A well-oiled machine – and truth on the dancefloor
The Time Warp attracts more than 15,000 fans of electronic music each year to Mannheim on April 1st. It is business as usual for Steffen Charles and Robin Ebinger. Their company Cosmopop has developed into a world-leading event agency. A conversation about the love of music – and the reasons of founding.
For twenty years now you have been running the Time Warp Festival and Cosmopop has become a state-of-the-art agency in electronic music. What drives you guys?
Robin Ebinger: I got infected with the electronic music bug very early on. The fascination for me lies in having been a part of a legendary time in the party scene – such as the Milk-Club in Mannheim in the early 90s. Electronic music was so fresh back then and had this mystical underground feel. It wasn’t all over the media, which made things way more interesting.
Steffen Charles: I experienced techno for the first time in 1991 in Sven Väths Frankfurt club Omen – which has been an unforgettable moment for me ever since. A friend of mine, Marco Bauer, also referred to as DJ Marc Bean, was keen on taking me out to clubs back then and also introduced me to the vivid club culture in Mannheim. Some clubs were always full back in the days such as Jardin, Koko, Ricks, Ugal – and of coarse Tiffany. Electronic music fascinated me and I wanted to become a DJ. Though as I found I was not too great at mixing beats, which got the crowds so upset, that someone even threw an ashtray at me, I figured I might just open up my record shop Goa Records instead.
Did the idea of founding an agency arise back then?
Robin Ebinger: At the time I was very into Breakbeat, Jungle and Happy Hardcore and I was getting interested in organizing my own parties, which would also help pay for my university studies. In 1993 I tried to get a truck into the Love Parade, which didn’t work out. But in the end we had a bus there for 50 people, which was a small success for me.
Steffen Charles: I organized parties to promote my shop. Lucky for me techno was booming at the time. When my partner and I put on the first Time Warp on January 1st, 1994 in the Walzmühle in Ludwigshafen, suddenly a few thousand people showed up. For us even back then Time Warp was not created to become a mass event with random music. We always felt that things had been better in the beginnings of the scene and tried to maintain the feeling of a small venue at a large scale. We booked acts that had achieved cult status, such as Speedy J who’s gig was the highlight.
Robin, in the 90s you were doing your thing independently and founded your first firm while still at uni. Why?
Robin Ebinger: Putting on events always has risks and with my partner at the time, Olaf Lörz, I wanted to try and play things as safe as possible. When in the process of founding the firm we did everything on our own. There was no support and no internet for us back then! We asked around and eventually got in touch with an accountant, and even then it took six more months till the GmbH was in place, as the process was quite complicated in those days.
How did the founding of Cosmopop come about?
Steffen Charles: I met Robin in 1992 at some party in Mannheim. And in 1995 we really got to know each other at the Vision-Rave, which was held on a glacier in Switzerland. Even there some DJs from Mannheim were playing that are still booked for the Time Warp today, such as Sebastian Dresel aka Seebase. As Robin was working freelance at the Time Warp events back then I asked him – almost ten years later – if he was interested in putting together a concept for an anti-smoking campaign I wanted to launch at Time Warp. That was his entry point to Cosmopop.
Robin Ebinger: After finishing uni I was super motivated. During my studies I had learned cultural techniques and analytical thinking and working, which are important skills in cultural management. I approached my first tasks at Cosmopop almost scientifically and created several new sponsoring concepts. And suddenly I felt it: I was right back in things.
Steffen, at the time you founded Cosmopop you had already dealt with some failures. How did you manage with the feelings of defeat and what kept you going?
Steffen Charles: In the beginning I didn’t really know where I was going career-wise, but I knew I had a great instinct for how people want to experience music. Before we founded Cosmopop there were great successes and also some bad wrecks. Financially things were always up and down and we had to work from one event to the next. In 2000 and 2001 we sold out the Maimarkthalle and from 2002 to 2003 ticket sales went down by 50%. When we were working towards our 10th anniversary in 2004 we found the energy to create Cosmopop in late 2003 and keep things on track.
