The Berlin techno scene is notoriously hard to get into. Both literally—the city’s most famous club, Berghain, is guarded by bouncers who might refuse entry if you speak English—and figuratively, as the pulsing, sometimes monotonous beats tend to alienate the average radio listener. Those who are intimately involved take pains to maintain their close relationships. When The New Yorker‘s Nick Paumgarten sought perspectives from DJs who played Berghain, they declined to comment in order to preserve good standing with the venue’s owners.
To get an insider’s view of the exclusive club, a budding technophile might be better off consulting Electronic Beats, a Berlin-based publication that features interviews with several of Berghain’s resident DJs. Since 2000, the publication has covered the depths of the global underground electronic music scene, from Detroit transplants making beats in Berlin to pioneers of Nigerian funk.
Through its commitment to the niche—7,000 words on roller skating and its dance music sub-cultures, anyone?—and its access to stars both rising and bright, EB has become something like the electronic, German version of Pitchfork.
But unlike Pitchfork, which was recently purchased by publishing giant Condé Nast, Electronic Beats is a sprawling experiment in sponsored content. As the magenta “T” in the upper left corner of every page indicates, the site operates under the auspices of Deutsche Telekom, the telecommunications company better known to its American customers as T-Mobile. The site was built by Germany’s largest content marketing agency, C3, whose clients also include Volkswagen, Audi, Kraft, and IBM.
Funded by a giant company and created by a ultra-corporate-friendly agency, Electronic Beats may well be the least likely arbiter of techno purists’ tastes. So what has made it such a persistent player over the past 16 years?
A multi-pronged approach has kept it popular across Europe: Under the EB banner, Telekom has hosted events all over the continent, from Budapest to Bucharest. Those performances also get published as videos on EB TV, where they’re accompanied by musician interviews. For 11 years, many of those same musicians were also featured in Electronic Beats’ now-defunct print magazine. The free quarterly publication focused on interviews and oral histories as well as creative features like “Underground Artists Review Taylor Swift.” Stars such as Rósín Murphy, Jamie xx, and Lana Del Rey posed on the cover.
“The Telekom logo printed on the front of every issue has meant a curious kind of journalistic freedom,” former Electronic Beats magazine editor-in-chief A.J. Samuels wrote in the print magazine’s final issue. “No advertorials and no advertisers complaining about content being offensive or too obscure. The company has simply trusted us to produce engaging interviews, conversations, and artist monologues without assuming the role of censor.”
As evidence of EB’s wide range and lack of censorship, Samuels cited two standout features: a look at the unique music and dance rituals of Italy’s most feared crime syndicate, and a story that speaks to the importance of the Japanese trans activist Akihiro Miwa aging in public.
Telekom has turned its marketing budget into cultural capital by trusting the people it hired—editorial leaders with good credentials and connections to artists in Berlin and beyond. The site’s editor-in-chief, Sven von Thüelen, who is also a musician, wrote a book on the history of techno in Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The underground music platform Boiler Room once called him “an integral cog in Berlin’s techno machinery.”
Sven von Thüelen’s predecessor, Max Dax, came from Spex, a prominent pop culture publication. And a writer of a recent feature on Sydney nightlife, Christine Kakaire, has bylines on Pitchfork, Resident Adviser, and Boiler Room. These publications all commission similar stories to the work that runs on Electronic Beats, just without the undercurrent of cell phone sponsorship.
At a time when editorial-first companies like Vice are dealing with fallout from their cozy relationships with advertisers, a publication like Electronic Beats actually seems to be in an enviable position. Besides covering a single beat, the site’s staff has the luxury of pleasing only one sponsor. While other publishers that struggle with transparency are stuck facing the music, Telekom seems to be doing quite well writing about it instead.