Bassist Michael Schetter (born in Poland as Michał Pruchnicki) moved to Germany with his family at the age of 7, and his now based in the German city of Nürnberg (known to English speakers as Nuremberg), in the south-eastern region of Bavaria. He made his recording debut in 2010 with the multi-national progressive fusion band Relocator, whose self-titled first album featured keyboardist extraordinaire Derek Sherinian as a special guest, and was very positively received on the prog scene.
The difficulties encountered by modern, non-mainstream bands and artists in finding live gigs spurred Schetter to try his hand at organizing his own festival, Generation Prog – a two-day event that took place in Nürnberg in September 2011. A few months later, Schetter unveiled his latest venture – a brand-new label, called Generation Prog Records. To further the debate on the future of progressive rock, and support the endeavours of those who are striving to move the genre forward, I have approached Michael and asked him a few questions about his experience as a festival organizer and independent label owner.
First of all, what prompted you to take the plunge and organize your own festival? Was it a spur-of-the-moment decision, or rather something that developed in your mind over time?
It was something that developed over time. The original idea was just to play a few gigs with my own band Relocator – preferably with a decent number of people in the audience! And how do you do that when you have just one album out? You team up with other bands. We had already been working on plans for a small tour with a couple of other bands in late 2010 and, while that didn’t quite work out, we ended up using some of the contacts from that time to lay the groundwork for the festival. In early 2011 we put together a gig that teamed Relocator with fellow German proggers Effloresce and Dante as a test run. After that we figured that if we were going to do this, we should be going for something bigger than just two or three bands. After all, the ads in magazines and the posters all around town cost us the same, no matter whether it’s a tiny gig or a full-blown weekend festival.
Though the European situation, in spite of the well-publicized debt crisis, is quite different from the one in the US, I am sure my readers on this side of the Atlantic will be curious about the steps you took to make the festival come to fruition. Can you expand a bit upon that?
We had been talking to a few bands about possible gigs together – Exivious (even back in late 2009!), Haken, Andromeda. When all of them had signaled interest in playing a possible prog festival in Nürnberg, I was convinced that we had a potential lineup special enough to attract people from quite far away.
The next step was finding a suitable venue. We had been talking to the staff of the Luise in Nürnberg before and my enthusiasm for this international festival finally won them over. It’s a great venue, but since it’s a youth center first and foremost, it can be quite hard to land a gig there – unless you’re a punk band composed of local 16-year-olds.
Then came the search for sponsors. We got some great press for the Relocator/Effloresce/Dante gig and I think that helped a lot – I managed to secure some financial support from the city of Nürnberg, and then some local music companies (Meinl, BTM Guitars, Musik Klier) helped us out with gear –it’s not easy to find a rental drum kit that will satisfy the typical prog metal drummer!
I also managed to secure a collaboration with our biggest local newspaper, the Nürnberger Nachrichten, and both Eclipsed magazine and local radio afk max officially presented the event, so we had quite a bit of support from the media.
I remember that, when you were in the process of putting the lineup together, you stressed that you did not want any old-timers on the bill. What can you tell me about the band selection process?
The initial idea was simply to team Relocator with some bands where our music wouldn’t seem totally out of place. As a fellow instrumental band, Exivious were always my first choice, so I was very happy to have them on board. But I didn’t want too many instrumental bands on the bill, so the idea was to add bands who have great singers, but who also know how to write gripping instrumental sections within their songs – that way we’d satisfy those fans who want vocals in their prog while (hopefully) having many of their fans appreciate our material as well.
There were other considerations as well: If I was going to stage a prog festival, it would have to be a platform for the newer bands shaping the prog scene right now! If people want to see any of the more established bands play, they can just attend their tours anyway. But if you look at a band like Andromeda, who I think are easily one of the best progressive metal bands on the scene, they had four albums out when the festival took place – and yet the last time they had played a gig in Germany was in 2006! Haken were lucky enough to score a slot at the Night of the Prog festival last July, but other than that there was no way to see them live in Germany, and Exivious played their first gig on German soil at our festival. So it was a pretty special combination! People easily forget how unique these things can be – maybe the next time you’ll get to see a band, they won’t be playing those great songs from their current album anymore? Or maybe some key members will have left? Or they will break up before you ever get a chance to see them? People like to get nostalgic about gigs from some prog legend’s classic period – well, for some bands that future “classic period” is right now! Maybe if people were supporting them instead of buying some 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition reissue of an album they’ve already bought twice, there would be more gigs for the current bands to get nostalgic about a few decades down the road.
