BY Teemu Fiilin
New children’s music has been a popular topic in Finland since the early 2000’s. Following the success of Ipanapa and Ella ja Aleksi, even major record labels have taken a newfound interest in children’s music.
The latest boom in children’s music is not the first one in Finland. In the 1970’s underground rock musician M.A. Numminen started releasing successful children’s records and brought the genre to the fore. But the first craze was way before that, Numminen says.
“Georg Malmstén started our first boom in children’s music in the 1930’s. We carried on his legacy, but revised our songs to fit the era,” says M.A. Numminen, whose 1970’s children’s albums are still being re-issued and loved by kids and adults.
The 1980’s spawned huge children’s hits such as the jazzy Mörköooppera and child star Jonna’s (later known as pop star Jonna Tervomaa) song Minttu sekä Ville. In the 1990’s Finland saw the highest sales of children’s music to date with a several hit releases. Animation figures that became pop stars, The Smurfs, had the biggest hit record when their debut Smurffien Tanssihitit Vol. 1 sold over 170,000 copies. Right behind The Smurfs came the band Fröbelin Palikat with their album Sutsisatsi (148,579 copies sold) and TV character Rölli-Peikko with his album Rölli seikkailee 1 (112,009 copies sold). These three releases are also on the chart of the 50 best-selling albums of all time in Finland.
Rapping preschoolers and other variations
Although sales figures have been more modest since the start of the new millennium, record labels’ interest in children’s music has constantly grown. Nowadays children’s music also tickles the media like never before.
Artists pay much more attention to the style and quality of the music they make for kids. One essential goal is to make the music interesting to adults as well as children – or at least more digestible. The people who make music for kids are now often successful pop musicians, who either perform as themselves or a funny made-up character.
That may be one reason why children’s music sounds different today. The songs are often pastiche versions of pop and rock music as well as hip hop, heavy metal, soul, electro or country music. All these musical genres have been captured and put to use to serve what the kids want – it is mainly the lyrics that make the songs music kids’ music.
Hip hop is a key influence of Ella ja Aleksi, the duo that is said to have started the latest boom in children’s music with their hit record Lenni Lokinpoikanen in 2004. The debut of these sympathetic rapping pre-schoolers has sold more than 66,000 copies and has been earner platinum status. The project started when Helsinki City Public Works Department asked songwriter Markus Koskinen of pop duo Teleks to write children’s songs with an environmental theme. Koskinen invited producer and drummer Sampo Haapaniemi from the pop band Egotrippi to join him.
“We got the idea to make a hip hop version of our song Laulu puiston puista, where the rapper would be a small child. It turned out really good, and we got really inspired to make more similar songs. We played them to a record company A&R, who was excited and asked us to make a whole album,” remembers Sampo Haapaniemi, who produced the debut.
Originally Ella ja Aleksi consisted of two kids, who were the producer’s children. But the vocalists have changed since then. Four full-length albums have been released, and in autumn 2011 the first Ella ja Aleksi film premiered.
From father to son
Like many other pop musicians who have started making music for kids, Haapaniemi is a parent. It has been said that one of the main reasons for the newfound rise of children’s music is the fact that musicians and music industry people born in the 1960’s and 1970’s were raised with quality children’s music. When they get kids and want to start making kids music themselves, they want the quality to match that of their own childhood.
Musician and songwriter Tuure Kilpeläinen wrote Kuningas EI, one of the favourite songs to come from the popular Ipanapa compilations, in an instant. The song expresses the stark feelings of a two-year-old learning about free will, and is based on Kilpeläinen’s firstborn.
“In children’s music I can follow paths I would never take with other records. But the intensity has to be exactly the same as with adult’s music. It’s not good enough to just make some quick and sloppy song for the kids,” Kilpeläinen says.
Naturally mothers too get inspired to make music for children. Chart-topping pop group PMMP made a children’s album, the platinum certified Puuhevonen, when the band’s vocalists Paula Vesala and Mira Luoti were expecting their first babies. Yet they have both denied that their own impending motherhood was the main inspiration for making music for kids.
The children’s music bug can be caught by musicians with no kids too. Rapper Paleface is a case in point – he made a popular children’s hip hop song caked Hiphoppii englantii for the first Ipanapa compilation – and had his first child after the hit. The song teaches the basics of rap-rhyming in Finnish and English and has even found its way to elementary school music books.
“I didn’t have kids, when I wrote the song. Now that I’m a father, I think I’d write a different kind of song. The main idea was to teach the basics of punchline-rap and to teach some English. But the lyric was understood in two ways: many kids from immigrant families and multicultural backgrounds learned some Finnish by listening to that song,” Paleface explains.
