Strahov 007, Futurum and Akropolis are backed up by newcomers Guru,
Modrá Vopice and Belzepub, all looking for and booking new local talent. That
talent, as Sunshine proved, doesn’t depend on the tourist-heavy capital for
its inspiration and livelihood.
In the little city of Tábor, Free Dimension Records offers up four bands and
seven releases that show there’s more to the local underground than just dusty
catacombs beneath the main square. Free Dimension was started six years ago
as a techno crew comprised of DJs and technicians, some of whom played “guitar
music” as well. Slowly, Free Dim Squad formed as a separate but related entity
that now supports some 20 different acts from around the country. Squad also
organizes an annual music festival in Tábor, centered around the Orion club.
Free Dimension is one of perhaps 12 such organizations – including Day After
Records and Silver Rocket Records, which released Squall’s latest CD – that
work closely with each other to produce and promote music. For Patrik Kučera,
who runs Free Dimension, the indie phenomenon is naturally suited to the Czech
“There were only two record labels under communism, which didn’t do much to
promote creative expressions in music,” he explains.
Thanks to a national legacy of Do-It-Yourself production and promotion and the
dedication of day jobbers who love music, the Czech indie scene in 2002 is strong
and refreshingly diverse. The music ranges from the Slavic blues of Psí Vojáci
to the post-industrial math rock of Deverova Chyba. Kučera believes that they
are parts of a larger whole that offers something for everyone to love.
“The Czech indie scene can’t be ‘globalized,’” he says. “It’s big enough and
diverse enough to stand on its own without making attempts to ‘cross over’ or
worrying about the Western market too much.”
The culture of today’s indie scene is partly an outgrowth of the burza – communist-era
black-market record bazaars where fans would clandestinely meet to buy and trade
contraband tapes and records. These were the original merch tables. Without
a doubt, says Kučera, strong Czech national traditions have played a role in
the development of the scene, which should not be viewed as just an offshoot
of Western fashions.
The same goes for the music.
“For sure there are plenty of bands here influenced by the West,” Kučera says,
“but there are an equal number, if not more, who are influenced by the Czech
Kučera measures the success of his bands against classic DIY standards, the
same ones used from San Francisco to Seville.
“There are lots of bands who organize their own records, tours and events. They
put money and time into it, and the next morning they still have to wake up
and go to their day jobs. There is not much for us to measure our success with,
other than the pride we take in having done it.”
Mila Paty is a familiar sight to anyone who frequents live shows in Prague.
The lanky 30-something founder of Day After Records can usually be found shuffling
around behind vast boxes of albums, CDs and zines wherever there’s an interested
audience. Paty travels nonstop with a large portion of his catalog in tow, bringing
music to the masses. The Czech indie-rock Johnny Appleseed just launched an
online shop, which he hopes will boost his modest but brisk mail-order service.
He has reason to be optimistic. Around the world, independent music publishing
has built an impressive online presence. Forums like Insound (www.insound.com)
help showcase and centralize the work of indie bands, often centered around
a community of enthusiastic and knowledgeable reviewers. Founded as an e-zine
in 1998, Insound has grown to support more than 150,000 indie label record sales
a year. Czech labels and bands are finding that cyberspace can be more welcoming
than the local garden pub.
Czechcore (www.czechcore.cz) is a website maintained by dedicated indie metal
and hardcore heads, and maintains excellent links to nearly every label in the
country, most of which offer online catalogs and MP3 samples.
More mainstream are the Czech-based i90 Music (www.i90.com) and Kosmas (www.kosmas.cz)
sites, which offer huge online catalogs, much of which is also available through
a network of small shops around the country. i90 claims to sell more albums
per year than the Bonton Megastore in Prague, due in part to a busy second-hand
trade similar in format to the online auction house eBay.
As convenient and comprehensive as the online record shop may seem, the best
place to discover young Czech musicians is still at the back of the club, where
the chattering crowds gather around the merch table. And if it feels for a brief
moment that you’re in Manchester, D.C. or New York City, just dig through Paty’s
battered boxes of albums. Instead of an old pressing of Sinatra’s Greatest Hits,
you just might find a 7-inch from the Czech Republic’s favorite son, Karel Gott,
its hissing, crackling vinyl just waiting for someone to take it home and love
The Museum of Czech PopThe history of underground Czech pop, from its roots
in the 1930s tramping movement to the psychedelia of the late ’60s and ’70s,
has been painstakingly catalogued by the Museum of Czech Pop, which until the
August flood occupied the basement of Besedni 3 in Malá Strana. The exhibits
included the homemade mixing boards used by The Plastic People of the Universe,
assorted contraband, hand-pressed vinyl and beautiful posters from long-forgotten
acts like The Primitives. The collection was a testament to the DIY spirit taken
up by generations of Czech musicians, but was severely damaged in the floods
and there are no plans to reopen in the foreseeable future.
To offer help to the Museum of Czech Pop, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some Czech Headliners and their Indie Labels
Day After Records
Insane Society Records
Silver Rocket Records
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