I recently attended the annual music conference and festival, the Tallinn Music Week (TMW), which is a fantastic event, and something I have now attended five times. It deserves every accolade it receives, and indeed there have been many.
TMW shines a positive beacon, but I can’t help but foster a concern that engagement with music and culture in Estonia and the other Baltic states, from established markets like the UK and the US, is negligible. The Baltic region is prosperous but still considered as an “emerging market”, and the results and success of TMW over the last few years are significant but could be so much better if the big-hitting media outlets like the BBC were fully on the page. If the UK were more open to the Baltics and other cultural hotspots, the international music industry can only change for the better as a worldwide market place.
A principle theme of discussion at the conference this year was the call to accept that we now live in a new Europe that is not as divided, or as partitioned in terms of east vs west. Or in other words, the phrase “Eastern Europe” as it were, is no more. Indeed a valid discussion, and one born out of a recent merger of the ETEP and CEETEP talent exchange programme.
In its seven-year history, TMW has broken the mould in what is expected from a music conference, and fired all guns blazing to catapult its domestic music scene onto a world stage and to promote its eclectic cultural leftfield. An early reward for TMW was the signing of local folk-pop group Ewert and the Two Dragons to Sire Records (Warners) in New York, which immediately pricked the ears of the wider music industry internationally, and triggered an upward curve in the Estonian capital for the realisation of potential.
This year, TMW, over the course of a few days, did not relent in delivering its message of cultural positivity, something that now defines Estonia and the surrounding Baltic countries. Estonia, and TMW, have strived to establish a firm foothold on the cultural map, and now 24 years on since becoming free of the shackles of the Soviets, it seems to be a nation still revelling in its emancipation. And one gets the feeling this is still just the beginning.
Meanwhile, the BBC for me has become an organisation that lets down the people it is supposed to fairly and equally represent. I believe it is depriving the British public of not only invaluable injections of culture domestically, but from foreign shores too. This makes little sense if you think in terms of the UK being built on immigration. I am failing to see organisations like the Beeb round up in a big way on fertile nations like Estonia, which would not only help its ongoing natural and cosmic success, but also contribute to the enrichment of our own cultural landscape here in the UK.
Musically, Estonia, or at least the capital Tallinn, is a veritable hotspot for left leaning artists and groups that come from the avant-garde. A duo known as Faun Racket could be an alt-pop sensation. It comprises of two multi-disciplinary artists, Andres Lõo and Talis Paide, who term their music “Bass Music”. It’s a kind of Throbbing Gristle / Giorgio Moroder disco approach played through an Underworld ad pitch.
And there is Von Kuusk; an out-there vocal ensemble mired deep in ambient and sampled electro with concepts built around farmyard pigs and rush-hour traffic sounds. Kraftwerk meets Coltrane caught up in a high funk melee. They present the music of the composer Kaarel Kuusk, and are a samplers delight and therefore a publisher’s paradise.
From 1987 to 1991, Estonia experienced a phenomenon known as the Singing Revolution, a phrase coined by activist Heinz Valk who prompted all night singing demonstrations that eventually contributed to breaking down of the old Soviet regime. Back then, Estonia rejected the Soviets in no uncertain terms, but can they do it so easily with what is perhaps an iron curtain of music snobbery that in cultural terms has for too long divided a good part of Europe?
Is the TMW founder and festival director Helen Sildna the new Valk? She has achieved outstanding success with the annual event, and perhaps is a future minister of culture in Estonia or dare I say it, could become the country’s next rock’n’roll president. But will the work of TMW be truly and universally acknowledged? Will bands like Ewert and the Two Dragons finally break America off the back of their deal with Seymour Stein, or will Faun Racket get a tour of the UK and heavy rotation on BBC radio?
As things are, NO! It is all very well inviting media folk who love to find new music and write about the avant-garde or leftfield. But the mainstream media, in particular in the UK and the US has to drop into the framework to ensure the work of TMW really does resonate. Fervent supporters of TMW like the writers John Robb, Kieron Tyler reporting back home is not enough. The committed yet peripheral BBC 3 guy, Nick Luscombe, is not enough. My writing is not enough.
Until the Faun Rackets and Von Kuusks of this world are acknowledged by the likes of the BBC in the UK and beyond then perhaps all this is futile. And truly great, new music will never be fully globalised in what we deem now as a globalised world. Graveyard shift, tentative coverage is just not enough. Never has such excellent creative output been so disgracefully ignored. With such a high level of culture on offer there must be more international engagement to guarantee Estonia and other emerging countries ongoing success!
So where are the film commissions? Wouldn’t it be great if the BBC sent an artist like Martin Creed to Tallinn to make films on Faun Racket and the like. I want to see BBC introducing not only report from SxSW but hole-up in cities like Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, and pump out something mind-blowing from the internet, TV and my radio.
There is a new and fertile music industry out there because of vehicles like TMW, and many different and unique styles are breaking out of pop, rock and even classical genres. The mainstream as we know it can be overturned, but without the return-of-interest over and above a handful of bloggers and journalists then this is a tall order.
In the UK at least, we have become submerged in the ordinary, and musically in pop cultural terms it is a very conservative landscape. Vibrant vessels like the Tallinn Music Week now offer the real alternative, and a very tangible future. The new “scenes” are international, and the new music “tribes” are global. There is industry, and business to be had, yet the meandering mainstream media does not latch on so readily. It may come in time, I guess, and hopefully sooner rather than later.
Cover: Faun Racket. This article was first published on Medium.com.