Making records in Finland
by Petri Silas :: 2004
There are numerous recordings of music from Finland that date back to the very dawn of the 20th century – in fact, the very first Finnish records were manufactured by the British company Gramophone in 1901.
The formative years
There are numerous recordings of music from Finland that date back to the very dawn of the 20th century – in fact, the very first Finnish records were manufactured by the British company Gramophone in 1901. Among the most noteworthy early discs are works by renowned songbird Aino Ackté. Her first recordings date back to 1902 and 1903, which Gramophone released after purchasing the masters from French label Zonophone in 1903.
However, us Finns had been independent for a good two decades before we got our first completely Finnish record label. Founded in 1938 by the Turku-based Saaristokauppa Oy, the Sointu label concentrated on producing radio-friendly schlager music. In the beginning, Sointu made its recordings in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, but shortly the company moved all of its operations to the homeland.
Sointu remained the only local label for just two years: In 1940, during the truce with the Soviet Union soon after the Winter War, Oy Rytmi Ab was founded in Helsinki partly in cahoots with the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation YLE. As in Sointu’s case, the main area with Rytmi was schlagers. The shining star of the label was singer/actor Olavi Virta, Finland’s undisputed “tango king” and our equivalent to the likes of Carlos Gardel and Frank Sinatra. During his career, “Ola” recorded close to 600 tunes.
The structure and some statistics
Even though many non-Finnish record companies had done business in our country ever since the 1920’s, it wasn’t until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that the large multinational labels began establishing their subsidiary companies over here.
Activities like these was par for the course all over Europe, and with the subsequent advent of the music video as marketing tool in the mid-1980’s, it was easy to see why. This was also the beginning of the cd era and although it seems almost surreal now, there was a time in the late 1980’s when Finns bought a total of 16 million albums per year – that’s approximately four copies each!
During the economic repression these lofty figures came down considerably. At the close of the Millennium there were just over 5 million Finns who bought approximately 10 million albums per year. In 2003 the exact figures were 5 220 000 people and 9 281 549 albums. This equalled a total of 66 169 479 euros.
The structure of the Finnish recording industry began to mirror the usual trend in Europe during the early 1990’s: Even though Finns still buy more domestic music than the average European, more than 80% of the market is now in the hands of the “big five”, i.e. BMG, EMI, Sony, Universal and the Warner Bros. The companies’ subsidiary offices naturally have some leeway to boost the local artists, but these activities must be planned carefully so as not to interfere with the huge global marketing campaigns.
The consumer’s heavy emphasis on domestic music can easily be illustrated by the sales figures of recent years. In 2002, the most popular local album sold close to 97 000 copies, but the best-selling non-Finnish album didn’t even reach a third of that amount. In 2003, the most popular local album, rapper Pikku G’s ‘Räjähdysvaara’, sold more than 121 000 copies whereas the best selling non-Finnish album, Metallica’s ‘St. Anger’, sold only a little more than 35 000 units. In fact, there were a total of 14 Finnish albums that sold more than ‘St. Anger’ in Finland in 2003.
To merit a gold disc in Finland, an album has to move more than 15 000 units. The limit for platinum disc is 30 000 copies. Double platinum comes when an album reaches the 60 000 mark, triple platinum after 90 000 and so on. Up until the end of 2000 the limits were 20 000 for gold and 40 000 for platinum. This direction would seem to indicate that the sales are coming down, but Finland was still one of the few European countries where record sales went up during 2003.
As regards the releasing and promoting of Finnish popular music, the multinationals can all be called contenders. But naturally, some departments in some offices have their finger on the pulse better than the others. During the first few years of the new Millennium it has seemed that BMG, EMI, Universal and Warner Bros. have had the most success - not only locally, but also internationally.
BMG’s greatest asset is of course the internationally renowned heavy rock team HIM while EMI made a sound investment in 2001 by purchasing the biggest local independent pop label Poko Rekords. Universal and Warner Bros. have yet to come up with a successful mainstream export group or artist, but they both have a plethora of respected local artists in their corner. HIM’s endeavours aside, the biggest Finland-based international megahits have come from the Bomfunk MC’s. A former Sony team, the pop/rap ensemble will release their third album under the Universal banner in 2004. In addition, the company is the main distributor of techno DJ/producer Darude’s music.
In continuing with the export hopefuls, the next hot act out of Finland is The Rasmus. Their music is released by the Swedish-based Playground Music. And when it comes to metal, the leading Finnish label is Spinefarm, the home of Nightwish, Children Of Bodom and Sonata Arctica. As of 2002, Spinefarm has been in the ownership of Universal Music.
