in Articles

Making it in the US - Finnish rock bands in America

by Sami J. Valkonen

Why have HIM and Hanoi Rocks been the only Finnish bands to make it in America? Sami Valkonen, a music industry veteran involved with rock bands on both sides of the Atlantic, debates the factors that make up a success story on the American market.

There are today too many Finnish bands with venerable careers in Europe to list. So why is HIM the only Finnish band to have made it in the US in the past 20 years? Why do Finnish bands continue to be underrepresented in the US market?


Geography is a major consideration that will always play a key role. Historically, Finland’s remote location easily explained the scant representation of Finnish bands not only in the US but anywhere outside the home territory – before the Internet even the cost of communication was often prohibitive, let alone the expense and logistical complexity of travel. The elimination of work permits, ATA Carnets and similar bureaucratic hurdles as part of the European Union has made the market in Europe more accessible. The physical distance between Finland and the US, along with the complexities of getting work visas, continues to be an obstacle for Finnish artists seeking exposure in the US marketplace.

American bands also have the advantage of building on a regional base within the country. However, bands rarely break by expanding their regional base gradually into nationwide success. Rather, regional success is typically the trigger that convinces a label to put its marketing muscle behind the artist. And this backing of the industry machinery is usually the key ingredient to breaking nationally. HIM’s US success coincides with its deal with Sire Records and the backing of the Warner label group. Building an initial base in Los Angeles or New York is certainly an advantage, but whether a band shows its commercial viability initially in Nebraska or in Finland hardly makes a difference. So while geography matters, there must be other reasons.

Cultural preferences

Cultural preferences constitute a key factor in the success of bands in a particular market. However, confining the discussion to rock bands, there is no significant barrier for Finns to overcome. Of course, a band singing in Finnish is de facto precluded from the US market because, despite the anomaly of Nena’s 99 Luftballons, a non-English language rock hit is still unthinkable. But apart from the language requirement, rock culture can today be considered universal, and in that respect Finnish bands performing in English are on an equal footing with their American peers.

In fact, ever since the days of the Beatles Americans have embraced foreign rock groups – so long as they are not too foreign. The various British invasions have been peppered with a steady flow of artists from more exotic places. At the same time, the common thread has been that all such artists have been culturally accessible to the US consumer. While Hurriganes69 Eyes would fit in perfectly with a segment of today’s American rock culture. Even young bands like Disco Ensemble are clearly comfortable in New York, and if anything, their foreignness gives them an edge and a point of distinction. At the end of the day, American music fans are likely entirely oblivious to where a particular artist comes from. Certainly, the fans do not love HIM because they are from Finland any more than they love Shakira because she is from Colombia. For sure, a specific artist’s music may be affected by their cultural roots – HIM may stand out with its minor-key choruses incorporating a touch of Finnish melancholy. And Shakira certainly brings with her a Latin flair from her native culture. But ultimately each artist’s average American fan would love them the same whether they came from Palau or Minnesota. may never have been palatable to the US music fan, the

Luck and talent

Luck is a major factor in the breaking of any artist, but unless we are prepared to argue that Finns are inherently unluckier than Americans it is not the answer. However, luck could still contribute to the outcome. Since breaking in the US is akin to winning the lottery, chance plays a significant role even with a larger sample. And by adhering to the proverb “luck is seizing the opportunity” one could make a case for Finns, in fact, being “unluckier” (read: less prepared to seize opportunities) than Americans. Fortunately, as we will see, this handicap resulting from the Finns’ historically low self-esteem is quickly evaporating.

Although the inherently subjective notion of “talent” is difficult to analyze, if it is understood through an abstract concept of objective superiority it cannot explain the discrepancy. No rational individual could argue that Americans are somehow inherently more talented than Finns. Of course, the cultural heritage from blues and a longer history of popular culture could be seen as giving the Americans a “genetic” advantage. However, now that modern rock has become multifaceted and success often hinges on an edge or point of distinction, Finns have an offsetting advantage. In the end, the “talent” variable also has to be called a wash.

Finns’ low self-esteem

Despite the objective talent level in the US and Finland being the same, it is possible – and even likely – that the Finns’ historically low self esteem has fostered a defeatist attitude once so common in Finland. Finns historically suffered from an odd case of collective dual self-perception: on the one hand they revered sisu (an odd mix perseverance and stubbornness) and other virtuous “tribal” characteristics in a way that almost suggested a sense of national superiority. At the same time the collective psyche was burdened with an inexplicable inferiority complex. It was a matter of pride to be a Finn, but being a Finn was seen as effectively precluding international success. Fortunately this historic “condition” has receded in recent years, and the younger generation Finns have developed a healthy view of themselves as equals in the global community.

So having more or less dismissed all of the explanations discussed above, what could be the reason for the drought in Finnish bands making it in America? The answer requires us to step back and focus not on the artists but on the supporting infrastructure – the management and labels.

Managers and labels

The only Finnish manager with deep connections in the US music industry is Seppo Vesterinen, who has been responsible for both of the artists with national success in the United States – first Hanoi Rocks 20 years ago, and recently HIM. Finnish labels have also lacked the business contacts and understanding of the US industry necessary to work effectively with their American counterparts. In the highly competitive US marketplace, a weak link anywhere in a band’s supporting infrastructure is fatal, and until recently this was a major disadvantage for Finnish bands. A US band, even from Fargo, N.D., has historically had better access to business talent capable of navigating within the American business infrastructure.

Fortunately, a new generation of label and management executives comfortable operating on a global scale is emerging in Finland. Music business competence in Finland is on the rise, and the equaling out of this key success factor will result in more Finnish artists breaking also in the US. The efforts of organizations such as MUSEX can only help in providing promotional support for artists, but equally importantly in training a cadre of competent business people capable of operating in the US marketplace.

Over time the scales will even, and Finland will have its proportional share of global superstars. But let’s keep in mind that even then this will still be a modest number.

Featured photo: Aleksi Stenberg