Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 8, 16 August 1999

'Jass' musician Ryszard Tymanski M U S I C:
Rebellion at the Fringes
Poland's independent music scene

Wojtek Kosc

Over the course of the past ten years, since the collapse of Communism, the independent music scene in Poland has undergone a major transformation. It is no longer simply a way of expressing anger against the omnipresent and oppressive system. Since the system has dissipated, the independent music scene has become more diversified and has found new themes to confront. A greater focus has developed on the quality of music rather than on ideology.

Now, in 1999, to be independent means two things: to control the technical process of making a recording - thus eliminating the costly services of a big record label; and to create music which is more demanding of the listener - leaving easy listening to big music companies. In this way, Indie bands and record labels are fated not to draw big audiences yet always retain an upper hand on bigger labels in terms of quicker reactions to new music trends as well as current social or political problems in Poland.

Polish Indie band, Homo Twist

Of course, there are a few examples of artists who manage to be both popular and credible - such as Kazik Staszewski or Homo Twist. Similarly, there are also those - such as the band Dezerter - who eventually signed contracts with big labels without losing credibility or the high artistic quality of their music and lyrics. Most Indie bands thrive within relatively small record labels, performing for steady audiences and managing to make ends meet without forcing their way into the big commercial industry.

In terms of new releases, the Indie scene in Poland is considerable, as here are at least a few new albums introduced to the market each month. However, only a few labels are capable of countrywide distribution with accompanying advertising. Some make money by releasing one or two popular artists and then use the profits to put out bands that are not likely to be big commercial successes, despite drawing a devoted number of listeners. Such is the policy of SP Records, owned by Kazik Staszewski, who - being very popular himself - is in a position to promote obscure and often lyrically difficult bands, such as Kaliber 44.

Polish Indie band, Kaliber 44

Other big Indie labels like QQRYQ or Antena Krzyku (Antenna of Scream) initially established themselves as distributors of Western bands and only later started to release Polish ones. Another label, Muzyka z Mozgu (Music from the Brain) issues groundbreaking recordings of Ryszard Tymanski's numerous bands playing "jass" [a specific brand of arhythmic jazz, ed]

The majority of Indie labels do not specialize in one particular kind of music, releasing albums ranging from punk rock to hip-hop and rap. The division line lies in the labels' attitude to the aesthetics, with many combining aesthetic radicalism with politically concerned lyrics. Thus QQRYQ and Antena Krzyku are associated with the anarchist movement, while SP Records' bands scrutinize the changing reality of contemporary Poland in a more social-democratic fashion, with no ties to the Communism that Staszewski often criticizes. Muzyka z Mozgu, Music Corner or Obuh Records are all aesthetic enterprises.

As the scene itself (that is, the bands and the record labels) is quite animated, what evolves around the music may be disappointing. Indie music is hardly presented on TV or heard on the radio, and articles on it are rarely seen in newspapers and magazines. Of course, there are a number of fanzines, often of high publishing quality, but they - predictably - tend to circulate only among those who would be interested anyway. The biggest (it is available countrywide) and arguably the most influential of these zines is Mac Pariadka (Mother of Order), also associated with the anarchist movement, combining certain features of a fanzine with those of a broader socio-political publication. Other publications worth mentioning are the more strictly music oriented Korek (Cork), which appears irregularly and Pasazer (Passenger), which focuses on punk. Outside, arguably the best to date among purely music fanzines, has not appeared for a year now and is feared bankrupt. The only big and professionally made publication which features Indie music is Brum.

As far as radio and TV are concerned, independent music is almost entirely absent. While it is not surprising that commercial stations that have banned braver music from their programming do not include Indie bands on their playlists, public radio and TV do not include it in their programming either. Their failure to showcase this talent contradicts their mandate, as they shirk their responsibility of being truly "public."

In the mid-90s there were several attempts made at establishing some permanent - even if short - spots on both public radio and TV. All those spots were subsequently axed under the pretext of not attracting a satisfactory audience (something which was obvious from the beginning). If anything from the Indie scene succeeds in making its way to the mass media, it is rather in the context of expression of public concern over vulgar, often misinterpreted, lyrics or the bizarre behavior of the artists.

Recently, there were rows over a song from 100% Bawelny (100% Wool) which demonstrates the increasing commercialization of public media, who are losing their audience to commercial stations yet are unwilling to take chances on braver programming. The band's song, which contained lyrics supposedly encouraging violence, was banned from radio and TV. There is no interest in what independent artists may have to offer to the wider public; they are treated with great caution since they are seen as scandalous acts rather than people who, although they play difficult music with often harsh lyrics, have something to say about society, politics and other relevant issues. In the eyes and ears of public broadcasters, the form of their art eclipses its meaning.

One solution to the problem of limited exposure in the mass media could lie in the organization of a large Indie music festival. There are a number of festivals held in every major Polish city but none is particularly geared to showcasing the Indie scene. The big Indie bands seldom appear at them and the rest are too numerous and obscure to be featured en masse at such a festival. Until 1992, there was the famous Jarocin festival, but after being nonsensically commercialized, it collapsed altogether.

Music from the brain: artwork by Indie label Muzyka z Mozgu

This portrayal of the independent music scene may initially look rather grim, but its bands and record labels are used to this situation and consciously remain on the margins of cultural life. The scene is, by definition, connected with this fringe. Indie music is an interesting phenomenon in Poland in terms of the scene's artistic levels and the themes (often too appalling to be included in the mainstream) which its adherents - predominantly by young people confront. While the scene's marginalization is something self-imposed, in full appreciation of the advantages and disadvantages this carries, it should be the role of the so-called public media to extract what is interesting in Homo Twist's brave lyrics or Tymanski's jass and to present it to the wider audience, who are too often convinced that the watered down productions seen on TV or heard on the radio are the only ones available.

Wojtek Kosc, 9 August 1999

Some Useful Internet Links

This page contains many articles from Mac Pariadka, although most of them are of an anarchistic nature

This website contains info about recordings from Muzyka z Mozgu as well as offers from many other independent Polish labels

This website presents Polish Indie labels with their e-mail and snail mail addresses (in Polish)

For those of you who actually want to part with cash and experience Polish Indie music for real, try this site. For the more impoverished, sound samples can be downloaded.

 

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