Music made in Luxembourg

On the easy, hard track towards musical fame

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 04.01.2019

Pursuing a career in music is, famously, an ambition for the desperate, the ruthless, and the insane. But does the same go for musicians in Luxembourg? Of course it does. The Grand Duchy’s musicians, however, like many of its other hopefuls, are sent down a racecourse whose bends and curves don’t always resemble what you might find elsewhere.

Singer and pianist Adriano Lopes da Silva, better known by his stage persona Adrian, is winding through that racecourse now. If the simplest prerequisite for success is a sound that people like, Lopes has got it. His round, reverberating vocal style evokes, slightly, London Grammar’s Hannah Reid, and his compositions are bare, like empty rooms in which his voice can dominate: emotive lyrics resonate over simple piano accompaniment, all packaged together as deep, slow pop.

Lopes, who locates himself in the neofolk style of Woodkid or the indie-rock colors of Laura “LP” Pergolizzi, may only be 20 years old, but he isn’t new anymore: after releasing his first music video (Chimney Sweeper) in March 2018, he won several prizes for his performance at Screaming Fields, a battle of the bands for young musicians. A new single called Discontinuous will, together with its video, be released on 9 January 2019.

According to Lopes, starting out in Luxembourg is easy enough. Everyone knows everyone, somebody’s mother works for a radio station, somebody’s father knows a bar owner, and the first gigs seem to materialize without the need for too much horrible magic. “But getting to the next level,” he explains, “is not easy at all. You get stuck with the many, many other musicians down at the entry level. I worked so hard to get noticed.”

Noticed by whom? In Lopes’s case, topmost on his list was the Rocklab. Mostly everyone knows the Rockhal, the large venue on Belval’s outrageously named Avenue du Rock‘n’Roll, but tucked into its third floor is also the Rocklab, a music consultancy, recording studio, and rehearsal space. For some artists in Luxembourg, getting the attention of places like the Rocklab, Kulturfabrik, or Music:LX is a huge deal.

This is because these institutions are professional, and working with pros is an obvious safeguard against a very common trap: getting labeled as a hobbyist. Indeed, an accountant might jam on the occasional gig, a teacher may play weekly open-mic nights, and neither may ever quit their day jobs. A whole gigging network exists on this model, which Paul Bradshaw of the Rockhal’s booking team warns aspiring musicians against. As Bradshaw explained at a workshop recently, many people assume that if you love music, then you don’t need real payment. Apparently, it happens all the time: a restaurant owner wants you to perform, and is offering remuneration in pizza. You get a free dinner, the patrons get music, the owner gets patrons—what’s the problem? Well, Bradshaw pointed out, if you’re ambitious then the problem is that you’re giving your time, art, and self away for next to nothing.

Lopes laughed when I told him this story. “Yeah,” he said, “just a few days after Screaming Fields a farmer asked me to play at some party of his. He wanted to pay me in Lëtzebuerger Grillwurst.” Such gigs are surely bartered everywhere, and Lëtzebuerger Grillwurst is undoubtedly delicious, but career-building musicians need more. And it starts with a network: “If you have the right people supporting you, it can go fast,” noted Lopes. Three years ago, flying home from a song contest in Los Angeles, he admitted to himself that music was not just a hobby for him. He wanted to be famous and knew it would take serious, professional support. And how to find it?

“You’ve got to work,” he laughed. “To work hard,” he then added suddenly, and less lightly. Some of us may reckon, lazily, that musical success is down to an amazing voice, original licks, unbeatable chops, and so on. It is. But it’s also about ambition, focus, and professionalism. Work, the way Lopes means it, involves getting “the right people” into orbit around you and, even harder, keeping them there. Agents, bookers, consultants, video producers, recording specialists, influencers, and peers must all be held by your gravity alone.

Then there is the business of your digital identity, or how you exist in the wireless spheres where many listeners will first encounter you. The internet is teeming with musicians already, so pointed marketing efforts are required. In fact, nowadays, a regular part of the ambitious musician’s daily rigamarole is to monitor the analytics of his or her SoundCloud, YouTube, Spotify, and Facebook accounts. One must also develop logos, branding, an image, messaging, targets, and the like. On one hand, these are of course ludicrous uses of time. But on the other, marketing has perhaps always been fame’s postal service, and never – before the internet – has one marketplace pitted so many artists against each other.

And of course, all of that comes at the wayside of the music itself, which must be original, mature, skillful, emotive, and accessible. “It takes drive,” was the only way Lopes could sum it all up. And if your career goes well? Then you make a splash in a teacup, because Luxembourg’s modest market is, of course, easy to saturate. “How many times in your life will you go to the concert of your favorite band?” asked Sam Reinard, director of the Rocklab, at a workshop a few months ago. “Four or five times in your life?” Too many shows in this country and your fans will be sick of you already.

This “fame bubble” exists in many sectors in Luxembourg. It works like this: the country’s comparatively small population means that a satisfying slice of the competition is cleaved away, easing your way to the top – but the trade-off is that the top is not terribly high. For most, making a career in music therefore means winning over audiences internationally, which puts you on the starting line of a whole new racecourse in networking and marketing somewhere else.

Ultimately, it sounds like Luxembourg’s familiar music scene should be treated almost like a focus group, from which a partly seasoned, artistically mature candidate for fame may be released into wider territories. For those still in the races, the message seems to be: work on yourself, work on your music, work on your network, and buy your own Lëtzebuerger Grillwursts.

Jeffrey Palms
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