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Year in Review: Breaking down electronic music’s iron curtain

In an increasingly anglophone media landscape, what will it take for Polish artists to be heard?

This year, Unsound’s final club night took place in an amusement park just outside of Krakow’s city centre. Hype Park – the festival’s new venue since the closing of its infamous Hotel Forum location – is a warehouse-like building, with its two dance floors placed at opposite ends between abandoned train tracks. In this space, festival-goers found themselves huddled together in their puffer coats, breathing out cold air like smoke as they took breaks between sets.

Around 4:45 am, it seemed the energy from four days of festival programming had evaporated when Monster took the main stage, drawing weary dancers right back into a sweltering groove with a hedonistic blend of fast techno, anthemic rave classics, and high-voltage acid. On November 12th, Crack Magazine published a photo gallery from the festival, featuring artists like Juliana Huxtable, LSDXOXO, and Dis Fig. Notably, none of the dozen Polish artists who performed at the festival were included in the original post.

Despite delivering one of the festival’s stand-out sets, Monster, a resident DJ at Projekt Lab in Poznań and a regular face at Unsound, having played at the festival’s last closing party in 2019, was only included in an edit of the post after the DJ collective Oramics pointed this out on Twitter. 

“It was really annoying to see,” says Kraków-based curator, label owner and agent Łukasz Warna-Wiesławski of the publication’s omission. His label Tańce has released records by Polish talents like Avtomat, Semprey and Naphta, who all performed at Unsound this year. “It’s not a surprising or new situation, but this year it felt extra insulting, because there were a lot of Polish artists on the bill.” Highlight performances from local artists included live sets by Charlie, Avtomat, and Lutto Lento, who collaborated with a drummer to bring his most recent album LEGENDO to the stage. Meanwhile, scene veteran and We are Radar co-founder Olivia and her Detroit-inspired vinyl back-to-back with Dtekk kept dancers on their toes into the early morning.

Warna-Wiesławski recalls how six years ago, when the festival took place under its “Surprise” theme, audiences confused Polish trio T’ien Lai with the Swedish duo SHXCXCHCXSH, “because the name wasn’t announced in advance, and they were masked. For some people those acts will be invisible filler forever.”

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For Monster, visibility is an ongoing issue for DJs across Poland. A member of the Oramics crew, founded in 2017, Oramics was initially established to advocate for female talent in the Polish electronic music scene, but it later evolved to promoting LGBTQ+ and non-binary artists and broadened its focus on highlighting talents from the Eastern European scene at large.

Last year, Oramics published a report on the artists’ nationalities represented in Resident AdvisorFact Magazine, and Crack Magazine’s influential podcast series. The report highlighted how the vast majority of mixes came from artists from the UK, the US, or Western Europe. “Eastern European, Asian, African, South American artists are very poorly represented in all of these mix series,” says Monster. “All of those regions have one thing in common: in order to be financially secure, their citizens often have to migrate to the richest countries in the world to be able to save up more than it would ever be possible in their home countries. That’s the reality of many countries that were affected by the so-called shock therapy. As part of Eastern Europe, Poland is a country of cheap labour for the wealthier parts of the European Union.”

Poland, as part of Eastern Europe is a country of cheap labour force for the more wealthy part of European Union.

