It’s an October morning, and Stephan Eicher arrives 10 minutes early. He apologises for being tired and orders a cappuccino. He thinks it’s funny that the room chosen for the interview, located in the basement of a Geneva hotel, looks like a bunker. He would have preferred a bright place with windows. But it doesn’t matter. Once he gets going about music, the magic happens. Even in a closed space. Even when he’s tired. In his 40-year career, Stephan Eicher has gone through all the changes in the music industry. And when it comes to talking about it, he can’t stop. He’s often funny, sometimes firm, always heartfelt. In the space of almost two hours, he takes the time to tell us about the history of music, from the troubadours to modern times, interjecting economic data, poetry and philosophy. It’s all here, in this interview.
What do you think are the most important changes in the music industry?
I get the feeling I’ve been through three big earthquakes in my profession. The first was digitalisation, with the invention of MP3s in 1995. You know, I was around in the golden age of music, when you could make a living, even a very good living, from making records. And then MP3s came. At first the sound was mediocre, but it improved and I realised quite quickly that it would be a tidal wave. I bought an iPod and calculated how much it would cost to fill it. It was in the thousands of euros. Of course nobody did it. As illegal downloading increased and CD sales fell, concerts became the main source of income for artists. So we had to go back out on the road to play concerts, like the troubadours in their time. The second life-changing moment was of unspeakable violence and came on 13 November 2015. It was a fracture. That day, an audience had come to a concert at the Bataclan in Paris. And then the horror happened. Ten days later, I was scheduled to play in Fribourg, but I couldn’t get up on stage and act as if nothing had happened. I decided to go and greet the audience as they entered the venue, shake each hand, to create a physical connection and thank them for having the courage to come to a concert. In France, concert-goers didn’t overcome the trauma until 2018-2019.
"For the record industry, streaming is the ultimate eldorado"
Finally, the last shake-up has obviously been the pandemic. Performance venues were the first places to close and the last to reopen. When they reopened, playing for 15 to 50 people in venues at half-capacity made no financial sense. We did it, but at a loss.
You don’t mention the emergence of streaming, which is the most widely used way of listening to music today.
For the record industry, streaming is the ultimate Eldorado. We don’t sell music, but rent it. The idea is genius! The good thing about this new way of consuming music is the vast selection available. Personally, I listen to a lot more music than I used to. That’s very positive for me as a music fan. I have playlists that inspire me tremendously, that make my life richer.
But as an artist, it’s terrible. Most of the revenue from streaming goes to the record industry, while artists, composers and songwriters are left with the crumbs. Making a record requires two inputs: creativity and funding. Splitting the revenue in half, 50-50 between artists and labels, seems fair to me. So let’s talk numbers. Since 1991, I have received 14% of the royalties for the Engelberg album. With Spotify, we’re used to talking about the famous €0.0046 per listen. But 14% of 0.0046 is €0.000644. In the end, the 17.5 million streams that "Déjeuner en paix" has generated so far represents about €10,000 for the artist. Luckily, I only have to share with my management at the time, who takes 50% on the song, but think about how a 4-piece band could survive on a hit like that! Fans should leave Spotify, Apple and Amazon and go to platforms like Tidal that pay labels and artists better. Plus the sound is higher quality.
For big international stars, however, streaming is more lucrative...
It’s not international stars like Drake and Taylor Swift that have made the music industry rich. It’s the recordings (masters) by local and middle-ground artists. But when a fan buys a Spotify subscription to listen to Stephan Eicher, I don’t get any money. All the revenue is pooled and redistributed according to the number of listens. That favours the few stars who get millions of streams at the expense of everyone else. Let’s do the maths. There are between 35,000 and 40,000 people who are fans of the music of Jean-Louis Aubert, Étienne Daho, Véronique Sanson, Les Innocents, Alain Souchon and Stephan Eicher (according to the data on my artist page, which I can visit on Spotify). This audience signed up for €9 per month per person to listen to this particular style of music, not to listen to Drake. If we split this revenue in half with the label (which sounds fair enough to me), after deducting 20% for Spotify, we could split the rest between these artists. We would then get between €10,000 and €12,000 per month, which is very different from what’s happening now.
