Tallinn Music Week: 'A forward thinking festival with socio-political concerns to boot'

Tallinn Music Week: Annual city festival that 'smashes geographical, cultural and political boundaries, building new bridges and establishing new identities'

Tallinn Music Week 2018 / credit: Tanel Tero

As TMW heads into its 11th year, we chat to Director Helen Sildna and Head of Communication & Programme Curator Ingrid Kohtla

Having established itself as one of Europe's best city festivals and new economy conferences, Tallinn Music Week is Estonia's annual celebration of talent, creativity and new ideas. With a programme that showcases international diversity via a genre-blurring mix of 169 artists from 28 countries, TMW has become a focal point for creative communities and an incubator for conversations about art, culture, technology and society. As the festival kicks off its 11th year, we speak to Helen Sildna, Founder and Director of TMW and Ingrid Kohtla, Head of Communication and Programme Curator to discuss the festival's history, aims and wide-reaching appeal.

How did you come to establish Tallinn Music Week? And why did you feel it was needed?

Helen Sildna: I started out in the music business when I was 21, when I went to work at the country's biggest concert promotion agency BDG, now Live Nation. By working on getting well known international artists to our region, I realised there was a missing link in the music industry ecosystem over here. No one was focusing on the local talent. Together, with like minded people in the music industry we started Tallinn Music Week to establish a platform and a process to introduce Estonian music to the international music community.

Ingrid Kohtla: I've been involved in TMW since the very start (2009), after cutting my teeth in promoting Estonian talent internationally for three years at MTV. I started out as a promoter and news editor, and continued as the head of comms and programme curator from 2013. During the 10-year run, we have witnessed the birth of a whole new breed of talent, feeding off questions of gender identity and social righteousness, and also the new breed of movers and shakers. It's not so much about chasing or being in sync with the West anymore, but creating and fostering our own 'glocal' models.

How would you describe Tallinn's creative industry? How has it changed and developed since 2009?

HS: It has changed dramatically. In 2009, there were very few people who had any contacts or ideas on how to work across borders. The sector was pretty much closed into our tiny local market of 1.3 million people and there was not much systematic and conscious work being done. Now it' a new normal – musicians, but also designers, architects, artists, filmmakers take it as quite a natural course of action to create for an international audience. The creatives are much more knowledgeable, they have the courage and ambition to look for audiences elsewhere.

Tallinn Music Week: Annual city festival that 'smashes geographical, cultural and political boundaries, building new bridges and establishing new identities'

Helen Sildna / credit: Aron Urb

TMW is a part of the Keychange initiative and your programme has always had a positive number of female acts and speakers. Why is this important to you and the festival? And have you seen the gender balance at festivals generally improve over the past few years?

IK: In 2018, we reached and actually went beyond our long term goal of a 50/50 gender balance in the conference speakers' lineup by setting a new high benchmark for all Estonian conference and public event organisers. 'We have to have x amount of females or males on here' hasn't always been something that we have consciously aimed for but we're super happy to have many talented women and men, or gender-fluid acts from diverse genres and sub-genres on the lineup. What should really be totally passé in the 21st century is hyping hyper-masculinity, boastfulness, misogyny and marginalisation of women. When it comes to TMW, it's never been just counting the numbers, it's also about all-round diversity, education and freedom of speech. For example, this year we will have a public discussion titled 'What do women want?' that seeks to examine the positive contributions of female artists and music professionals to the local music industry, and to discuss problems of identity perception, gender representation (including in women's mags), and common underlying biases – and to identify ways forward from here.

Does TMW receive support from the government? And if so, how does this affect the organisation and implementation of the festival?

HS: Approximately 40% of TMW funding is public sector resources – Ministry of Culture, Estonian Tourist Board, City of Tallinn to name the main ones. The rest is sponsors, services, ticket sales. A festival like TMW could not really fulfil its purpose without these funding parts. I mean, we would if we would not invest this support into bringing in international partners, bookers and buyers for the music scene to benefit from (1/4 of our budget is related to costs for international relationships) or invest into promoting Estonia and Tallinn as a travel destination for culture-savvy tourists. There are elements of what we do that the festival doesn't directly benefit from, but which acts as a kind of service that we provide for enhancing the competitive edge of the whole country and its creative community.

Tallinn Music Week: 'A forward thinking festival with socio-political concerns to boot'

Ingrid Kohtla / credit: Ireen Altjõe

The 2019 conference will look into the impact of arts as an engine for the economy. With this in mind, what are the main themes that will likely be raised at the conference this year?

IK: The role of arts in urban and regional development will be looked at through the examples of our festival district North-Tallinn, including Telliskivi Creative City, Noblessner Port, and our conference centre, the Estonian Academy of Arts – to Helsinki's new cultural landmark Amos Rex, via measuring the nightime economy, the survival of the festivals. and the power of social motivation in design.

Some of the featured topics and questions that are to be raised include 'What is the business case of investing into culture?', 'How to turn "supporting" into "investing" for the mutual benefit of companies and the society' and 'What are the positive results of architectural rethink?'.

We are excited that the opening address of the conference will be given by Malcolm Garrett, a legend in British graphic and digital design, who cut his teeth designing landmark artwork. TMW also sees him in conversation with the fellow Mancunian punk and journalist John Robb about his iconic artworks and the power of social motivation in design.

The festival has such an incredible mix of music from classical and jazz to dance and metal. Why do you have this multi-genre focus for the showcases?

IK: Whatever genre you're into, you'll find the music that fits your taste, and artists from all genres and sub-genres are welcome to play at TMW. But I'd say that we are multi-genre, moving towards post-genre, presenting not so much styles and genres but scenes, shifts, national and outernational identities. Some old school genre-tags like 'alternative rock' have no meaning anymore, and trends are becoming less and less identifiable through genre terms and more identifiable through musical and stylistic terms. This is freeing for musicians, and especially results in a renaissance of music production. Take for example one of my personal faves from this years lineup – sound-collagist Mihkel Kleis aka Ratkiller who creates a parallel sound for pop music, full of chopped and screwed noise, frazzled electronics, convulsive cut-ups and blown-out ambience, and whose activities include forays in black metal and library music; all under different aliases.

With so many festivals to choose from in the spring/summer months, what in your view makes TMW stand out in the festival market?

IK: In terms of civic and cultural initiatives, TMW has tried to act as a forward thinking festival with socio-political concerns to boot. We have been a springboard for many underground musicians, and have increasingly developed a policy that promotes hyper-adventurous acts, including from the vast talent pool of Russia. Tallinn itself is a charming playground – a cross between progressive and functionalist Scandinavia and somewhat mysterious East. We pride ourselves on innovation, an adventurous mind and doing things differently, and we promise to deliver the biggest surprises from outside of the usual (British) scope of reference.

With the current political climate across Europe in a dire state generally, do you think events like TMW and the creative industry on the whole have the power to impact social issues and foster change?

HS: TMW can be regarded as a communication tool that helps bring issues to people in a more effective way than preaching from a lectern and thus embark real change. We have been emphasising and following the UN sustainable development goals for many years and pay special attention to environmental issues as well as equal rights and accessibility. These topics are and have been part of public talks but we also live these values in programming and on a tangible level. Our music programme celebrates diversity in both looks and sounds, with line-up that smashes geographical, cultural and political boundaries, building new bridges and establishing new identities. So, it's rather clear that as an arts event, it offers valuable tools to impact public opinion and instigate shifts in attitudes. Which is why we also need to be aware of the big responsibility we have on a daily basis.

Tallinn Music Week, Mon 25–Sun 31 Mar. Find out more at tmw.ee.