In the world of large-scale indoor music events, Bernd Breiter has carved out a singular place for himself. From producing record-breaking DJ shows in Germany to creating some of the most exceptional club events in history, his BigCityBeats umbrella is one of the leading brands in live dance music. World Club Dome (WCD) is his flagship event that quickly became a staple after 2013, and I was recently able to chat with Bernd ahead of his upcoming show “Space Club Kitchen“. On March 19th, astronauts aboard the International Space Station will be livestreamed as they cook a meal with music playing to millions of listeners around the world, and Bernd was kind enough to not only talk about the event, but also share stories about his company and its history.
– Hi Bernd. Thanks for jumping on the phone to speak with me. I believe you started recording music as a teenager, and by your early 20s you already had a platinum plaque. Can you tell me about those early years?
Sure. My music career began at age sixteen in a German band called “Vouge“. Unfortunately, we only played one gig before disbanding so it wasn’t very successful (laughs). I also started losing my hair at seventeen, which led me to think, “Maybe being a rock star isn’t for me….“. So I transitioned into songwriting and production instead. My band had a rehearsal room that the other members couldn’t pay for any longer, so I took over the contract and turned it into a recording studio. I set up a vocal booth there and worked with a friend who handled the engineering and mixing. We rented out the studio during the afternoon and made our own music at night, and I’d reinvest any money we earned into building out the space. I also had a book that explained everything about the music industry from artist contracts to publishing and songwriting deals, so that’s how I learned about the business side.
A few years into the running studio, a guy came by and said, “I have this track that sounds great but it needs a hook. Can you help with that? “. I told him, “Leave it with me, and come back tomorrow. I’ll have a #1 hit waiting for you “. Literally nine months later, the record went #1 (laughs).
– That’s amazing. What was the song called?
It was called “Omen III” by Magic Affair. It went #1 in Germany and was a big hit around Europe in countries like Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands. I got a platinum and gold plaque for the German and Austrian sales respectively, all by the age of 23. I remember thinking how easy life was back then, but after the next three years of making no hits, I realized life was in fact difficult (laughs).
– The 90s saw an explosion of dance music with genres like Breakbeat and Eurodance, but things slowed down in the early 2000s with the rise of Napster. How did that affect your music career?
When Napster peaked in 2000, labels became overly cautious about buying new music and it was harder for me to sell them my songs. Whenever I offered my tracks to an A&R, they had to get approval from their bosses, then check with distribution and retail before getting back to me even if they liked the track. So I knew it was time for a change and I created my own radio show as a result.
If you split the week in two, there’s Monday to Friday where people follow the rules of civilization; they go to work, they attend school, etc. But everything changes on Friday afternoon – suddenly you’re able to do what you want and recharge for a few days. So the weekends are a time when people living in big cities generally get excited, and that’s why I named my show “BigCityBeats“. It came from the image of cities glowing with night lights and energy, which I found inspiring. BigFM gave me an unpaid Saturday slot because the General Director loved my concept and saw my passion. Some of the radio staff thought I was stupid for doing the show for free, but I saw it as a platform to promote my brand and I was able to gain a following from it. I even built one of the first radio community websites in Germany from which I could talk to my listeners.
– And how did you end up with BigCityBeats as a record label?
That happened after the first radio show did well. I already had experience with music and making compilations, so we released one called “BigCityBeats Vol 1″ and it went straight to the Top 10.
– How much did your compilations sell on average? And what was your biggest single?
– At what point did you start throwing your own events, and how were you able to fund those early shows?
That came in the mid-2000s when I took BigCityBeats on its own tour. I remember thinking, “I have a radio station, so why not make some posters and tour the clubs around the country? “. Our first event was at a club in Heidelberg and I thought 400 – 500 people would show up. By the end of the night only 80 people had walked through the door and I realized that I’d made a mistake somewhere. I should have created an event aimed at a younger demographic by starting the show at midnight and bringing in laser lights. So that’s what I did for the second show, and I also moved to a bigger venue. Now over 1000 people attended and the tour became a success.
