July 1, 2020

DO I KNOW YOU: “Music has been a great form of self-expression for Finns,” says Kaisa Rönkkö

collage of woman and music elements
According to Kaisa Rönkkö, there is going to be lots of great new music in future referring to the exceptional circumstances.
Julia Bushueva

For Kaisa Rönkkö, executive director at Music Finland, the recent months have shown the social and psychological significance of the music.

Growing up, music was an important part of Kaisa Rönkkö’s life. Having had a strong culture of playing, singing and listening to all kinds of music, and a tradition of going to concerts in her childhood home, it is no surprise that this professional pianist started learning the instrument at the age of five.

As the qualified music pedagogue was furthering her piano career by doing post-graduate studies at Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Hungary, she became more and more interested in the social aspects that music impacts. Eventually, Rönkkö’s passion for these aspects of music surpassed that of playing. Consequently, some 15 years ago, she made a bold choice and decided to focus her career on the administrative side of the music industry and came back to Finland to finish her second master’s degree, this time in arts management.

Having always had a keen interest in society, Rönkkö studied Finnish literature and political science at university alongside pursuing her musical aspirations. Now, after trying her wings in the Finnish Defence Forces and being a mentor at Mentors of Finland Association, a non-profit that helps recent graduates to find employment, this former head of the orchestra department at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet is in her happy place as the executive director at Music Finland. Working in the organisation dedicated to promoting awareness and the success of Finnish music is where Rönkkö is able to demonstrate the international export potential and the social significance of music, and combine her other areas of interest. Moreover, it is a place where she can use all her learnings from her versatile career so far.

We sat down with Rönkkö to discuss these insights of hers in relation to the current state of Finnish music, the important role of Music Finland amid the COVID-19 pandemic and why the happiest nation in the world does not spare minor keys in their music.

What does music mean to you?

Music is something that frames society and life as a whole. One of my favourite aspects in my job is to be able to promote music as a common attribute and an intellectual resource that permeates the whole of society. I see music as a builder of mental crisis resilience, as well. In these exceptional times, it has been striking to notice that the role of music has in no way diminished in people’s lives, but rather the opposite, and music has been an effective tool to reinforce festive moments in these slightly dull times.

Do you still find time to play piano yourself?

I have a couple of absolutely wonderful students that I teach, and I keep performing occasionally at family events. In addition to these, during the recent hectic months, I’ve rediscovered piano playing as a useful relaxation and self-therapy instrument. So, I’ve managed to make time for myself to play, not on a daily basis, but pretty frequently.

Finland has the highest number of metal bands per capita, which enjoy significant success globally. But there is much more going on here. How do you see the current state of Finnish music?

Of course, metal and classical music are the recognisable strong brands that we are known for worldwide, but the strength of Finnish music is its versatility! There is more and more great music and new actors coming from other genres as well. For example, the department of folk music at Sibelius Academy has been awarded for its work. And while the jazz field is strong and growing, there are similarly interesting phenomena in the pop field, as well as for example in electronic music, where we have names such as Yotto, whose album Hyperfall topped the US Billboard dance and electronic album chart two years back.

One of the interesting aspects that has received remarkable attention in recent years is the strong work and visibility of Finnish music creating. Songwriters Tiina Vainikainen and Axel Ehnström, as well as composers such as Sebastian Hilli and Cecilia Damström, are great examples of this, and there is a wide range of other authored productions as well. Furthermore, there is huge potential in music synchronisation and in media and film composing, where Pessi Levanto and Lasse Enersen, just to mention a few, represent well the current great quality of what Finland has to offer.

It is important to take into account, when thinking about the good current state of Finnish music, all the infrastructure and structures around the musicians and music. That is because, in Finland, the value chains of the music industry consist of various sources. This further guarantees that Finnish music exports are not solely resting on the shoulders of the big artists and bands such as Alma and Nightwish. Finnish music exports are constantly taking on new and innovative forms; what is more, our exports have been on the rise in recent years thanks in large part to these new forms. Billboard, for example, just wrote a story about Teosto, which is the first copyright organisation in the world piloting solutions that enable real-time compensations. Furthermore there are lots of the new phenomena in Finnish music exports such as ingenious interactive music education service Yousician and virtual reality studio Zoan, both offering fresh approaches and platforms in these social distancing times.

