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Sustaining normality through choices in music - Notes on music consumption in a state of emergency

by Riikka Hiltunen

In the Spring of 2020, Finland was dragged into a state of emergency by the coronavirus pandemic. While some struggled with the combination of working from home and supervising their children’s distance learning and home care, others carried on living and working like usual. All of a sudden, there were lots of people who had more time on their hands than before. How did the COVID-19 blight effect the consumption of music and what kind of music did Finns turn to in these trying times?

Many international reports have already looked at, investigated and analyzed people’s listening habits during the pandemic. Some news articles within and by the music industry allege that there has been a strong emphasis on older favourites while others conclude the exact opposite by noting increase within the sector of new releases.

Chartmetrics is a US company specializing in music statistics. They conducted a study of how different genres of music were represented on people’s Spotify playlists from the beginning of March until the beginning of April 2020. Roughly a third of Spotify’s active users reside in Europe. The analysis revealed growth within the sections of classical, ambient and children’s music. The researchers interpret this trend as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. It would seem that non-vocal music sets the best ambiance for working at home and children, on the other hand, let their parents concentrate on work in the home office better when they are allowed to listen to their favourite tunes.

All in all, the streaming of music was on the rise since record stores had to momentarily close their doors and music consumption in general grew in volume to compete with such visual streaming services as Netflix. While at home, people would have more time to listen to music. However, music also has an important function at social gatherings and as background to daily commuting and other traveling which were both drastically diminished during the state of emergency.

So we see that the dilemma of COVID-19’s impact to the listening of music is a complex one. Therefore drawing far-reaching conclusions at this point is difficult, if not downright impossible. However, it is interesting to mirror the experiences and findings of the Finnish music industry to the international trends and statistics. 

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Olavi Uusivirta released new versions of Finnish popular music classics, and performed them for the first time in the Yle Olohuone TV show.

Earlier trends still on the rise 

Acting as Executive Director of IFPI Finland, Antti Kotilainen is perfectly placed to analyze the correlation in between international trends and the situation in Finland. The sales figures of physical products, i.e. records, have plummeted, playlists have become ever more popular and there is a strong emphasis on preferring older catalogue material.  

From the major labels’ vantage point, the changes introduced by the martial law circumstances have been insignificant. Kimmo Valtanen, the Managing director of Universal Music Finland, has witnessed no massive shifts or surprises in how music produced by their company was consumed early this year.

“As far as the tops of the streaming charts are concerned, people still seem to prefer new music. The ratio of domestic vs. international has remained just about the same which means that nearly 50 per cent of music listened to comes from Finland. In the big picture, our back catalogue is consumed steadily more and more but this has no impact on the tops of the charts.”

Valtanen notes that many genres have been either trending or generally growing in size for a while already. However, the pandemic had no effect on this progress.

“The consumer base of subscription services is rising steadily, and this increase happens in the segment of older people. As far as the young go, we have almost reached saturation point. Accordingly, it is clear that in times such as these we see ascent in the more marginal genres such as jazz, classical and folk music. However, one question remains: Might this result from the general increase in users rather than the Corona pandemic?”

Ondine and Alba are independent labels specializing in classical music while Eclipse Music places its emphasis on jazz, progressive rock and singer-songwriter material. None of these companies have noticed any prominent variance during the COVID-19 phase. The second half of March brought along a slight revival both in streaming and digital sales, but this increase might simply result from the extra effort put in online marketing in the preceding weeks. However, the mass cancellation of gigs has tanked the Eclipse label’s sales of physical records, since a large percentage of them are sold at gigs.

As far as more marginal music is concerned, records have been sold also during the state of emergency. Arwi Lind from Helmi Levyt states that when the lockdown was implemented, customers rushed to purchase records with an unprecedented enthusiasm.

“It felt like people wanted to make sure they had enough cool stuff at home to keep them entertained in case the lockdown would last long. It can well be that we sold more records than ever before in those couple of days. But we must also take into consideration that the long-awaited new Joose Keskitalo album came out just then.”

After the initial surge, the online sales petered out quite rapidly and operators in the field were forced to come up with new methods for keeping the sales running.

“Many small record shops are currently not ordering stock like they used to and the prohibition of live shows, which usually play a prominent part in our revenue logic, has killed sales in that division totally. The full impact of Corona in the record sales business has been substantial. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. And that’s what made us come up with the idea of a mobile record store. We loaded a car full of records, drove it to the park and set up a pop-up store there. The first time was a big success which encouraged us to try the strategy again”, Lind says.

The Beethoven symphonies cycle with Malmö Symphony Orchestra that was released in June is conductor Robert Trevino's debut release on Ondine.

The songs of the 1980s as Corona anthems

One of the outcomes of the state of emergency both locally and globally has been the renaissance of uplifting charity songs. In Finland, superstar singer Lauri Tähkä assembled a team of 150 domestic musicians to record the song ‘Uuden edessä’ [‘Facing Something New’]. Meanwhile, a posse of 30 Finnish rappers joined forces to work together on the track ‘Yo! Karanteeni Raps’ [Yo! Quarantine Raps´]. Kimmo Valtanen says that there is something to be learned about how these thematic songs by these ad hoc projects have not made a significant mark on the charts where the regular hits still rule the roost.

