Pop Goes Central Europe

Just the sight of Robert Janowski turns Ewa Pielacinska's knees to jelly. In braids and a miniskirt, she has come to a small theater in central Warsaw to hear the jazzy pop singer launch his new album, Air. As Janowski croons, she and other dreamy-eyed teenagers sway and swoon. "I used to prefer American music," confesses Pielacinska, 17, clutching a rose handed out by Janowski and his studio, Pomaton EMI. "But Polish artists understand Polish problems."

All across Central Europe, stars like Janowski are capturing the hearts of music lovers and the attention of music producers. The region has enormous sales potential, thanks to a pent-up demand and rising consumerism, combined with a history of music appreciation. Poland's market grew about 44% for the first six months of 1995 (table above), on top of a 64% surge in 1994. Hungary and the Czech Republic, each $50 million markets, grew 36% and 11%, respectively, in 1994, while sales in Slovakia surged 117%, to $4.5 million.

BIG MOVES. All the big labels want their share of the action. European music companies--PolyGram, EMI, and Bertelsmann--are in the lead. They have already set up local operations, taking advantage of their familiarity with Central European tastes. EMI hired Piotr Kabaj as its exclusive Polish distributor in 1993. Kabaj started his Pomaton label in 1990, pitching his first cassettes of Polish ballads directly to shopowners. With 20 Polish artists, plus strong sales of global stars such as the Beatles and Pink Floyd, Pomaton sales surged from $700,000 in 1993 to $10 million in 1995. EMI bought a controlling stake in the company in January, 1995.

Now, Warner Music Group and Sony Music International are making their moves. Each bought a Polish distributor in October, hoisting the share of the industry's five dominant companies in the Polish music market to 80%. Arnold Bahlmann, head of Central Europe operations at Bertelsmann Music Group International, sees sales in the region quadrupling in the next 10 years.

A crackdown on longstanding piracy problems is helping to boost sales. Bertelsmann's Czech sales surged 36% last year, to $10 million, after bootleg music was slashed to less than 10% of the market. Poland passed a law in May, 1994, that is expected to knock pirated music to 10% of the market in 1996. Today, in Warsaw, an Eric Clapton cassette costs about $6.25, while a Bulgarian-made copy goes for $1.67.

Central Europe is developing its own talent, too. In 1990, more than 90% of the music sold was international. But with Polish music making a comeback, the ratio is closer to 50%-50%. Local talent is what music-crazy kids want to hear. Meanwhile, CDs of Polish artists sell for a fraction of the price of international stars'.

As the local industry booms, Polish studios want to promote their top artists around the globe. Take PolyGram's rock band, Hey. It has sold nearly 500,000 copies apiece of its first two albums, and PolyGram is preparing a special U.S. edition of the band's new album, titled "?".

AWFUL? As Central Europe reconnects with its musical traditions, some surprises could be in store. Teenagers in Polish villages gather at nightclubs to dance to Disco Polo, a homegrown mix of disco, techno, and folk music.

To many scouts, it's an awful sound. Yet Michal Urbaniak, a renowned New York-based Polish jazz violinist, is thrilled to see people experimenting. He left communist Poland in frustration in 1973 because politics was sapping musicians' creativity. "Poland's got rhythm now," he declares. That's music to the ears of label execs as well.

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