Regarding funding, I was paid by the different clubs for bringing them business and I also did a 50-50 deal with the local promoters so we split the costs beforehand and shared the profits afterwards.
– The government in places like England and France were famous for cracking down on the rave scene in the 80s in the 90s. Did you see anything similar in Germany? Or had that phase passed by the 2000s?
The 2000s was a time when people started experimenting with new designer drugs, so the police would be present at some of the venues and certain regions were more stringent than others. But BigCityBeats was a radio show throwing a party, not a rave, so they weren’t that hard on us and we thankfully never had a problem.
– Is it true that you’ve never had to take a loan for any of your events?
Yes, that’s true. I always saw loans as risk because I wanted to reinvest my earnings into funding new projects. That was the only way for my company to expand. When you take money from a bank, it’s easy to become trapped by the repayments and I always told myself to avoid that pressure. Also, I needed my company accounts to always have money in them, which would’ve been difficult if I was paying back loans every month. Of course, there were times when we needed capital for upcoming projects, so I just prayed that we’d have good ticket sales that year, which is what ended up happening (laughs).
– And how did you go from touring clubs to throwing large-scale events like World Club Dome?
I had already thrown festival events in meadows and near lakes, but World Cup Dome was a different concept altogether. It came from seven years of driving past the Commerzbank Arena (now the Deutsche Bank Park). I used to think it looked like a modern coliseum that would be perfect for hosting an event. Because dance music events were birthed in the cities, I felt it was only right for the biggest shows to occur here rather than in the countryside with outdoor festivals, and what better way to achieve that than with a giant club party in an arena? So I started doing research into how I could fill the venue with a dance floor and a huge stage to create the biggest club in the world. Ultimately, we were able to create different types of floors, sections, pool areas and bars, and the first event occurred in 2013.
– At that time, Germany had several dance music events like Berlin Atonal, Air Beat One and Utopia Island. Did you ever have concerns about the industry being too crowded to start yet another large-scale event?
There were definitely people who questioned what I was doing and said things like, “What’s all this about a giant club? Are you serious? “. There’s always challenges when you’re doing something different, but sometimes you just have to follow your gut and that’s what I did. In terms of other festivals, Air Beat One was certainly big but they were founded in 2002 and had been around for over ten years. Some newer festivals like Parookaville were copies of Tomorrowland and even took place in the same week. I wanted to have my own identity with World Club Dome so it didn’t resemble anything else. I imagined flying in DJs with helicopters that landed on red carpets and having a Rolls Royce shuttle service for guests, similar to the high-end clubs. Not everyone understood what I was aiming for back then but it takes small steps to reach your goals and eventually it all came to fruition.
– How were you able to fill up the Commerzbank Arena for the first event?
Firstly, I had a good lineup with headlining acts like David Guetta and Steve Aoki. Secondly, I reached out to my community of fans and promoters with a message. I said, “Guys, I’ve been throwing parties in your cities for the last seven years without hardly missing a weekend, but in 2013 I’m going to do something big in my own hometown, and I’d like you to come and be a part of it. We’re gonna party in a really big way and I’d love to see you there “. That message resonated with a lot of people and that’s how we were able to fill up the arena.
– You had quite notable headliners for the first WCD. Did those relationships come from your work with the record label or as a promoter?
People already knew who I was due to my history in radio and event promotion. I’d built up a network over the years from having produced outdoor festivals that were attended by 55,000 people and headlined by acts like Moby, David Guetta and German pop bands. So I had a network of agents I could reach out to who’d followed my past events and trusted my vision for WCD.
– Were there any challenges in booking a large venue like the Commerzbank Arena? Or was that an easy thing to do?