“One might easily think that songs like these would become strong, uniting phenomena in these hard times but perhaps there is more of a communal feel to something like winning the Ice Hockey World Championships. It could also be that people need music to fill the same needs both in anomalous and regular times. And this would obviously be a positive signal. It would be quite tragic if something like ‘Elämää juoksuhaudoissa’ [‘Life in the Trenches’] suddenly made it to the top of the stream charts.”

Valtanen is referring to an old Russian waltz which became very popular in Finland after Uuno Kemppi wrote Finnish lyrics to it whilst serving in the military during the 1939-40 Winter War against the Soviet Union. Instead of the war theme, the pandemic boosted the popularity of ‘Pidä huolta’ [‘Take care’] by Pave Maijanen, ‘Sankarit’ [‘Heroes’] by J. Karjalainen and similar songs that have a strong spirit and carry a positive message of caring and heroism. And as could be deduced by the number of old hits and classics performed at the ‘Together at Home’ charity event, curated by Lady Gaga, this seems to be a strong worldwide trend. On the other hand, streaming charts always reflect the annual topical phenomena. Even if they get cancelled, like this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. 

Pauli Lyytinen Magnetia Orkesteri
Pauli Lyytinen Magnetia Orkesteri’s album Hypnosis was released in March.

Changes in recording schedules

The pandemic has had a severe impact on many musicians’ livelihood. Finland is no exception to this rule. One swift stroke, and all gig calendars were wiped clean. Nevertheless, the steady stream of new records has not dried up. Kimmo Valtanen says that Universal Music has not skipped any release because of the pandemic and that schedules have been modified in only a few isolated cases. “Our duty and responsibility are to keep publishing new records and keep the wheels turning as well as we can. Because we are able to operate, that’s what we should do instead of hunkering down and waiting for better days to arrive.”

Whereas major labels have been able to produce new music and also make it available all this time, many smaller companies have had to postpone or in other ways adjust the release schedules of more marginal material. Eclipse Music, for example, has delayed the issuing of many albums to the Autumn in order to be able to sell them at gigs.

“We have managed to stick to the original timetables in about half of our albums”, says Label Manager and company founder Tapio Ylinen before adding that every digital Eclipse launch has happened according to the initial schedule.

Classical music labels have even been able to move some of their albums up in the calendar. Erkki Nisonen, the CEO of Alba Records, says that the digital versions of some albums have seen the light of day earlier than originally designed. Some recording sessions have been cancelled but some have reciprocally happened earlier than planned as musicians have suddenly had time on their hands. 

In mid-March, Alba Records launched a campaign called “Tuetaan muusikkoja” [In Support of Musicians”] in which the company would donate €10 per every full-priced album purchased from their online store to freelancer musicians in the recording industry.  

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Anu Komsi’s and Marzi Nyman’s interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert was released in June.

Support and feeling of safety

Still in March, the Finnish music industry had a collective moment of reflection and rallied around the freelancers who were all of a sudden faced with a financial crisis of epic proportions (See also FMQ's article). One palpable outcome was a petition to the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation Yle and the commercial media outlets. In this manifesto, numerous music industry operators came together in appealing that the corporations would momentarily increase the portion of domestic music played on their TV, radio and digital channels. In doing so, they would collectively help the composers, lyricists, arrangers and musicians get a better share of annual royalties.

Right after the petition was delivered, Yle put out a news bulletin announcing they would increment the playing of Finnish music without delay. According to an YLE blog published in June, Finnish music was played on all of their channels for five hours a day more than before the pandemic. On the other hand, the total air time for music actually decreased during the past months, being pre-empted by the increasing number of talk radio programmes and news broadcasts.

Jonna Ferm is the Channel Head of Yle Radio Suomi, the most listened to radio channel in Finland. She says that their channel had commenced increasing the quota of Finnish music already before the Corona crisis. In January, a little less than 64% of the music played on Radio Suomi was Finnish by origin. In April, this reading is at over 70 per cent.

“The primary goal was to make our station feel safer and more familiar to the audience in an unstable situation, and highlighting local music was an obvious step towards this goal. In addition, it was the perfect tool for helping Finnish music professionals. We are committed to staying the course at least for the foreseeable future.”

Among YLE channels, YleX increased the air time of Finnish music by about 50% during the pandemic months compared with the beginning of the year, and the percentage of Finnish music out of all music broadcast rose from 40% to 60%. One Yle Radio 1, the increase was from 23% to 26%. According to Ismo Silvo, Director of Media at YLE, practically all Finnish music added during the spring is under copyright. More air time was given to popular music in particular, while no significant change occurred to the percentage of contemporary classical music. On TV, YLE introduced a weekly live show named Yle Olohuone [Yle Living Room], which included a lot of Finnish music.

When all is said and done, Finland is a small market where the restrictions set in spring 2020 had a smaller effect on people’s lives than in areas more radically ravaged by the pandemic. A deeper analysis based on statistics might reveal more interesting aspects about music consumption in lockdown Finland but judging by these observations coming from record companies it would seem that Finns have generally speaking sustained normality in their listening habits. The more far-reaching impact of the Corona spring – both locally and globally – will only become tangible as time passes.

Translation: Petri Silas