My friends at Discovery Institute like the music that I bring to work sometimes. I listen to it, but without really listening. Russian music is always cheap in the sound quality -- there are no fancy studios in Russia, and no facilities to record a big live performance or a quality pop/rock album. T.A.T.U., and other successful or rich acts always go to LA or London; their producers gave up long ago on recording in Russia. However, it is a supply-demand deal, Russians don't care about the sound quality, they care if a song has a catchy melody and lyrics. As a composer, I can always hear the lack of quality in the recording, though I almost never listen to the words.
One of my co-workers asked me what a particularly sad song was about. And so I paid attention to the words, though I haven't listened to it much since then. The song, Davai za Shi (Let's Drink to Life) by the very popular Russian band Lyube is about a soldier who is terribly wounded, and his comrades are promising him that everything will be ok, that they will all dance at his wedding, that he will hold his kids someday. However, the listener understands that they are just saying these things to comfort an 18 year old soldier who is bleeding to death. The chorus goes: "Let's drink to us, let's drink to the end, to the end of the war, to those who used to be with us." The whole song has melancholy rock instrumentation. So, there's some Russian rock'n'roll for you.
Another genre of Russian music that is more popular in Europe is techno. Usually it's a straight bit, kick (bass drum) and a hat at about 140 bits per minute, a very transparent arrangement (usually bass, background pad and a couple of lead instruments) and the voice. For most international or European dance music, the voices are usually on the level with other instruments, but in Russian techno it's always much louder.
The lyrics of the techno songs, just like the rock ballads, are 99% about the cruel military draft, imprisonment, and love stories where the young man is in the military or jail. In one dance hit from 5 years ago by Ruki Vyerh (Ð ÑƒÐºÐ¸ Ð’Ð²ÐµÑ€Ñ…) (Hands Up), the guy is asking his girlfriend to name their future son after him, and tell the kid about the love they shared. He is going to prison in Siberia and will never see them again. Ruki Vverh has another haunting song my friend and editor Charles Ganske likes called "What am I going to do with you?" where a man sings about the woman he loves who has been cheating on him.
Another great song, hit of all times among the draft conscripts, was made by techno band (ÐÐµ Ð˜Ð³Ñ€ÑƒÑˆÐºÐ¸) Ne Igrushki, which means not toys or not for kids. "100 Days Before the Order" is about the so called 100 day order which is issued by a military supervisor. This is the most coveted letter because it announces that a soldier will be discharged from the army in 100 days.
Probably the most popular genre is Russian Chanson. It's usually a drunken-sounding ballad about lovable thieves, great/horrible time spent in penal colonies, corrupt cops who are easy to bribe, and ladies of the night who satisfy gangsters' needs at the end of another "hard working" (in the criminal sense) day. The Russian chanson/ska musician Sergey Shnurov provided this type of music for the soundtrack to the hugely popular 2003 gangster movie Bumer (Boomer).
Why are these particular songs so popular? Because they reflect reality for millions of poor people in Russia. The real world for most Russian young men is either crime or the army, or some combination of the two. American style gangsta rap and hip-hop are not popular genres in Russia; there are few small acts of violent crime, where random people are getting shot and mugged in neighborhoods. Russian "businessmen" and mobsters are playing for much larger stakes, so it is difficult to rap about the racist "pigs" and "brothers" getting gunned down. The rock ballads singing about sex, drugs and love are usually only popular in the poor parts of the big cities, where people don't really see the Chechen war, or relate very well to the topics described above.
Every Russian knows about Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Usher and others. American music always makes it on the market, but never tops the local "cheap production" on the charts
The regular music CD price is anywhere between $2-$4, and it is virtually impossible to make money on the CD sales. Music and software piracy is relentless and successful, though it's declining somewhat due to the spread of MP3s and the internet. The Russian government always promises to crack down on it, but just like in all other cases (even weapons sales), the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing, or palming in many cases. Several military factories in the vast Moscow suburbs (a metropolis bigger than greater Los Angeles) end up in the news when they are caught manufacturing pirate CD's.
The only way a talented musician in Russia can make money is to perform concerts. Not very well known bands can charge $700-$1,500 for a one hour show; popular acts can do better at $10,000-$30,000 per appearance. There is a trick though; almost everyone (besides the bands DDT and Lyube) is lip synching, and everybody knows it. That's why Russia hasn't won any awards recently at European Music Awards, MTV Awards, etc. Russian Duma (the parliament) is actually talking about passing new law that will prohibit lip-singing, because it has started being a problem on several levels: the listeners are not getting the product they are paying for, and Russian music is suffering greatly from the perspective of art. The days of Tchaikovsky are long gone.
Another issue to be mentioned from the production point of view is corruption. To get your song played on TV and radio you need to pay, big time. There are people who control the music stage in the country, and without the right connections and money you can't really get on the air. Alla Pugacheva is known as Russian (Soviet) primadonna, and at the same time as the most aggressive woman in the music mafia. She composed a lot of great hits, but now when her age caught up with the live legend, she went into the Russian music business -- promoting those who pay bribes, and destroying those who don't. Mrs. Pugacheva has received awards from the government for great cultural input into Russian society; some of these awards were presented to her in person by the drunk Yeltsin.
It usually costs about $500,000-$1,000,000 to make a new star. You can dress up whoever, and let her sing whatever, and after you pour the money in your "product", and once listeners adjust to the bad singing and awful melodies, you can start getting some return on your investment with concerts, mentioned above.
Anyway, to sum up: until very recently, most popular Russian music has been about life in the army or prison, it's impossible to make money from CD sales, lip-synching concerts are always overpriced to serve as money-makers for producers, and please, never decide to go into the Russian music business without half a million bucks and powerful friends in your pocket.