The Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble has been around for seven years, performing actively besides releasing four albums and touring 16 countries. All sorts of things have happened on gigs and on tour: there was a motorcycle crash in Africa, for instance, and a band member once broke his arm between sets when he tripped and fell down in a pitch-dark corridor backstage. “We patched him up with duct tape so that he could somehow play through the second set,” recalls Sampo Riskilä, shaking his head.
“Freelance musicians have become accustomed to everything being driven by a good vibe, unfounded assumptions and vague verbal agreements. A gig might be arranged with no further parameters than where to meet, what to play and how much they’re paying,” adds Janne Halonen. Assumptions and a good vibe only go so far, however. A professional framework had to be set up in order to avoid further duct-taping incidents. The operations of the Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble are now governed by the Occupational Health and Safety (OSH) Action Plan drawn up last year by the band’s background organisation, No Problem! Music.
The Action Plan emerged not only from the band’s own experiences but also from the debate in connection with the government grant reform on how to improve the operating potential of freelance artists and groups. “Our Action Plan is an effort to respond to the challenge and to make the cooperative that much more professional in its operations. In corporate jargon, we might call it an implementation tool for our ‘mission statement’,” says Halonen.
More than just a bank account
Janne Halonen explains that No Problem! Music was established in spring 2013, essentially to function as the bank account and record label of the Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble. “We were recording our first album and were going on tour with it. Vocal soloist Noël Saizonou lived in Benin, and we had to get him to Finland. There were all kinds of expenses involved, and we set up the cooperative to handle all this,” he says. Sampo Riskilä and the band’s drummer Juha Räsänen also joined the cooperative with a modest capital investment and a one-off membership fee.
Quite soon, the cooperative grew into something more than just a bank account and a record label, taking on management duties. Halonen reports that the cooperative has represented the Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble at various networking events and trade fairs in the music sector.
Halonen describes their increasingly professional approach to being employers: “We began to realise that we can’t just keep farting around as artists and trust everything else to sort itself out. We’ve become more and more aware of our role as employers, which was probably one of the reasons why we prepared this OSH Action Plan.” “Looking at things from the perspective of a day job, you realise just how random and impulsive people can be in going about their business particularly in bands,” adds Riskilä.
Another factor motivating the OSH Action Plan was the age and size of the band. “The HCE has been in existence for seven years now, which is pretty much the maximum duration for any personal relationship unless you work to keep it up,” says Halonen with a smile. “The purpose of the Action Plan is to maintain clear communications and to prevent the sort of misunderstandings between people that inevitably arise in a long-standing, close-knit workplace community.”
HCE live gig at Savoy Theatre in 2016.
Focus on safety
The Occupational Safety and Health Action Plan of No Problem! Music runs to 11 pages and is in some respects quite detailed. It describes the rights and responsibilities of the employer and the employees and includes safety and reporting guidelines, a gender equality and non-discrimination plan, points for monitoring and indicators for workplace conditions, and early intervention and codetermination policies. All musician members of the Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble and their technician have signed off on the Action Plan and committed to complying with it.
“You could say that the OSH Action Plan is an instrument for governing our operations and tasks, both for No Problem! Music as an employer and for anyone else involved with us in any way,” says Janne Halonen. “To sum it up, the Action Plan introduces common sense into what we do! It’s also a gesture and a message for the band members and our partners, demonstrating that we value them.”
Once occupational safety points are written down, they automatically attract more attention. “If we look at the incident with the bad fall backstage,” says Sampo Riskilä, “we find that although every gig is a universe unto itself, all gigs share certain features. Anticipation and learning from mistakes helps prevent such accidents from happening in the future.”
In addition to safe working conditions, the Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble also pays attention to timetables for gigs and tours. Because tight timetables breed carelessness, stress and fatigue, timetables are planned with generous margins. Time is reserved not only for travel but also for rest in between.
Take things as they come
In addition to occupational safety, the No Problem! Music OSH Action Plan devotes plenty of space to wellbeing at work and how it can be ensured. The gender equality and non-discrimination plan is entered in the Action Plan in unambiguous terms, declaring that band members are equal in terms of pay, treatment and influence in the band’s activities. There is a zero-tolerance policy regarding inappropriate treatment and discrimination.
The Action Plan includes concrete examples of what is inappropriate treatment and what is not. These lists were compiled following existing models, but both Halonen and Riskilä felt it necessary to include concrete examples. This helps ensure that everyone knows when authority is being abused and when the employer is within his rights in directing the work of employees.
“In the creative industries in particular, the roles of employer and employee are not always so clear – even matter-of-fact criticism can be taken as a personal insult. Artists are highly personally invested in what they do, and this kind of situation tends to breed misunderstandings and abuses of power on both sides,” says Riskilä. “On both sides,” repeats Halonen. “On the other hand, to quote a phrase, he who pays the piper calls the tune, and the employer has the power to decide how things should be done, even if it might seem arbitrary. But if even a single employee feels mistreated, they can easily poison the entire workplace environment. Listing concrete examples helps create a context for achieving a good vibe and pursuing artistic ambition.”
In the gender equality and non-discrimination plan, it is declared that the core of the artistic expression and communications of the Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble is “in the collaboration of people from various backgrounds, in the engagement of cultures with mutual respect, in cultural exchange and in equality”. This ethical creed is not restricted to the band and the cooperative. “The Action Plan also states that we require our partners to subscribe to the same value base,” Riskilä notes. In this way, the band seeks to foster best practices in the field.
Benefiting the field as a whole
According to Halonen and Riskilä, the OSH Action Plan of No Problem! Music and the Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble has done nothing but good for both the cooperative and the band. The cooperative also wants to promote its best-practice model across the field of freelance musicians; indeed, the Action Plan – albeit only in Finnish for now – is freely available for anyone to adopt. “It would benefit everyone to have bands introduce a little structure into their activities and to recast themselves as organisations,” says Riskilä.
Halonen notes that No Problem! Music is willing to be involved in a broader improvement of the community of the music industry. “After all, that’s what this Action Plan is actually all about.”
Riskilä says: “Culture in general and music in particular is quite well supported in Finland. This coronavirus situation is an absolute horror for everyone, of course, but normally we have an atmosphere and a foundation conducive to new things emerging in artistic activities.” If the framework is in good shape, these new things will have a better shot at long-term viability.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble at a gig at Helsinki Festival in 2019. Photo: Saara Autere / Helsinki Festival
This article was first published in the Muusikko 2/2020 magazine in Finnish.