When dance music and club culture swept nations across Western Europe in the 80s, the industry around it developed in countries like the UK, France, the Netherlands, and West Germany. Dance music institutions like XL Recordings, Rough Trade, Warp, and Hardwax were launched during that time. Meanwhile, in communist countries, independent publications, zines, music shops, and clubs were virtually impossible to operate, and artistic activities were censored. “We simply don’t have any of our own media platforms with a long tradition of talking about uncompromising experimental or club music,” says POINTLESS GEOMETRY label manager Justyna Banaszczyk.
“These are all systemic differences that can’t be bridged in a year or even a decade. A poor economic situation and lack of funds translate into a lack of media. And if that weren’t enough, the state is not interested in the slightest in any independent forms of culture.” Banaszczyk believes this is why Polish artists today are too often left to rely on Western media for exposure. But as Monster points out, Polish artists within the electronic music scene are rarely represented by international booking or management agencies. “It’s tough to reach journalists if you don’t have the connections,” she adds.
Her booking agent Paulina Żaczek is one of those people pushing for change. “I started [my booking agency] Granko with the belief that Polish artists are worthy of international acknowledgement,” she says. “I noticed that artists around her needed a person to rely on someone who will work with them on their career, be the barrier between them and the business side of the work, so they can concentrate on their artistic development.”
Żaczek says aside from promoting her artists, her mission in Granko is to strive for professionalism in the local industry. “In Poland, that’s harder than I thought. There’s a belief that ‘things are taken care of,’ so contracts aren’t needed. The mindset goes like this, ‘who needs paperwork? The state steals, so why pay taxes?'”
This line of thinking, says Żaczek, creates a breeding ground for all sorts of exploitations, from artists to club staff. She remembers occasionally having to wait weeks or months for her salary when she still worked at clubs. Most of the time, Żaczek says she was lucky enough to work with honourable people who paid their dues. “However, I was only able to work in the club and live my dream of building the local scene up and making a difference because I had a second job in a soft drink corporation that was always on time with remuneration.” She also acknowledges her own privilege in being raised in a stable family environment in Kraków that offered her a roof over her head when she was first starting out. This is why she feels so passionately about championing others who might not have had a leg up in the industry or the confidence to stand up for themselves. “It’s not right that people are not getting paid, or artist fees are cut by the end of the night because the party did not work out. It’s also a constant struggle between fear of fighting for artists rights and getting gigs.”
Earlier in November, a group of booking agencies based in Berlin, London, and Manchester formed the “Independent Agency Collective” with the intention of sharing knowledge between each other and working together on fostering an equitable future within their business practices. The formation of such a collective, which did not include agencies outside of Western Europe, took Żaczek and her colleague Warna-Wiesławski by surprise.
“In Poland, we have at least three agencies (excluding myself with Granko) that could have been included, and I believe input from such agencies could be extremely valuable in the work that IAC wants to do. Especially if you want to stand against classism as another kind of discrimination,” she says, referring to the IAC’s mission statement of combatting inequalities in the music industry. “I know some people who are part of IAC and I want to believe that this omission was not on purpose,” she adds. Perhaps, Żaczek posits, “the intention may have been rooted in thinking that we here have the same problems that IAC agencies and artists have.” But this, Warna-Wiesławski asserts, is far from reality. “The median salary in Poland is €700. That means that half of the country earns less in a month than some Western DJ for a day of their time [gigging] here.”

The financial frustration and the constant fear of missing out, Warna-Wiesławski says, has only increased through the rise of social media, a decline in long-form music journalism, and the algorithmic incentive to increase engagement through featuring those who already have a platform.  

“It is a vicious circle that causes us to be constantly bombarded with the same content, faces and music,” Żaczek adds.

“Sometimes it is hard to promote the party if our guest is not popular in social media,” admits Olivia, who runs her seminal We Are Radar nights alongside her partner Chino and Kinzo Chrome. Her EBM-inspired acid squelching EP Dancing Snake was released to Rotterdam’s Pinkman imprint last year and she is a frequent performer at Unsound, having connected with the festival’s founders early on. Olivia says Unsound has made a colossal contribution to the Polish music scene and stands out in its efforts to educate audiences on new music. “For me as a DJ, it’s like a music school where I can dig and get to know a lot of amazing sounds.”

Olivia is also a resident at Jasna 1 in Warsaw, a club that over the course of four years has proudly built up a reputation for its forward-thinking curation and strong roster of residents, among them VTSS. As Jasna 1’s artist director Jędrzej Kowalczyk asserts, the club’s residents play an active role in the lineups and art direction of each night. “They all developed a lot during the past four years and are proud to represent our club around the world.”

He lists emerging Warsaw-based artist Phatrax and Adam Brocki, who goes by Newborn Jr. or Blu Terra and is one half of the Private Press collective as ones to watch. “He’s already released a lot of great and super diverse music under a few aliases on respected and well-established labels such as Phonica, Rhythm Section and aex records and definitely deserves a lot more recognition internationally in my opinion.” Kowalczyk says Jasna 1 is “finally getting to a point, where we truly have our own music identity, and this is starting to be recognized in Europe.”

We’re finally getting to a point, where we truly have our own music identity, and this is starting to be recognized in Europe.

