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Exporting popular Finnish music

by Jari Muikku

In the course of the year 2000 Finnish popular music has made a dream come true: it has at last achieved a breakthrough on the international market. Bomfunk MC's, HIM and Darude are names that have this year crept to the top of the charts in a number of European countries.

In the course of the year 2000 Finnish popular music has made a dream come true: it has at last achieved a breakthrough on the international market. Bomfunk MC’s, HIM and Darude are names that have this year crept to the top of the charts in a number of European countries.

This success has not, however, been come by easily. Rather, it is the result of long, sustained effort on the part of professional exporters and artists alike. Now, at last, they have learnt to think globally and acquired the experience to put their thoughts into practice. Their growing self-confidence has also been reflected in their determination to make a name for themselves outside Finland. Ultimately, of course, international success also requires a modicum of luck.

One-two-three-hop into the world

Finnish popular music was already finding its way onto disc in the 1940s and 50s, but it continued to be very inward-looking right up to the 1960s. It was then that the first attempts at exporting were made, with instrumental music, as befitted the times. In the 1960s Finland was swept by the “letkis”, a dance with a very strong beat epitomised by a hit of the same name by Rauno Lehtinen that caught on in a number of countries. Then in the early 1970s along came the first of the Finnish rock bands, such as Wigwam and Tasavallan Presidentti focusing on progressive rock. Despite their promising beginning, these bands nevertheless failed to achieve their dream of taking the world by storm.

Drawing a little closer to this magic breakthrough in the following decade was Hanoi Rocks, a glam rock band the legend of which still lives on in Andy McCoy and Mike Monroe. Other would-be rock exporters who never really got off the ground in the 1980s included Gringos Locos and Havana Black, their hopes being dashed by an unreasonable number of unfortunate coincidences. Although none of these mainstream bands was to be rewarded for its efforts there has, since the 1980s, been a steady flow of bands and artists from Finland who have set their sights at an international audience. But although they receive plenty of coverage in the media, they have represented a brand of music too marginal to carry them to the top of the international charts.

The best-known and most popular of these has been the Leningrad Cowboys famous for their crazy tufts of hair, for their concerts with the Red Army and the films directed by Aki Kaurismäki. In an eccentric class of their own are the Male Choir Shouters specialising in shouted versions of such songs as national anthems. Another name that has been around on the rock scene for a long time now is the modern surf band Laika & The Cosmonauts. Then there are 22-Pistepirkko with their uncompromising, urban psychoblues, and Eläkeläiset, who have mercilessly deconstructed rock classics and turned them into harmless dance-floor numbers for oldies. Making an international name for themselves in the field of electron music have been Pan Sonic, who mostly play minimalist electron music, Jimi Tenor, the king of funk/lounge/jazz operating from London, and house-DJ Jori Hulkkonen.

Reaping a far bigger commercial success have, by contrast, been many of the metal bands, such as Stratovarius, Amorphis, Sentenced, Waltari, Nightwish and Children of Bodom. A somewhat unusual find in the metal category is Apocalyptica, four cellists whose interpretations of metal classics have sold worldwide to the tune of half a million albums already. Nor could Nightwish, with a female opera singer as its lead vocalist, exactly be called run-of-the-mill.

Export stumbling blocks

People often ask why the Finns have exported so little popular music when Sweden has risen to third place (after the USA and the UK) in the export figures for popular music. The answer has mainly been the Finns themselves, their taste in music and the small domestic market. The Finns have tended to favour hits sung in Finnish and a hybrid genre of hit and rock known as Suomi-rock. Whereas the Finns may in one sense be praised for favouring their own national style and language, Suomi-rock has not created a sufficiently strong financial platform for exporting in a serious way. Virtually no popular music in English, demanding a big budget has, as a result, been produced in Finland.

Another obstacle is the absence of a tradition such as that built up by football, for example. Only ten years ago Finnish footballers were as little known outside Finland as Finnish rock stars, but now, spurred on by the example of Jari Litmanen, they are all over the place. Finnish artists have further suffered from a lack of direct personal contacts and people with the necessary know-how. Nor have artists always had the motivation and patience needed to make it to the top.

