Playing Rock Star

RussiaProfile.Org, an online publication providing in-depth analysis of business, politics, current affairs and culture in Russia, has published a new Special Report on the performing arts in Russia: Bodies in Motion. Twelve articles by both Russian and foreign contributors examine the current trends in theater, music and adjacent forms of art both as creative activities and as social institutions. The following article is part of this collection.

In Russian Show Business, Talent Trails Far Behind Money.

Russia’s Alexei Vorobyov jogs up the steps to a green pre-revolutionary building in сentral Moscow, wearing grey sweatpants sagged down so far that his smart phone threatens to dance out of his back pocket. He’s energetic and fresh-faced, despite the fact that he has just flown back from France and he’s heading back to his hometown of Tula tomorrow morning to watch his parents renew their vows at a local church. He takes a seat under a chandelier in an old dining room, revamped as a press-headquarters, where his press secretary cajoles him into speaking in English.

Vorobyov is young, just 22, and defers to his handlers, who swirl around the room preparing for a concert later that day. He is shy and headstrong at the same time; shy in his mannerisms and soft voice but headstrong about his music, about his work ethic, his roles in movies and his popularity. Yet for all his success in Russia, and at such a young age, he wants out. “I’m one of the few musicians in Russia who has a deal with American producers and has an opportunity to do something in Europe. And that’s the end of this f****** Russian story,” he said.

Europe’s pull for Vorobyov is clear — better money and greater exposure, but the question lingers about how an artist who has risen so far and so fast can harbor such resentment against the industry that promoted him. While Vorobyov’s story is exceptional, his complaints about cronyism in the music business and kickbacks for radio time are just the tip of the iceberg for young bands in genres like pop and rock, who often start out their careers by paying for their own gigs in clubs, trying to break their way into a small circle of music promoters who value fan bases above all else, and can burn through their popularity in the blink of an eye. In Russia, young bands that are just starting out or even those that have achieved widespread recognition are especially vulnerable in the music industry.

One in a million

Vorobyov apologizes for cursing, which only slightly softens the impact of his statement. It’s difficult to imagine that Russia’s candidate for Eurovision, an all-European music competition that pits competitors representing 25 countries against one another, would be so vocal about moving his music career out of his native country. Not to say that Eurovision is a sacrosanct expression of national fealty; for the uninitiated, the competition is a gaudy reality show that combines the camp of American Idol with the vote-rigging of a Cold War Olympics, watched by 125 million viewers a year. Rather, what’s surprising is the contradiction in Vorobyov’s statements; that he can speak so bluntly about his exasperation with the Russian pop scene and follow it up with manicured clichés, like “what I can now say is that if you have a dream, you should follow it.”

Then again, though hackneyed, perhaps he’s not being disingenuous. Vorobyov’s career has had a meteoric rise, propelling him from a music college in his native Tula, where he was also a member of a folk choir, to a leading pop star in Moscow. His first big break was on the television show X-factor, a show that he says he was picked for from a field of about 25,000 hopefuls. From there he was taken under contract by the Russian branch of Universal, which led to his higher-profile performances, including Eurovision, as well as the release of a solo album and a partnership with songwriting guru RedOne.

Vorobyov’s story is, in his own words, a “miracle.” For other bands starting out, the instant fame granted by television is a fairy-tale, and it glosses over the early stages of the life (and death) of many local bands, who grind out success by recording demos, playing in the city’s clubs and developing fan-bases and relationships with promoters and art-directors. Alexander Skazchenko, a guitarist from The Translators, a young Moscow-based indie-rock band, said that “the most important thing is still connections. There is a myth among many young groups that ‘we were playing in a little club, and some famous producer came through and he was just simply amazed.’ That happens, maybe, but not in reality.”

Success with a Price Tag

About three years ago, Skazchenko and several friends studying translation at the Moscow State Linguistic University formed a four-person indie rock band. Different styles clashed, with interests in metal and techno in the mix, but ultimately the keyboardist united the group under a Brit-pop banner, seeing their leading influence as Franz Ferdinand and their ultimate goal as “Glastonbury.” The band’s first recording, Skazchenko said, was taken on a digital camera in their dormitory. Each step that followed, from recording digitally to paying in a studio and mastering the tracks themselves (“We were young and naïve,” he recalled), represented a step in the band’s development. “It might be a little far-fetched, but when you listen to a recording, from the very first note you can tell that it is a Russian recording,” he said, adding that the giveaways are the synthesized drums and souped-up vocals. Many bands simply can’t afford the choice studios that give that “American and British sound,” he said.

The one step that the band did skip was paying for their own concerts. In order to guarantee audiences at local clubs, obscure or new groups often have to pledge to buy a certain number of tickets, usually close to 20, for their own shows, said Skazchenko. “Young groups always seem to fall for that and many of them don’t ever get past that stage, they just play five gigs or so and then it’s over. They think: ‘ok, we are playing in bad clubs and paying for our own concerts. To hell with it.’”

