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Industry Insider: Watergate Co-Founder Ulrich Wombacher On Clubbing In A Pandemic

We chat with Watergate Co-Founder Ulrich Wombacher about their virtual clubbing event on July 10, staying afloat in a pandemic and more.
Uli Wombacher

Uli Wombacher

Clubbing has gone virtual since the Coronavirus-forced lockdown around the world in February and March. DJs and musicians have been forced to take their shows online, to varying degrees of success. Four or five months into live music being shut down, fans are getting a little bored of seeing a random DJ stream from their kitchen every weekend, so it is forcing event companies to come up with more interesting and interactive digital experiences for fans. This is where Berlin’s Watergate is looking to use their expertise as one of the premiere clubs in the clubbing capitol of the world to do something unique online. This weekend they are launching a virtual club night where fans will be able to move between different virtual rooms in a digital club, each room having its own DJ. There will be the ability to interact with other guests as well.

We wanted to get more information about they planned on pulling this off, so we chatted with Watergate co-founder Ulrich Wombacher. The clubbing veteran got his start in the business in the fertile period after the Berlin Wall came down, uniting a city and opening up a whole new side of the city to new potential music spaces. He helped co-found Watergate and it has since grown into a booking agency and label, becoming one of the more influential house and techno institutions in the city and across the business.

For our latest Industry Insider piece, we find out Wombacher’s path through the business, how Watergate is managing the COVID-19 crisis, taking events digital, its steps to become more inclusive with the Black Lives Matter movement and more.

Watergate Nacht, YWO (Yes We’re Open) will take place this Friday, July 10. It will include a lineup with Adana Twins, Anja Schneider b2b Kristin Velvet, Biesmans (Live), JAMIIE, MINCO, Pan-Pot, WhoMadeWho (Live) and Yulia Niko. Get more information and tickets here.

How did you get into the music business?

I always had a passion for music and right after finishing school it usually took me straight to Berlin’s record shops. I learned how to DJ, which in the early 90s still was something that you couldn’t look up on YouTube, and soon was working in a record shop besides studying at University. From early hip-hop to drum & bass to techno, I enjoyed it all, although drum & bass stayed my main focus for a long time. Berlin’s club scene was all about early house and techno at that time. The [Berlin] Wall had just come down and it was an incredible time with a lot of freedom for people to create and express artistically. Weekends were all about clubbing and discovering music in new spaces. Clubs like Tresor, E-Werk, Bunker, Toaster and the early WMF were the places to be for me.

Why did you decide to co-found Watergate?

My partner Stoffel, a few others and myself threw parties at WMF club under the name of hard:edged. We were kind of the top D&B promoters in town and had a weekly series. Throughout the years it became clear that having control over your own club instead of being a promoter in a club run by others is the thing we should aim for. Then at some point with WMF closing it’s doors and moving locations we took the chance to move on in our own space. The location in Kreuzberg was a bit outside of the usual epicenter of clubbing in Berlin and people were skeptical about our move but it proved to be the right step. We started off in 2002 with a drum & bass night on Friday and a house night hosted by Dixon on the Saturdays. Over the years I skipped the DJing, took more responsibility in the artistic programing of the club and we more and more developed to the house and techno location that we are today.

Watergate NightClub

Live streaming has become the norm in quarantine, but how much of it do you think will remain once clubs and festivals start to open up again?

I see live streaming as a good addition to “real” clubbing but not as a replacement. We humans are social beings, this is something that proved through Corona. Shutdown and isolation of people is the worst and we have a strong need to gather with others. Therefore, our approach to the “virtual” club also has that strong social element to it. Simply watching a DJ perform is not the way we wanted to go. It had to include the clubber, views of the location, simply the socio-cultural element of clubbing. That was important to us.

I can clearly imagine the virtual club to be an addition to Watergate club nights even once we’re back and open in the real world. It would be an option for people that cannot make it to the club for whatever reason.

How do you prevent harassment online in the various rooms between users?

Whilst developing the platform we very quickly thought of ways to avoid abuse of the options we ARE offering. We wanted to stay as close to the real club experience as possible and decided to install a bouncer that is actually online and can be called by users that have a bad experience. Watergate has always been a safe place for its guests and so it should be online. We will not accept any form of discrimination or harassment and will it is ensure handled strictly.

How do you see booking fees shifting in a post- COVID-19 world?

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There will be changes for sure. Clubs will no longer have the income to pay super high fees. The market will have to adapt to the new situation. It’s not said that after a possible reopening numbers will immediately rise again. Speaking of the Berlin situation for example I doubt tourism will be as lively as it used to be, and Watergate has always had a very international crowd.

Do you expect bookings will look different once clubs will open up again?

I guess so. Watergate has always had local residents and I think it will go back to more local bookings for a while. Especially since traveling is either not possible or it has become too expensive to make international bookings happen. I expect this to be a worldwide situation so local scenes will become important again.

Watergate Nightclub

Why did you decide to expand into a booking agency and label?

This was kind of a natural process. We wanted to release mixes to “take the club home“ at some point and therefore started the Watergate Mix compilation series. The series quickly developed to something unique and all of a sudden we had exclusive unreleased tracks in those mixes, which we decided to release. Then again our own residents were looking for a label to put their music out and so on. All of a sudden you end up with a label, label manager, 12“, album formats etc.

For the booking agency the idea was to have an agency for our residents. We’ve always been very loyal with our DJs and some of them play for the brand since day 1 of the club. It only made sense to have them in our own booking agency and since the brand was expanding with international showcases at the time we also had work for them. Luckily most of our artists have their own profile by now and do not purely depend on the brand. It’s good to see them having their own profiles and still being member of the Watergate family. Unfortunately also the agency is suffering the COVID-19 crisis at the moment and artists are struggling to survive…same as the club.

What are some of the hidden costs that people don’t realize about owning and operating a club?

For Watergate, the highest position is the rent. We had a massive rent increase after the house got sold to an investor. The rent marks our main costs. Employees are another factor, bookings got expensive in the last few years and speaking of hidden costs you won’t believe how much maintaining the club and the technics can cost. Red wine in CDJs, abused toilets, scratched furniture…and so on. To keep the club in its original shape you need to constantly invest.

What are some attributes and qualifications you look for in potential applicants at Watergate?

A strong passion for music, endurance in everything, understanding club life as being part of your daily life.

Watergate Nightclub night crowd line

There has been a reckoning of the whitewashing of electronic music with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement across the world in the last month. Will there be any change in company hiring and booking considering Watergate is in a business indebted to black artists?

Independent of the current resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement we gave greater attention to BLM issues including racism, discrimination, diversity and integration in the last few years.

Even more so with the ever-growing number of black artists within our W-agency as well as our close relationship with RISE. For those who don’t know: RISE is a crew, a record label and a movement founded in 2015 by Floyd Lavine, Dede and Hyenah, later completed by MINCO, JAMIIE and Walter Griot, to showcase quality artists who are from Africa or are influenced by the love of African-inspired electronic music. With RISE, we have invited diverse and multicultural acts from all over the world, which has steadily helped to grow the love, respect and awareness for the brand.

Correspondingly, our W-Agency has become a home for many talented artists, and we are currently working with Jimi Jules, Floyd Lavine, MINCO, JAMIIE, and KEENNE. We’re proud and thankful that they are part of the Watergate family, with MINCO and JAMIIE both on the line up for the event on July 10.

What has changed through BLM? We’re actively reflecting and acknowledging more when it comes to what we are do. Seeing what’s happening in the USA and reflecting the situation in Europe, although it’s not been enough. We still need more to be done, from us each individually in our own way, but from society as a whole. 

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