The songs are everything
Ipanapa is one of the biggest success stories of the new children’s music boom. It is a combination of a record label, a series of compilations and a group that operates both in the studio and on stage. The concept is the brainchild of Alex Nieminen, a Finnish new media pioneer and the CEO of advertising agency N2. Nieminen had just had his first child, surveyed the children’s music on offer, and realised something had to be done. In 2006 he came up with the idea of producing children’s albums with different singers and songwriters.
“I spent half an hour explaining my idea to Timo Kuoppamäki of EMI. I told him he had a weekend to think about my offer. Nine o’clock on monday morning he called me and said ‘let’s do it’,” Nieminen recalls.
The five Ipanapa compilations have featured popular Finnish artists from The 69 Eyes’ goth singer Jyrki Linnankivi to soul singer Janna Hurmerinta and rock melancholist Samuli Putro.
Although Nieminen is a marketing professional, he claims that children’s music cannot be marketed – a quality product will sell itself. At the same time, the Ipanapa album covers with their fun, retro-styled figures haven’t made the records harder to sell to smart parents with good taste.
“Every time we have taken the effort to market Ipanapa, we have somehow failed. These records are all about the songs. A lot of of people don’t seem to realise that we have a brand-new audience for each Ipanapa release. Every time there’s a new batch of first-time mums and dads with no previous experience of children’s music,” Alex Nieminen says.
Record companies and artists seem to have a lot of faith in children’s music, but it seems like radio executives have not noticed the phenomenon. The Finnish Broadcast Company YLE’s national radio channels play only about one hour of children’s music a week. Their more youth-oriented station YleX does not play any children’s music.
“It makes me wonder if we should keep funding a public service company that basically ignores its child audience,” says Nieminen.
There have been constant rumours that YLE might start a radio station for children, but so far there has been no concrete sign of such. In the meantime, children have to listen to their music from records and at live shows.
Children’s live concerts have become more popular throughout the 2000’s with bands such as Hevisaurus and Paukkumaissi becoming veritable crowd magnets.
“I had been to many children’s shows with my kids in all kinds of gym halls with substandard sound systems. I started to think maybe children’s concerts deserve good sound quality and a stage where the band can be seen by everyone,” says Mirva Merimaa, the organiser and founder of Tavastia Club’s children’s concert series Lasten sunnuntait.
The series started in the spring of 2008 with a sold-out Paukkumaissi show and it continues to this day. Merimaa says that on average these concerts draw about the same number of people as regular nights at Tavastia (which tend to be for over-18s). And the audience is just as demanding.
“The excitement is always there, but kids also vote with their feet if the artists fail to move them. It’s also nice to notice that old classics such as Gommi ja Pommi with M.A. Numminen and Pedro Hietanen as well as Fröbelin Palikat remain impressive draws,” Merimaa rejoices.
Entertainment or education?
Most songwriters understand that kids find stories, humour and unforgettable characters more interesting than morals and lessons. But music might still be one way get the message across.
“It is difficult to raise children with songs. When you try to do that, the tone of the song has to be very precise. It doesn’t hurt if there’s a little bit of anarchy and humour in a song. You don’t want to sound like anyone’s aunt or uncle,” says singer-songwriter Tuure Kilpeläinen.
At least Ella ja Aleksi succeeded in delivering an environmental message. The duo’s producer Sampo Haapaniemi still admits that they took care not to be too pedagogic.
“Environmental thinking is the biggest strength of Ella ja Aleksi’s lyrics. The kids talk about the importance of nature in the city through the eyes of someone who lives in the city. But we have taken care not to make them sing about things they know nothing about. Instead, we try to talk about difficult matters in a language that even a child can understand,” Haapaniemi explains.
Even though infant listeners might not want to hear moral ranting, they should not be fed rebellion either – at least if you ask veteran children’s musician M.A. Numminen.
“Some songwriters think that a song that encourages children to stand up against their parents is funny. In reality, offering this kind of an attitude to kids increases their feeling of insecurity. In this narcissistic society we live in that can be harmful to the children and to the families,” Numminen says.
Finnish children’s records in the new millennium are all unique, but there are also many similarities between them. These artists make children’s music even more professionally nowadays: the child audience is accustomed to a high standard, but the releases are also made to please the ears of grown ups. Just like animation feature films of today, children’s music is also produced to qualify as music for the whole family – from babies to teenagers as well as their parents.