Words by: Kieron Tyler
Photo by: Hanna Samoson
As the home of Skype, Estonia already has its place on the world stage. A vital country, Estonia is historically and culturally connected to the nearby Scandinavian countries and is also a conduit into its neighbours Latvia, Lithuania and Russia. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash it continued to experience growth in GDP.
Musically, it is still emerging - but Tallinn Music Week, held here last weekend, is changing that. In its fourth year, the event has established its position as one of Europe's leading showcase festivals and conferences.
The importance of the event was underlined by the new NOMEX organisation - Nordic Music Export - giving their first presentation on the integrated strategy for Scandinavia's music. Delegates from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were joined by attendees from nearby Finland, the other Scandinavian countries, Austria, Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands, Russia, the UK and USA. The Estonian performers, amongst the 183 playing, accompanied acts from across the Baltics, Scandinavia, Russia, the UK and even Canada.
Tallinn Music Week was opened by Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who grew up in and was educated in America. He was a regular at CBGB and The Mudd Club and later worked with Radio Free Europe, before Estonia's 1991 independence from the USSR. He told conference goers that "talking about rock 'n' roll at 10 a.m. is about as comfortable as going to the bar at CBGB and asking for glass of milk," but then detailed some of the conference's selling points. "People come to play: you like or you don't like, it's a democratic way of doing things. No one will charge you 29.99 for Wi-Fi coverage -- it's here, everywhere and it's free. Being a small country is not an obstacle, it's an opportunity to do things quickly and get creative people together."
However, he did add, looking back to Estonia's past and the previous week's arrest of Russian band Pussy Riot in Moscow, that "in a free society it's risk free. In an un-free society it's not risk free. It's not all fun."
The speed at which Estonia is moving musically was underlined by the conference program, which included panels on defining the roles of managers, agents, promoters, labels and publishers: Ed Bicknell, the manger of Dire Straits, Scott Walker and Bryan Ferry was interviewed; the theme overall was "Introduction to Music Entrepreneurship."
This was placed in context, business-wise and geographically, by NOMEX choosing to outline its strategy for the first time in Tallinn. Acting as an umbrella for the music export organisations of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden allows trends to be identified across the region and the definition of export goals. In her presentation NOMEX's Anna Hildur Hildibrandsdottir emphasised that gathering statistics was key, especially when identifying how the creative industries affect individual economies. She said "without an understanding of the political system, we do not have growth in this area, the support for the production element. Once the statistics are done, we discovered that the creative industries have the same turnover as the aluminium industries in Iceland. " She said that NOMEX's goal, in common with the individual country's export organisations, is to "help people help themselves."
The creation of NOMEX came after a 2010 report titled Strength Through Unity. The organisation aims to strengthen the intra-Nordic markets, to collaborate internationally (regular Nordic music nights are now being held in Japan, the UK and Spain) and build capacity.
Estonia is keenly watching: Tallinn is a short two-hour ferry journey from the Finnish capital of Helsinki. The ties between the two countries are close (and between Estonia and Scandinavia as a whole), and were before independence too.
Further evidence for Estonia achieving musical escape velocity was provided by local artist Iiris, who recently signed with EMI Finland and released her debut LP the week of the conference, and local pop band Ewert and Two Dragons, who just played Canada Music Week before dates in New York concurrent with Tallinn Music Week. Both Iris and Ewert and Two Dragons are managed by Toomas Olljum of Made In Baltics.
"The event, because of organiser Helen Sildna, has established a credibility for Estonian music and myself as a professional," Olljum said. "I used to watch MTV and always thought that, one day, Estonian bands will break out. There was nothing going on before Tallinn Music Week. It helped me focus on Latvia and Lithuania, but also to approach Finnish music business players -- then the rest of the world. The main reason for the success of Ewert and Two Dragons and Iiris is Tallinn Music Week."