How well have the artists, musicians and bands handled the extraordinary situation? Do you have examples of other great ways they have pivoted?

First and foremost, I am pleased to say that during the past few months the atmosphere has been wonderfully supportive and innovative. It has been great to see that musicians haven’t been discouraged or frozen to contemplate the situation. Instead, lots of new music, novel events with novel ways of executing them and many other approaches have been developed in co-operation.

As I mentioned, there has been continuous demand for music and musicians, as they can provide emergency aid and comfort to people in the midst of a crisis. As soon as the ban on gatherings came into force, a great variety streaming concerts, new music and other innovative forums were created. JVG’s live virtual-reality concert on May Day eve is clearly one of the highlights of the spring and could even be seen as a generational experience. My personal favourites have been all those beautiful streamed versions of the Suvivirsi hymn, traditionally sung at the end of the school year in school halls, but this time there were countless ways of doing it. Another great example is Composition Diary of Corona Spring by composer Pasi Lyytikäinen underlining that making new music creates a sense of continuity that is especially valuable in uncertain times.

There are clearly lots of approaches to Finnish music and within the industry the needs vary a lot. How has Music Finland been able to support musicians in recent months?

We are an organisation that promotes the internationalisation and awareness of Finnish music by supporting the international growth of our customers, which include players from every possible genre and sector. I want to emphasise that we shouldn’t be recognised as a manager or agent, but as an enabler organisation. Against this background, we have been constantly developing new concepts and there are great many efforts that we have already made in order to best make the Finnish music industry survive the crisis. For example, we have distributed support so that music exports can continue, and just recently we had a virtual trade mission to Mexico for the first time ever. It was an event where Finnish music industry stakeholders had matchmaking and mingling sessions online with their Mexican counterparts and where they learnt about the target markets in Mexico, which is the largest Spotify consumer nation in the world. Furthermore, Music Finland is about to host an online showcase festival for international music industry professionals. It is a huge opportunity for our customers to introduce themselves to international gatekeepers, network with the teams and get deals done.

Our toolbox has included a full range of tools from financial support to promotion, and from networking to competence development, but now, in these exceptional circumstances, our role has expanded. We have taken a more influential approach as the voice of the Finnish music industry in order to affect decision makers. We have set out to gather the views of organisations and stakeholders and created proposals for action for the government. While this need has arisen from the pandemic times, I feel that visioning, future planning and limiting the ideas of frustration and lack of prospects and opportunities will continue to be key actions for us subsequently as well.

Do you think that this pandemic will change the industry permanently?

I would reason that it is inevitable, but it is impossible to say how exactly. We need to assess the changes in the music industry in relation to both the global megatrends affecting societies and the changes those are going through because of the pandemic. For example, physical proximity may no longer be the best way to reach crowds. This is because of changes in consumer behaviour, preferences, attitudes towards travel, as well as the question of whether communality has taken on new forms, can all be seen as elements reshaping the stage. We don’t know yet how it is going to be.

What we do know, however, is that regardless of the industry it is understood that anything is possible, for good and for ill. What I mean is that all sorts of plans and earnings models can change in one fell swoop. Stakeholders everywhere are in a situation where it is required to be able to quickly adapt and figure out something completely new while learning through mistakes.

It is also worth noting that while the ways of making and performing music have evolved fast, the ways of being a fan have also taken on new forms. The fact that Alma, for example, released her album in the midst of all this is certainly important to the fans. On Instalive and other social media platforms, fans have been really active, and I think people who have been social distancing for weeks have found peers on different fan platforms and are sharing the mutual experience strongly with the artists.

Let’s talk a bit more about the change. Spotify recently tested video podcasts with two YouTube stars and gave Joe Rogan such a huge deal that a musician would need to generate 23 billion streams on Spotify to earn what they’re paying him for his podcast rights. How do you feel the new phase in the internet era impacts the music business?

