BY Oskari Onninen
The land of heavy metal needed a generation shift and Spotify to learn pop.
In popular music, Finland has always been a bit of a periphery, somewhat backward, initially enamoured of its indigenous brand of poetic Suomi-rock and then, in the 1990s, finally waking up to a more international approach.
But as we well know, Finland has progressed from a land of rock to a land of heavy metal and then to a land of Finnish rap.
Now, Finland is finally morphing into land of pop, too.
Or so it would seem: the greatest emerging stars in recent years have been pop singers and songwriters.
Finland’s hottest trending performer at the moment is Alma, who has 50 million Spotify streams to her credit. On Instagram, she describes herself as a ‘singer-songwriter’, yet she does not play the guitar or the piano, and her music does not fit into the genre described as ‘singer-songwriter’. It would be more accurate to describe her as a product of the GarageBand era: a young, talented performer creating electronic pop music and flitting around the world from one songwriting camp to another. (For more on Alma, see the article on Music Finland’s website.)
This is why Alma is the very model of a modern pop star. Finally we have one in Finland.
When the Finnish music industry handed out its Emma awards this winter, the nominees for the Pop Emma were Vesala, Alma, Ellinoora, Evelina and Sanni, all of them modern, female singer-songwriters (for the first time in the history of the Emma awards).
The list may be expanded by looking at the playlists of the youth-oriented YleX radio channel: Ida Paul, Aleksanteri Hakaniemi and pop-auteur The Hearing, the latter nominated for the Teosto Prize.
A phenomenon? Perhaps, but probably there is something a bit simpler at work here.
“It has become something of a merit for a performer being something other than just a singer,” says Timo Kuoppamäki, Head of A&R at Sony Music Finland.
Be that as it may, Finland has become, among other things, a land of pop. Technology is the major contributor to this development: music is more readily available than ever and easier to produce than ever.
The major threshold was a psychological one. After all, Sweden has been archetypally a land of pop for as long as anyone can remember. In the 1990s, Finnish pop bands such as Aikakone and Taikapeili were oriented towards Eurodance, which was viewed with amusement in the Anglo-American strongholds of pop music. And even stellar successes such as Bomfunk MC’s or Darude were not purely pop, if indeed they could be said to be pop at all.
Amazingly, it seems that Western, i.e. Swedish-cum-Anglo-American, pop music slipped into Finland through the Idols format. Antti Tuisku, who finished third in the programme’s first season, sang in Finnish but was firmly oriented towards becoming Finland’s Justin Timberlake. Anna Abreu, who emerged from the third season, also sang modern pop that was of its time but detached from its Finnish context.
“International ways of doing things have landed in Finland. Songwriting camps, communities and production teams. It used to be so terribly important to do things alone, but now all that has changed. Now it’s all about doing things together,” says Kuoppamäki.
And into this world of communal efforts came streaming, and people began to listen to music more extensively than ever, and without the benefit of gatekeepers such as record labels.
A generation shift occurred at about the same time: at the beginning of the 2010s, there was a shortage of twenty-something musicians in Finland. Today, anyone aged 25 or over seems ancient when you look at the rosters of major record labels or the YleX playlists.
Timo Kuoppamäki describes this as a virtuous circle.
The most popular music on Spotify is that which young people want to listen to, i.e. music made by young musicians: the songs that teenagers play on their phones first thing in the morning and may listen to up to a dozen times in any given day. By contrast, adult veterans of the Flow festival perhaps listen to their favourite album once a week, over a glass of wine on Friday evening.
Intense consumption by teenagers sends record labels a signal that that music is hitting a spot. It is only logical that dozens of Finnish pop stars referred to only by their first names have emerged in recent years. First women who were not only singers but also songwriters, and eventually, last year, men too.
Kuoppamäki notes that he does not believe gender to be of any significance any more to the music people want to listen to. “The age of a performer is relevant, but really it’s all about the music.”
But it is true that when the business takes an interest in a specific kind of performer, the number of such performers mushrooms. At the moment, the focus is on young performers (because it is easier to measure their success), but fortunately they also tend to be more insightful than before.
This change is about more than just having someone like Alma whose success serves as a reminder that it is possible to become an international hit by writing songs in English in Finland.
Kuoppamäki considers that the world has become a smaller place and that this is a much more important mental shift. The top playlists on Spotify are virtually the same for all teenagers everywhere – apart from some variation for regional preferences. The worldwide hits on these playlists are the songs that inspire teenage musicians to try their own luck, identifying with global stars who have needed little more than a laptop to make their breakthrough.
“It’s not just about looking at an individual Finnish artist who has made it big; it’s more about a shift in general attitudes and an increase in confidence: I can do this just as well as someone of my age in Norway or the UK or the USA,” says Kuoppamäki.
Perhaps we’ll see this phenomenon on our playlists soon enough.
Oskari Onninen is a Helsinki-based freelance journalist and pop critic who has listened to his this year’s favourite song, Green Light by Lorde, as many times as the stereotypical teenager manages to listen to it in one morning before going to school.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Ilkka Mattila: Finnish rock’s move out to the world (2005)
Titus Hjelm: Metal music representing Finnishness (2013)
Merja Hottinen: Changing listening habits (2014)
Susanna Välimäki: 30 years of music in Finland (2014)