If it was easy, anybody would have booked it (laugh). Of course the arena’s Commercial Manager was happy that I offered to pack his stadium, but there’s a lot of things that need to be done for these kinds of events. Everything from security and hospitality to gastronomy, stage production and transport services has to be handled properly. For example, we needed twelve tons of ice for the 180,000 people who attended the first WCD over a three-day period. Twelve tons…It’s such a big amount that you can’t order it from anyone, so you have to produce it yourself. It took us hours and had to be brought in on big trucks. We also had to rebuild the pool area into an Ibiza-like club space with its own bar, and we set up five other club areas with their own bars too. Altogether, the different bars ended up being a kilometer long (laughs). As you can tell, we didn’t have much production experience when we did the first edition of WCD, but over time we’ve become experts at it.
– And you also used the Veltins Arena for the first WCD Winter Edition in 2015?
Yes, we moved into the Veltins Arena for the Winter Edition and ended up doing the biggest solo shows in the world there. But we had some issues with the venue because it doesn’t have a closed roof – the upper part of the arena has a loose covering that’s insufficient for controlling the indoor temperature. So when it got cold outside, the temperature inside would drop as well, and we couldn’t have that. So the only option was to move to the Merkur Spiel-Arena in Dusseldorf which has a retractable roof and a special heating system that lets you throw events in the winter-time.
– Between 2013 and 2015 when Robert Sillerman and SFX Entertainment started buying up dance music companies, we saw DJ fees go through the roof because of the money he was throwing around. Did you see your own artist fees go up during that time?
No, not really. This is Germany, where the only major festivals at the time were Tomorrowland and Ultra Music Festival; Air Beat One wasn’t even as big as it is now. So when Sillerman and SFX came around with tons of money, people got sucked in and it caused a lot of commotion. Thankfully, BigCityBeats didn’t suffer because of that even if the overall market did. You just have to understand the rules in this market and know how to operate if you want to find success. SFX wasn’t good at that.
– During the dance music explosion in the 2010s, we saw many reports about drug overdoses and deaths at festivals. Germany’s most famous incident was probably the one at Love Parade in 2010. How has WCD been able to avoid such misfortunes?
The Love Parade disaster happened because the organization was poorly done, which led to overcrowding in a blocked tunnel and people getting crushed. It was an extremely unfortunate event.
There’s always been subcultures attached to most genres of music since the 60s, and it wasn’t uncommon for drugs to play a part in that, whether it was heroin in 70s, cocaine in the 80s or ecstasy with rave parties in the 90s. But WCD isn’t strictly a rave party – it’s a club night where all kinds of electronic music and even other genres are played. So thankfully nothing bad has happened yet, and we’ve put measures in place to prevent those incidents from occurring, like explaining how someone should act if they aren’t feeling well. I’ve found that the best results come from being open-minded and talking to people, so we don’t aggressively police their behavior or lecture them on what not to do.
– Since 2015, you’ve been hosting different versions of WCD like the ICE Train Edition, Club-Jet Edition, Cruise Edition and Zero Gravity Edition. You had to strike deals with companies like TUI, Airbus and Deutsche Bahn to make those events possible. How were you able to get access to all these transportation entities?
After successfully producing the kinds of events people thought were impossible, it became easier for me to have those conversations. Even though my ideas seemed outlandish, I gained a lot of trust after years of running WCD. One of the main concerns those companies have is about safety and security, which I completely understand. Imagine what a nightmare it would’ve been if a superstar like Steve Aoki hit his head whilst floating around in our zero-gravity chamber? That’s why I work closely with the world’s most capable experts to monitor everything from logistics to security. We’re dealing with some of the biggest institutions like the European Space Agency (ESA) and Deutsche Bahn, so in order to bring our ideas to life the production teams have to be very disciplined and focused.
