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Event Report: Tallinn Music Week puts Estonia on the music map

By | Published on Thursday 11 April 2013

Tallinn Music Week

Now in its fifth year, the Tallinn Music Week festival and conference has been taking place annually in the Estonian capital since 2009. Having grown considerably in that time, this year’s speakers included former Pink Floyd manager Peter Jenner and industry veteran Seymour Stein. Plus there were a whole host of live performances from artists both homegrown and from across Europe. Vasilis Panagiotopoulos visited and spoke to some of the key figures from the event for CMU.

On the 23rd floor of Tallinn’s prestigious Hotel Viru there is a door with a sign on it that reads, in both Russian and Estonian: “There Is Nothing Here”.

For almost 20 years after the hotel was built in 1972, very few people knew the existence of this door, let alone walked through it. In 1991, with Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union, it was revealed that Hotel Viru’s top floor was home to a sophisticated KGB surveillance centre that was systematically tapping hotel rooms, meetings and telephone conversations. Viru staff nowadays joke: “Half of the hotel was built by concrete and half by microphones”.

23 years on, in a hotel a few meters from Viru, microphones are in use again. Only for a very different reason: it is the fifth edition of Estonia’s own music conference, Tallinn Music Week, an international event that attracts almost 750 delegates from the Baltic countries and the rest of Europe.

It all started out modestly in 2009 with a line-up of 50 acts, but has now grown into one of the biggest indoor festivals in the Baltic region, boasting a lineup of 233 artists from 20 countries, with international acts this year including Finland’s LCMDF, Norway’s Highasakite, Germany’s Me and My Drummer and Denmark’s Rangleklods, while Brighton’s Fat Cat Records hosted a label night.

Seminar highlights, meanwhile, included talks by Peter Jenner, former manager of Pink Floyd, T Rex, The Clash and Billy Bragg; and frequent convention favourite Seymour Stein, co-founder and chairman of Sire Records, responsible for kickstarting Madonna’s career and having worked with the likes of The Ramones, Talking Heads and Echo And The Bunnymen.

Tallinn Music Week is a joint effort by the Estonian Music Development Sector, the country’s ministries of Culture and Economy, Enterprise Estonia and the Estonian Tourist Board, with further backing from private sponsors.

Asked about the difficulties of bringing all these bodies together, TMW’s manager Helen Sildna observes that there has been a huge mental shift in recent years, saying: “The public sector in Estonia has slowly realised that a cultural event of this kind can be a content provider for their campaigns. Music is one of the reasons why somebody would come to Estonia. A very positive development in this direction is that in the new EU-funding period, that opens up in 2014, music and cultural festivals are, for the very first time, part of the country’s tourist strategy”.

Sildna believes that the key to Tallinn Music Week’s growing success is its ability to create value for all parties involved. And this requires an understanding of everyone’s objectives. She explains: “Every time you approach somebody, you have to realise what they are after. A music festival in that sense is a wonderfully complex organism. Local venues call me up and ask to be part of our off-venue programme – and are often willing to invest too – and that’s great and we like to accommodate them. But on the other hand, we also want to provide a better service to the international companies who come to our event with an interest in the Baltic market. Our job is to ensure our festival meets all these people’s needs”.

For those based in the region, the most tangible result Tallinn Music Week has achieved is the opportunities it has created for the local music community. TMW was, for example, instrumental in creating one of Estonia’s biggest music export success stories, when indie-folk quartet Ewert And The Two Dragons (who will aso be playing at The Great Escape in May) signed a record deal with Warner Bros/Sire Records in October 2012 and played over 110 gigs on both sides of the Atlantic – a result never achieved before by a Baltic pop act.

Toomas Olljum, the band’s manager, confirms the role Tallinn Music Week played in all this. “TMW helped us to get the contacts”, he explained. “It also gave me professional credibility as a manager. All this would have been close to impossible otherwise! And without this festival, we would not have had enough money to go to other showcase events abroad like Music & Media in Finland”.

It was at Music & Media in 2010 that Sire Records’ Associate Director of A&R Eric McLellan met Olljum and was introduced to Ewert And The Two Dragons. “This band is very special”, McLellan says, noting their win at the European Border Breakers awards last year. “I always felt they could break outside of Estonia, long before they won the Border Breakers prize, but once they had received that honour, I knew we had to sign them to Sire”.

Olljum reckons more artists and managers in his local music community can benefit from TMW. “This event is in our backyard” he says, “and it is constantly growing. It offers so many possibilities. In this business, you have to make things happen yourself. People are starting to understand that, and to recognise the benefits TMW offers, to talk to international delegates and to create possibilities for their artists”.

McLellan agrees that Estonian music professionals are now amassing a strong understanding of the music business, adding: “They are so hard working and dedicated. Their passion for the business and music burns bright and they want Estonian acts to be noticed worldwide”.

Sildna points out that in music terms there has been a significant improvement in Estonia’s international visibility. “Five years ago at every international event, people would ask me what was going on in the Estonian music scene. There was no knowledge about it. Nobody knew any Estonian music business professionals. Nobody knew any artists. There was a gap. As if it did not exist! People’s conscience works in a way that, if you do not know anything about something, then you think it does not exist”.

Like Hotel Virus’s closed KGB door, it seems that the Estonian music scene is slowly erasing its “There Is Nothing Here” sign. At least as far as pop music is concerned, there is definitely something here…

Vasilis Panagiotopoulos is a freelance writer and publicist based in Copenhagen.