Estonia: The Singing Revolution's furiously capitalist spirit is pushing the Baltic music biz
The President walks in to rapturous applause. The opening of Tallinn Music Week, a run of conferences and showcases in Estonia’s capital, sees him quoting Ezra Pound in defense of Pussy Riot and raving about how awesome The Ramones are to a crowd of giddy foreign delegates. ‘God has spoken,’ begins the next speaker, culture minister of the centre-right parliament for whom Toomas Hendrik IIves plays figurehead. Yet the view East from the Nordic Hotel Forum is a skeleton building-in-process, through which a huge Coke ad blazes. Below, an inimitably Baltic mise en scène of big coats, hats and trams. This affluent boutique state, teeming with tech start-ups, is open for business 24/7 and wants everyone to know. “Setting up a company takes fifteen minutes and you can do it from home. Want to file taxes? OK, takes five minutes,” a friendly music suit tells us in between mouthfuls of haute cuisine at the gilded, fantastically old-world Gloria restaurant in the City’s medieval centre.
It’s less strange once you realize how music and politics are nailed together in the country’s psyche. Independent since the so-called ‘Singing Revolution’ of 1991, Estonia’s emancipation, along with neighbours Latvia and Lithuania, was achieved without bloodshed, but with hundreds of thousands of massed singers, chanting samizdat verses and blocking soviet forces from retaking control of their TV tower. Once a rampant free market was booming, its natural compliment: a fast ‘n’ loose rock scene, sprung up alongside the casinos, strip clubs, skateboarding teenagers and billboards of determined white faces in yellow hard hats.
The country's capitalist spirit leveraged blogospheric prominence last summer when a post by the NY Times’ Paul Krugman cried bullshit on the country's status as "poster child for austerity's defenders". Estonia was the bully’s minion in the eurozone playground, flaunting the fact of their protection, their ‘fiscal responsibility’, and punctuating the traffic of strong-to-weak abuse with cries of ‘Yeah. Take that. You deserve it.’ The incident proved another boon for IIves, who rebuffed the Nobel Prize winner with a tweet of Easton Ellis-proportioned sarcasm. Someone wrote an opera about it. The reason the President attracts the bonhomie usually reserved for Keith Richards is that he is himself the walking manifestation of the individualist, screw-the-taxman sentiment of the British Invasion bands. It’s so charming it distracts from a dismal reality, glimpsed in the G4S squad cars that prowl around the banked black ice on Tallinn’s streets.
Conferences propel the music industry to untold auto-erotic feats, and the fundamental question (“how can we make money?”) asked over and over in different versions, starts to grate after hearing the bands, whose showcases, for want of formal quality or inspiration, come to resemble a series of excruciating sales pitches. Very notable exceptions included local sludge kids Kannabinõid, Mr. Peter Hayden, and cock-rocking acid flashback After The Ice. After another hymn to connectivity and tech innovation the next morning – ‘we just don’t know where the money is going’ is a common refrain – SVs wanders across the street to the former KGB hang-out, now KGB Museum. Still vibrating with the catastrophe of obsessive data collection, it’s adjoined to a shopping centre in what feels, as with much of the architecture and planning here, like a spectacular joke at the expense of the previous administration.
Ironically, a similar totalitarian madness underpins the dream of how ‘we’ might further accelerate data integration, (while getting artists their fair share, of course!) and ensure the seamlessness of revenue and ‘experience.’ Oedipal folk pop travesty Mumford and Sons are name-checked constantly alongside The xx and the Knife. There’s a bar that only plays Depeche Mode. The airport is crammed with sushi and egg chairs. It’s a curious kind of progress.