In terms of the Zero Gravity Edition, that took place on a Boeing 747. We built four different dance floors inside the plane and flew from Paris to England and from London to Frankfurt with Robin Schulz on board as the DJ. There was a lot of skepticism beforehand from people who didn’t think the event was possible, but once we succeeded, I was able to meet with other companies to plan follow-up editions.
– How did the pitch meeting for the ICE Train Edition go and who did you speak to about that?
I have a good relationship with the guys at Radio FG, and their offices are situated across the street from David Guetta’s company in Paris. So they invited me over to talk when I was visiting David. A guy from Deutsche Bahn just happened to be there with them and he told me, “I really like your events because of how you’re able to reach the hearts of the youth. Since you’ve already built a club inside a plane, why not do it in a train also? “, and I answered, “Because I’m not able to rent a train. Is that possible? “ to which he replied, “Why not? “. To be honest, I thought he was talking about renting only one wagon, so I asked, “You don’t mean a whole train, right? “, and he said “No, I mean fully branding the whole train as a WCD event traveling from Paris to Frankfurt “. I was taken aback at first, but then I saw it in mind: the first high-speed train club on rails. So I sat down with our technicians and Deutsche Bahn’s engineers to discuss all the considerations: How would we power the train? What safety protocols should we put in place? Can the guests jump up and down whilst the train is moving? We succeeded in creating guidelines that worked, and we even used the same template for other editions like the WCD Cruise. Once we successfully produced those events, it became easier for big companies to see our vision and we eventually ended up sending a DJ into space.
– Do you tend to get pushback when you pitch your ideas, or has everything been as easy as the ICE Train conversation?
Nearly every time I pitch a new WCD edition to a collaborating company, they say, “We know you’ve done shows on planes, trains and cruise ships, but doing it with us is different because of our industry regulations “, and I always ask myself, “Do they really think I didn’t have these same conversations with the previous companies? Or that it was easy to turn a cruise ship into a giant swimming pool, or have a DJ play in space? “. So I always expect push-back at first, but things usually become easier as the conversations progress.
– Out of all your events, which was the most logistically challenging to pull off?
That would be the WCD Snow Edition at Jungfrajuoch in the Swiss Alps. It was an event for only 120 – 140 people, but the altitude was at 3000 meters and the air was really thin. We had to carry all our PA systems, lighting and staging to the top of the mountain using multiple rail trains and cable cars. You can’t imagine how challenging it was to set up, even if the show itself was awesome.
– Once the pandemic arrived in 2020, we saw a lot of cancelled events and festivals, but I noticed that WCD was still able to host a number of sold-out drive-in shows. How did you pull that off?
The Drive-In Editions were a great success and represented something nobody had really done before. Even the CEO of Live Nation, Michael Rapino, saw me post about it on social media and said the drive-in model was probably a format of the future. The idea came from me wanting to create positive change during a difficult time. I’d already made a personal video with my thoughts on the pandemic that received over 20 million views, and shortly afterwards I said to myself, “Open-air car cinemas are still being allowed under the new regulations and they typically involve a moderator on stage speaking to the crowd. So why not swap out the moderator for a DJ? “. That’s how we were able to pull it off, and the rest of the dance music world started copying the idea soon afterwards.
– Let’s talk about WCD’s expansion plans. Other festivals are able to expand across the world because they license their brands to other entities, but it doesn’t seem like WCD has followed that blueprint.
I presume you’re talking about Ultra Music Festival (laughs). Look, the original UMF in Miami is great but the different expansions tend to vary in quality because they expanded too quickly. I remember seeing them pop up in different countries and I asked myself, “What exactly is Ultra’s biggest draw? Oh, it’s the lineup...”. So there really wasn’t any story to their events beyond the artists, and I told myself to always have a story, which is why I threw parties in zero-gravity chambers and on cruise ships. It wasn’t solely about commercializing dance music, but also about being creative so I could come up with something new. We also wanted expansion events to be done on the same scale as the original World Club Dome in Frankfurt, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense. If you do a scaled-down version using the same brand name, people will get the wrong idea about the show and that’s what I wanted to avoid.
