The Prague Curse
The Promise and Pitfalls of the Czech Music Industry
Velvet, September 1995
On February 25, 1994, Carol Miller, Greg Jarvis, and a posse of friends piled into two cars packed with booze, smokes, and backstage passes for a three-day road trip from Prague to Ljubljana to see Nirvana. They had plenty of reason to be giddy. Miller, then co-owner of the local promotions agency Interkoncerts, had sold 6,000 tickets in just four hours to Nirvana's pending Prague show, a Czech record that still stands. Jarvis, marketing manager for the local office of Nirvana's European label BMG, had visions of swelled In Utero sales and was looking forward to hanging out with the band in Prague for a whole week. "It was pretty heavy because we had spent months and months working on the concert," Jarvis recalls. "So we get there -- it's always really tense backstage -- and we just talked to the tour managers. We didn't even bother to talk to the band." It was a decision they would soon come to regret.
The next day Miller and Jarvis drove back, and the entire Nirvana road crew headed on to Prague. The band itself was supposed to come along for a mini-vacation, but decided to fly home to be with their families. Kurt Cobain met wife Courtney Love in Rome, and on March 5 -- six days before the Prague concert -- Miller was handing out refunds and sending off apologetic faxes. "It was terrible," she said.
It got worse. While Prague's weirder expats where throwing "Coma as You Are" parties featuring cheap champagne and barbiturates, Miller optimistically rescheduled Nirvana for April 29. Somehow, though, everyone knew it wouldn't happen.
Cobain's enrollment in "the stupid club" on April 6 provided a grim exclamation point to a theory that was already gaining wide currency around town: no great band, or at least a band you really want to see, can avoid the Prague Curse.
After the suicide, more evidence for the theory began to pile up. In November, the Beastie Boys postponed a long-awaited show for three months, to "rest." The Manic Street Preachers pushed a December 7 Prague show back to February 12, "because they band couldn't play a full set." The February concert then went belly-up when arm-carving guitarist Richie James disappeared, never to be seen again. By then, people were already making dark jokes about R.E.M.'s March 26 show; right on cue, drummer Bill Berry suffered a freak aneurysm.
Still, Prague looked set to rebound in July, starting with a Soul Asylum show on the fourth, followed by the July 5-7 "Prague Rock Days" featuring Elton John, Bon Jovi, Rod Stewart, Sheryl Crow and others, topped nicely by a rescheduled and rehabilitated R.E.M. on July 11.
All five concerts were cancelled.
R.E.M. managed to top the drama of their previous backout by allowing Slavia stadium to be filled up before announcing that bassist Mike Mills was on an operating table in a Munich emergency room.
"I think it was a catastrophe. It was a tragedy for the industry," says Serge Grimaux, owner of Prague's dominant ticketing agency, Ticketpro. "R.E.M. was incredible! First the brain hemorrhage or whatever, then the appendicitis. I think the voodoo thing was working on them. Even Bob Dylan, who never cancelled a show in his life, three hours prior to the concert [in March] he says he doesn't feel good and wants to postpone it to the next night. You should have seen this mess."
On August 5, with his first-ever concert promotion in Prague, Grimaux confront the Curse head-on with the best ammo in the biz: The Rolling Stones. "People were saying to me, 'Aren't you worried about all these bands canceling, and all these curse things and all the money?' I didn't worry even a fraction. The Stones are the most professional act in the business, from the stage crew to the top."
Sure enough, Mick and Keith sold out the 130,000-capacity Strahov stadium at 690 crowns a pop. The spell thus broken, R.E.M. finally -- and barely -- got it together August 11 and sold out the 15,000-set Sportovni hala, even though Michael Stipe was still rushed to the hospital hours before the show with a hernia scare). This was followed five days later by Neil Young and Pearl Jam. For the moment, an embarrassing stretch of bungles and freak cancellations had given way to a new bullishness on the local music industry. "Prague has become a must-play market," Grimaux says.
Record sales in the Czech Republic are growing by twenty percent a year, and concert revenues are more than doubling. Bands are dying to play in Prague, and fans are dying to see them. But somewhere in the relationship between artist and fan, via concerts, records, radio and television, the process is getting skewed.
"It's kind of fashionable to play in Prague now, but certainly it becomes very complicated with the managers and the agents," says Zdenek Hosna, production director of 10:15 Promotions. "We're fighting for low ticket prices so they can be accessible to people."
