In December 2021, a group of DJs from Berlin made an important decision. With the combined threat of Covid-19 and urban gentrification snarling at the gate, they decided to submit Berlin’s notorious techno scene for UNESCO heritage status. In a ten-minute video application, a number of the scene’s most influential figures explore Berlin techno’s critical importance to modern Germany, while calling for what is known as “intangible cultural heritage” status from UNESCO, which, DJ DR Motte argues, would allow the culture to continue to thrive: “Unesco protection would go a long way towards maintaining that old spirit,” he began. “Legacy venues like Tresor and Berghain for example would be protected as cultural landmarks”.
It’s easy to see why people like Motte are calling for UNESCO support, but it’s possible that gaining UNESCO heritage status could have unforeseen and detrimental consequences. Should these essential spaces be protected in the same way as the Great Barrier Reef or Stonehenge, and will this protection function in the way DJ Motte hopes?
All over the world, grassroots venues and clubs are under threat. Here in London, it seems as though hardly a day goes by without a small venue being forced to close its doors, cutting off local bands from an essential platform. All of the bands and DJs that sell out arenas and festival tents today got to where they are thanks to the support of what has been labelled ‘The Toilet Circuit’ – those small venues that provide fertile ground for music scenes to flourish despite their grimy aesthetic. New York’s CBGBs would be the perfect example if it hadn’t closed down years ago.
Collectively, these grassroots venues have the strength to create defining and internationally renowned scenes that not only provide communities with a space to exchange potentially innovative ideas but also function as sources of revenue for local authorities and the government as a whole. However, these scenes are frequently neutered by gentrification and the increased housing costs and illiberal restrictions surrounding sound levels that accompanies it.
By gaining UNESCO World Heritage Status, underground scenes like those in Berlin, Zurich, (which was recently granted intangible cultural heritage status) and elsewhere would be able to continue providing space for alternative lifestyles to thrive. These spaces also have immense historical significance, and it can be argued that by allowing them to disappear we are waving goodbye to areas of living history. Surely, then, these areas should be given the same tax breaks and financial support as museums and other sites of historical interest.
Of course, the obvious argument to all of this would be that nobody wants a music scene to remain fixed and unchanging. Popular music was founded on a spirit of evolution. Why, then, would we want to preserve and sterilise important music scenes? But the reality is that nobody is suggesting Berlin’s techno scene be treated as a conservation area – rather, the aim is to ensure that these scenes are sustained, allowing them to shift and change without fear of devastation. According to UNESCO one of the central tenants of intangible cultural heritage is that the traditional is in constant dialogue with the contemporary: “Intangible cultural heritage does not only represent inherited traditions from the past but also contemporary rural and urban practises in which diverse cultural groups take part.”
However, that doesn’t get rid of the fundamental irony at the heart of the Berlin techno scene’s battle against gentrification. Arguably, what is putting Berlin’s techno scene at risk is the scene itself. Like a snake that swallows its own tail, as Berlin becomes more internationally renowned, it attracts more international DJs, party tourists and young professionals and creatives looking for affordable rent – all of whom have indirectly led to a rapidly growing housing crisis, which the regional government has, admittedly, tried to nip in the bud with rent caps. Of course, the knock-on effect of granting music scenes world heritage status is that they become imbued with organisations’ same prestigious reputation. If it’s rising housing costs Berliners are worried about, I wonder if drawing undue attention to the cultural superiority of their music scene is the best way to go. But then again, with so many creatives feeling the bite of an unsympathetic post-pandemic world, what’s the alternative?