No one, it seems, is immune from the need to put capital up front to further their careers. Even Vorobyov, while promoting his first album “Lie Detector,” stated that at the higher levels, large payouts are expected to push your work forward. He said that a local radio station, Russkoye Radio, had asked for the tidy sum of one million dollars in order to put one of his singles in their rotation. “I could have paid it, but then I would have looked back and said that I got where I got just thanks to money, and not to my talent,” said Vorobyov.

Yet for smaller bands, problems financing their work often spell the end of the band. Skazchenko works as a translator for a local business newspaper, and doubts that he or his band mates could make a serious living in the music scene. “I think that in Russia it is impossible to have music as a job unless you have really rich parents who are just eager to make a musician out of you and support your work,” he said.

Yet money for recording and gigs are not the only concerns for young artists, and sometimes early success can end up being just as dangerous to a group’s longevity as being short on cash. Alexei Korolyov is a veteran member of the band Scarlet Dazzle, with whom he has played guitar for the last five years. Scarlet Dazzle has played its brand of psychedelic rock for large crowds and important music critics in some of Moscow’s hottest clubs—part of a larger revivalist 1960s and 1970s movement flourishing in Moscow.

The band made a name for itself by playing in a small club in Moscow that hosted ten or more bands per night, each with a 20 minute time limit. “We started out playing at ‘Tochka,’ though it was called ‘Oboyma’ back then,” said Korolyov. “It was a dodgy place frequented by punks and meth heads, but it was the perfect club for young musicians, or for us at least. We played in that club for a year. We kind of started from there, random people drifted into those gigs. They thought this might be a good band, and then they started calling us. I think it’s about getting in with the promoters, because they all know each other.”

Yet the band’s rock‘n’roll ethos turned out to be both its blessing and its curse. Korolyov and his friends rattled off stories one after another: the keyboardist falling off stage into a crowd of policemen, or getting a cup of coffee before his solo, leaving the rest of the band playing on stage, or the infamous night at “16 Tons” when the band seemed like it would break through and achieve major success, only to drink a little too much before the show so that “we just couldn’t get the songs together.” When I asked Korolyov if he thought the band could have another go at making it big, he said that they had already shifted their direction, were looking at opportunities in indie-rock and were starting to leave psychedelic rock behind. “I regret that performance,” said Korolyov. “I thought this would be a major thing in my life, but it fell apart there.”

One of Scarlet Dazzle’s most spectacular, and strangest, stories came when the organizer for Kaliningrad “Bike-Show 2006,” a festival that has hosted up to 100,000 attendees, showed up in Moscow offering to set the band up to close the show—an honor, but also in a spot beginning after four in the morning. Playing behind a lineup of metal bands and in pouring rain, the group tried to hold the concert together in front of the 300 or so bikers who had remained from the 60,000 who had gathered earlier.

“Something went wrong and we’re there in the middle of this set and suddenly all of the guys—the leftovers—begin to crawl on to the stage. Now this isn’t allowed, but the security guys were all gone by then, probably asleep. The second guitarist in the band just dropped his guitar and ran. The three of us were left standing on stage with all these guys waving Russian flags. And it was so epic in a sense—it was being filmed by a local TV station and I watched the footage the next day of me being embraced by a creepy guy. Then I quit the band for about six months,” said Korolyov.

For Vorobyov, the Eurovision competition, probably his most high-profile appearance so far, turned out to be a flop. Russia placed 16th in the competition, and Vorobyov was castigated in the press for some extracurricular statements he made at the competition. Upon reaching the Eurovision finals, Vorobyov’s youth showed through when he screamed several colorful, unprintable phrases directly into the camera. While the sentiments were spot-on in terms of the rally-round-the-flag nationalism of the event, he was taken to task by Russia’s media and music industry figures for giving the country a poor rap, with the phrase ‘bydlo,’ something between an English chav and an American redneck, being used more than once to describe him.

Nothing Else Matters

With the number of names and labels floating around, Vorobyov should be worried about being seen as a traitor for leaving his country and his fan base and heading West. “I’ll never stop being Russian, I won’t try to be some American guy when I’m abroad,” he said seriously. “Look, I have been here in Moscow for five years, but I’ve never registered here. Which makes life difficult, but why do you think I did that?” However, his mind constantly works in relation to Western benchmarks: his acting is not as good as, say, Johnny Depp’s; Kanye’s use of traditional instruments is inspiring to him; Justin Timberlake has also made a successful acting and singing career. Coupled with statements like “I no longer care about my Russian music career,” it’s difficult to take him at his word. Vorobyov’s history seems to be a story of “up and out:” out of Tula and the regions to Moscow, out of Moscow and Russia to the West.

That history, however, is intricately tied to his experience in the Russian pop music industry, for which his distaste is palpable. When he hears about Russian pop, he turns caustic and, once again, blunt. “Russian pop sucks,” he said. “It is like American music in the 1990s. It’s ‘devyanostie’ (1990s) for Russians, with nothing new whatsoever.” As to sustaining fame and success, he said, the answer is simply financial. “It’s not about talent; it’s not about your music or what you do. It’s just about money. That’s why I hate Russian show business. I don’t have any friends in our Russian show business because…” he frowns and turns away, demurring, “it doesn’t matter.”

Leave a comment