When Matthias Koch pops on his headphones, he embarks on a journey. Physically, he usually walks through his hometown streets of Hamburg. But the sounds in his ears are from thousands of miles away: the Islamic Republic of Iran. His journey invariably also takes him to Instagram, where he spends hours looking for fresh tunes from Tehran, trying to find the next big hit.
Koch, 50, is a veteran of the European music scene with more than 20 years’ experience at both independent and well-established labels. But in recent years, he has experienced a growing fascination with Iranian music, which he wishes to share with the world.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted world travel, Instagram was Koch’s go-to destination for contemporary Iranian music. “Instagram is very popular in Iran, way more than in Germany,” Koch explained in a Zoom interview last month, adding that because the platform is not filtered or blocked by the Iranian government, it is essentially one of the few Western online platforms that Iranians can easily access.
Last year, following countless trips to the Islamic republic, Koch started his own music label for contemporary Iranian music. Its name, 30M Records, is a reference to a 12th-century poem by the Persian mystic Fariduddin Attar.
In order to fully understand what drove a middle-aged German to make Iranian music the focus of his professional life, you need to go back to 2015 and shortly after the Iran nuclear deal was signed in Vienna.
“Magazines and newspapers were full of articles about the arts and music scene in Tehran. I had to see it for myself,” Koch recalled. “I picked up one of these ‘Lonely Plant’ guides and booked a flight to Tehran.”
Though his father questioned his sanity and begged him to reconsider, Koch chose to go anyway. “My first impression after arriving was the pollution – everything was surrounded by smog,” he said. However, as the smoke began to lift, he discovered a fascinating cultural scene. One detail that made its mark on him was a taxi driver reciting old poems to him, in order to give Koch a “little impression of the rich, old Iranian culture. And he enjoyed it on top!”
Koch ended up spending 10 days in Iran, touring its large cities and trying to soak up the cultural atmosphere. The visit would change his life.
After he returned to Germany, he felt a strong urge to return to Iran – this time to learn Farsi – and applied for a student visa. “The visa restricts students to living in dormitories, so I ended up sleeping in bunk beds at the age of 43 just to learn Farsi,” he smiled.
When he wasn’t studying, he was, as ever, on the hunt for music. His entry point was a Tehran-based label that an Austrian contact connected him with. He started to attend local gigs and meet Iranian musicians from different backgrounds.
Darek Mazzone, a KEXP radio broadcaster based in Seattle, DJ and global music expert, explained to Haaretz that Iranian music generally falls into one of three categories. “The first is the traditional music – much like any other culture that has its own traditional style, Iran has one too. The second is the Iranian hip-hop scene, which is influenced by ideas coming from outside of the country, manifesting some degree of rebellion against the regime. The third is the prerevolutionary punk and rock era, when the U.S. and Iran were politically close.”
As Koch started exploring the Iranian music scene, one thing he discovered was that some of the biggest composers in the European neoclassical scene have a large fan base in Iran. In what turned out to be his first musical steps related to Iran, Koch helped organize performances in the Islamic republic for composers like Martin Kohlstedt and Ólafur Arnalds. He was astounded by how popular the Icelandic musician was: “Ólafur had two shows a day and both of them were sold out,” Koch recounted.
It wasn’t long before Iranian artists started approaching Koch as well, which was how he discovered that Iran is not an active member of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. Not being in it makes it that much harder to assert international copyright on Iranian music.
Another hardship he was constantly hearing about from Iranian contacts was the effect of U.S. sanctions, many of which were reimposed by the Trump administration after it exited the nuclear deal in May 2018. Trade between Western companies and Iran became rare and very complicated, and made it very difficult for Iranian musicians to get their music out into the world.
Koch said that most Iranian musicians cannot upload their music directly to the music streaming service Spotify and have to rely instead on third parties – usually people from the Gulf states – to make sure their music is available online. He quoted one Iranian musician who told him: “I’ve got this friend in Dubai and I pay him $100 so that he’ll upload my music to Spotify.” The likes of YouTube and social media accounts are blocked by the regime.
Such stories were part of the reason Koch eventually decided to start his own Iranian music label last year. By releasing the music on 30M Records in Germany (on all formats), Koch can license it and ensure it is protected by the Berne Convention. This way, the Iranian artists who release their music through his label are paid the royalties they are due. Furthermore, Koch can upload the music to online streaming services with a push of a button, without any need for a middleman in the Gulf.
So far, 30M Records has dropped three albums, and while they are unlikely to dislodge Billie Eilish or BTS from the top of the charts, Koch is optimistic that they will sell well enough to finance the label’s next release, provide the artists with a “decent income” and maybe even fund some concerts in Europe.
The first release last year was “Raaz,” a linkup between Iranian musicians Hooshyar Khayam and Bamdad Afshar. Loud and Quiet magazine described it as “a statement album, a collaboration between two oppositional artists that represent the folk traditions of [Iran’s] provincial music on the one hand and the unrestricted possibility of the country’s musical future on the other.”
“This Is Tehran?” was the next release, a compilation of contemporary Iranian tunes by assorted musicians. Mazzone called the album a form of “cultural activism,” adding that it was “so timely and important right now.” The 10-track album ties together not only contemporary Iranian composers and musicians, but also offers a different perspective on a culture that is seen from a specific lens in the West.
Mazzone noted that 30M Records’ releases don’t fall into any of three categories of Iranian music he outlined earlier. “Matthias and his work look at a whole new current which is manifested in Iran. It isn’t fully imported and it isn’t tied to nostalgia,” he said. Rather, the music “is an interesting combination of traditional and the thing that changed music globally – laptops and digital audio workstations.”
Tehran-born Saba Alizadeh’s album “I May Never See You Again,” which was released last month, is an example of Iranian efforts to mesh tradition and innovation. Alizadeh’s work combines his virtuoso skills on the kamancheh (aka Persian spike fiddle), Iranian harmonics he grew up listening to as a child in the 1980s and ’90s, and Western electronic sounds and acoustics to produce a new type of Iranian music that defies categorization.
According to Mazzone, a lot of Iranian music “is either tied to the past or just has one message. What 30M Records is doing presents a more complex Iran: “Matthias is showing an aspect of this culture that is evolving and different from what people expect,” he said.
Koch hopes that, by making Iranian music more accessible, he will be able to help people discover different aspects of the Islamic republic and its people.
“If you read about Iran in the news, you know what kind of headlines to expect,” he said. And despite the winds of war again blowing between Iran, Israel and the United States, Koch’s musical project aims to transcend politics and send a different message about Iran’s possible place in the world – one that is surely worth listening to.