The story of Finnish popular music reflects the country’s Nordic soul and geographical position

Sweden has become a powerhouse in pop music, whereas Finland has established a darker, heavier music brand. For the first time ever, an international publication series has devoted an anthology on research in Finnish popular music.

Finnish group Lordi perform Hard Rock Hallelujah at the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest.
Finnish group Lordi perform Hard Rock Hallelujah at the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest. Image: Indrek Galetin

How did a country of a million sad songs finally emerge as the Eurovision winner thanks to Lordi? What happened in Finnish popular music at the turn of the last century and is there something that prevents Finland from reaching Sweden’s level of success in pop music? 

These are some of the questions that the authors tackle in Made in Finland:Studies in Popular Music, which is the first anthology published in English outside of Finland focusing on research in Finnish popular music. It has been edited by Toni-Matti Karjalainen and Kimi Kärki. Karjalainen has recently been appointed as professor of arts management at the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki.

The story of Nordic music is strongly characterised by its search for its own identity between the East and the West, the local and the global scene. Besides the local cultural heritage and myths, this story is also moulded by the strong presence of nature, four distinctive seasons of the North, the weather, and the general melancholy connected to Nordic music.

”Most typically, this story has left its mark on the darker music genres like heavy metal, but it’s also relevant in Finnish schlager (iskelmä) music, Finnish rock, not to mention in music by Sibelius and other classical figures who have influenced pop music,” Toni-Matti Karjalainen says.

Millennium was a game-changer

Popular music has had its own role in the way people have been affected by cultural influences. In Finland, it has absorbed both Slavic and Anglo-American characteristics. According to Karjalainen, the Finnish tango and schlager music are examples of a merger of Eastern and Western influences.

Up until the end of the 1990s, the Finnish music was mostly inward oriented. The country’s festivals, performances and music industry in general were mostly aimed at local markets. Then something happened.

In 2000-2001, the hiphop duo Bomfunk MC’s climbed up the charts, and their hit Freestyler became the best-selling single in Europe. In 2000, “love metal” band HIM hit the top of various international rock charts, and the electronic dance music artist Darude became a global phenomenon with his single Sandstorm. The song is still regularly played all over the world.

“All of a sudden multiple artists and different music styles had an international breakthrough almost at the same time. It seemed as though the international music scene discovered Finland overnight,” Karjalainen describes.

There is also statistical evidence of this change. In 2001, the market value of Finnish pop as an export was five times as big as in 1999.

And the success continued. In 2003, the Finnish rock band The Rasmus gained international fame, and many of the band’s albums were certified gold and platinum. Heavy metal bands, especially Children of Bodom and Apocalyptica, also started to gain fame, and the genre eventually became a well-known Finnish phenomenon. Around the same time, Nightwish started its climb to become the biggest Finnish music export.

“The completely unexpected Eurovision victory of Lordi in 2006 was a culmination of sorts in the worldwide reputation of Finnish pop music.”

Bigger success stories yet to come?

Finland is still not as successful as Sweden, which is often said to be the third biggest music exporter in the world. Finland has gained more fame in recent years, however, and the authors of the book predict that international success may be around the corner in the 2020s. “It seems as if different forms of pop music have begun to conquer new territories in a major way,” Karjalainen says.

Today, the reign of translated schlagers is but a distant memory. So what is the status of Finnish pop music nowadays?

“These days, the Finnish popular music scene is a combination of the unique Finnish cultural characteristics as well as the collective identity that it shares with other Nordic countries. In fact, Finland has various music export collaborations going on with its neighbouring countries,” Karjalainen notes.

An international publication series as the publisher

The book by Kärki and Karjalainen features 13 articles by scholars who examine the history and phenomena of popular music from various angles. It will be published as part of the Global Popular Music Series by the esteemed global publisher Routledge.

The articles in the book delve into an array of topics, including popular music of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, Finland as a heavy metal nation, Finnish rock (suomirock), the influence of British pop on Finnish popular music, the music culture of Finnish American labour movement, and underground music in Finland.  

“When planning the book, we also tried to make it interesting to the many Finland enthusiasts and friends of Finnish music around the world. For example, the book features an interview with Tuomas Holopainen, which may be of interest to a number of Nightwish fans,” Karjalainen says.