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New avenues to popularity

by Ilkka Mattila

New and old Finnish artists are increasingly often finding success without the old paradigms offered by the recording industry.

For decades the number of ways pop and rock artists had to reach out to potential buyers for their recordings was limited. Practically the only way was to entice a record company to pay for the recording and manufacturing, and then market it to the right audience.

Even though the language makes Finland more self-sufficient in pop music than many other European countries, the market for recordings is set up the same way as everywhere else: the majority of releases are put out by big, multinational record companies and the available selection is rounded out by small, independent labels, most of which buy their marketing and distribution services from the majors.

Now digital distribution has thrown the traditional recording markets for a loop. Big companies have been slow and stiff to react and are, in their risk-averse mode, releasing music that isn’t always exciting, fresh and artistically challenging. Both mainstream pop stars and newcomers from the new generation have had to find new ways to produce and market their music.

A 300,000 download debut

People working in newer genres of pop, with a younger audience accustomed to finding new phenomena via the web and social media, have been the first to pick up on alternative distribution and marketing methods.

Lieminen makes rap and R&B-influenced pop. He was one of the most exciting newcomers on the scene in 2013.

Lieminen’s breakthrough song Tääl on Lieminen was released on YouTube as a music video. In the video, the artist, who was totally unknown to the general public, performed wearing a Tyrolean outfit in surroundings vaguely reminiscent of bucolic Switzerland. The video looked nostalgic and at the same time ironic. Lieminen and his band looked like a disturbed version of the singing von Trapp family in Sound of Music.

Singer, songwriter and musician Jaakko Luomanen is the man behind the Lieminen character. He has played guitar in several Finnish hard rock bands and toured all around Europe with Heaven’n’Hell in the early 2000s. Later, Lieminen studied to be a recording engineer and made the first of his own songs for school. He took his friends’ nickname for him as an alias.

“I passed the course and people seemed to like the song, so I just kept on making my own music. For fun,” Luomanen says.

In the spring of 2013 Luomanen visited some record companies and played his songs to them, but no one was interested. In August 2013 he released Tääl on Lieminen on YouTube himself. He got a lot of help from friends with his debut. Edu and Davo, two respected and experienced Finnish rappers with roots deep in the underground, were featured on the song. They brought in the video’s director Tommi Mattila, who came up with the humorous Tyrolean image.

Finland’s biggest pop stars can garner 1 to 2 million views for their videos on YouTube. Lieminen started out with no record company support and got 300,000 views, which can be considered an achievement.

The success came as a surprise to Luomanen.

“I played all around Finland in the fall of 2013, every weekend. The challenging thing about the shows is that audiences know that one song and the others kind of come as a surprise.”

Lieminen’s debut will be released by Fried Music in the spring of 2014.

“Nowadays YouTube is an important channel for any artist,” Luomanen says. “It’s great that it has brought about the resurrection of the music video as an art form.”

A familiar artist with some new tricks

Singer-songwriter Anssi Kela is proof of what Luomanen said about YouTube and its importance. In the early 2000s he was the most popular new pop star in Finland, with his debut Nummela selling over 150,000 (5 x platinum). It’s still 13th on the list of all-time best-selling Finnish albums.

Kela’s phenomenal success didn’t last forever and his sales kept falling with every new record. In 2009 he released Aukio, which sold a mere 5000 copies, and support from major label Sony started running out. Kela and the label parted ways in 2010. Kela decided to try selling his new songs directly to his fans through his website.

“I didn’t expect to make millions from the experiment, but I did expect to make a little extra money,” Kela says.

Even that was too much to hope for.  “With some songs, the downloads were in the single digits.”

Kela was seriously considering doing something else for a living, but decided to give it one more shot and started writing songs for a new album.

Record companies were interested, but the contracts they offered were not in his favour. In the end, the best contract offer came from a surprising party – the Finnish office of multinational concert agency and promoter Live Nation, which was branching out into releasing records.

Kela’s return ticket to the top of the charts was his new hit Levoton tyttö and people discovered it via YouTube. The video shows Kela recording the song in his home studio. The message is clear: an old hit artist has found a new beginning on his own.

“There was nothing calculated about the video, per se: it was recorded fast and at a moment’s notice, with no script, about a day before the single was released,” Kela says. “Originally, we weren’t going to make a video for the song. I edited it myself the night before the release.”

Levoton tyttö has had 1.1 million views on YouTube and Kela’s fifth album Anssi Kela was better received in the media than any of his earlier albums. It stayed in the Finnish top 40 for 16 weeks.

The 41-year old has always provoked strong reactions for and against. He has written books and is politically active. In the 2012 presidential elections he supported Pekka Haavisto, the Green Party candidate. Haavisto lost out to Sauli Niinistö from the conservative National Coalition Party in the second round.

Kela has also been active in social media and talked about the division of profits from distribution on the net. In the summer of 2013 he wrote about how he made 2300 euros from one million plays on Spotify.

“People have wanted to like my new record, because something I’ve done has changed their perception of me,” Kela says. “It’s still easier to come out of nowhere, as an artist, than it is to change peoples’ calcified perceptions.”

More than a record company

Working outside the traditional confines of the recording industry does not mean that an artist has to do everything that a major label used to do.

Jonas Verwijnen, Antti Lounatvuori and Antti Joas moved from Helsinki to Berlin three years ago and started a company called Kaiku Studios. In the beginning they released some records, too, but it was something very different from a traditional indie record label. Kaiku Studios offered artists a variety of services related to management, music production and touring.

Verwijnen used to work as a sound engineer in studios, on tour and at a number of clubs in Helsinki. He’d given making music himself a try, but found that he preferred working in the background for other artists. Over the years he’d met many talented and promising Finnish artists who were taking their first steps in the music business and needed some help.

“I didn’t know everything about the business myself, but enough to know when they were being offered a bad deal,” Verwijnen says.

Berlin-based Kaiku was internationally orientated from the get-go. Its first artists were Finnish: electropop duo LCMDF, loud-as-hell alternative band Joensuu 1685, as well as Siinai and Zebra & Snake, both of which straddle the dividing line between indie and progressive rock.

Verwijnen saw the international potential in these bands immediately.

“Finns have a habit of concentrating on the home market, even though there might be demand abroad. Often they stay at home, waiting for someone to come and lead the artist into the international arena. Personally, I’ve found that the only way to get results is to be out there and constantly remind people that your artists exist. You have to be like a fruit vendor in a market square: shouting is the best way to draw peoples’ attention to what you have to offer.”

In seven years Kaiku’s clientele has grown to include bands from outside Finland. Verwijnen reminds us that the only way to get new clients is to succeed with the old ones. Luck plays a role, too. “If I ran a British record company and some guy from Finland strolled up and offered his services, I’d be sceptical, too.”

Even though Verwijnen listens mostly to experimental music himself, he likes to work with straight pop acts, too. He doesn’t believe in fast-paced hit projects.

“Major labels tend to go for the lottery jackpots, but that’s not the only way to survive out there. I prefer the indie way of thinking. Breaking a band takes years.”

Translation: Arttu Tolonen
Featured photo: Anssi Kela by Rami Saaristo