Finnish music industry is more than it seems
by Teemu Fiilin, transl. Arttu Tolonen :: 2011
From the outside looking in, the Finnish music industry may seem like a never ending line of export-grade heavy metal with Nightwish and Children of Bodom at the head of the pack. Even though heavy metal is probably the best-known Finnish music outside the country, its record industry is a colorful and varied field.
It’s uncommon for a country of less than six million to boast a music scene that produces quality acts in all styles from all subgenres of extreme metal to dance, traditional Finnish schlager to modern classical and jazz, hip hop to a dizzying variety of world music genres, as well as the trendiest indie and electro. Also, the market share of domestic music is unusually large.
The Finnish record industry was born in 1901 with the manufacture of a 78-rpm disk containing a recording of a song called Suomen laulu (Song of Finland). Record players became more widespread in the 1920s. Domestic record labels like PSO (Pohjoismainen Sähkö Oy, or Nordic Electricity Inc) and multinationals like Parlophone released mostly light popular music, comic songs and schlagers, as well as, to a lesser degree, jazz.
The Finnish record industry didn’t really become a professional affair until the 1960s. 7-inch singles were dominant until the late-60s when, following the example of companies abroad, Finnish labels started to release rock and jazz albums – legendary label Love Records was responsible for putting out most of the releases.
Many successful artists surfaced in the 1970s. Hurriganes are a good example. They played straight-ahead rock’n’roll, infused with a Finnish energy and sold unheard of amounts of LPs, as well as piles of the recently introduces cassettes. 1975 set a new high water mark for record sales, with 2.4 million copies sold. Five years later it was double.
Until the 1980s, the Finnish market was controlled by domestic companies like Fazer Musiikki, Love and Poko, which built rock in Finnish into a real phenomenon in late 70s. In 1984, Riki Sorsa, a MOR pop singer, released the first Finnish CD. It was a long time before CDs overtook LPs in popularity. The real hit format of the 1980s was the cassette, which was easy to play in car stereos, making it the first truly mobile format. As late as 1991, only 21% of records were sold on CD.
The Finnish record industry was integrated with its global counterpart in leaps and bounds over during the 90s. It worked both ways: in addition to the already present EMI and CBS, majors Polygram, BMG, Universal and Warner Music entered the Finnish market. They, in turn, worked hard to take Finnish music to international charts and stages. Record sales picked up after the recession of the 90s and, with the help of a couple of global hits of Finnish origin, rose to unprecedented heights. The first wave were the Jaakko Salovaara produced dance hits of 2000: Darude’s Sandstorm, which at 2 million in sales was the best selling single in the world that year, and Freestyler by Bomfunk MC’s, the best selling single in Europe.
Soon a number of rock and metal bands started making waves out in the world. HIM has sold over 6 million records worldwide, Nightwish more than seven. The Rasmus stands at four million, Apocalyptica at 3.5 and Children of Bodom almost two. Later, bands like Sunrise Avenue, Negative, The 69 Eyes and Lordi have racked up considerable international sales.
To each land its own music
The popularity of domestic music is a particular characteristic in Finnish music consumption, one that has become stronger as the 21st century has progressed. In 2010 Finnish records accounted for 63% of the monetary value of sales. For example, during the first half of 2011, only one foreign record occupied the number one spot on the national sales chart (Foo Fighters). The other sixteen were Finnish. Of the 25 number ones in 2010, only four were foreign. A wide variety of genres have occupied the top spot, from hip hop to reggae, metal to radio-friendly pop and Finnish-language rock to schlager.
The popularity of domestic music is not a totally unique phenomenon in the Nordic countries, even though the percentages in Finland are rather extreme. In Sweden half the number ones were domestic. As a phenomenon is not of recent origin, either,
Finnish music has done well for itself over the past decades. The 18 best-selling records in Finland are of domestic origin. The top spots are occupied by the big names in rock and schlager of the 80s and 90s: Jari Sillanpää, Eppu Normaali, Kirka and Dingo. The best-selling records of the 2000s are all Finnish, too, with Nightwish’s three albums bringing the English language to the charts. Early in the new millennium folk-rocker Anssi Kela racked up the biggest sales. Traditional Finnish rock is represented by two albums from veteran band Yö and sales driven by the teen demographic by rapper Pikku-G and girl group Tiktak.
Success in your own hands
The majority of hit records are released by major labels Sony, Warner Music, Universal and EMI – and more and more of them are by stars discovered via TV format shows. The Finnish record industry is far from being a mere Idols franchise, though. Independent labels are doing better than ever. In 2010 independent labels released a full fifth of records that went to number one.
Traditionally, independent labels find favor among music critics. In the year-end poll for 2010, only two of the top 10 records chosen by critics at Rumba, a music magazine, were released by major labels. Established artist leaving major labels to record for indies is a new phenomenon. Rock legend Ismo Alanko, as well as schlager mainstays Kaija Koo and Katri-Helena have recently made the move to independent labels.
Lately, almost all jazz releases have been on independent labels, like Ricky Tick Records, which is well known internationally. The same applies to ethnic music genres, a variety of metal subgenres, hip hop and electronic music.
In addition to being a dependable purveyor of noisy rock – with internationally known artist such as Disco Ensemble, Lapko, Rubik and I Walk The Line on their roster – Fullsteam Records was also one of the first companies to understand the importance of the 360-business model in the new millennium. In addition to functioning as a label, a company needs to be an agency and a publishing company, too, as well as provide rehearsal spaces, merchandise related services, management and car rentals.
Pioneering work in the kind of music that rarely troubles the charts is done by independents such as Fonal, which specializes in experimental music, electronic music label Sähkö and Ektro Records out of Pori, with their particular brand of extroverted art rock. Labels like Top Billin and New Judas have taken trendy club sounds to the international scene. GAEA from Tampere and veteran indie Stupido have successfully sold indie pop all over Europe. Finnish hip hop is more or less in the hands of two labels, with Rähinä Records handling the commercial end of the genre and Monsp releasing more marginal and alternative acts.
Regardless, the best-selling hip hop record of 2010 was released by XO Records: Helsinki – Shangri-La by veteran rapper Paleface. It is his biggest seller, selling gold in under a month– and his first release in Finnish. On the record, Paleface mixes his hip hop with ethno and Finnish folk. It was given an Emma (Finnish Grammy) for best ethno album and was nominated for the Nordic Music Prize for best Nordic album.