Tallinn Calling

Finding painkillers in the conference bag didn’t augur well, but none of the panel discussions or local artists were bad enough that the 300-plus delegates wanted to swallow a handful of “Kosmikud.”

The consensus was that the inaugural Tallinn Music Week was a big success.

In his keynote opening, Mikko Fritze described it as “a business card for Estonian music.”

Fritze heads the team that’s planning for Tallinn to be Europe’s cultural capital in 2011, and his comment pretty much summed up the two-day gathering.

Delegates heard Estonian music and discussed how – apart from winning the 2001 Eurovision Song Contest – the tiny Baltic market with a population of about 1.5 million can make its voice heard outside its borders.

TMW also provided a potted history of the Estonian contemporary live music business, which only goes back a couple of decades but is rich with anecdotal humour.
Estonian Air’s in-flight mag argues that WWII didn’t really end there until the last remnants of the old Soviet military pulled out in 1994.

Rein Lang was one of the first to bring international acts to Estonia, back in the late ’80s when the glasnost and Perestroika of Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership loosened the cultural collar and got the Soviets rock ’n’ rolling.

Lang was interviewed by Tapio Korjus, head of Finland’s Rockadillo Records and one of Estonia’s main conduits for international acts when they first trickled in.
The early shows caused such excitement the Moscow papers spun it into stories about riots on the streets of Tallinn, and the KGB started to cast a closer eye on Estonian youth.

Lang’s amusing reflections included a tale about how he didn’t see a contract rider for Jesus & Mary Chain until he met the band at Helsinki harbour, which meant he had no chance of being able to meet its requests. The band smashed the equipment as they played.

Times have changed and Lang has moved on to become minister of justice. He flashed a knowing smile at a delegate who asked how he managed to pay the acts in hard currency and told him that – given his current role – he’d rather not elaborate on the subject.

Many delegates said Lang’s interview was the best panel session they’d seen in ages.

Conference founder Helen Sildna, a promoter with Baltic Development Group (BDG), started Tallinn Music Week because she felt the Estonian music business doesn’t have the infrastructure to best promote its national talent.

She said she was driven by the fact that the situation wouldn’t change until somebody did something about it.

She rounded up speakers including reps from the neighbouring music export offices and some of Europe’s best showcase conferences, including Holland’s Eurosonic, Norway’s By:Larm and Denmark’s Spot.

Working with a team that has the heads of most of the Estonian festivals, the support of MTV and sponsors including Skype and the national airline, she set out to create a platform on which Estonia can interface with the rest of the contemporary music world.

Jan Reijnders, a Dutch agent who moved to The Baltics to set up Eastern Talent Group, said the inherent problem about Estonia marketing its music is linked to the collapse of communism and its rigid and authoritarian ways.

“People got so used to being told what to do that they are confused about what to do when there is nobody there to tell them,” he explained. The TMW organisers are trying to buck the trend.

Many of the delegates came from the neighbouring Scandinavian countries, further suggesting that the Baltic state may be morphing into a Nordic one.

Margus Laidre, the Estonian ambassador in London, acknowledged as much. Many of the new building projects in central Tallinn are plastered with the names of Swedish developers.

Sildna chose The Nordic Forum Hotel as the conference venue. She has strong contacts on the other side of the Baltic Sea, as BDG works with Live Nation’s offices in Sweden and Finland to bring major international talent to Estonia, and occasionally Latvia and Lithuania.

One of the partnership’s next major projects is a sold-out Madonna show at Tallinn Song Festival Grounds Aug. 4.

Sildna has so much belief in the TMW conference/showcase that she’s moving from BDG to concentrate more time on it.

After Fritze waved the business card, there was a chance to see what his country has to offer. More than 60 Estonian acts played styles ranging from ethnic jazz and folk, the local version of MTV pop to metal heavy enough to smash through the thickening ice on the Baltic coast. They played in front of a total of about 4,000 people.

Were they any good? Eurosonic A&R head Robert Meijerink gave Pollstar his shortlist, which included Eva Mitreikina, Metsatöll, Popidiot, Stella, Svjata Vatra, Paabel, and Chungin & The Strap-On Faggots, which the conference guidebook helpfully described as having “a tongue in cheek” approach.

Meijerink heads a team that picks the 200 or so acts for the annual Groningen showcase by listening to more than 2,000 CDs.

Paabel, with its open approach to traditional music, also attracted the attention of talent bookers including Dan Panaitescu from Hungary’s Sziget Festival, who said he’ll recommend the act to colleagues booking the Budapest festival’s world music stage.

Paabel, which is heavy on trombone and accordion, had the locals dancing on the stage at No. 99 Theatre, a grey slab of a building with huge pillars and a grand entrance foyer twice the size of its concert space. It was formerly the Estonian communist party HQ.

Visiting bands included Lithuania’s Bedwetters, winners of MTV’s New Sound Of Europe award in 2007 and the darlings of the network’s Baltic station. Disco Ensemble, a European festival regular, brought its Finnish alternative-punk buzz to the plush disco décor of Club Hollywood.

Tallinn has the 10,000-capacity Saku Arena, which opened November 2001. BDG’s new 2,000-capacity Tallinn Concert Hall – another Swedish build – will be ready in October, but some of the city’s smaller club-sized venues are in old buildings that would likely fall short of western safety standards.

The city needs a well-equipped standing venue with a capacity of up to 1,000, similar to the Tavastia Club a few miles across the water in Helsinki.

As with the first ILMC, many of the 300 or so delegates left Tallinn Music Week (March 26-28) with the feeling that they’d been in at the start of something. Sildna’s faith will no doubt drive it on for future years, provided she can keep the standard of panelists as high as it was first time around.

The event impacted the media so well that she was interviewed on national TV and the March edition of the free-issue Metroo had little room for anything else.

The city was papered with posters and very few of its 500,000 population could have been unaware that maybe a cultural gathering of potential national importance was going on.