Having said all that, everyone used to compare us to Ultra Music Festival and we received a number of licensing offers to expand into new territories, but I always declined and said that we’d only do it if the fit was right.
– But you did expand to South Korea in 2017? So the fit was right for that?
Yes it was. We’ve done two editions in Seoul because we had a good relationship with our partners over there, and we were also in talks about a licensing deal in China until the pandemic hit.
– Let’s talk more specifically about your shows in space. How did the relationship with the European Space Agency come about?
I was surfing through TV channels one Sunday morning and came across a program where astronauts were training on a zero-gravity flight. I was like, “Whoa, holy moly…”, and that’s how I got the idea for a zero-gravity club. I started by calling the ESA but they hung up on me (laughs). So I called back and said, “I’m Berndt, and I’ve already thrown similar club events on trains and planes. I’m currently planning the Hollywood Edition of my WCD show and would like to do a zero-gravity event as the pre-party. I think it would serve as a great bridge to the next generation of space enthusiasts “. So after many conversations with the ESA, we finally made it happen. I called in Steve Aoki to DJ and we were able to reach over 1 billion people overnight via our livestreams.
– That sounds amazing. And how did the success of the Zero-Gravity Edition affect your business moving forward? Were you impressed by the reception it got?
Well, you don’t know how big something is when you’re in the middle of it, but when I later saw the news coverage on BBC and CNN, it finally hit home. Because of that success, we were able to continue working with the ESA to send a DJ into space. Their General Director invited me in for a talk and said, “The zero-gravity club was cool, but what can we do next? “. So I responded, “Well, I’d like to build a club in outer space, onboard the ISS “. Everybody at the meeting laughed when I said that, but I replied, “You can laugh all you want but here’s the thing: it’s almost impossible for you to teach a DJ how to be an astronaut, but I can definitely teach one of your astronauts how to be a DJ “. That’s when everybody stopped laughing and started listening. Fast forward, and Luca Parmitano became the astronaut for the mission. In order to rehearse, we built a DJ booth in the mockup module of the Columbus lab and ran a training program for Luca there. Three months later he was in a Soyuz rocket, flying to space. On August 13th 2019, he streamed the first DJ set from space to our cruise ship in the Ibizan harbor, with 2500 people dancing to the music.
– Amazing. And for the upcoming “Space Club Kitchen”, is it true that you pitched the idea to Thomas Gugler, the head of the World Association of Chefs?
Yes, it is. Thomas Gugler came on board after we talked about it, along with notable organizations like the Alfred Wegener Institute and the UNHCR. Music and food represent two universal languages, so we’re hoping to impact the whole world with this event by having people interact in a positive way over a meal that we can all cook together.
– Can you explain what will happen on the Earth’s surface whilst your astronaut is cooking in space?
We’ll have about 55 unique locations on the ground where people can join in to prepare the same dish that will be cooked in space. Examples are the Egyptian Pyramids, Niagara Falls, The Statue Of Liberty, The Louvre and Arc de Triomphe. So people will be cooking lunch in the US whilst in Europe it’ll be dinner, and in Asia it could work as a midnight snack. All of this will be happening simultaneously, guided from the space station by our astronaut Matthias Maurer.
To be honest, I’ve become even more motivated for this event since the tragedies in Ukraine occurred. I’ve had people calling me to say that this event has the potential to make a big impact because of its universal themes. In my opinion, if you want to solve mankind’s biggest questions, you have to start by sitting people at a table and having them feel relaxed. Another key aspect of all this is the astronaut. From up in space, an astronaut doesn’t see any borders, religions or skin colors when he looks down on the Earth. He only sees a wonderful planet that resembles a diamond in space, absent of conflict. So my message is to unite people by seating them at a table to talk about solutions for everything from climate control to sustainability and even world peace. So of course we’ll have chefs from both Russia and Ukraine, and even places like Israel and Palestine, but we won’t force-feed any political or religious messages – our only message is to sit together and communicate in a relaxed manner.
