Boycotting Big Music

By Binnaz Saktanber
  • Binnaz Saktanber

    Binnaz Saktanber is a writer whose work on current affairs and arts has been  published in many Turkish and international publications including The Guardian, CNN, and others. She acts as the Arts and Culture Director of MASPNY based in New York City. Saktanber is also Fulbright scholar and a PhD candidate in the City University of New York, Graduate Center Political Science department. She is based in İstanbul.

“They may have won all the battles; we had all the good songs”—Tom Lehrer.


Every social movement has a soundtrack. Cuba had nueva trova, hippies had Woodstock, the Arab Spring had El General. Occupy Gezi was not without music either. The park was rather full of it: people sang and danced in the communal tent city whenever things calmed down a bit, or when they needed a pick-me-up after the police attacks that lasted for days on end. A fourteen-hour-long piano concert by Davide Martello; an impromptu sing-along of “Do You hear the People Sing?”; the sound of protesters ‘playing’ pots and pans from their homes; the video of a saxophone player urging tired protesters to carry on, are all stamped in our memories. Pop stars could not stay away from the hype either, but the people dancing to their own tunes, in every sense and form of the phrase, were not interested in the Live-Aidization of their struggle. Plans to have a concert in the park with big names were contested so harshly that the event had to be scrapped even before the lineup was announced. Huge summer concerts and festivals got canceled. Nobody was in the mood. In the meantime, big corporations and small shops that were not supportive of the protests were boycotted, be it a tiny sandwich joint that did not shelter the protesters from tear gas or a pro-government conglomerate.

Doğuş Holding became the headliner of the boycott lists. Both its chairman, Ferit Şahenk, an avid Erdoğan supporter, and one of its 24-hour news networks, NTV, who did not report on the Gezi protests, became a lightning rod for criticism. Protesters organized rallies in front of the NTV studios, as well as banks and restaurants owned by the giant corporation. Soon enough there were reports saying that the conglomerate suffered huge losses on the stock market. In August 2013, it was announced that Doğuş bought Pozitif Entertainment, the leading live event promoter in the city and the host of various music festivals, as well as Babylon, the Mecca club for alternative music lovers in Istanbul. Pozitif was added to the boycott lists, but it was a tough choice for music fans to make. Founded in 1989, Pozitif, for many music enthusiasts, was an educator at a time when downloading music was not even an option. And when Babylon came to the scene in 1999, most thought to themselves: “If it’s playing in Babylon then it must be good” as they discovered emerging bands thanks to it. Others saw Patti Smith, The National, Marianne Faithfull, İbrahim Maalouf, Manu Chao, and many others in Babylon’s iconic space.

Although I am sure I must have slipped more times than I want to admit, I tried to stick to my black list in the year following Gezi. I did not drink coffee in Starbucks because it closed its doors when protesters needed shelter; I did not buy newspapers that accused protesters of drinking alcohol in a mosque when they turned the mosque to a makeshift hospital out of necessity, I did not eat my favorite late-night snack, “wet hamburgers,” at Taksim Kızılkayalar because the shop owners refused to sell food to protesters; I stopped going to the ice-cream shop Mado because it refused to sell water to protesters. The list goes on and on. And I did not go to Babylon. It was not a militant, never-again type of decision because boycotting music you love is like boycotting your own heart, but more of an organic lack of will to be there. And it was not just Babylon. I started going out less and less, at least not to big clubs or parties. For one thing, for months I felt guilty whenever I was out having any kind of fun. Protests popped up all over the city for various kind of disasters: the murder of fifteen-year-old Berkin Elvan, the epic corruption scandal, the YouTube and Twitter bans, the killing of Medeni Yıldırım in Diyarbakır, you name it. If I was not out protesting, I was at home glued to the TV and to social media, angry and depressed. I wanted to be with like-minded people who I could sulk or rage with, preferably with good music in the background. I sought refuge in smaller happenings around town or stayed home and discovered new music thanks to newly emerging small web shows promoting local talent. Lots of friends were doing the same.