Janek Mondoj, who launched the Mondoj label in Warsaw in 2017, says he feels like “editors and journalists still have some cultural bias and rely on clout to consider something for coverage.”
Radio Kapitał­ – a new Warsaw-based community radio station co-founded by Justyna Banaszczyk ­– aims to bring together a variety of artistic and social initiatives from across Poland. The first grassroots broadcasting platform in the country, it’s operated collaboratively by a group of several hundred community members. Next year Banaszczyk, who makes music under the name FOQL and was part of the pan-European artistic mentorship program SHAPE, is celebrating POINTLESS GEOMETRY‘s 7th anniversary.
All the various initiatives she’s been involved, Banaszczyk says, “are aimed at creating more space for free expression, bonding, but also building an identity for our scene. I call it ‘connecting the dots.” Connected dots form a very interesting, irregular, unexpected shape, while alone they are just tiny specks.” Speaking to the multi-faceted and non-homogenous artists that make up the electronic music scene in Poland, it becomes clear that the way forward lies in collaboration.
Mondoj also believes that a generational change could have a positive effect on the international reach of Polish talent. As a label manager, he’s witnessed the rise of musical collaborations across borders, where the musical cross-pollination leads to new alliances between different cities and countries.

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Monster says that within the Western mindset, “there’s this belief that Poland is some faraway land that’s very difficult to access, while in reality, it is right next-door.” Projekt Lab, the Poznan club where she holds down a residency, is located only 240 kilometers from the German border.
Last month, Żaczek traveled to Berlin with a group of artists from the Granko Agency roster for a showcase on HÖR featuring DJ sets by Avtomat, Young Majli and a live set by Chino. Shortly afterwards, the agency celebrated its second anniversary. Scrolling through Granko Agency’s Instagram, it becomes clear that the community around Żaczek is one of solidarity and mutual support. “These things matter on so many levels,” she says. “From the self-confidence boost that artists get and then invest back into their local scene to basic things like being able to sustain oneself for a month from one abroad show.” Żaczek draws hope from the younger generation of Polish artists, who are using technology to amplify each other and facilitate opportunities for themselves abroad. “We have gems here, real talents.”
Żaczek feels fortunate to be working with people who take their careers seriously and respect her work as an agent. “Slowly, we are working together for a better future, and it is so satisfying to see the results and experience them ourselves.”

Caroline Whiteley is an editor at Electronic Beats. For this feature, we received countless submissions of artists and releases from Poland to check out. Find a curated selection by local artists below:

Justyna Banaszczyk:

Recently I’ve been listening to Martynka Basta and her debut album for Warm Winters, Akwizgram’s Castle 2 released by Enjoy Life and Spalarnia released by the Dym label. It’s also worth paying attention to Zaumne, Teoniki Rożynek, Edka Jarząb, Mentos Gulgendo or Warsaw’s Syntetyk label. On Pointless Geometry, we are set to  release the debut of Joanna Szczęsnowicz aka jablkagruszki. It’s been a long time since I heard something that good, but you’ll have to wait until early spring to hear it.

Pawel Paide Dunajko, founder of juke, footwork, and 160 label Outlines:

Fischerle is a music project of Mateusz Wysocki, a specialist in dub experiments. In fact, each new release of Wysocki surprises with a new approach to sound and the intellectual apparatus hiding behind it. I especially recommend last year’s release of Patalax label, in which Mateusz for recording this album used Aztec instruments from the city Teotihuacan, which were made available to him by a German archeomusicologist, Adje Botha. Currently Mateusz tries his skills in producing hip-hop beats in a producer duo called ifs (which he co-creates with a producer Ostrowski).

Ostrowski in my opinion is one of the most interesting and original producers/sound artists.His music is a continuation of clicks & cuts tradition originating from such labels as mille plateaux or scape, but often played by Ostrowski at 160BPM. His latest album “WoKa. Vol. 1“, which was released by Brutality Garden, is an extraordinary experimentation with genres such as gqom and afro house.

Maciej Maciągowski and his album “TURB0_0BRUT” was released a day before Rian Treanor’s “File Under UK Metaplasm”. In contrast to Treanor’s album (excellent by the way), Maciągowski’s music did not appear in the foreign media to the same extent as his more famous colleague. However, it is enough to compare both albums to easily come to the conclusion that “TURB0_0BRUT” is as striking and subversive as “File Under UK Metaplasm”.

Kevin Murf and his EP “All Inclusive”, released on a French label Grid, is a mix of crackles and hybrid sound in which various musical traditions intermingle together.

Zaumne is a specialist in creating highly sensual ambient compositions. His “Élévation” EP released on Mondoj label is a prime example of this unique sensibility.

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Published December 14, 2021. Words by Caroline Whiteley, photos by Joanna Chwiłkowska & Maciej-Zygmunt.