Aussie musicians and music lovers are increasingly packing up their lives and moving to Berlin—a city with a thriving arts and culture scene—for a few months, a few years, or even permanently. In fact, there are so many creative Aussies living in Berlin, it seems to have become a bit of a rite of passage. That was exactly the case for contributing writer Andreas Kakogiannis who gave up his job as a lawyer in Melbourne and moved to Berlin a year and half ago to, well, pursue other, more music-related interests. Besides spinning tunes in a couple of venues himself, Andreas is a huge aficionado of electronic and techno music and frequents Berlin’s super clubs on a regular basis. On Skype with SheRa Mag earlier this year, Andreas pointed out that there is a lack of female DJs in the electronic dance music scene and could he investigate this further—and we welcomed the idea. So he interviewed one of his favorite DJs, Anja Schneider (whose publicist is, coincidentally, also from Melbourne) about what it’s really like to be a female DJ, even in a city as culturally progressive as Berlin.
It’s November 2014, and Anja Schneider has a lot on her plate. The German DJ, producer, and label owner is about to go on tour in the USA. There, she’ll play three shows in three nights in three different cities, before returning home in time for the launch of her forthcoming EP, Jimmy, and her responsibilities at the helm of techno and house label Mobilee Records, not to mention her other pressing responsibility: as mother to her three-year old son. I spoke with Schneider during a brief moment of peace at Mobilee headquarters in her adopted hometown, Berlin, where she talked about her music, her business, and her experience as a woman in a male-dominated scene.
The love affair with Berlin has been a long and lasting one for Schneider. She moved here in the early-90s, after the sort of definitive techno experience that seems to attract many a DJ, producer, and party-goer to this city for longer than first planned. “I grew up close to Cologne, where I finished school and studied Business and Marketing. But my heart was always beating for music. I came to Berlin for the first time on a holiday, just after the wall came down. My first weekend here, I went to Tresor [the now-legendary techno club that lurks in the labyrinthine basement of an abandoned power station in Kreuzberg]. Initially, I got a bit lost inside the club and found myself on the Globus dance floor upstairs. In those days they were playing hip-hop up there, and I spent four hours wondering if I was in the right place, before I gathered up the strength to ask someone, ‘Is this the legendary Tresor?’ He took me by the hand and guided me down this tiny staircase that you could barely see. I found myself in a strobe-lit concrete basement which smelt like sweat, and straight away I thought: my God, this must be heaven.”
It wasn’t long before Schneider resigned from her junior marketing job in Düsseldorf and brought herself fulltime to Berlin, where the techno scene, she says, “was growing fast…I felt that there was something going on that I couldn’t afford to miss.” After settling in, Schneider found her feet behind the scenes at KissFM as a program manager. From there, it was a natural progression to hosting her own show on Fritz Radio. “Of course, I was quite nervous when I started because I had to get behind the microphone, which wasn’t something I’d ever thought about before. The first year was actually terrible! But in the end, it was the best decision I ever made.” From there, she had the first request for club gigs, which she says also at first made her “really, really nervous.”
That was the year 2000, before Soundcloud, Spotify, iTunes, and when the radio was a different beast. “In those days you really had a lot of listeners. I played a lot of music that was unreleased. People would send me demos and if I liked the music I would play it. So I already had the contacts. Eventually, a distributor came to me and asked why I wasn’t doing a label. So I started Mobilee. And at the same time, I already had my own ideas about the music I wanted to produce. So it all came quite naturally and more or less at the same time.”
I asked Schneider what it was like, in those days, as a female DJ and producer in a male-dominated scene. “As a girl, people were judging you more, I mean they were judging me technical-wise. I knew a lot of male DJs who weren’t as good technically as many of the female DJs, but people didn’t seem to be paying as much attention to them in the same way they were to us. So this was something you had to deal with.”
Gender also sometimes made itself felt in the way audiences responded to Schneider’s DJ sets. “I didn’t like, and I still don’t like, people coming up from the crowd and saying, ‘You’re my favorite female DJ.’ Because you wouldn’t get this as a male DJ, of course you wouldn’t.” But of her male counterparts in the industry, Schneider is clear: “No, I never had bad feelings or vibes from male colleagues. Within the scene itself it’s peaceful and quite equal.”