Some platforms, such as Deezer and SoundCloud, have changed their model so that the income generated by their subscribers really goes to the artists they listen to. Is this a positive development?
Deezer is trying to do that. To me, it makes sense. If someone is a fan of Stephan Eicher or a speed metal band, the money they pay should go to that artist, not to another. That’s what they call a "user-centric" system. I think other platforms will shift towards this model when they are really ashamed of what they’re doing to us, or when journalists like you talk about it more.
Spotify is highly criticised. But the company still paid 5 billion euros to rights holders in 2020. It shifts the responsibility of distribution to the labels...
(cuts off) What? The labels and Spotify aren’t in agreement? That’s hard to believe, because they own Spotify! In 2008, the platform was just an empty bottle. Warner, Sony and Universal filled it with their artists’ catalogues. But they didn’t ask for money in return. They were smarter than that, they were given shares in Spotify. As a result, we musicians didn’t get paid for our catalogues being rented out, because the labels didn’t receive cash, but shares. The Spotify IPO was done to rid them of this problem. Sony was almost legit. After the IPO, it sold some of its shares and paid the artists. What did Universal do? They didn’t pay anything! Vincent Bolloré personally made €7 billion by taking Universal public in September. I imagine he’ll keep the money for himself. He doesn’t care about artists.
"I’ve always been naive enough to believe that by creating you’ll always be okay"
Oddly, as streaming has grown in popularity, vinyl has made a comeback...
Stop. That must be a joke. Vinyl represents 5% of the physical market, which is dead. It’s the record industry, its spokespeople and the media shining a light on a mouse in the corner to hide the streaming elephant in the same room. Vinyl is beautiful. I buy it and have a huge collection. But hardly anyone listens to vinyl.
How did the pandemic go for you?
I spent the first lockdown in France. I had to fill in forms to do my shopping and I was sheltered at home for three months. Then concerts briefly started back up again and stopped at the end of October. I came back to Switzerland. My mother passed away, and six weeks later my father succumbed to the coronavirus. It was unbelievably brutal. Three days after he was buried in line with inhumane health regulations, I was operated on due to a problem near my vocal cords. These three events convinced me that I had to go back to doing something artistic, play with other musicians and in front of an audience to get my head above water.
Is that why you launched your "Le radeau des inutiles" tour?
Like the head of a company, I also felt responsible for the 10 or so people who depend on me: my musicians, my technicians, the back office, managers, etc. At the end of 2020, we thought that 2021 would be even worse, and I was going to have to let everyone go. We didn’t receive much help, and when we did, it was at a later stage. I cut my income in half. Some musicians were in a state of depression that scared me even more than my own. That’s when I figured that we really needed to play. So I initiated "Le radeau des inutiles" (raft of the useless), a title that refers to an unfortunate expression coined by a European head of state. I’ve always been naive enough to believe that by creating you’ll always be okay.
Why did you go through crowdfunding to finance this tour?
With pandemic restrictions, we could only perform outdoors and in front of a limited audience. So I looked for beautiful venues, like we have in Switzerland. But paying for musicians, technicians, equipment, transport, meals, travel, hotels, performance rights (SUISA) and everything else comes to between 12,000 and 18,000 Swiss francs per date. That cost remains constant, but audience size had to be smaller due to the virus. Usually, a ticket to see Stephan Eicher costs 60 to 65 Swiss francs, but that wasn’t enough to cover costs in these conditions. So, as people were saying that they missed cultural events, we wanted to ask them what it was really worth to them, by allowing them to give what they want (or can) to attend an Eicher concert.
You managed to raise 388,362 Swiss francs on the platform Wemakeit. A success?