Since then things have been going quite well for you. Had you learned from the things that hadn’t worked out in the past?
Robin Ebinger: The passion for electronic music runs through our veins and was born on the dancefloor. It keeps us driven to experience new things. This passion paired with a healthy process of trial and error and confidence makes up what Cosmopop is all about. In 2004 we said that we would quit operations if the Time Warp didn’t work out. But it took off as the DJ-scene was constantly growing and becoming more and more successful in the past decade. What also helped is the fact that as men of conviction we try to be solution-orientated when faced with challenges along the way. Nowadays we try try to tackle problems before they even arise. And of coarse we try to learn from mistakes, to avoid flops and focus on the good things.
Time Warp is celebrating its 20th anniversary. How do keep things fresh with such an esteemed format?
Steffen Charles: Time Warp has always offered fresh impulses with certain acts and sounds. We have constantly tried to outshine the competition and have invested in outstanding technical gear to create an experience that offers one-of-a-kind sound and visuals. And we are always determined to improve and perfect the event with superb sound, great artist support and service for our guests. At this point we can say that we are the state-of-the-art. We set the standards for the industry and set the trends – everyone is interested to see what we will do next.
Cosmopop grew in times of general digitization. How did this affect your marketing?
Robin Ebinger: We felt two main waves of digitization at Cosmopop. The first started 15 years ago with a website and a newsletter. Since then Steffen will always ask why we need a new website every two years and I will tell him that these things grow organically. The second wave of digitization came in form of social media. We started our facebook marketing quite early in 2008 and have grown to 500.000 followers. I quickly found that this channel allows us to directly make out potential fans and get in contact with our poeple.
Is facebook enough for contemporary marketing?
Robin Ebinger: Many people are giving up on facebook but I don’t feel it’s going down. De facto we are marketing and selling Time Warp tickets through facebook primarily. Facebook is still our main channel for pinpointed marketing by allowing us to give close insights into our work all year around. On the other hand one should always keep an eye on new digital trends and be ready to react to changes accordingly.
Where do you see Time Warp in 10 years?
Robin Ebinger: We try to change our game plan in moderation. We wish to achieve evolution, not revolution. We book great talents before they really hit, such as Ricardo Villalobos in 2000, when nobody knew who he was. And in the past years artists such as Dixon, Troxler, Jamie Jones, Joseph Capriati or Nina Kraviz. By now we have a line-up full of big names and this requires us to keep growing. At the moment we have six floors and hope open Nr. 7 soon. Techno was named after technology. The music always stays fresh and people like Carl Cox or Sven Väth still reach the youth.
Cosmopop is not just in charge of Time Warp. What is your business model all about?
Robin Ebinger: Cosmopop with its 20 full-time employees cant survive off Time Warp alone, so over time we have built up a resumé of event brands such as the Love Family Park, the Sonus Festival in Croatia or the Stuttgart Electronic Music Festival. In addition we co-operate the Loft-Club in Ludwigshafen, the Zimmer in Mannheim and the Hafen 49 in Jungbusch.
What is your plan for the future?
Steffen Charles: We will always be underground!
How important is Mannheim for Cosmopop?
Robin Ebinger: Here is were our roots are. We set up some key locations here, such as the Hafen 49, which many other cities in Germany envy us for. Nowadays people will travel from other countries to Mannheim to party in Jungbusch.
Steffen Charles: The Musikpark as a business incubator is a great spot for us and the city offers a lot on top of that. We can certainly feel the „start-up-spirit“ in Mannheim, but we feel there is room for improvement also. Back when we were setting things up though we would have loved this kind of support.
Your field is quite specialized. Is it tough to find good people?
Steffen Charles: I guess it might be easier to find good people in Berlin, but especially younger people are happy to work in Mannheim as things are developing quickly here. The image used to be bad and now it is more neutral – people are ready to be surprised.
Robin Ebinger: And so in the end the people will experience the typical „Mannheim-Effect“: you cry when you arrive – and you cry when you have to go.
Interview: Ralf Laubscher / LA.MAG
Pictures: Daniel Lukac