On the local front there is still one noteworthy bigger label: Megamania, the heir and torch-bearer of the legendary 1970’s label Love Records. The independent Megamania concentrates on local acts and the domestic market. Of the numerous small-scale indie companies two are worth highlighting: The Oulu-based Bad Vugum/BV2 and the Pori-based Ektro Records. With their iconoclastic attitude, these labels have released a remarkable amount of cutting-edge Finnish rock-based music.
During its active existence in the early 1970’s, the aforementioned Love Records was a very important promoter of Finnish jazz as well. As the local dialect of improvisation began developing in earnest, artists like Edward Vesala and Juhani Aaltonen released groundbreaking albums under the Love moniker and thus helped cement the company’s historic status.
As a rule of thumb, the large record companies release jazz records quite seldom. Some scarce exceptions aside, such has been the situation in Finland as well. This is why many musicians have decided to found their own companies and in so doing promote their own material on a grassroots level. There was actually a bit of a boom of this sort of activity in the late 1990’s. After a near-complete void of new jazz albums that lasted close to ten years, musicians began founding their own labels like Abovoice (in Turku) and Fiasko (in Helsinki).
But apart from these cottage industries, there are two mid-sized Finnish record labels which have been releasing jazz-related albums for a number of years. The Tampere-based Rockadillo is the home of Pekka Pohjola, Kimmo Pohjonen, Sakari Kukko, RinneRadio, and XL. The back catalogue of the Helsinki-based Texicalli is almost as impressive as it consists of albums by Manuel Dunkel, Eero Koivistoinen, The JP’s and others.
In other jazz-related local events, EMI Finland cut a deal with Blue Note Records in 2000. So far, the releases by Blue Note Finland (Jukka Perko, the U-Street All Stars, SlowHill etc) have been both commercially and critically very well received. The most recent exciting new-comer in the field is the Helsinki-based TUM Records, which concentrates on the more freer side of jazz. The TUM catalogue includes works by Juhani Aaltonen, Raoul Björkenheim, Iro Haarla and the Ilmiliekki Quartet.
As seems to be the case in most countries, classical music sells to a very selective and selected audience in Finland as well. This is to say that its sales figures don’t come close to the ones achieved by pop music or even the “best sellers” in the field of jazz.
However, as there exists a long and noble tradition of composing passionate, daring and also world-renowned classical music in Finland, there are a handful of record companies that specialise in this particular category.
Ondine Records was originally founded in 1985 to augment the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival. The idea was to preserve the highlights of the festival and make them available as “audio souvenirs”. But quite soon the company decided to branch out and commence taking part in the usual record company business. Nowadays Ondine is an important player on the international field, not least thanks to its numerous albums presenting works by Magnus Lindberg and Einojuhani Rautavaara.
The first Finlandia albums came out in 1979 and the company’s original raison d’etre was to concentrate on old and new local music. But in the 1990’s the label began releasing works by non-Finnish composers as well. Finlandia has released landmark recordings by composers such as Joonas Kokkonen, Aulis Sallinen, Magnus Lindberg, and of course, Jean Sibelius. As part of the Warner/Bros, the future of the label remains to be seen: the activities have stopped in Finland, and the headquarters are in Stockholm. The promotion of Warner-Finlandia classical catalogue and releases is non-existent in Finland, and seems to operate mainly abroad. It seems the history of the legendary Finlandia is about to vanish from the map of the Finnish recording companies.
Apart from these two companies operating from Helsinki there exists a number of smaller labels which are also vital to the promoting of Finnish classical music both locally and abroad. The most prolific is the Tampere-based Alba Records. With a back catalogue that spans from Bach to Piazzolla and from Leevi Madetoja to Jukka Linkola, Alba has taken its place among the older and bigger record labels. Another interesting label is Jase Music, founded by composer Jarmo Sermilä. The Jase catalogue spans from modernist classical to improvised music.
And finally from abroad, two companies are worth mentioning: the Swedish label BIS and the large multinational label/distributor Naxos have both released important recordings of Finnish classical music throughout the years.
Because of the quite limited amount of classical albums sold annually, the Foundation for the Promotion of Finnish Music (LUSES) has undertaken a special project which aims at recording and thus preserving Finnish opera music. Funded by private foundations, the list of releases includes works like Einojuhani Rautavaara's 'Aleksis Kivi' (Ondine) and Fredrik Pacius' 'Die Loreley' (BIS). In July 2004 Ondine released the very first Finnish opera dvd, Kari Tikka's 'Luther'.
Finnish Recording Companies
Finlandia Records (page under construction from February 2004)
FG Naxos (Finland)