in Columns

Scenes, neo-tribes and imagined communities

by Merja Hottinen

"As a worldwide sub-culture, heavy metal is an excellent example of the specialised communities that emerge in modern society, governed by individual preferences rather than a shared physical environment – similar music tastes or, say, consumer choices."

In spring 2018, a group of Finnish metal music professionals, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the local governments of ten Finnish cities set out to find Finland’s Capital of Metal – in other words, to identify the community that had the highest number of heavy metal bands per capita. As it turned out, that distinction went to Lemi, a municipality in eastern Finland with a population of 3,000. With 13 bands, Lemi has a metal density of 42.26 bands per 10,000 inhabitants. The runner-up was Joensuu, also in eastern Finland, with 177 bands in a city of 75,000 and hence a metal density of 23.34.

Though conducted with a humorous streak, the campaign strikingly illustrates how layered musical communities are in today’s mediatised world. Local bands slogging away in their digs and playing local gigs promote the heavy metal community spirit both in their own locales and in the Finnish metal community at large. This, in turn, feeds directly into Finnish cultural diplomacy abroad. Fans were also invited to participate in the campaign, because as stated on the campaign website: “It’s all about the community, and what would the metal community be without the fans.”


Communities of common taste

The campaign showed that the metal scene differs widely from town to town in Finland. The community feeling experienced by a metalhead can be quite different in Joensuu with its 177 local metal bands than in places that only have one metal band each, such as Nurmijärvi, Raisio or Hamina. This is an issue not only of enthusiasts and fan base but also of infrastructure: in Joensuu at least, the scene is catalysed by the existence of a number of rock music venues and major festivals such as Ilosaarirock, and some years ago the Joensuu Rock Academy was set up specifically to give budding bands concrete support and a leg up. Momentum is also built by bands of international stature originating in the leading hotbeds of heavy metal, such as Insomnium from Joensuu and Stam1na from top-ranking Lemi.

Much research has been done internationally concerning the music scenes in various cities and regions, and several common features have been identified that can be found regardless of location or genre. Generally speaking, a ‘music scene’ could be defined as a regional ‘community of common taste’ that eventually breeds an infrastructure that in turn nurtures emerging music. The music scene in different places can turn out very different indeed, as like-minded musicians and audiences shape the scene to their liking in active interaction. A music scene also often gives rise to artist collectives, fan enterprises or DIY activists who carry the music scene forward with their efforts.

In our networked world, local scenes can become translocal or virtual communities. The more marginal the music genre, the more benefit there is in networking. As an example, the experimental music scene in Finland is active in itself but also engages in international cooperation. A fresh manifestation of this is the two-day avant-garde festival Soundscapes and Soundportraits organised by the European Avantgarde Music Platform in Helsinki in September.


Identities formed in the public sphere

As a worldwide sub-culture, heavy metal is an excellent example of the specialised communities that emerge in modern society, governed by individual preferences rather than a shared physical environment – similar music tastes or, say, consumer choices.

Membership of a community also builds individual identity and helps the individual distinguish himself or herself from others. A metalhead in a small Finnish town may identify with the global metalhead community through fashion choices, listening preferences or online profiles regardless of whether there are any other metalheads in the immediate geographical vicinity.

In fact, global consumer cultures today are creating imagined communities much in the same way as mass media in earlier centuries. The concept of an imagined community, first defined by historian Benedict Anderson, refers to the way the common public sphere fosters bonds between citizens who do not know each other. In Anderson’s view, this was the necessary virtual community that led to the rise of the nation-state concept around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the era of social media, a monolithic media no longer exists, but the public sphere nevertheless continues to create significant community bonds fostered by publicly shared ideas instead of face-to-face communication.


From collective emotion to national representation

Ever since the pioneering classic works of sociology, the feeling of belonging has been regarded as a key element in building communities. This feeling may stem from a personal relationship or from mass media as described by Anderson. This collective emotion is crucial in fostering what Michel Maffesoli has described as ‘neo-tribes’, the post-modern community equivalent of tribes in the pre-modern era.

Although not all of today’s communities fit into Maffesoli’s definition of tribalism, the description seems particularly apt in the case of the transnational metal community. The metal tribe has always wanted to differentiate itself from the mainstream and commercialism and to remain in the margins, questioning and opposing the dominant norms.

Paradoxically, much of heavy metal has actually entered the mainstream, particularly in Finland where metal music has become a building block of the national identity, especially since Lordi won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006. Also, metal music is now a huge business, and the largest and most successful bands tend to be the ones that get all the press.

This, perhaps, is the ultimate reason why the Capital of Metal campaign comes across as profoundly communal. In this project, superstars like Nightwish and Children of Bodom were considered simply as bands among bands, and they did not even gain the most likes from fans responding to the campaign. The band with the most likes, surprisingly, was the doom metal band Yeti from Kemi in northern Finland. A good reminder that in a world of likes, the community can get you to the top.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Jesse Kämäräinen: Audience at the Tuska Metal Festival in Helsinki.