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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Catching Up, Keeping Hip on Pop's New 'Stage'

There is no business in Russia like show business, even though show business itself is just a 5-year-old toddler.


Before the end of communism and the intense commercialization of the music market, pop music, like virtually every other form of artistic expression, was defined and controlled by government commissions whose final word could make or maul a career.


Back then, there was no "show" -- no expensive, state-of-the-art special effects, no lip-synching to prerecorded soundtracks and, of course, no G-string-wearing dancers or bare-chested, leather-laden crooners oozing sex.


And, there was no "business" -- concerts were put on by the government, tickets cost less than a bottle of vodka, and even the biggest names worked for a flat 15-ruble concert fee.


There was simply the estrada, those pop stars large in talent and professionalism who belted out songs the whole Soviet Union sang.


"I was a singer for the country, and so I had to transform myself into that, into basically what the Khudsoviet [the state appointed art commission], wanted, for mass Soviet consumption," said Valery Leontyev, a singer and top act of the estrada, which literally means "stage." "It was very hard to comply but not sacrifice what I wanted to do. ... And, there was an image we all had -- the image of the estrada singer -- with short hair, a suit, a bow tie, and standing right behind the microphone."


Complete with a high tone and a fluffy afro, Leontyev started his career 25 years ago as another cookie-cutter singer, confining himself to tame but lyrical love ballads and avoiding songs of hardship or reality.


Now, Soviet strictures have been replaced by a whole new set of burdens, which some in the Russian music industry find just as undemocratic.


"Before we had the government, now we have the mafia and money controlling the industry," said producer/songwriter Vadim Tsyganov. "Before the estrada sang for art. Now they sing to make money, and neither offers much artistic freedom."


Russian pop music appears to be in an evolutionary stage where more emphasis is placed on the show than the actual music, a departure from the Glasnost-era blossoming that resulted in underground groups like Voskreseniye and Kino rocketing into stardom and the estrada stars themselves breaking away from rigid molds. Alla Pugachyova, for over 20 years Russia's No. 1 pop singer and now dubbed the grandmother of pop, was the first of the big stars to start singing about despair in the streets. Not long afterwards, Leontyev, still in his suit and tie, ventured from behind the microphone stand and started strutting about on stage.


Today, Leontyev is strutting with more polish, as he has transformed himself into a Michael Jackson/Bruce Springsteen hybrid surrounded by female dancers wearing little more than combat boots and performing with a stage backdrop that cost $100,000. "I try to always do something new. The hardest thing today is knowing yourself, finding what it is you want to do artistically and finding your own voice," Leontyev said in a recent interview.


The estrada has "existed for 20 years, but up until recently has been trapped in a jar with no access to information outside," said Leontyev, explaining his theory that Russian pop music is still absorbing and catching up with pop culture worldwide. "Now, we have all the new ideas, we have Tina Turner and Michael Jackson to study from. ... But every day there are new names on the stage, younger stars just as eager to fill concert halls."


Leontyev, still at the top of the Russian charts, might not be having trouble competing with new stars. But other oldies aren't feeling so resilient. Keeping on an equal footing with young foxy pop stars just isn't possible, said Arkady Ukupnik, 43, a Soviet crooner who today is struggling to reach his older, now very much poorer, audiences, and to keep up with the music sales of younger singers.


"Things may be better for me financially. They couldn't really have been any worse," said Ukupnik, who, like other stars interviewed, declined to discuss his financial situation. "But they should be better for everyone. These tickets are too expensive for most people. They should be able to go to concerts, and right now they can't."


Ukupnik's concert tickets in Moscow cost about $25, a third of the average secondary schoolteacher's monthly salary, but still half of what his younger competitors command.


Lada Dance, a 28-year-old singer fond of black sequins, charges $50 a seat for her concerts with the Russian State Jazz Orchestra as accompaniment. She started her career four years ago as a singer-dancer in the mold of Janet Jackson, but has since dropped the dance for a vocals lounge act.


"Here, it's hard to dance and sing at the same time," said Dance with a laugh, adding that she is among the shrinking number of pop stars who give live as opposed to lip-synched concerts.