Was the same was true of her role as a label head? “Yes, there I do feel it a bit. I think some people assume that as a woman you must have a team around you doing things. But honestly, this has really calmed down these days, and I feel respected for my label and my business.” Within the Mobilee office, women seem to be in the numerical ascendancy at least, with four female and two male members of staff. When Schneider is thinking about hiring new people or signing new artists, is gender a factor? “Not at all. For me, it’s about personality. But I do really like working with girls. I think that, as DJs, women don’t necessarily take themselves as seriously as men, but we are just as serious about the work that we do. That’s why I really enjoy playing at parties with all female DJs.”
Nevertheless, it wouldn’t take many weekends out in Berlin to realize that the roster of DJs and producers getting booked at techno and house institutions like Tresor, Berghain, and Golden Gate is heavily male-dominated. And this feeling is confirmed by the recently published results of Resident Advisor’s Top 100 DJs of 2014 poll. Of the favorite 100 DJs of RA’s readership, only seven are women, and not one of those made it into the top 30, let alone the top 10.
For Schneider, who clocked in on the list at number 99, this is firstly a question of culture. “When I was growing up, I was in this position as a girl where you asked someone else for music. And there was always a boy giving you a tape, this was how you got your music. But nowadays it’s completely changing: we’re not listening to tapes and playing only with vinyls anymore, we’re also using computers. I see this as really positive. Girls are no longer as afraid of technical issues.” It’s a surprise to me that technology might come into it. Are we talking about vinyl, analogue synthesizers, and drum machines, or computers? “For my generation, technology was an issue, it was a ‘boy thing.’ But it’s changing with the new technology, new girls are coming up now.”
What of the impact of this new online age on the record business? Mobilee Records will turn 10 next year, and a lot has changed since Schneider founded the label. “Honestly, I feel great about it. Firstly, we are working in a hardware medium, it would be stupid to reject these technical developments that give us new possibilities. It’s also wonderful that we’re able to increase our DJ sets with Traktor, for example. But in the end, a good track is a good track, that won’t change. And that’s how I understand my job as a label owner, to release good tracks. How they’re used, that’s another thing.” Of Mobilee Records specifically, Schneider says, “I had no idea when we started Mobilee that it would last this long. I just thought, okay, I can use my prominent name to give people a platform. We had no clue where we were going or what we wanted, and after ten years it’s somehow become quite a big business. But music-wise, when you start a label you’re the hottest kid on the block, but after ten years you’re certainly not. And new releases have an even shorter lifespan now than they did when we started the label.”
Has Schneider’s gender played a part in Mobilee’s lasting success? “In this label, I was never the big chief everyone had to follow, they didn’t all have to have my sound. This is maybe more of a female thing, because the labels owned by men tend to have a boss who everyone else follows. This is perhaps why Mobilee is so successful, because there was never a name bigger than the brand.”
It was in 2008 that Schneider’s first album, Beyond the Valley, was released to commercial and critical acclaim. Since then, there has been a steady flow of singles and EPs. I’m curious as to whether Schneider sees her own musical taste and style as influenced by being a woman. “I certainly used to think it was like this. I still believe that women have more emotional intelligence, something that makes it easier to pick the atmosphere in a crowd and to deliver on it, to take the crowd on a musical trip. Of course men can also do it, but I think in general we can do it better.”
Of the new EP, Jimmy, Schneider says she took her cues for the first time from trance music. “I come from a generation where trance was like ‘Oh my God, no!’ But then, last year I was in Mexico and I went to BPM and heard all these young people using these trance elements—Mano Le Tough, for example—and I came back and thought: you know what? I want to do some of this. So I felt it, and I wanted to do it. And I think it’s a good after-party track, a good morning-after track. So maybe I’m coming too much from the 90s and thinking too much about genre sometimes. At heart, I’m a techno and house child.”
Anja Schneider’s EP Jimmy was released last Friday on Mobilee.
Listen to Schneider’s Soundcloud below:
Title image: Kerstin Zu Pan