Baltic music industry seeks magic formula for success

  • 2004-06-03
  • By Tim Ochser
RIGA - For some people the idea of a Baltic music industry is an oxymoron. Yes, the Baltic states churn out a lot of music but it can hardly be said to be the product of a thriving industry. The best one can say about the Baltic music scene is that it is kept going by the dedication and enthusiasm of those involved in it.

The worst is that it is a bad imitation, in almost every sense of the word, of Western-style music industry practice.
It was little surprise then that the British Council's sponsored Baltic Music Industry Conference was so well attended when it was held at the newly opened state-of-the-art Sound Division studio in Riga on May 27 - 28. It was the first conference of its kind in the Baltics, bringing together a lively mix of music industry experts from the U.K. and key figures in the fledgling Baltic music industry.
The discussions ranged from the still-rampant problem of music piracy, to the difficulties facing promoters in attracting top performers to the region, to the complicated question of whether Estonia, Latvian and Lithuania are capable of producing artists for the extremely lucrative international market.

Music by numbers
There's no doubt that the music business in each of the Baltic states is relatively insubstantial in terms of both revenue and influence. That's why Lauri Laubre, a prominent Estonian music promoter, believes that the three countries should take a cooperative approach to developing their respective industries.
"The Estonian market is just too small to generate serious money. The best-selling artists can sell around 30,000 albums. A lot of our music is very locally orientated. It's basically beer drinking and dancing music. There's nothing we can sell outside Estonia," Laubre expained.
In Lithuania the situation is even worse. According to Vaidas Stackevicius, director of MP3, a music management company, the music industry is in a dire condition.
"CDs are cheaper in Lithuania than in Estonia and Latvia. No one can make a profit from music retail," Stackevicius said. "We have artists who can sell some 16,000 or 17,000 albums, but for an album to go platinum in Lithuania it has to sell 20,000 copies. The best-selling album in Lithuania was back in 1995, when a compilation of schlager music sold about 150,000 copies, but nothing's come close to that since."
In Latvia, the situation is a little better, but hardly something to shout about. Platform Records is one of the country's biggest record companies. Its best-selling act at the moment is A-Europa, which is close to going platinum at 14,000 copies. Such figures may help pay off some people's mortgages but they would hardly support the wildly opulent lifestyles of music legend.
There is certainly the will, if not quite the way, to improve things. But perhaps the key question facing the industry is what kind of success it really wants. There is no shortage of talented musicians and performers in all fields of music, from jazz and hip-hop, to pop and rock. But most of these are merely imitating a perceived notion of such music, rather than creating their own distinct sound, which seems to be hindering the problem instead of helping it.
Mel Bush, a well-known and respected manager and promoter in the U.K. music industry, was behind the unlikely global success of Vanessa May, among many others. He doesn't believe that the Baltic states need a joint strategy in order to break into the international market.
"There's no rocket science behind making successful music," he said. "It's all about having common sense and a good ear for what the public wants. There's no reason why an artist from a Baltic country couldn't become internationally known," Bush said.

Copy kills music
In a slightly surreal scenario, a panel of experts sat listening and then passing professional comment on a selection of some of the most popular and commercially successful Latvian songs. But it was perfectly clear that Nicky Graham, A&R at Sony U.K., and Steve Lyon, an English producer, weren't too impressed. The hook was in the wrong place. The production was off. The melody too folksy. The drumming awful. And so it went on.
The audience didn't quite know how to take it all. The two men were being perfectly polite while saying that, in their professional opinion, the best of Latvian music was pretty awful.
At one point an Estonian promoter stood up and complained that the discussion was only focused on Latvian music, although it was supposed to be a Pan-Baltic conference. He asked if they would play any Estonian music. "Um, er, no", came the answer. But it just so happened that the Estonian had a compact disc of a 16-year-old singer called Kerli. The panel told him to bring it over so they could play it.
Cue a husky female voice singing about how she doesn't care at all, because she's "beautiful inside."
"It's brilliant, I like it!" Graham enthused. "What does she look like?"
"She looks as good as she sounds," the Estonian replied with obvious pride.
"Come and see me afterward," the Sony man said. At which point the audience broke out into rapturous applause, and I slipped out the back door for a cigarette.

Pop culture
One of the most interesting speakers at the conference was Daniels Pavluts, the state secretary for the Ministry of Culture in Latvia. He gave an eloquent speech in which he explained why the establishment was only now beginning to do away with the old highbrow/lowbrow paradigm of culture.
"We have to make it clear that music is an investment and not a cost incurred," Pavluts said. "The music industry could become a major economic force. We also can't overestimate the positive impression that pop music can give of our country. It all helps to brand Latvia, to create an awareness of it."
This is all very true of course. Ask any foreigner what associations they have, say, of England, and they are almost certain to mention music. And remember when the Canadian government officially apologized for Alanis Morisette in the "South Park" movie? Music goes a long way as a point of reference.
Yet it seems improbable that there could be any meaningful cooperation between the Baltic states in this regard, beyond the obvious benefits of working more closely together to stage large scale concerts.
There's very little cross-selling between the Baltic states. Even the tiny Latvian market is markedly divided along Latvian/Russian lines. But, as Mel Bush said, there really is no reason why the Baltic states couldn't produce international breakthrough artists. Estonia's Vanilla Ninja is currently popular in Germany. Latvian stalwarts BrainStorm have enjoyed significant sales in Germany, Sweden, Poland and Portugal. And there are more and more examples of Baltic artists popping up on MTV screens all around Europe.
But it's worth remembering that pop music is, by its bizarre nature, a celebration of the ephemeral. The pop music that dominates the European and American charts is not so much music, as an industrial formula for generating huge sums of cash. If that's what the major record labels in the Baltics want to get in on, then there's no reason why they can't. After all, it has nothing to do with the Baltics.