"But putting on a show and singing live is expensive," she said. "Michael Jackson comes to town in two Boeing jets, and that's just beyond us." Dance said she spent $50,000 a night putting on her most recent concert in Moscow earlier this month but would not reveal how much it grossed.


Each year, more Lada Dances hit the pop market with a professional sound and polished personal images. Artists are taking chances and young musicians are getting first breaks. Western production techniques are the norm, bringing the quality of some performances and music videos to world levels. But all this costs a lot of money, which comes from investors expecting high returns.


"Investors are nervous. They can't take chances on maybes," said music producer Leoneed Antonov of Moscow's RDM Entertainment. "They want to be sure that something is going to be a hit."


These forces, in turn, promote mere mimicry of Western models and so are leading to cultural degradation, some argue. Even more worrisome, they say, is that talent itself is no longer essential for pop music success. "I tell producers all the time, 'I know this wonderful singer, she's excellent.' But the first thing they ask is, 'Is she good looking?' If she's not good looking, forget it," said Elena Chvedoul, a director at one of Moscow's first private recording studios, MDM, or the Moscow Palace of Youth, where many of the estrada's top names record, including Pugachyova, Dance, Vladimir Kuzmin and the group Bravo.


MDM's top creative executive, Ivan Evdokishov, said, "People are making money, and so they're not going to want to change their formula or music at all. But good business is business that lasts until tomorrow. And right now there may be money, but there are not enough new ideas, just repackaged Western techno, or pop, and so on."


One thing is certain, Antonov said. To have a hit, today's estrada has to produce something catchy and technically perfect. Such qualities are in stark contrast to how the estrada singers of old performed -- with bare-bones orchestras or flat pianos.


"The songs of the estrada were beautiful, really professional," said Konstantin Arsenyev, a lyricist for stars like Leontyev, Pugachyova's daughter Kristina Arbekaite and Leonid Agutin. "Then the sound was so bad people actually had to listen to the song, to the words. Now, all they want is a hit, whatever that is."


Establishing a musical career without financial support is significantly harder today than in the early days of post-Soviet pop, when studio time could be arranged through barter or by doing someone a favor. Now, studio time at MDM, for example, costs a flat $35 an hour, and groups usually take at least eight hours to record one song. According to musicians, a fortunate member of a Moscow band will earn $40 a night playing in a bar, which leaves little to put toward compact disc production. Even if a disc is made, it costs musicians still more to have their songs played on the radio or on television shows featuring music videos. Getting on television costs from $200 to $1,000 per music video, depending on the station and the time slot, musicians said.


No one interviewed for this article, however, called for any kind of government intervention into pop music. As one of the few art genres in Russia now generating enough money to flourish, a return to the old system of government support and censorship would mean suffocation. And it is only a matter of time before artists gain enough courage and cash to pursue other musical styles.


"Let the industry produce junk now so that some of these young pop artists can make enough money to break away from the producers and do their own thing," said Sasha Tsekalo of the musical comedy duo Cabaret-Duet Academia. "Listeners, too, are going to learn how to be choosy, and they will begin to demand and find what is 'their own.'"


The secret to creating a healthy environment, Tsekalo said, is to let the pop music scene develop organically and not tinker with it in a way that, for example, the French government did by limiting non-French music played on the radio.


But what listeners need, many agree, is far from the commercialized pop they're getting. Vika Tsyganova, 31, is another product of both the Soviet ban and the 1990s blossoming. Her husky voice and brazen renditions of old Russian sailor songs were declined in the state-run studios. It wasn't until a visiting British producer heard her sing in a restaurant five years ago and recorded her on his foreign label that she began distributing her music on the Russian market.


"Art should have roots, it should be part national and cultural," said Tsyganova, who sings songs about returning to old Rus, the White Guard and Russian vodka. "I did not grow up in China or in America. I grew up in Russia with Chekhov and Dostoevsky; my grandparents were repressed under Stalin, and so my music and words are rooted in my people. These modern users, they recalculate rhythms, steal just a little bit from other national music, and deliver something stylish. Today they sing something, and tomorrow it is forgotten."