Finnish electronic music plays to its own tune
by Jonathan Mander :: 2005
Finnish electronic pop music has mainly been an international success behind the mainstream. Finns making electronic music have always naturally headed abroad to find audiences. Now that might be changing.
People who know Finnish music seem to expect eccentricity from Finnish musicians. This holds true especially when it comes to certain genres, like metal, jazz, classical and electronic music. The expectation for the offbeat also includes the notion that Finns don't do music primed for the charts.
But there's the anomaly of the year 2000, when Finnish electronic music invaded charts around the world. Jaakko Salovaara produced songs for two acts, who both had a song that latched onto some zeitgeist. The Bomfunk MC's hiphop-influenced pop song 'Freestyler' became the biggest-selling single in Europe that year. Darude's instrumental club track 'Sandstorm' ended up reaching an even wider audience since it became a big hit in the United States and Asia too.
Since the year 2000 Finnish chart success abroad has come from completely different genres than electronic music. Finns are still innovative and strong in that genre, but nonetheless hidden from the mainstream.
Finns find friends abroad
For Finnish artists making electronic music, looking beyond Finland's borders has been natural ever since Sähkö Recordings and its artists Jimi Tenor and Pan Sonic (originally Panasonic) started focusing abroad. Sähkö's founder Tommi Grönlund realised early on that he won't find people interested in the music he wanted to release in Finland. In a small music market a marginal genre really means small. And Sähkö has specialised in music that is definitely offbeat, quirky and avantgardist.
In the late nineties Sähkö even operated out of Barcelona, where Jimi Tenor and Pan Sonic also lived at the time. They weren't just taking their releases abroad, they were moving away from Finland themselves too.
Around the same time as Sähkö was starting to find interested music fans around Europe, Jori Hulkkonen was sending his own club tracks to various international record labels. French F-Communications signed the Finn on the spot. Hulkkonen has since become a well-respected DJ with an international career. He has also released several albums, in which he has delved deeper into the various forms of electronic music, and has moved away from his dance music background. His latest album 'Dualizm' is an excellent example with its more melodic and atmospheric music compared to early works.
Hulkkonen has managed to build a long, international career, and others who have been picked up by foreign labels are hoping to do the same. Turku-based Mr. Velcro Fastener has recorded both of their albums for German label i220, Sami Koivikko's 'Salmiakki' was released by German Shitkatapult, both of Sami Liuski's projects, 'Bangkok Impact' and 'Putsch '79' are released by Dutch labels, and Ovuca's albums have been released by British Rephlex.
Quiet at the Home Front
Lack of audience isn't the only reason why Finnish musicians making electronic music have headed abroad. Finland has't really had labels dedicated to the genre. Besides Sähkö there really weren't labels with longevity in the early nineties. Exogenic was the next significant label that has managed to stay relevant for nearly ten years.
Jacob Ehrnrooth founded Exogenic when he noticed that people he knew were making interesting music, but not getting released. The label's first releases ranged from mellow chill out to hectic trance music, and Exogenic soon became known for the latter. One of the label's best known acts is Texas Faggott, whose attitude is raw and mischievous. Over the years Exogenic's repertoire has come to include a bigger variety of genres, especially after setting up sub-label Exogenic Breaks. The label's artists also include Koneveljet, Accu and Squaremeat. In the late nineties the major companies began to take a larger share of the Finnish music business, and they weren't very interested in electronic music. EMI made the exception in 2001 when it set up Nozle, a label dedicated to club music. Despite some quality singles, the label soon faded out, when the majors began to cut back.
The natural focus on going abroad has also had its benefits. Finnish musicians have been more in contact with the international electronic music scene, and thus regular players in the genre's international undergrowth. It has resulted in success that hasn't taken bands to the mainstream, but close. Pepe Deluxe did well with their debut album 'Super Sound', released by Catskills. After being a club hit in the United Kingdom and the United States, one of Pepe Deluxe's songs was picked for a Levi's commercial, which brought added attention. Catskills also did well, when they signed Finnish group Husky Rescue, whose light and melancholy beats were well noted in Britain in 2004.
Some Finnish musicians have taken the additional step of moving abroad. In addition to Jori Hulkkonen Berlin-resident Vladislav Delay is the best known Finnish artist in the international club scene. His work under the name Luomo was lifted to "next big thing" status in 2004 with the release of the excellent 'The Present Lover', which is a landmark album for accessible house music.
Rebuilding Roots at Home
In recent years independent Finnish record companies have been getting a better footing in the business again. It has also brought companies that emphasise on electronic dance music. Some older labels have also been rejuvinated, such as Helsinki-based 9-To-5, which is run by the DJ-collective The Executives. 9-To-5 released a compilation of jazzy and atmospheric club music from Helsinki in 2005, called 'Hotter Than Hel'.
Although majors still don't tend to bat an eyelid towards club music, Universal Music Finland made an exception in signing DJ Orkidea. He is one of the few Finnish DJs who have found international commercial success. But will he be able to transform his popularity as a DJ into album sales?
New labels bring added electricity to the field of electronic music in Finland. A more vibrant home scene tends to mean good things for the music, which can result in broader appeal and international careers.
Text originally published in Finnish Music Quarterly 4/2005.