Over the years of independence, Russia aimed to have a major influence on Ukraine's cultural fronts. Music was not an exception. Before the war, the Ukrainian music industry had strong ties with Russia, particularly in the field of digital distribution.

In the past 30 years, Russia was deliberately taking over the Ukrainian music market. Ukrainian music was considered a part of Russian music, not an independent industry. To a large extent, Russia has succeeded, albeit the patriotic rise of 2013-2014. But everything changed on February 24, 2022.

Suspilne Culture music reviewer Oleksii Bondarenko looks into how Russia has formed the dependence of the Ukrainian music market upon Moscow, what kind of methods did it use, what has changed since and what will the future of Ukrainian music look like in the years to come.

The Ukrainian version is available here.

Translated from Ukrainian by Valerie Sarle.

Native Sound

In 2021 Russian Institute of Music Initiatives published a book called “Don’t be shy. The History of Post-Soviet Music In 169 Songs (1991-2021)” (Не надо стесняться. История пост-советской музыки в 169 песнях (1991-2021)). The author of the book, a former Editor in Chief of Afisha and Editor at Meduza Aleksandr Gorbachev is one of the top Russian music journalists. Among 169 songs listed in the book at least 16 are coming from Ukrainian artists. While Gorbachev is using the term “post-soviet”, it is quite apparent that what he really means is Russian music (here the music journalist Sasha Varenytsia explains why). It is to be noted that the book title is borrowed from the song "Stytsamen" by Ukrainian artist Ivan Dorn, albeit scandalous.

This is a perfect example of the aforementioned Russian influence. Gorbachev is one of the so-called Russian “liberal intellectuals”. He has taken part in Moscow protests, covered the case of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalnyi and was well-versed in Russian media space. Besides, he was one of the first Russian journalists to condemn the full-scale war in Ukraine. Yet, on the 30the year of Ukraine’s independence and the seventh year of the Donbas war & annexation of Crimea, Gorbachev still considers Ukrainian music to be a part of the Post-Soviet Russian music.

Such an opinion has been quite common among both Russian liberals and Ukrainian music artists. Many of the latter identified themselves as Ukrainians, but have been leaning towards the common “Slavic” culture, which included Russian, Belarussian, and Ukrainian – in other words, Russian-language music.

Rodnoi Zvuk (Native Sound) is one of the most popular Russian indie labels, which features many young and arguably promising artists. As a matter of fact, the label calls everyone "native", be it a cult Russian rapper Boulevard Depo, a famous Belarusian artist Max Korzh, a legendary Russian rock band DDT, a popular Russian singer Kedr Livansky, or prominent Ukrainian artists such as Constantine and Dakooka.

The top Ukrainian music artists signed contracts with the Moscow offices of global labels publicly highlighting the international “nature” of their work. For example, Max Barskykh was a part of Sony Music Russia, Maruv signed with Warner Music Russia and Ukrainian singers Anna Sedokova and Asti worked with Universal Music Russia.

The myth of the “united” musical space, as well as financial and bureaucratic dependence on Russia, comes as a result of nearly 30 years of purposeful efforts to increase Russia’s influence in Ukrainian culture.

Rock clubs and Chervona Ruta

In the 80s, while Moscow was a de-facto cultural center of the USSR, Ukraine was able to set its own cultural foundations. The new unique musical style was largely attributed to the Vusatyi Funk (Moustache funk) phenomenon. Although the VIAs from the 60s and 70s were never transformed into the rock stars of independent Ukraine, their efforts lead to the phenomenon of Sophia Rotaru. Sofia Mikhailovna Rotaru became the most popular pop star in the Soviet Union, and her song "Chervona Ruta" sung in Ukrainian became the basis for the future of Ukrainian pop music.

The more exciting processes occurred in the rock music scope. Almost every Ukrainian city has got its own rock club, which ultimately was a gang of rebellious musicians hanging out in a local concert hall. Most of them performed in Russian, but this did not prevent the emergence of the two bands that later pioneered the Ukrainian rock music scene. These were "Vopli Vidopliasova" in Kyiv and "Gadiukin Brothers" (Braty Gadiukiny) in Lviv.