Sofar Sounds was one of my first choices. Half house party, half guerilla concert, Sofar, short for “songs from a room,” is a music movement that curates secret gigs of emerging artists in ordinary people’s living rooms in over forty cities. Concerts do not host more than sixty people, and getting in is tricky: it is first-come, first-served process managed through an e-mail list. The address and artists’ names are released only hours in advance and once you are in, you have to obey the rules: no talking, no cell phones, and no being fashionably late. Admission is free, the taste level is high enough that it’s almost sure not to disappoint, and you get to socialize with fellow seekers of new music in an intimate setting where there is no hipsterish charade. They even serve free beer. Sofar Istanbul co-founder Eda Demir says, “The biggest problem indie artists face in the city is that there are not enough venues willing to host them and the ones that do, not [sic] always match their souls. They do not get paid from gigs either. With Sofar, we get to promote local artists in a worldwide platform.” (In fact, one of the local Istanbul artists just played in Sofar London.) Music writer Hikmet Demirkol reminds me that Istanbul’s audience demand is the highest among all Sofar cities, which shows that they are meeting a deficit: small crowd, small but good music. Eda Demir thinks that big venues and festivals lost a chunk of their audience as a result of the Gezi boycott and says she understands why people (including most of her friends) chose to do so. Yet for her, a boycott is not a clear-cut way out: “Those venues gave me the best moments of my life and I do not think any of us are that innocent considering all the daily consumer choices we make.”

The second go-to place is Külah. In the middle of Karaköy, the almost-Williamsburg of Istanbul, with cool hideouts along with fast-paced gentrification (it took one year for what happened in ten in Williamsburg to happen in Karaköy), Külah is a performance and concert space in an abandoned ice-cream cone factory in a tucked-away alley, steps away from the old harbor. (Hence the name, which means “cone” in Turkish.) Avni Ertepe founded the space after spending time in New York and deciding that Istanbul needed a “meeting hub to host alternative art.” Similar to Sofar, Ertepe points out that Külah’s best trait is “the intimate setting in which both the artists and the audience feel comfortable.” Külah hosts exhibitions, performance art, and even the occasional street fair. But their piece de resistance is the concert program: Külah is the home base for indie label Olmadı Kaçarız (which roughly translates to “we will flee if it gets bad”), so their artists, including the indie band Büyük Ev Ablukada, which has a huge cult following, have regular gigs there, attracting a cool urban crowd. Ertepe says they are already careful to host works that are socially conscious and in tune with the ongoing political turmoil in the country. But they do happen to cancel events since Gezi whenever the tension gets high. He boycotts certain corporations and consumer products and does not go out much lately: “I prefer not to go out when there is unrest in the country. Even when I go out I cannot have fun.” But he is not for boycotting festivals or Babylon: “Everybody is stressed, even angry. Festivals are venues to vent that energy, especially for young people. Plus, I do not think it is wise to cut down channels that nourish cultural richness.”

When you do not feel like a concert at all, Dinleme Odası [listening room] offers a sober alternative. The idea is to be like a book club for albums: around thirty people (you have to reserve a seat) get together, communally listen to a full album, and then talk about it. They invite musicians and music professionals to lead the discussions. Cofounder Ezgi Aktaş also runs the website Alternative Istanbul, so she has a lot to say about big music: “Festivals and big concerts are too expensive to begin with, even with sponsors, so they only attract a well-off crowd. I am not even sure real fans are the ones filling the venues. Beyond a boycott, the best way to remedy this unfairness is organized action against sponsors’ excessive power over music events,” she says.

Nevertheless, when Pozitif announced the lineup for their summer festivals, people were excited. One Love, the biggest event, included names like Mogwai, Oh Land, Bonobo, Mø, and Omar Souleyman. Some of the local bands I have discovered thanks to Sofar and Külah were taking the stage as well. Despite her long-term boycott of the main sponsor, Aktaş was planning to go. It looked like other boycotters were changing their tune too because “dude, Bonobo!” Around the same time, an anonymous post appeared on Ekşi Sözlük [sour dictionary], a collaborative hypertext dictionary and one of the most visited websites in Turkey (think of a Wikipedia in a forum format with very opinionated, funny, and sarcastic definitions for everything from celebrities to current affairs), which immediately started making the rounds on social media. The writer was extremely angry about the hypocrisy he felt existed among the Gezi protesters:

“I don’t get it, you’re still fucking raving about One Love! Aren’t you the ones cursing Doğuş? Didn’t Doğuş purchase Pozitif? Every penny you’ll spend at this festival is gonna end up in that guy’s pocket. That guy who said protesters burned down the tents in Gezi Park when in fact police was beating the shit out of us! Fuck Bonobo! How fast did you forget Ali İsmail [beaten to death by the police during Gezi protests]? How small is your memory card? Berkin is turning over in his grave you hipsters, and you’re still saying Oh Land! Oh Ferit dude, oh Ferit! Fuck the revolution you were gonna do, fuck you all!”