So I was very aware how few good opportunities there are for bands to present their music to an appreciative audience, both as a musician and as a fan myself. Most of the time, the bigger bands who can afford to tour either bring their own support act (often picked by the label and not a particularly good fit musically) or just play all by themselves. I think it’s a shame and it makes it really difficult for newer bands to get noticed. That leads to another idea that played a part in the band selection: Since a prog festival won’t draw thousands of people, adding local bands with a following can really make a difference. So in the end we ended up with a 50/50 ratio of international and local bands. I’m not sure it’ll be possible to do that again without too many repeats (the regional prog scene here isn’t too big), but we certainly take our local bands seriously.
The festival lineup was mostly oriented towards progressive metal, which is somewhat controversial among older prog fans. As you are also a jazz and fusion fan, what made you decide to keep to more or less to a single subgenre, rather than branch out?
First of all, I somewhat disagree with this assessment. We had only three bands who were decidedly metal: Andromeda, Effloresce and Exivious – the latter even with a strong fusion element to their sound. The other five bands had some metal elements to their sound, but I wouldn’t say those were predominant. For example, Subsignal are hardly a heavy metal band, but they don’t shy away from a nice riff if it works for the song. And I think that actually goes to show why metal had such a presence in the overall sound: It’s just quite hard to find a modern prog band who doesn’t assimilate at least some of that into its sound. After all, being open to different musical styles is what leads many people to prog in the first place!
But all that aside, I think your preface already answers the question: prog fans tend to be picky and often dismissive of certain subgenres. If you mix things up too much, there will be a lot of coming and going between bands. With really large events that is not much of an issue, but with the smaller audiences that prog gigs usually draw it can be a real problem. I didn’t want an event where the total numbers were satisfactory while individual bands ended up playing to just a tiny fraction of the audience. I’ve seen that happen at local gigs too many times, it’s just frustrating for the musicians. I wanted a lineup that maximizes turnout while keeping the audience somewhat homogeneous throughout. I might actually put together some fusion festival at some point, it would just have to be separate from the prog metal stuff.
If you had to mention the most frustrating and the most rewarding aspect of the whole festival organizing experience, which would you choose?
Most frustrating: Doing accounting work in the back office while Haken were playing their headlining set on Friday was pretty frustrating. But the worst was clearly the fact that not ONE website, magazine or newspaper actually sent anyone to cover the whole event. Quite a few told us they were going to, but for various reasons in the end none of them came. So while we ended up with lots of photos from the event, there was not a single review. Very disappointing!
Most rewarding: Getting off the stage with my own band Relocator and getting our backs patted (literally and figuratively) by the guys from Andromeda. It was quite daring to schedule our set right between the two main bands on Saturday, but rather than flee the scene, the audience stayed with us until the end and gave us a huge applause. It was great!
Have you already started planning the 2012 edition of the festival? Will you be implementing any changes, or are you happy with the way things worked in 2011?
I’ve been working on some plans, but it’s too early to tell if there’s going to be a 2012 festival. I don’t necessarily want to stage an annual event at all costs. Sure, it would be nice, but if I can’t get the right lineup together for a 2012 festival, I’d rather skip one year than put on a show that I don’t fully believe in. It’s just too much work – to a certain degree, I am doing this for myself.
How did you get the idea of starting your own label? Was it a consequence of the festival’s success, or something that you had already been thinking about?
It had nothing to do with the festival, although obviously expanding the “Generation Prog” brand to include the label was the logical decision once it all got started. No, the idea was born out of the experience with promoting the Relocator album on our own and from discussions with some other artists (especially Effloresce, who became the first to join the label). It’s pretty hard for a single band to generate some media interest all on its own and buying magazine ads just for a single album (with little distribution) rarely makes sense financially. A label can run ads for several bands at the same time and it has more than just one CD to advertise and to distribute, so it makes a lot more sense. The idea was for this to be beneficial for everyone involved.
You have two bands signed to Generation Prog Records so far – Relocator and Effloresce. Have you already approached other bands or solo artists? Are you planning to concentrate on local acts, or provide a haven for bands from other parts of Europe (or even outside Europe)?