Probably the most important event for the future of Ukrainian music was the "Chervona Ruta" festival organized in 1989 in Chernivtsi. The featured "Vopli Vidopliasova", "Gadiukin Brothers", Iryna Bilyk, "Komu Vnyz", Sister Vika, and the legendary Andriy Mykolaychuk received Ukraine-wide success.

However, this was not enough to get the attention of the mass media. Back in the Soviet times, Ukrainian music was less popular than Russian, and in the early years of independence, the trend was still there. The first Ukrainian TV channels emerged only in the mid-90s. Before that, the Ukrainian audience was mostly consuming Russian content.

“VV [Vopli Vidopliasova] was an underground band before their single Vesna (Spring) made them nationwide rock stars in 1997. Gadiukin Brothers disbanded in 1994 before Ukrainian show business even emerged. Kino was the most popular rock band at the time” recalls Vitalii Bardetskyi, a Ukrainian music journalist, founder of XLIB club and GRAM bar & record store, and the director of "Vusatyi Funk", the movie. He was working closely with many Ukrainian music artists back in the 90s.

Terytoriya A – The Rise Of Ukrainian Music

Terytoriya A (Territory A) was the first Ukrainian hit parade, founded by Anzhelika Rudnytska and Oleksandr Bryginets (now a member of the European Solidarity Party). The show aired on the ICTV channel during 1995-2000 and spanned out a number of Ukrainian music artists, both alternative and mainstream.

Terytoriya A gave rise to such artists as Kuzma Skriabin, Oleksandr Ponomariov, the first Ukrainian rappers VUZV (Вхід у змінному взутті) that later set the stage to Potap, Ruslana, eccentric duo Aqua Vita and Iryna Bilyk.

Iryna Bilyk was the most popular Ukrainian singer in the 90s. Yet, even she could not compete with her Russian counterparts.

“Bilyk’s popularity after her song “In a boat” (Пливу у човні) was huge, I would say, equal to that of many Russian pop stars at the time. Still, not as great as Pugacheva’s. Pugacheva, Leontyev, and other top Russian singers were able to sell out Palats UkrainaNational Palace of Arts “Ukraina” is Ukraine’s biggest concert hall – Editor`s Note literally every week, while Bilyk could probably do one such show a year,” tells Bardetskyi.

Despite the fact that Russian artists played to full houses, the 90s created a spin-out for Ukrainian music and songs sung in the Ukrainian language. Young audiences followed Terytoriya A, and music artists had the courage to create new experimental sounds and made their way to the mainstream. The music video "Vesna" by VV and the album "Nova" by Iryna Bilyk were great examples of this.

In the 2000s the music landscape changed, giving way to the “glamorous” era, during which Ukrainian music and Ukrainian songs slowly faded out.

Money talks, bullshit walks

“The 2000s were glamorous. It was the period of golden frames and luxury chairs flashing in every scene – the more bling-bling the better. In the 2000s people already acquired capital but haven't yet acquired the good taste,” said Alan Badoev, Ukrainian music video director in the documentary film "Spalakh".

One of the most prominent music videos of the 2000s was “Ne Para” (No Match), the debut song of duo Potap and Nastia. The video was grotesque and showed luxury at its best by flashing trucks full of money and diamond attire.

Naturally, the dreams of a luxurious life in culture led to a place where it was easier to make a fortune, and that place was Moscow.

Moscow meant higher pay and had more venues for performances and shows. Russian radio stations have asked Ukrainian artists to write songs in Russian. Ukrainian rock bands, either deliberately or naturally, became a part of "Russian rock".

Radio stations started to get more influence. New stations were opening up as Russian franchises in Ukraine, to which the Ukrainian audience was already quite familiar.

“Regional broadcasters aired Russian networks such as Russian Radio, Hit FM, Europe Plus, and others. This was a way to smuggle Russian culture under the state umbrella. Broadcasters violated music licenses, earned easy money on advertising, and bribed the National Council of TV and Radio Broadcasting officials, who then turned a blind eye to violations of law," reveals Oleksandr Stasov, producer and host of Radio Promin.

He adds that television broadcasted copycats of Russian TV shows featuring Russian bands over Ukrainian music artists. “When a Ukrainian artist released a new single, Moscow producers and managers were usually invited as experts. Obviously, their main focus was to make money, not to help develop Ukrainian music culture.”

