Folk music in clubs and earbuds

Riikka Hiltunen

More than a century has passed since traditional runo singers emerged on our stages, and several decades since the breakthrough of contemporary folk music on mainstream audiences’ radar. Today, folk music is heard first and foremost in concert halls and at folk and world music festivals, but a growing number of ensembles have the opportunity to perform to different types of audiences at diverse venues. Tsuumi Sound System is a good example of a band that has toured also for example classical music venues and rock clubs.

Access to rock clubs and popular music festivals has been more straightforward for those ensembles and artists who approach folk music from the direction of mainstream music, instead of the other way around. However, welcome changes to this trend are increasingly appearing. Over the past few years, Helsinki’s Flow Festival, for example, has featured ensembles and individual artists whose music can comfortably be classified as contemporary folk. Even the legendary rock club Tavastia is beginning to feel familiar to many folk musicians, albeit largely due to the annual Ethnogala event organised at the venue.

One of the ensembles that has been actively touring diverse venues is Okra Playground, the opening act at this year’s Etno-Espa event. In Finland, the group has played gigs at venues such as Nosturi, Pakkahuone and the Flow Festival, and internationally at many large Central European rock clubs. Etno-Espa can proudly claim to have discovered this rapidly rising ensemble in the early stages of their career – the group first performed at the event in 2012, well before the release of their 2015 debut album Turmio.

Okra Playground has links to mainstream music as well. One of the ensemble’s three soloists, Maija Kauhanen, has sung in the pop groups Rosa and Malmö, whereas bassist Sami Kujala has been adventuring across several genres. However, the ensemble’s musical flirting with mainstream music remains very subtle.

In addition to being musically approachable, Maija Kauhanen emphasises the significance of finding the right support team in order to reach different audiences.

”Certain musical elements will intrigue people regardless of the genre, and our music is a good fit for many different kinds of venues. However, you also need capable booking agents and promoters in order to reach new audiences.”

New listeners can be found through online platforms as well. Folk music is struggling with the same changes and challenges as the rest of the music industry: the sales of hard copy recordings have all but finished. Okra Playground is one of the many groups whose recordings can be heard through Spotify.

”A hard copy album is more like a calling card these days, with most of the sales made in connection with live gigs”, says Johanna Sauramäki from Saura Booking Agency, the ensemble’s management.

Live gigs and streaming go hand in hand. According to Sauramäki, international tours are followed by a spike in streaming numbers. She hopes that it will eventually become easier to live stream gigs in order to better service listeners around the world. Currently, copyright legislation presents its own challenges to live streaming.

“Okra Playground’s gig at the G Livelab in Tampere was live streamed using 360-degree video, as a pilot experiment facilitated by FMQ Magazine. The small club gig attracted masses of followers from around the globe. It is unfortunate that even though we have vast possibilities available through technology, bureaucracy fails to keep up the pace.”

The author is a music researcher and music journalist who is also part of the Etno-Espa creative team.

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham

Etno-Espa’s top picks

Okra Playground 5 August at 4pm
Tsuumi Sound System 13 August at 17.15 pm