Sibelius in a Sandstorm

By Jari Muikku

Finns ain’t what they used to be

Finland has established its international role in the field of classical music since the days of Sibelius but we have not had too many successes in exporting popular music to boast of so far. The situation has changed to some extent during the past couple of years and there is a lot of new talent bubbling up as our bands and artistes fight their way to international spotlights.

The earliest attempts of Finnish bands to conquer the pop world were made in the late 60’s and the early 70’s when especially progressive rock bands such as Tasavallan Presidentti and Wigwam tried to find their place in the sun. In the 80’s the band which was closest to an international breakthrough was the glam rock outfit Hanoi Rocks, a favourite of such bands of today as Guns ‘n Roses and Manic Street Preachers. Some other bands did their pilgrimage to the USA as well but ended up with lean results for various reasons.

When Monty Python made their song about Finland as the place to be they surely knew what they were talking about. Finland has been considered along the years as a source of the most eccentric and bizarre bands such as the worst rock and roll band in the world, Leningrad Cowboys, modern surf messengers Laika & The Cosmonauts, a 30 member male choir Mieskuoro Huutajat that shouts instead of singing, Eläkeläiset (The Retired) who turn rock classics into old-fashioned dance music called humppa, and Cleaning Women who use vacuum cleaners and drying racks as their instruments. One would not describe jazz/funk/lounge/electronica cult figure Jimi Tenor and masters of minimalistic electronica Pan Sonic as mainstream artistes either. Even though we are proud of being a bit odd in the eyes of the rest of the world, weirdness is not the whole truth.

Turning point

Year 2000 was a turning point for the Finnish popular music industry in various ways. After many years of hard work and banging heads against walls some Finnish bands made their way to the top positions in many international charts. The best results were achieved in the field of dance music. Bomfunk MC’s created more than a slight buzz with their mixture of techno, rap, electronica and hip hop, and Darude was talk of the town in club world with his smash hits Sandstorm and Feel the Beat. The producer behind both these acts is Jaakko Salovaara who has also made a name for himself as an artist known as JS16. One of the interesting aspects of Salovaara’s background is the fact that he used to work as a classically trained cellist in a symphony orchestra before turning into a dance production wizard. Nowadays many international pop stars are asking for his services.

Metal has traditionally been one of Finland’s main export products. This is the case with popular music as well. The biggest success so far has been HIM who topped the charts of the German speaking part of Europe last year. Some other bands worth mentioning are Stratovarius, cello quartet Apocalyptica (another Finnish speciality), Amorphis, Nightwish (whose vocalist is a female opera singer) and Sentenced who have gradually built a solid following for themselves in various continents.

Change of mind

Many people have asked if the recent success stories are just cases of good luck or has something changed in Finland for good so that one can expect to hear more Finnish pop in the international charts from now on. In order to be successful in pop music one must always have a bit of luck as well, to be in the right place at the right time with the right kind of product. Many Finnish companies and bands have worked hard during the past decade or so building their international networks and collecting knowhow on the global entertainment business.

The recent success has therefore been just a case of time. The final point has been the change of strategy of the Finnish branches of the multinational record companies. Earlier these companies concentrated almost entirely in exploiting the international repertoire and producing some big local acts singing in Finnish. Now they have found the potential of Finnish pop and are much more willing to work on it internationally as Finland’s status within the international music industry has risen to a new level.

At the same time local consumers have learned to accept and buy records of bands singing in English. The domestic music, and especially the popular music sung in Finnish, has had a market share of 40-50 %. Such a strong position is quite unusual on the European scale. This change of consumers’ attitude has created more possibilities for bands aiming at the international market.

Furthermore, the Finnish music training system has produced a new “MTV generation” of pop musicians, songwriters and producers whose skills are on an international level. Even more important is the change of their attitudes: upcoming Finnish artistes do not consider themselves any longer primarly local talents but are ready to work internationally from the very beginning. This new of self-confidence is easy to hear in these bands’ music and stage presence.

Bright future?

Stylewise the local music scene has also become more varied. For example, a few years ago Finnish hip hop would have been taken as a joke. Now bands such as Paleface and Kwan have created interest even in the US. In the field of dance music there are several upcoming names such as Pepe Deluxé whose song "Before You Leave" made its way to the recent Levi’s TV ad. The band is signed to a British label Catskill Records. Even in the field with the hardest international competition, guitar pop/rock, there is a lot of top class potential in bands such as Lemonator, The Crash and Manboy.

The recent successes have thrilled the Finnish music industry but as a down-to-earth people Finns have not fallen into the trap of over-enthusiasm. Everybody understands that the story so far is just a beginning and requires even harder work from now on. Later this year Bomfunk MC’s and HIM will release their next albums. The near future of Finnish popular music export will depend a lot on their level of success but nothing is lost if they should happen to fail to top charts. The Finnish pop and rock scene is now better, healthier and richer in stylistic variation than ever and therefore one can expect to see and hear more and more Finnish names in charts in various parts of the world during the forthcoming years.

Dr. Jari Muikku is Executive Director of the Finnish Music Information Centre.

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