Some Ukrainian bands were able to make it to the mainstream. The band Okean Elzy became the most famous rock band in Ukraine. However, their success in Ukraine coincided, and in many ways became possible thanks to the fact that they were also quite popular in Russia. Their performance at the Moscow rock festival Maxidrom became memorable for their duo with the Russian rock superstar Zemfira. Later their songs were featured in the Brat-2 (Brother 2) soundtrack collection, released in 2000.

Andriy Khlyvniuk’s band Boombox followed a similar path. The band became popular after the release of their first album "Melomania" in 2005. However, their real ascension began after the song "Vahteram" (To Concierges), written in Russian.

Radio and TV producers often preferred Russian-language tracks and Russian artists over Ukrainian. Unfortunately, this was the conscious policy of the Ukrainian radio stations and television channels.

“Back in 2005 Love Radio Ukraine fined me with $60 fee for playing three Ukrainian songs, only one of which was in Ukrainian (“Ocean Elzy” – “Girl from Another Life”, Iryna Bilyk – "Love Poison", Alyona Vinnytska – "You see I'm alive")," says Stasov.

This was not related to the radio policy regarding the use of Russian content in Ukraine. It was merely an unspoken rule, usually established at the management level, who were often “the people of the Soviet-type". They did not deem it necessary to distinguish between Ukrainian and Russian cultures and made their decisions based purely on money.

“Radio stations played the music that people knew. And people knew the music because the stations were playing it. This was a vicious cycle,” recalls Bardetskyi.

Ruslana and The Orange Revolution

Ruslana’s victory at Eurovision and The Orange Revolution promoted the use of the Ukrainian language in the media and raised the question of the separation between Russian and Ukrainian language on radio and TV.

In the mid-end of the 2000s, new music festivals started to emerge. The demand for them was high after Chervona Ruta shrank in size and Tavriiski Igry (Tavriia Games) shut down in 2008.

Kraina Mrii (The Dreamland) kicked off in 2004, the first Old Town Festival took place in Lviv in 2007, and the ZAXIDFest was held in 2009 near Lviv. All of them aimed at lining up Ukrainian or Western artists. The large festivals span out many smaller music events that have become increasingly popular locally.

Online media also started to gain more influence. The website music.com.ua was the most active at the time, to which a vast share of Wikipedia articles written about the Ukrainian music albums of the 2000s refers. The website was edited by a famous Ukrainian music critic Oleksandr Ievtushenko.

The online forum of the neformat.com.ua website launched in 2004 was popular among music lovers and became a starting point for many underground bands.

At the beginning of the 2010th Serhii Cane launched a music edition on open.ua, which became the first hipster media covering Ukrainian music.

However, all these efforts were not enough in comparison to the influence of Russian music media. Russian journalist and music critic Artemiy Troitskiy and ex-producer of Nashe Radio Mikhail Kozyrev were among the top celebrities of the music world, and the Afisha tabloid was often looked up to by the Western music lovers. They always demonstrated great respect for Ukrainian music, albeit contributing to the growing dependence on Russian influence and opinion.

“The problem of lack of protection for the Ukrainian media market from Russian influence did not come from the Russians. It came from a large number of Ukrainophobs among the media companies owners. <...> Media made more money on politics than on commercial advertising. Unfortunately, the political flare in the news of the largest commercial broadcasters still lives and thrives, " – explains Stasov.

Most of the achievements of Viktor Yushchenko's pro-Ukrainian and pro-Western policies were negated after Viktor Yanukovych's accession to power. The new political power was concentrated in the hands of people who were not interested in the development of Ukrainian culture.

The new changes came with the Maidan Revolution, the war in Donbas, and the annexation of Crimea. At the same time, streaming services came into play, shifting the influence to the Russian market.

Digital dependence

Prior to the rise of social networks and streaming services, audience preferences were mostly shaped by radio and television. But at the beginning of the 2010s, people started to look for music online.

Russian social network VK (named VKontakte at the time) became the number one platform for exposure for Ukrainian music artists. The platform allowed for self-promotion and self-publishing thus creating a new domain for the music industry. YouTube was gaining popularity and later became a launchpad for video releases.

