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28 March, 2012

A Quarter to an End

When nostalgic fans lament for “good old” soviet music, which often really did sound better than what is played today, they tend to forget one thing: each good soviet song was accompanied by at least a thousand dull ones

It all began with a text message I got from a colleague who is in another band. It had just one swearword which translates into uncensored language as, “this is it”. On that day, the Verkhovna Rada had just halved the quota for the mandatory broadcasting of Ukrainian music from 50% to 25%. 

This colleague of mine, by the way, mostly sings in Russian, yet the law affects him as much as it does me because it covers all music products made in Ukraine in any language. In reality, only one out of five songs performed by Ukrainian artists and broadcasted on radio or TV is in Ukrainian, therefore 25% divided by 5 will give the actual quota for Ukrainian-language music at 5%. This is it, indeed. Protecting the market means protecting the income of those who work on it. Even if the newly passed law does protect someone’s income, it is not that of musicians. This is quite enough to describe the situation.

I have one story from my own life. We were going to a concert. Everyone was asleep and the driver was listening to the radio. A popular radio station was playing a few Ukrainian songs one after another. And I mean they were all in Ukrainian! “They must be playing the mandatory quota,” I thought to myself and went back to sleep as most people do well past midnight. Surprisingly, the same thing happened in the morning. You don’t need to be an expert in Ukrainian radio playlists to understand how shocked I was: it was clearly a unique situation. Maybe we had crossed some transparent threshold to another dimension somewhere between Kirovohrad and Mykolayiv Oblasts and ended up in a parallel world like in a Steven King novel.

This monolingual world is a fantasy place I would like to stay in for a while. In that world Ukrainian music would be so much more successful since the more it is broadcast, the more money it earns, thus the more people want to make Ukrainian-language music creating more competition and more interesting products.  So, when nostalgic fans lament for soviet music (just like they do for films and football) which sometimes truly does sound better than the music made today, they miss one thing: every good song made back then was followed by a thousand bad ones – and nothing has changed since. This is easy to explain: the soviet state sponsored a huge crowd of all kinds of poets, composers and writers. This had a purely mathematical effect: the more experts who worked on art, the more chances they had to churn out something good.

But we’ll go back to that perfect world I saw while on tour as we drove on a road so bumpy that no football championship could ever help to fix it. Artists would feel perfectly comfortable in that world. Just like they do in crisis-stricken Greece that plays 69% of its national music. The most valuable product in that idyllic environment would be a song by a new Ukrainian artist. Radio stations would seek them day and night, just like they do in France, where every fifth song must be from an artist who has just started his or her music career. Could French MPs be about to start making music given the quota they have implemented?

Anyway, enough dreaming of a parallel Ukrainian world! God forbid! These dreams could take me to a place with a protected music market, a real struggle against copyright violation, promotion of Ukrainian music and other science fiction. Clearly, this cannot be about us. This kind of Ukraine cannot exist in reality. When the old quota had just been passed, we all joked that the most popular music on the market would be chanson[1] songs performed by Ukrainian singers. Otherwise, where would popular radio stations that play mostly Russian chanson get 50% of the music content made in Ukraine they were required to broadcast by law. Harik Krichevskiy, a popular Ukrainian chanson singer alone just wouldn’t be enough. However, chanson radio stations and their supporters found a way to bypass the restriction: they listed shows where MCs read Ukrainian language text messages from listeners as a product made in Ukraine. These were read between chanson songs performed in Russian by Russian performers. The 50% quota just did not work at all! At night they would play some Ukrainian music, just to make sure they were meeting the demands of the law.

And what about that miracle of a Ukrainian music breakthrough I had witnessed on the tour trip that night? Well, it simply faded away after I had called some friends of mine. The sad fact was that the authorities were checking how the radio station was meeting the quota that day - the old 50% one I mean. People in top offices were sitting and listening to what the station was playing. The potential victim of sanctions, the radio station that is, it had miraculously learned about the upcoming inspection (must have been from horoscopes) and had changed the program in advance. But what they didn’t know was that while pleasing the inspectors, even if only for a short while, the radio station had unsuspectingly let me dream a little of how it could be one day with Ukrainian music in Ukraine.  


[1]Known as a French music genre in the world, chanson in Ukraine and Russia is a music style performed in a low hoarse voice, mostly male, that puts a heavy accent on the lyrics which tell of misfortunes leading to prison and life inside. 

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