When we meet it’s been a week since Lani, Sari and a few other friends premièred Säpinää, an indie rock club at bar Kuudes linja. “It’s a more traditional rock club,” Lani explains. Every month they will feature two bands: one lesser-known artist and a more established Finnish indie band. “We want to give up-and-coming bands the opportunity to play a decent venue, and provide the audience a good time at a reasonable cost.”
In the context of the music business the role of a promoter is that of a facilitator. Through organising clubs John, Lani and Sari donate a great deal of time, energy and resources to building and promoting an alternative music scene. “I don’t play anything and I can’t sing, so this is the next best thing,” John admits. “Anyway, I can’t be both on stage and organising at the same time. I mean, the hockey coach isn’t supposed to be on the ice, he’s running the game!”
It’s definitely not the easy way. Putting on a club involves a ton of work and a great deal of negotiating. The list of responsibilities ranges from finding a venue, securing financing and booking the artists to advertising and running the event. For the part-time club promoter, practically every hour of spare time outside school or work is spent on different projects. Some do it simply for love of the music.
But all that toil has its rewards, of course. It’s fun. John still fondly remembers his first ever party. Only a few friends were invited and advertisement was minimal, but somehow 250 people showed up, filling both floors of the small venue they had booked. “We found out there was no working air conditioning. Of course halfway through the downstairs bathrooms broke down. There wasn’t even a proper stage, so much broken glass; it was just a glorious chaos,” he reminisces with a grin.
Naturally, it’s not all purely for kicks. A major motivation for many upstart promoters is building a future in the business. While their ventures might not yet yield much of a cash flow, running clubs does not amount to misspent youth. What is now a labour of love may some day turn a profit.
Lani and John both study Arts Management at Novia University of Applied Science and aim for a career in cultural production. Sari has a day job, but through her active involvement in the music scene she’s learned the ropes along the way. She also admits to a certain romantic notion of making a living by doing what you love.
”In ten years I might end up working for a record company or a booking agency, but right now it’s fun to be doing your own thing. I want to work with all the cool people I meet and get involved with the interesting projects that come up,” Lani tells us. When like-minded people get together, ideas start to flow and things happen. It’s how most projects come about, as the result of serendipitous coincidence.
For now Lani and Sari are running Bring the Sound, a small non-profit association dedicated to “enriching cultural life,” which they recently established with Kerttu Penttilä and Kia Sofia Ryhänen. Working through an association helps with the paperwork and bureaucracy, Lani explains. John is a sole proprietor with his own event production company. “It’s not a million euro business yet, but the idea is to build it into an enterprise and make a living through producing events.”
In practice, it’s an unpleasant fact that most clubs devoted to alternative music styles lose money. Though many clubs run on minuscule profit margins and rely heavily on volunteers, it’s generally agreed that the aim should be to provide just compensation for everyone who donate their time and talent.
”Financially it’s always a balancing act. On the one hand you want to pay everybody a proper salary, but then again with some venues you scarcely walk away with the ticket sales to cover your costs,” John admits.
”In a way Säpinää is a community project. Without us there’s no party, without the artists there’s no music, without the venue there’s no roof overhead, and without the audience there’s absolutely nothing. Everyone contributes,” Sari figures.
Both clubs look for outside funding to cover costs. This usually means applying for grants from cultural foundations or attracting corporate sponsors. But, it sounds like sponsors, particularly in the public sector, are slow to realise the value in producing alternative music events. As it’s chiefly the realm of enthusiasts, many seem to consider it as more of a hobby than a profession.
”Young people are encouraged to be enterprising and to take the initiative, but when it comes to actually setting up a venture, it’s another story,” Sari laments. “In terms of cultural production a lot of people have a very narrow idea of culture. You come home and turn on the telly and there’s culture coming at you. Some people listen to the radio, some might buy a CD. What we’re doing is no different, but still our line of work is considered somehow of less value, like we’re just goofing around.”
Working the scene
Erkko Lehtinen and Marko Karvinen are veterans of the Finnish club scene. A freelance event producer and Arts Management graduate, Erkko started putting on techno parties in Jyväskylä in the mid 1990s and has worked on scores of clubs, festivals and events over the years. Marko has organised events with a more or less indie slant since the turn of the millennium.
According to Erkko the club scene is thriving at the moment, at least in Helsinki. “There’s a lot more going on in Helsinki than in a lot of other places. Now there’s starting to be some tough competition even. There are plenty of venues and the whole scene is looking totally different compared to, say, three years ago.”
The number of new venues also lowers the threshold for new start-ups. Just about any bar with two record players and a sound system can easily host a DJ evening.
”When I first started to put on clubs I don’t think there was a single indie club playing new music. They were more sort of nostalgic events,” remembers Marko. Things have changed since then. In terms of styles, traditional club music genres such as hip hop and house music have seen a decline. “Or maybe they’ve just moved elsewhere,” Marko ponders. Now a fast rotation of new music and mixing of styles is all the rage.
Together Marko and Erkko run Misf*ts, a club devoted to fresh new indie and electro music. It has been running weekly at the Redrum bar in Helsinki for a year and a half now. Along with visiting DJ gigs around Finland, the duo has tallied almost a hundred events under the Misf*ts sobriquet. It’s an impressive achievement for a devoutly indie concept.
”The original idea behind Misf*ts was to play music you don’t hear in the other clubs, stuff outside the usual categories. So we went for a kind of outsider theme for it and came up with the name,” Marko relates. “At first there was a demand for it, I suppose. It’s vital for a club, especially a new one, to fill a gap in the scene and to offer something the others don’t.”
Building a lasting brand is a whole other mystery. According to Erkko, “novelty is always a big factor. Beyond that it’s just up to hard work and luck to get people to keep coming back.” More than advertising, it requires spreading information and keeping contact with regulars.
The internet has practically revolutionised the entire publicity aspect of running a club. “People have been trying to get rid of flyers since the early 2000s, but now we’re finally getting there,” Erkko remarks. A social networking site as massive as Facebook is an incredibly powerful tool in forming communities and spreading information. Posters, flyers, radio and newspapers can work as a good reminder, but for the most part people get their information online.
Talking about the future of the scene, Erkko admits he would like to see still more professionalism, to allow for more people to make a living on running clubs. Of course there’s always a demand for fresh new DJs, new promoters and new ideas as well. It takes time for a club to become established, but the two newcomers Säpinää and Sir William Gotfunk have gotten off to a good start.
For the moment John is concentrating on fostering his pet project. “We were surprisingly well received last fall and we’ll be back at Korjaamo this spring,” he promises. “We want to keep Säpinää going for a long time,” declares Lani. She and Sari also have other plans hatching under the auspices of Bring the Sound, including the dormant electro club Cheap Tricks, slated for a spring comeback.
”Get out there, people!” Sari urges. “Every night you can find interesting cultural events around town. Some are free, some may cost a little, but you might be surprised by how much fun it is to get out of your own home.”