In the beginning, the terms for music publishing on VK were not officially regulated, and streaming services were not yet viral. However after the new distribution rules were set, Russia started to grow its influence on those fronts.

The European region of the former Soviet Union – Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) – covers Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Thus, an international businesses operating in these countries, including concert agencies and streaming services, now fell under the CEE.

When technology giants such as Apple or Google entered the market, they opened their offices in Moscow. This was also true for Apple Music and Spotify, the offices of major labels (Sony Music, Warner Music, and Universal Music), as well as distribution companies – Orchard, Believe, and OneRPM (this phenomenon is explained in greater detail here).

While some companies established their branches in Ukraine, the final decisions have always been made in Moscow. The local curators have always had a Russian perspective. In my personal conversations with representatives of Apple Music and Spotify, I was not able to convince the Ukrainian market managers that Ukraine needed its own playlists with mostly Ukrainian-language music. The exclusion of Russian artists from "Trending in Ukraine” lists was out of the question.

Live performances and shows had experienced a similar fate. Usually, the artist went on tour in a number of cities and culminating in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The scheme was convenient both logistically and financially. Although the UPark Festival was registered in Ukraine, it has been deeply rooted in the Russian Park Live. The festivals usually had the same line-up formed by joint bookers – the Ukrainian agency PopCorn (Imagine Dragons, The Neighborhood, Foals, etc.) and their Moscow-based colleagues at PopFarm.

Historical influence topped with tech

It may take a while to understand all the levers of influence that Russian culture has used to affect Ukrainian culture, both consciously and unconsciously. I went through the most noticeable ones, but this is not an exhaustive or even the most comprehensive list. Yet, it gives you an idea of the real state of affairs in Russia-Ukraine show business relationships.

Ukraine entered independence with a rich music background which was formed years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pop and rock music have found their own unique sound. Ukrainian music artists became popular enough in order to compete with the Russian artists for whom it was easier to reach the audience through Russian-speaking mass media.

However at the end of the 90s money left its mark through radio, TV, live concerts, and other means of influence. Due to ukrainophobic decision-makers in show business and the historical dominance of Moscow, Russian music was hard to compete with. Ukrainian singers performed in Russian as it meant higher reach and the number of Ukrainian-speaking superstars remained low.

While the rise of music tech could have offered greater freedom of music choices, Ukraine's historical attachment to the CEE has played its role.

Without a doubt, the popularity of Russian music in Ukraine is not only the result of a handful of decision-makers. For years, Ukrainians have been taught to see Russian culture as greater and more influential and to treat its own culture and language as something modest, rural, and “sharovar-like”. These sentiments were especially vocal in music (simply watch Semyon Gorov's musicals to see what I mean).

The state was not very cooperative in the “ukrainianization” of cultural space. The policies did not stimulate the production of quality media products and did not support the artists. The only means to boost Ukrainian content were higher quotas for the Ukrainian language on TV and radio. However, they have little influence if the artists themselves don’t make pro-Ukrainian choices.

“The only incentive that Ukrainian politicians came up with was the introduction of quotas on content in Ukrainian. The results could have been much higher if media producers, broadcasters, and investors could receive tax reduction and license preferences,” comments Oleksandr Stasov.

Post War

Since the beginning of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the situation has changed. The music industry went into a limbo state. Music events are canceled and new songs are being released to the sounds of gunshots.

International music giants, either on their own account or under the influence of sanctions, started to boycott Russia and moved their premises to other European countries. They are not opening new offices in Ukraine until the end of the war.

What this means is that Ukraine will have to rebuild its music industry. In a time when business cooperation with Russia is out of the question, the world turns its focus on Ukraine and its culture. The missiles, which began to fall on Ukrainian soil, have become the ultimate reason to cut ties with Russia, both in business and culture.

Today, the idea of ​​publishing a book on "post-Soviet music" sounds as ferocious as Okean Elzy’s songs in the "Brat-2" collection. Ukraine paid a high price for separation from Russia in a sense much wider than cultural. It is time for us to rethink our culture and its role in our lives. I believe that Ukrainian culture will be stronger and more recognizable than ever. But for that, we have to win.

Further reading