A disaster (laughs). We had a cursor that went up to 140 francs per spectator to cover our costs. The event included a concert, a meal and wines (from Domaine Wannaz in Lavaux, a friend of mine who is a winemaker and restaurant owner, and who also suffered from the pandemic). But it didn’t work. One person even paid a franc to attend the concert, have dinner and drink excellent wines! For others, it was 10 francs, 20 francs, etc. In total, 3,800 spectators paid between 1 franc and 1,250 francs, averaging 102 francs. The tour cost 700,000 Swiss francs – to build the travelling theatre, the raft set, an open-air stage and the furniture to accommodate between 15 (at first) and 200 people per concert. That came to a loss of 200,000 francs. Thanks to the Swiss Grand Prix for Music 2021 award that I received and the "Transformation" project in the canton of Vaud, the hole is expected to shrink to about 26,000 francs.
Do you think that people no longer have any idea of what culture is worth?
When my musicians and I go on stage, we’re happy. I don’t ask the audience to pay me for the two hours I play, because it’s a pleasure. But the 22 hours of creation, organisation, rehearsals, travel, preparation, etc. have to be paid for. For a long time, it was hard for me to talk about money, because society teaches us to be discreet about it. But that’s a mistake. It’s important to talk about it. When I ask a musician to go on tour with me, I require him not to see his family, to put his personal career on hold. Basically, I’m buying his time. That’s what paying wages amounts to: buying someone’s time. That’s no small thing. Especially since there are not many jobs where you’re asked to be ready at 10:00 in the morning, finish after midnight or 1 a.m., be available at weekends, travel a lot, use your equipment on stage, all to be paid 500 to 650 francs. So I think it’s important to talk about it, so that people realise what’s involved.
After this "disaster", are you going to give up on crowdfunding?
Definitely not. I think it’s a potential solution. In the past, troubadours would sing for kings, church officials and powerful people. And then, after World War II, music became a thing of the people. That was the golden age. I know what I’m talking about because I lived through the last moments of this golden age at the end of the 1980s. The last 45 single recorded at Phonogram, which is now called Universal, was "Déjeuner en paix". After that they switched to CDs and the rest.
Today, we are experiencing a hyper-democratisation of music. No one buys anything any more. Everything is becoming affordable and available for rent. For artists, there are two potential outcomes. The first is that musicians, like many other professions that no longer feed their employees, should be financed by taxes on the machines that replace us. The second, which I believe in, is crowdfunding 2.0 or the "Patreon" system (ed. note: sponsorship). An audience that likes an artist makes it possible for that individual to express themselves artistically. We don’t pay artists to own their art. We pay them to have enough time to create art.
But financially, it doesn’t seem to work...
Crowdfunding is still in its infancy. It’s a method of financing that will develop. Besides, we don’t necessarily do it for money. On this tour, the people who hosted us fed me, gave me a bed, a place to set up the stage and play… Sometimes, I dream of never having money in my pocket again, of never receiving any, but also of never giving any. I think that accepting money for art is slightly pornographic. Give me something other than money, attention, for example. That’s why I’m not devastated after losing 200,000 francs. I received a lot of attention on the tour. I wanted this project to show people that there is real value in what we do. And we felt that value throughout the tour. We didn’t make any money, but we came back totally fulfilled, with stories, experiences and encounters.
Polyglot and polymorphous
A national monument in Switzerland, Stephan Eicher was born in Münchenbuchsee (Bern) in 1960. He began his career with the electro-punk band Noise Boys. But his first success was with the band Grauzone in 1981, with the release of the song "Eisbär". He then embarked on an extraordinary solo career, with songs mainly in French, but also in English, German, Italian and Bernese dialect. His music has continued to attract a large audience in both Switzerland and abroad. Over the course of his career, the artist has produced over 15 albums. His latest, Homeless Songs, was released in 2019. His biggest success is the legendary Engelberg, an album released in 1991 which features the hits "Pas d’ami (comme toi)", "Déjeuner en paix" and "Hemmige". In 2021, he presented his latest project, "Le radeau des inutiles", on stage and received the Swiss Grand Prix for Music award 2021.