I don’t care if the band is local or European. I have been talking to some artists and I have been approached by a staggering number of bands, but I don’t want to rush things, my day only has 24 hours, and on top of that I am pretty picky when it comes to the music. But there’s one band in particular that I would really like to work with and unless they get snatched up by a bigger label first, we might well end up putting out their album later this year.
On the label’s Facebook page it is stated that Generation Prog Records specializes in “modern progressive music”, and, as also pointed out on its official website, Relocator and Effloresce occupy different ends of the prog spectrum. Are you planning to sign even more diverse acts, or rather concentrate on the fusion and prog metal side of things?
I’m open to all sorts of things, but I tend to dismiss bands that I would classify as more regular (non-prog) metal or pop, for example. It’s not necessarily because I don’t like the music, but the whole label idea only works when there’s some sort of synergy. If I promote a bunch of stylistically somewhat similar bands, I can deal with mostly the same media in promoting them, and hopefully some fans of one band will discover a few of the others through the label affiliation. Ideally, you end up with a label whose name implies a certain style and quality level. That won’t work if I end up working with death metal and pop/rock bands, no matter how good they may be, and they would be worse off because in many cases I wouldn’t even know where to promote them.
Are you planning to release physical CDs, or rather opt for a digital format?
Ideally we would always have a physical CD release, but I could imagine some things like live recordings being download only.
Are there any independent record labels that you would like to take as an example for your venture, or would you rather want to provide something unique?
I don’t want to emulate anyone, but I’ve always been a fan of Ken Golden’s labels – The Laser’s Edge, Sensory and Free Electric Sound.
You will agree with me that it takes some courage to start a new independent label at a time when artists are threatened by the seemingly uncontrollable (and uncontrolled) diffusion of illegal downloading. Do you think it is still worth bothering with record labels in this day and age? Do you see Generation Prog Records as a sort of mission to help fellow artists?
1. Yes (don’t even get me started…).
2. Yes, if both the label’s and the artist’s expectations are realistic – then it can be mutually beneficial. If not, it can be a very bad idea.
3. Yes, but there’s only so much we can do, and it has to be a collaborative effort.
What are Relocator’s plans for 2012, and possibly beyond that?
Right now we are preparing for a couple of gigs – on April 13 we’ll be playing at a smaller Generation Prog live event (a bit of a mini-festival, if you will) with Dreamscape, Counter-World Experience and Effloresce in Nürnberg, and on April 14 we’ll be joining the mighty Haken and Flaming Row in Rüsselsheim. Two gigs in a row – for us that’s a record!
After that, we’ll hopefully start working on our second album. Stefan [Artwin, Relocator guitarist and co-founder] has been writing new material, and right now there are six tracks in various states of completion. It might be enough for an album, especially once everyone starts adding ideas to the basic demos, but it’s too early to tell.
And now for the million-dollar question… From your unique perspective as an artist/festival organizer/label owner, how do you see the future of the progressive rock scene? Do you think that the genre’s popularity has already reached its apex, and a decline is inevitable, or do you still keep an optimistic outlook?
First of all, there’s probably no such thing as *the* progressive rock scene, which is what makes these events so much more difficult. You have various sub-groups of people who all consider themselves prog fans but who couldn’t agree on anything. But I think the music itself is doing quite well. There’s a lot of variety to the prog of today and no matter whether you want your prog to be adventurous and fresh, or just the way you know it from the 70s, there’s a lot of music being released. I think one of the most interesting aspects of prog is the openness to new influences, so I think (the retro bands aside) the music remains as interesting and modern as ever if you know where to look – especially since the technological advances make it possible for even obscure bands to put out albums that sound quite professional. So there’s no lack of interesting new music. If anything, I’d say these days the abundance of well-produced recordings is becoming a problem – there’s only so much music that listeners have the time to deal with! And with every year, a new band has to compete with even more classic albums out there.
But while there’s a lot of recorded music coming out, I think there’s a striking lack of gigging opportunities for prog bands, especially the newer ones. It’s pretty bad, because so many people have been convinced that playing live is where bands make money these days (a popular excuse for piracy). The reality is very different for most prog bands. Decent gigs are rare. Decent gigs that you don’t lose any money on are even rarer. But at least I’ve seen quite a few new people promoting prog gigs in their region recently, so maybe the situation is about to improve?
Thank you very much for your patience in answering my questions, and all my best wishes for your new label! I will be looking forward to reviewing some of your releases.