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A freelancer’s principal occupation is everything

“I am an entrepreneur without an enterprise: I am only paid for the work I do, and even that often long after the fact. Over the years, I have grown to love this freedom, the downside of which is the absence of a safety net,” says Kaija Kärkinen, a singer-songwriter with a background in theatre.

Kaija Kärkinen by Aku Toivonen

BY Amanda Kauranne

Kaija Kärkinen is a freelance artist who sings, writes lyrics, acts, does voiceovers and manages the Finnish Society of Composers and Lyricists, ELVIS.

“I love being able to perform my own lyrics and the fact that there are people who want to listen to them. Of course I sometimes wonder whether this endless financial insecurity is an acceptable price to pay for being able to do and say exactly what I want. So far, the answer is yes,” she says.

Freelancing for more than two decades

Kaija Kärkinen has been a freelancer since graduating as an actress from the Theatre Academy in 1990. In 1991, she represented Finland at the Eurovision Song Contest, and this led to her partnership with guitarist Ile Kallio and a career mostly in music. That partnership, by the way, has resulted in 12 albums and two sons. She still performs with Ile Kallio as a duo and with a band, although her elected position as chairman of the Finnish Society of Composers and Lyricists, ELVIS, has kept her busy for four years now. She is venturing into theatre again too, after a long break: she will be performing in the musical satire Suuri ja mahtava (Great and mighty) at the Kapsäkki Music Theatre in Helsinki beginning in mid-October.

“I enjoy it when I can do different things and learn new stuff all the time. I am fortunate in that I have plenty of gigs and I like doing that, so I am not about to retire just yet.”

Performing fees comprise her major source of income, if we include acting, dubbing, ad voiceovers and emcee work. ELVIS pays her a fee for her work as chairman.

“Most of us musicians are freelancers, and a freelancer’s principal occupation is everything. Mine too.”

An old hand

“Success, at my age, means that I can still do what I love to do and that there are people who still want to listen to it,” she says. “I could always do with a bit more commercial success, but I took a conscious risk in writing lyrics in my native language. So an international career is not at the top of my list of priorities, although it is by no means impossible [to achieve by singing in Finnish], as many folk musicians have proved. The main thing is to feel that what you are doing is meaningful.”

Kärkinen’s principal partners are her agent and her fellow band members. A reliable sound system and other technology are of course also vital to doing her work well. “My gigs are so different, with different line-ups and venues ranging from sitting rooms to concert halls, that there is no such thing as a typical fee. There is some market-driven variation in fees in this industry depending on who is flavour of the month, but I don’t think that has a lot of impact on the fees paid to us old hands.”

No pension from royalties

Kärkinen’s copyright royalties come mainly from performance royalties and radio play. On the whole, she is happy with the level of income from this source.

“But keeping that up means doing gigs all the time. And staying on the air means having to write new songs and put them out there. I try to make time to write new lyrics; I have a couple of years of backlog waiting to be written,” she says with a smile.

While lyrics generate copyright royalties when performed, practically no one pays fees for lyrics unless they are specifically commissioned. “I’ve collaborated on lyrics recently; co-writing is really common these days. It is always a good idea to agree on the division of income beforehand to avoid nasty surprises. I have had no problems in this respect.

“The worst-case scenario for me would be to lose my working capacity in the near future; copyright royalties do not accrue pension, at least not yet. There is a huge anomaly waiting to be fixed in the pension and social security matters of the self-employed; Finland will soon be full of people in atypical employment relationships and unusual situations.”

Music for free?

Kärkinen notes that standard practice these days is for performers to pay for studio costs themselves, either directly or offset against record sales or other income. Over the years, there has been a sea change in copyright and sales royalties from recordings.

“They have fallen to the floor, because the digital music market has driven performers and publishers into the margin. The money goes to the service providers, i.e. the large record labels and services like Google and Spotify. Authors and performers are at the tail end of the list of priorities,” she says. “Everyone wants everything right now and for next to nothing, although the time and work required to produce content is the same as it has always been. The members of ELVIS have felt this and are concerned. The availability of club gigs and the fees paid for them are also showing the toughness of the times. It would be sad for consumers to get accustomed to not having to pay anything for live music. An entrance fee, however small, adds to the performer’s income and the public’s appreciation of their work.”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Kaija Kärkinen

::  A freelance singer-songwriter and chairman of the Finnish Society of Composers and Lyricists, ELVIS

::  Has written lyrics for popular Finnish artists such as Anna Eriksson and Laura Voutilainen

::  Has a background in theatre and will be performing after a long break in the musical satire Suuri ja mahtava (Great and mighty) at the Kapsäkki Music Theatre in Helsinki beginning in October