When I found Emin Akpınar, the activist and filmmaker who wrote the post, he was calmer and happy with the support he received but still firm: “We should do more than going out to the streets. It is not that hard to change the places where we eat, drink, or shop. I do it. And I do not understand why people cop out when it comes to music. Gezi completely changed the way I look at things. I used to love Babylon, but it does not matter. Babylon sold out. Their new owners are the owners of NTV, who accused us of being terrorists.” A month after Akpınar wrote this post, the mine disaster in Soma happened. According to official accounts, 301 lives were lost, but the real number was probably higher. As the country mourned, anything remotely linked to entertainment was canceled. A week later, Pozitif announced that they would be donating all ticket proceeds from festivals and concerts in May and June to Soma victims. Prices were heavily discounted, starting from the unheard amount of 10 liras (€3.40).

After a yearlong hiatus, I succumbed and bought tickets to see Bob Dylan and for the Babylon Soundgarden Festival where I saw Mount Kimbie. While doing so, I could not shake the feeling that I was doing something immoral. Yes, my money was going to a good cause and I was going to support artists that I loved, but would I have gone if the tickets were not this cheap? I checked and saw that not one person had actually bought the most expensive tickets, which were 500 liras (€171). Akpınar, who would probably consider me a sellout, thinks the donation campaign is a sign that the boycott worked: “It is very simple,” he says, “ticket sales were low so they thought ‘we are not going to make enough money anyway, so let us at least save our reputation.’ One Love will probably sell out because it is 10 liras.” I do not know about the evil plan to salvage their name, but Akpınar was right about the last part: One Love sold out on the first day. I did not go.

There is a kinship between music and revolution or any kind of protest for social change. The same feelings of collective identity and liveliness are present both on the green grass of a summer festival and on the hard pavements we stride through during a rally. The atmosphere of a concert is actually a safe haven to voice political dissent. It is a shame we are left to choose one or the other, as if our left hand is pitted against our right. Aktaş reminds me of a Roger Waters concert in August 2013, when tens of thousands of people shouted the now-iconic slogan of Gezi “Her yer Taksim her yer direniş!” [Everywhere Taksim, everywhere resistance!]. Waters replied by projecting the names and pictures of the ones who were killed during the protests on the stage. Friends who went said it was the best concert of their lives. Aktaş: “Today, even the most antagonist events need a big sponsor. Even Waters was sponsored by Doğuş. In that concert, the most well-known critique of the current political system was realized thanks to an expensive production. I guess in today’s world the only way to oppose the system, or rather, to make our opposition visible, is from within.”

I think of these words when I arrive at the Bob Dylan concert at Black Box Istanbul, the newest concert venue by Pozitif, which was a dream project of theirs for many years. I am going to see a (reluctant) legend of the Civil Rights Movement at a venue owned by a corporation that did everything in its power to curb our civil rights. The venue is brand new, and I immediately notice the soon to be built ugly shopping mall in the complex and the absence of the countless trees that were cut down for the construction. Wasn’t I tear-gassed and chased by the cops for days on end because I protested the cutting down of trees and the construction of a shopping mall? I go inside, and see one of the best concerts of my life. Hands down, the venue is the best in Istanbul. The acoustics are good, the AC is working, no lines for the restrooms, cold beer at a decent price. I feel so sad that I feel guilty being here, I feel so sad for all those good, hard-working staff from Pozitif, and I feel angry that we are forced to make these choices. All of a sudden, a small group starts shouting “Everywhere Taksim, everywhere resistance!” I join in, but it does not last long. And Dylan does not seem to care. On our way out, a friend proposes a nightcap coffee. “Is Starbucks OK?” he asks. “No” I say, “I am boycotting Starbucks. They closed their doors to protesters during Gezi.” Dylan is still ringing in my ears, “What good am I if I’m like all the rest […] What good am I if I know and don’t do […] What good am I then to others and me / If I’ve had every chance and yet still fail to see / If my hands are tied must I not wonder within / Who tied them and why and where must I have been?”

I do not know the answer.