In principle, I want to be positive about change. Some years back, streaming services came along as a kind of market disruption, but they are already the norm for music consumption. I would like to see all of the new disruptions built into the current value network as well, and it is pointless and stupid to fight against certain phenomena. For example, the popularity of TikTok at the moment is enormous. Finding and combining value chains and models with services like Tiktok and Spotify podcasts would be beneficial for all players instead.

Music Finland is also going to go through changes by moving to a new location together with all the major music-related organisations and associations in Finland. What is this all about?

I am excited to inform you of this big-scale undertaking we have going on, where the idea is to establish an all-encompassing music house in the Keilaniemi area in Espoo, Finland. Together with the copyright society of performing artists and phonogram producers Gramex, Copyright Information and Anti-Piracy Centre (TTVK), Teosto and the associations of Finnish music executives, composers, publishers and creators we are trying to make the synergies better and be stronger together. To my understanding, this is truly unique on a world scale. The repositioning also means that we, the key Finnish music industry players, switch to a different kind of framework, as Keilaniemi is a business district well known for tech companies, the vibrant startup scene and the head offices of several large corporations. This would have happened in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this time has shown the true demand for this initiative, as stakeholders are constantly looking for completely new models of action. I have been observing with great interest how I and many others have found ourselves having lots of meetings with people and organisations of a kind I could not have thought of last winter.

Are there characteristics in Finnish music that others don’t have?

What I find fascinating is that while Finns are the happiest people on earth, the large-scale narrative of Finnish music has always been told through melancholy. My conclusion is that music has been a great form of self-expression for Finns, as we have been able to channel our bad feelings through music. However, it is worth noting that the minor key pathos that is the overtone in Finnish music is associated with the national nature and existence, it’s not so present in music exported from here, and not the thing.

I am also proud of the foundations and capabilities to make music that are in a class of their own here in Finland. Not only do we have extremely high-quality music education, but it is also innovative and the number of music schools and conservatoires in relation to the population is greater than anywhere else. I was thrilled to see how the whole music school system immediately embraced remote learning procedures, when those were forced on it because of this pandemic. I think the strength of Finnish music and the society as a whole actually lies in the fact that there are opportunities for everyone to play or make music regardless of their background. Alma as a person and as a story represents another iteration of the same pool of equal opportunities as Sanna Marin, who started at the supermarket checkout to eventually become the Prime Minister of Finland.

What skills does your background in the defence forces provide that you can utilise in the music industry?

All in all, it was a great experience to be working in a huge organisation, and the diverse background undoubtedly has its benefits when carrying out this kind of job. As I’ve been saying, the vast field of music genuinely frames society and has interfaces with aspects such as social policy, national economy, education, cultural policy and exports. Similarly, when I was working at the department of communications for the Finnish Defence Forces, I came into contact with many aspects of society, but from a very different direction. I find this useful and fascinating, and I have been able to expand my overall view of the society. Also, the essence of the diverse expertise and knowledge regarding the society within the music industry has become crystal clear to me.

Moreover, the mental resilience that I learnt there has been of tremendous help especially in these very times. This background has prepared me to act accordingly when needed and think both in the big picture, about what role is given to music in crises, and in the practical picture, about what is the operational capability of the field of music during crises.

What is your favourite part about this line of work?

Being able to navigate in this endless field of possibilities is clearly the best part of this all. I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s just the way it is. Another lovely part is the community of Finnish musicians and other key players. The mutual feeling that we can make a difference if we pull together has been the best feeling during the crisis, and, with all working in unison, we have bounced ideas off each other.

Who are you inspired by?

I admire those music composers, performers and entrepreneurs in this field of music who believe in music, themselves and their message so much that they have thrown themselves into this risky field. Being able to work and co-operate with people like these is the most inspiring part of my job.

What has been the best concert you’ve seen?

I remember many great concerts and performances. What is common to most of them is that they are connected to phases in my personal life where music has created faith in difficult times or helped make decisions. Classical pianist András Schiff’s concert back in Budapest pops first to mind as one of these memorable performances.

What sole record would take with you to a desert island?

This is a tricky one. Really hard to choose only one. I would probably take an album that hasn’t even been released yet! I would have all the time in the world to delve into it on the island.

Text and interview: Tuomas Koivisto

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