– But how did you get all these locations across the globe to sign up?
I’d been invited to give a speech about “Space Club Kitchen” at an Amsterdam food event and I met a guy there called Giorgio Diana. By coincidence, we both happened to be lighting a cigarette outside the venue and I commented on how restrictive Amsterdam was with smoking, which led to us talking. I asked him what he did, and he said he ran a Michelin-star restaurant in Cairo, near the Pyramids. So I briefly explained “Space Club Kitchen” and invited him to my speech. He was blown away by what he heard and offered to help by making introductions to his colleagues in different cooking associations. So now we have restaurant collaborators in places like Sochi, Lebanon, the North Pole and South Pole. We even have a collaborating restaurant that’s located in a submarine (laughs).
– And why did you choose an Indonesian Redang dish as the meal to prepare?
That was Matthias Maurer’s idea. He recommended the Indonesian Rendang because it’s one of his favorite dishes, but it also worked as a recipe that’s compatible with the conditions in space. For example, it’s a food that can be pre-cooked and brought to the ISS, which is very important. Imagine if an uncooked rice grain were to float away from the kitchen and into someone’s nose while they were sleeping? They could choke and die. So there’s a lot to pay attention to, especially things like the food’s microbe content since we don’t want to contaminate the whole space station with foreign bacteria. LSG Sky Chefs helped us prepare for that by letting us use their kitchens to do demos and run tests in preparation for the event.
– What kind of music will be playing during the “Space Club Kitchen”? I’ve heard you had something to do with that.
I composed the main theme called “Space Table Symphony“, which was inspired by the Netflix series, “Chef’s Table“. That show did a great job of showcasing cooking as an artform and also told interesting stories about the chefs who participated. I loved the theme music, which was “Winter” by Antonio Vivaldi, so I recomposed it as a space symphony piece and reached out to David Garrett and the Frankfort Radio Symphony to help record it on the runway at Frankfurt airport. Then we shot the music video on an Antonov AN124 plane with star chef Tim Mälzer, David and myself. All of this will premiere on March 19th and David will be on TV with me to play the violin live alongside the pre-recorded theme music.
– I’ve also heard there’s a charitable side to all this. You’re aiming to collect 1 billion food donations. Can you talk about that?
Sure. Once the “Space Club Kitchen” livestream kicks off, the first message from outer space will be that we want to donate 1 billion meals to charitable causes. I’m hoping to convince our viewers that they should think of those who suffer from hunger, and I’ll be partnering with the Wings of Help foundation for this. I’m excited to see how far we can take it. If the millions of people who watch our livestream donate only 50 cents each, we can address a major hunger problem in the world.
– Have you decided whether the donations will be taken during or after the event?
We haven’t decided yet. I want to avoid having the overall experience disturbed by a text box or voice-over asking people to donate money, which is something I hate when other formats do it. We’ll have to implement it in a smooth way so it’s not an inconvenience, but we’ll figure that out in the coming weeks.
– Given that you’re doing groundbreaking things with these events, what kind of media coverage do you expect “Space Club Kitchen” to get?
It’s hard to say, considering that no-one else has done this before. I have confidence that a lot of people will participate in the event, though I can’t speak to the numbers. But I have media partners all over the world so we’ll do our best to spread the word about it.
– Thanks for talking to me, Berndt. This has been a great chat and I wish you success for your upcoming show. As a parting question, what comes next for BigCityBeats after yet another event in space?
That’s a question people have been asking me for ten years. When I did the first WCD, people would come up to me and say, “So Bernie, what’s next? “. Each time we do a large-scale event it’s hard to imagine what’ll come next, but we went from arenas to trains, cruises, mountain-tops and now space. So we’ll see comes next.