Is there a recipe for how to make it in the music business in this part of the world? Slovenian hip-hop might provide some insights.
It’s not often that you’ll find hip hop artists who find inspiration in Mozart and The Lord of the Flies, who listen to Pavorotti, Iztok Mlakar, Franci Slak and Guns ‘n’ Roses, and who would name-check Edith Piaf in the title of their first album. But Čiča Baki is no ordinary artist.
He’s been lurking behind the scenes, just out of sight, for years now. He’s the invisible member of a very big electronic/hip-hop band you may well have heard of, even if electronic music meshed with hip-hop isn’t your thing (though he prefers his involvement to remain invisible).
Čiča Baki is a lyricist, rapper and developer of music. I say “develops” because writing electronic music, layers of sounds, samples, hooks, beats, vocals and atmospheric sounds is a process very different from what I was used to in my college punk band. There you sit alone with your acoustic guitar and play bar chords and hum along until you catch a tune, then you show your bass player and drummer and that’s that. But writing electronic music, of the complexity you can hear in the work of, say, Massive Attack and Tricky, is nearer to classical music, with so many layers and things going on. For someone like me, whose only experience writing music is the four-chords-and-a-lot-of-heart pop punk variety, it’s hard to wrap my head around.
Čiča Baki continues to work behind-the-scenes with one of the Balkans’ biggest electronic bands, but also decided it was time to set out on his own. I find most electronic music more atmospheric than catchy. I enjoyed it more the more I listened to it, and it’s best heard through a good pair of headphones, as there’s a lot going on there. Čiča Baki’s solo work is more immediately likeable on first listen, with catchy saxophone hooks and more traditional rap. His album is called Moj Jazz, but it is worth noting that he toyed with the title Pimpinpiaf…yes, as in “pimpin’” and Edith Piaf, the French chanteuse. His lyrics are shot through with Kamnik slang (something I didn’t know existed, though I’ve lived here for many years—who knew that “to je haus” meant “ta je katastrofa?”) and a mixture of high- and low-culture references that give the words a depth to match the layer cake music. His album won’t have tracks, but “sets,” and that’s how he performs. He doesn’t think of an album as an assemblage of singles, to be consumed like bonbons, one at a time, but as a single thought, more like a linked collection of short stories that should be listened to as a group, to be properly understood. This is a very sophisticated approach, beyond the “concept album” and rather related to literary theory. He describes his range of influence as “anything that can make your head bounce,” and has the utmost respect for artists like Adi Smolar, Siddhartha, Racija and Slavko Avsenik—regardless of genre, good music is good music.
If Čiča Baki’s other band has “made it,” at least across the plains of former Yugoslavia—they are respected, popular, influential, can draw a crowd (not to mention a mob of largely young female fans)—and Čiča Baki will surely follow suit, it’s a reasonable question to ask if there is some recipe for how to make it in the music business in this part of the world, and how it differs from abroad. Certainly the scale is smaller, that goes without saying. As Čiča Baki says, selling 500-1000 albums in a country like Slovenia is about as good as it gets there, the equivalent of publishing a best-selling book (with similar numbers). He estimates that there are probably fewer than 50 non-classical musicians who make a full-time living off of music in that whole country. Everyone else has a day job and performs when they can, on weekends and evenings, and has to do it for the love, because the money can come, but not in vast quantities and it’s never guaranteed.
In larger-format countries, like England and the US, musicians have largely given up on considering CD sales and downloads as a viable income source—they are a necessary format for presenting new material, but the money is made by selling concert tickets. First there was Napster and music “piracy.” That still exists, in websites like the Morphean Kickass Torrents (which keeps getting shut down in one national server and popping up elsewhere), but it’s a bit passé. People listen to music through streaming services, like Spotify, which pay almost nothing to the artists, or by playing YouTube videos, as Čiča Baki says “People watch music,” which is not necessarily good for the music. Videos help but can distract. A great song with a lousy video will likely be considered lousy by its audience, and our ever-dwindling attention spans mean that we need the visual in order to hold our focus for the music. It used to be that getting picked up on student radio stations was a key to kick-off a career. That’s how Čiča Baki’s other band got started, though the gold standard, at least in his native Slovenia, in terms of listeners, remains Radio 1, the most popular radio station (or rather a conglomerate of many stations) in the country (although with recent reports in international press of its refusal to pay artists to play their records, there may be a sea change in the air). Music videos are spun on the Slovenian national program, Točka, but at odd hours when not a lot of people are tuning in. This means that social media is key, that albums are essentially promotional material to encourage fans to go to live shows, which is how artists can actually make money. Beef music bands can earn quite a bit by performing at weddings and veselice every weekend—sometimes in the thousands per appearance, which is excellent, by Slovenian standards, especially when the most popular acts are booked every weekend, months on end. There is the added benefit that Slovenia is so small that managers are not necessary, nor promoters—only the very biggest acts employ them, and that only occasionally. Slovenia’s biggest musician, Vlado Kreslin, once told me that he tried working with a manager for a period of time, but he knew all the required contacts personally, and they would all call him directly, so the manager proved unnecessary.
With this in mind, how will Čiča Baki set out to conquer his native land? The album comes first, recorded at the Kotlovnica studio that he and friends raised money for and set up, some twelve years ago (when he was just sixteen), at the Kamnik Kulturni Dom. Feed it into some radio stations, particularly Radio Student, and produce a music video for YouTube. He plans to perform with his other, “secret” band—fans will be aware of him, but unsure as to his identity (the way he has liked it) and this will quickly expand exposure to his work. But the ultimate goal of both bands is to enter the arena abroad. This is a common theme in Slovenia—success at home is fine and dandy, but true success means making it beyond the borders. With the borderless Internet as the primary mode of promotion, there’s nothing stopping a good song from winding its way anywhere on the broadband-covered globe. If only foreign fans would learn some Slovene (and some Kamnik slang, to boot, ker “to ni haus”), then they would get the full pleasure of listening to some of this country’s rising electronic hip-hop stars.
Cover photo: Kamnik Kulturni Dom/domkultura.org