Rocking the Boat

Courtesy of Mikhail Kozyrev
From his perch as director of programming at the popular Radio Maximum, and later as general producer at Nashe Radio and Radio Ultra, Mikhail Kozyrev has tried quietly, subtly, to change Russia's music tastes.

He played experimental rock bands such as Deti Picasso and TequilaJazzz to the stations' tens of thousands of listeners, aiming to wean them off cheesy dance and Soviet-style pop. He championed genres that weren't popular. Despite all this, he thinks he has failed.

Kozyrev tells of the guerilla assault he targeted at the nation's ears in the book "My Rock 'n' Roll," an account of the last decade and a half of his life released recently. By implication it's also the story of Russia's post-Soviet music scene, and the role he played in shaping it.

"My burning desire was to add more colors to the musical landscape," Kozyrev said in an interview in an office overlooking the rooftops of central Moscow. "I always thought that we were isolated from world music culture and limited artificially to a narrow choice of three to four musical styles."

Kozyrev currently hosts a talk show on the station Silver Rain. He first got into radio as a student at Pomona College in California in the early 1990s, where he started a Russian music program on the college station. Returning to Russia in 1995, he became programming director at Radio Maximum and developed a taste for non-mainstream music.

Although he was fired after disagreements with the station's managers about its playlists, within a few months he became part of the team that created Nashe Radio in partnership with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. They decided that Nashe Radio, or "Our Radio," would only play Russian music.

Kozyrev also had a hand in starting the country's first major music festivals, including Maxidrom and Nashestviye.

"I had the feeling that I am sometimes a witness, sometimes a participant and even sometimes an initiator of events that form the spirit of the era in this country," Kozyrev said.

He was prompted to start writing after seeing an old magnetic tape fall apart after being played just once while its contents were transferred to a digital format. "I caught myself thinking that at a certain point, our memory functions the same way. You have only one chance to put it down on paper, otherwise it fades away."

After leaving Nashe Radio in early 2005, Kozyrev had time to concentrate on the book project, which is in three parts: The Black Book, The White Book and The Red Book. The trilogy is structured around the number 13, which Kozyrev favored back in his days at Nashe Radio, where he introduced a weekly Top 13 of songs.

Sections of the project have titles like "13 Controversies," "13 Poems" and "13 Interviews." The "13 Encounters" section contains Kozyrev's accounts of meetings with people as different as popular singer-songwriter Zemfira, the late poet Joseph Brodsky and exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who was one of the founders of Nashe Radio, though he later sold his share.

Courtesy of Mikhail Kozyrev
The Founder of Nashe Radio decided to write about his experiences after leaving the station two years ago.

In "13 Radio Stations," the writer talks about stations that played defining roles in his life, from the Voice of America, which he listened to as a teenager in Soviet times, to the KSPC station at Pomona.

"13 Deeds" tells about major events and projects Kozyrev was responsible for, including Kinoproby, a tribute album to 1980s-era rock star Viktor Tsoi, the soundtrack for the movie "Brat-2," and the SOStradaniye (SOSuffering) charity TV marathon following the hostage-taking in Beslan in September 2004.

Throughout the trilogy surface the author's concerns about the state of Russia's music scene, which Kozyrev characterized in the interview as "appalling and devastating." In Russia, he said, there's little space for musical diversity.

"We have a whole new generation of angry teenagers who traded their anger for fitting into the radio format. ... It's not a matter of talent but a matter of fitting the system."

He lays a large part of the blame on the major TV channels, which produce shows such as "Star Factory," modeled on the international format "Star Academy." It has been the breeding ground for most new Russian pop artists of recent years, including rapper Timati and Eurovision entrant Yulia Savicheva, and rarely rewards experimentation.

He says in the book: "The new Kurt Cobains and Zemfiras who play somewhere in Siberia or in the Urals, in the basement of their houses, trying to translate their energy and their pain into words, come home to see all their brothers and sisters and parents watching 'Star Factory,' and nobody needs them. So they trash their guitars and decide they'd rather become happy managers."

Kozyrev suggests that this homogenization is directed from above, and that the ruling elite frowns upon difference.

"In the early days of Nashe Radio, I worked with [Channel One general director] Konstantin Ernst on a weekly basis," he recalled.

"At that time, he put his money on Zemfira or projects like Kinoproby, and now he puts his money on 'Star Factory.' I'm absolutely sure that this change of direction was not ... accidental. It was thoroughly thought out and designed to influence the climate in the country, and to put the thought in everyone's mind that the best thing that can happen to you is to get on TV.

"It is exactly what the new political power wanted: We don't care about individuals and talent, we cherish people who fit the system, so, be with us, play with us, and there will be happiness thrust upon you."

He added that a generation of powerful, talented and influential rock musicians that took the limelight in the 1980s, such as Yury Shevchuk, Boris Grebenshchikov or Konstantin Kinchev, has chosen to ignore contemporary Russia's social inequalities and political injustices -- they are "writing comfortable songs, while there is much discomfort around us."

Despite painting a rather grave picture of the domestic music scene, Kozyrev said he still has faith in new talents, who should not be primarily concerned with money or popularity:

"If you put the desire to get more money in front of everything else, it is the way to bury your talent, and if you put the desire to become popular in front of everything else, this is also a very dangerous path," he said.

"I believe that true artists dance to their own beat and they don't care."

"My Rock 'n' Roll" is published by Livebook.