Over the past ten years the Finnish music industry has, however, been making a determined effort to promote its exports. The most visible sign of this has, in addition to the forging of international relations, been Finland’s active presence at such major export events as MIDEM and PopKomm. Finnish companies have also been carrying out export projects of their own, such as an annual campaign in Tokyo. Along with the German-speaking regions of Europe, Japan has, since the early 1990s, been the main target for Finnish popular music. It is therefore hardly surprising that the best results have been achieved in precisely these markets.

New stars

The brightest Finnish star on the export firmament this year (2000) has been Bomfunk MC’s (Sony Music), a band cultivating a distinctive blend of hip hop, rap, funk and electronica. Their single “Freestyler” has been top of the charts in ten countries, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia included, and it even rose to number two in the UK. Its US release is scheduled for this year. By early autumn the single had already clocked up sales of about 1,5 million copies, and Bomfunk’s first album “In Stereo” of about half a million.

The Bomfunk boom was sparked off by an independent publisher specialising in dance music. As the company became aware of the vast potential of this band, it took steps to establish a partnership with a multinational. Nearly two years were to pass before any results worth talking about began to appear. The boom was set in motion in Finland, where sales of the Bomfunk album far outstripped those of any other by a band singing in English. The story was the same in Sweden, by which time the record company was convinced of Bomfunk’s international potential and put it on its priority list. The Bomfunk case just goes to show that success can almost never be achieved on a big scale without the marketing resources and coordination of a major label.

Another great achiever in the early part of the year was the “love metal” band HIM (BMG). Its fantastic success, especially in the German-speaking countries, is nevertheless the result of sustained, determined effort. HIM went straight to the heart of Central Europe for its very first album, “Greatest Love Songs Vol. 666″, and it drummed up support by being constantly on the road. The wild success of its second album, “Razorblade Romance”, was likewise greatly due to this and to the commercial potential of its single “Join Me”. The appearance of this single on the soundtrack of the movie “13th Floor” also boosted its sales considerably.

It always takes individuals as well as companies to turn a record into a hit. And surprise surprise: the producer of the singles “Sandstorm” and “Feel the Beat” by Darude (16 Inch), a major sensation in the dance music charts, is none other than the producer of the Bomfunk discs: Jaakko Salovaara. This producer has an interesting background in that he worked as a professional cellist before transferring full-time to dance music.

Right now the future of Finnish popular music exporting looks promising, since there are several projects of an international calibre in the pipeline. One is a group of young girls called Tik N’ Tak (Universal) that caught the fancy of Finnish audiences and has now made its breakthrough further south in Europe. This autumn Universal will be targeting the group at the German-speaking market particularly. Other examples worth mentioning are Kemopetrol (Musicmakers/BMG), a modern rock/pop group, Lemonator (Spinefarm) the spearhead of melodic guitar power pop, 69 Eyes (Poko) a cult name in Gothic rock, Waldo’s People (BMG), a group already well established in the dance music sector, The Crash (Warner), the performers of inventive guitar pop, and Giant Robot (Spinefarm), a group navigating the mellow dub/ambient/dance waves.

Winds of change

Exports of Finnish popular music will in the near future depend on the global trends. As the big companies merge to form bigger and bigger units, there will be more room for loners on the periphery. The technical advances have led to greater production democracy, since all in principle have access to state-of-the-art technology. Meanwhile production has also atomised with the birth of small companies specialising in some narrow field of music.

These small units are in turn seeking alliances with both the multinationals and the independents. The small companies can concentrate solely on producing music and can react more quickly than the big ones to new musical trends. On the other hand, the established companies have the know-how necessary for marketing and distribution. The Internet will also play a bigger part in the production and distribution of music: both an opportunity and a threat for small markets and producers like Finland.

Jari Muikku is Executive Director of the Finnish Music Information Centre and at present writing his doctoral dissertation on the Finnish recording industry.

Translation: Susan Sinisalo

From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 3-4/2000

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