Top-level concert tickets hovered in the 250-350-crown range here for several years, until Pink Floyd burst the dam last September by selling an estimated 115,000 tickets for 690 crowns. Now arena concerts are selling in the 450-550 range, and the mid-level shows are settling in the 300s. "If you talk about concert prices per average salary, there's no way to pay for it," says Aaron Kirtz, the 28-year-old product manager for Sony Music in Prague. "If people go to concerts and buy CDs, then they can't eat."
In the last five years, 10:15 has become the most successful and respected promoter in the Czech Republic by catering to a younger, less affluent audience that likes its rock and loves its favorite local radio station, the famous Radio One. "Rock shows are not for wealthy people. They are for students, young people, and cult people," Hosna says. A rundown of 10:15-promoted acts reads like a Lollapalooza Dream Team: Nick Cave, Siouxsie and The Banshees, the Beastie Boys, Nine Inch Nails, the Rollins Band, the Toy Dolls, Sinead O'Connor and Laurie Anderson. September's schedule includes Bjork and Green Day. "You can see from our roster we really prefer remarkable music," Hosna says. "It's really a kind of University of Quality Music at the end of the century. Radio One and 10:15 have been scheming to educate people about music for the last five years."
The listening public's musical education is not the problem, Kirtz argues. "The fans know more than everybody, from the salesperson at the store all the way up to the top of the record label," he says.
Still, the average fan does not know to what extent his access to information and international product is distorted or blocked by an industry that is making up new rules while still laboring under much of its old bloat. The average record store clerk, for instance, often doesn't know what he's selling. "The trouble is that in all these shops, especially outside of Prague, there are typical old-regime people," says Prokop Svoboda, the 22-year-old promotions manager of PolyGram's Prague branch. "They don't understand the music … they used to sell ten titles a year, and now there's a hundred and they're too slow to deal with them."
The fan is also not likely to sniff out the corner store's frequently rigid label allegiance. "At some stores all they have is Sony, some only EMI. You know how it works, it depends on who's friends with whom," Kirtz says.
Even a well-stocked store with knowledgeable employees -- if you can find one -- will carry only a narrow, pre-selected portion of the five major international record companies' catalogues. Most of the majors choose about twenty to thirty titles per month out of a selection of 75 to 200. "PolyGram," Svoboda says, "will release any band that won't lose money."
The paring down of titles is an obvious enough step -- Czechs are not going to buy much soul music, for instance -- but acts can easily get lost in the cracks. "Rage Against the Machine was huge in the clubs here, and it took like six months before you could find their album in the stores," Kirtz says. "My philosophy is to give everyone as many tization, and so on," he says with a laugh.
Svoboda, who used to sing in a short-lived but intensely popular local band called Hyena Family, is sitting in the Derby. "I guess Czech labels will have to go under pretty soon," he says.
Asked how that statement makes him feel as a Czech and as a once and future pop star, Svoboda smiles. "Really weird. At first I felt like it was a compromise. I always thought those people on the business side were assholes. So now I try not to be an asshole."
PolyGram hasn't had much success with Czech artists, he explains, and he doesn't foresee a great future in that direction. "I don't know anybody that would be successful. I don't think Czech bands are really very good. If I ever got a band together that I knew was good, I would never go to a Czech company; I would go to England with some small label."
The conversation turns to the different people working at the other majors. PolyGram artist Jimmy Somerville is in town, and Svoboda smiles as he recounts how BMG bigwig Peter Cap published an interview with Somerville under a pseudonym, just because he was so fond of the music put out by his competitor. Just then BMG's Jarvis walks in and asks Svoboda if he would bring Hyena Family back together again for a Spiritualize concert he's trying to organize for December. "They really want to play in Prague," Jarvis says. "They're ready to play for next to nothing."
After debating the pros and cons, Svoboda agrees to put something together, and leaves to meet Somerville.
"In one generation," Grimaux predicts, "people will have to be reminded that this country was part of the Warsaw Pact."
Everybody interviewed for this article sees an unlimited growth horizon ahead. Bands continue to harass their management for Prague gigs. As Czechs become more affluent and musically fluent, young label offices and promotions are becoming more savvy. As piracy continues to be snuffed out, as distribution inevitably improves, and as more magastores open around the country, money will keep rolling in. Whether the free-wheeling atmosphere of road trips, pseudonyms and reunion gigs will stay is another question.
"Once there's money to be made here you can be sure there will be people swarming in," Kirtz says. "It's an aggressive business."