Last Friday, I went to see a performance by two of Istanbul’s most interesting bands at the Zorlu Performing Arts Center. The ambient rock duo Hedonutopia and the synth-heavy post punk group Jakuzi both played moving sets. Yet the location of the venue reveals much about the structure of the Turkish alternative music scene. This has preoccupied me almost as much as the music itself.
The Zorlu Performing Arts Center exists inside the massive 105.000 m² multi-use complex of the Zorlu Center. Zorlu is located in Zincirlikuyu, a far from picturesque part of the Beşiktaş district. Coming from the Istanbul metro, one walks through a seemingly endless set of underground tunnels and escalators, pass through the notoriously crowded Metrobus station, and come up for air between a loud highway and high-end stores like Prada and Burberry at the Zorlu Shopping Mall.
If this setting isn’t enough to spoil the mood for music, there’s the never-ending security (which has been accused of chilling abuses of power) and coat-check lines, plus the byzantine process of acquiring a “Zorlu drink card” necessary to purchase overpriced beers and gin tonics.
Ironically, the experience of getting into Zorlu is exactly what the Turkish name of the place suggests: “hard” or “grueling.”
Yet for the past five or six years, venues owned or run by holding companies, corporations, and other massive commercial interests are increasingly the only places where music fans can see their favorite bands. Aside from Zorlu, there is İKSV Salon in Şişhane – founded and sponsored by the Eczacıbaşı Group. The venue Babylon, formerly in the historic neighborhood of Asmalımescit, is now located in the bomontiada complex of the Yapı Kredi Bank. Then there is IF Performance Hall, with its 5 franchise locations across Turkey, plus the large and expensive Volkswagen Arena and KüçükÇiftlik Park.
With regard to these venues, one might say music fans are damned with them and damned without them. One the one hand, they represent the shrinking of independent spaces and the quite literal monopolization of cultural life that is also applies to Turkey’s cinema and art worlds. On the other hand, most of these venues are well-functioning spaces equipped with colossal sound-systems that can attract and pay world-famous acts. They also act as a lifeboat for mid-to-large level local bands.
Concert spaces in Istanbul weren’t always like this. Especially between 2009 and 2011, the music scene was thriving. It is only since 2014 that many important venues in Taksim and beyond have shuttered or moved: Babylon Asmalımescit, Otto, Hayal Kahvesi, İndigo, Nayah, Shaft. Influential and long-running music festivals like One Love faced serious challenges with harsh legal restrictions on the ability of alcohol companies to sponsor events.
Then there was the coup attempt of 2016, not to mention the terror attacks of 2016-7, that scared off tourists as well as foreign bands who previously had Turkey on their European tour itineraries. The poor performance of the Turkish Lira has made it even harder to pay those international acts that still want to visit. As young people’s lives become increasingly precarious, the few corporate-sponsored venues that have cornered the market charge more and more for admission. Some of the smaller venues that continue to exist, like Dorock XL, have turned a blind eye to brazen violence against employees and/or customers.
Despite these challenges and the increasing monopolization of concert spaces, the local music scene itself is living through something of a renaissance, as I wrote last week. In fact, some have even argued that the decrease in the number of foreign bands coming to town have opened space for local ones. In a 2017 interview, General Manager of Zorlu Performing Arts Center Murat Abbas maintained that the scene’s relative isolation has allowed bands from within Turkey to build greater rapport with audiences and appear more frequently on stage. Indeed, the indie rock band Büyük Ev Ablukada consistently plays sold-out shows in their hometown of Istanbul. And the Hedonutopia-Jakuzi concert I attended last Friday is having a second date tonight to accommodate more fans.
Yet exiting the metro and walking through the endless “depression tunnel” (as a friend who works in one of the many office complexes in the area calls it) that connects one middle-of-nowhere to another, I couldn’t help but lament the decrease in independent, affordable venues in the city’s core pedestrian zones.
Still, once my friends and I finally made it inside the 100% Studio of Zorlu, with its sold-out crowd of 800 people, there was nothing left to do but think about but the music.
With guitar, synths, and drum machine, the two members of Hedonutopia succeeded in creating another world with their music. Fırat Külçek’s vocals, which I found overly theatrical on their most recent album Arzu Ütopyası, make for a bravura live performance. The band’s energetic rendition of the single “Gelecekse Gelsin” combined the melancholic desire and the trippy, almost sci-fi sense of possibility that informs their work.
I have seen Jakuzi perform four times, but I had never seen them so perfectly on form. This is particularly true of the second part of their set, filled with songs from the darker and more dancy second album Hata Payı. There is a wonderful contradiction between Jakuzi’s despairing and self-pitying lyrics (on “Toz” Kutay Soyocak’s lugubrious baritone sings “I hope that not even my dust remains here / I hope no one remembers me”) and the visible joy both the band and fans take in their live performance. “We come here in reverence for life,” Soyocak announced between songs, referring to the tragic earthquake that occurred that day in eastern Turkey.
As unexpected a description of the band’s project as this is, I left the show convinced and grateful for whatever spaces of creative hope – however fleeting or compromised – continue to exist.