Interview with ASKO KALLONEN, A&R at BMG/Helsinki Music Company - August 28, 2006
"We were driving in Santa Monica with palm trees and the sun listening to that heavy, kind of doom metal song called ĎWhen Love and Death Embraceí for two minutes and then I had to take it off and said, ďNo, it doesnít work here,Ē... comes Asko Kallonen's insight into the difference between Finland and America.
Kallonen (Top position on HitQuarters' Top 20 A&R Chart - No.7) signed and internationally broke Eurovision winners Lordi (Top 10 Germany), and rockers HIM (No.1 Germany, Top 10 UK, Top 20 US).
He talks to HitQuarters about the rise of Finnish music, the benefits of housing all business aspects under one roof, and how to promote monsters!
How did you enter the music industry?
I was actually working as a musician about 20 years ago. Then I was a radio DJ for 5 years. After that the head of BMG called me and asked me if I wanted to start as a domestic A&R. That was like 13 years ago. He was the MD of BMG and gave me freedom to do what ever I wanted. Thatís how I kind of learned to do A&R.
How did the connection to the BMG person come up?
He knew me from some other people and from the radio. He had been listening to my shows and was asking around about me. People knew me from being a musician and being in radio.
BMG Finland didnít have a local A&R at the time and he was thinking to hire somebody who has already been working as an A&R but then he had the nerves to hire somebody that is not in the industry itself. He wanted to bring in new blood.
What happened in the first years?
I had my first gold record a year after I was hired and had a quite successful row after that. I got some really good artists. One of these bands was a trendy dance pop band which sold I think 5 times gold records in Finland. Then I signed HIM.
How did you find HIM?
Through a demo they sent me in spring 1996. It was a ruby cassette where there was only badly drawn letters that said HIM. I thought itís a kind of a Christian band. It was wrapped in a paper with a very bad picture of ugly guys. I was almost skipping the lousy cassette because I didnít have a cassette player with me. But I went to another room where there was a cassette player and listened to it.
The second song was their version of Chris Isaacís ĎWicked Gameí. It sounded fantastic. I thought, ďWhat the hell is happening? Why are these guys doing this kind of version of this song?Ē It was a superb idea. They nailed that song in their own style, which was unexpected. I immediately called the singer Ville Valo and asked him if they had a record deal. We met and his first question was, ďCan I smoke here?Ē
How long did you work with them before the first single came out?
Actually we released the EP of that cassette. We reproduced it in a studio but those four songs were all the songs they had at that time. We released it in autumn 1996. A national Finnish broadcasting companyís youth channel started to play ĎWicked Gameí immediately and local video channels started to show it.
The song was so popular that at first we were not supposed to do any video for the band. But the local video channel wanted to have one so the guys hired one lousy video camera, went to the park, and shot it by themselves. Then they showed that video all autumn. It cost 200 euros for the fee of renting the camera.
Why did the big stations jump on it in the very beginning?
Because it was a brilliant version. The band made it their own song because the original is a moody Country/AOR song. HIM showed their own style in that song. It was a suitable song for the radio because all the radio people knew it. Ville Valo made it actually tell a different story. I think all cover versions should do that.
Did the record company push it somehow in the beginning?
No. We made I think 2000 copies and sent a CD to one or two radio stations, which were supposed to play it. Then they played it, we put it in the stores and people bought it. It was like, ĎIt sounds good, lets put it out and see what happens.í We released it when they had a gig in the Tavastia Club in Helsinki where they now have every New Year their own show. We organised an EP release party and nobody showed up.
What made them break internationally?
The hit single ĎJoin Meí, of course. But besides that, they had the right record company behind it, which was Gun Records in Germany. I donít think a major company would have broken them there. They pitched the song for the movie The 13th Floor. It was a big happening in Germany and HIM had the title track so it became a No.1 in Germany in January 2000. That was when all the other countries jumped in.
How was the connection to the German label made?
They had a Finnish band on their label and came to a show where HIM was supporting them. By that time they said they are interested in the band but they should come back if they have more material and the album finished. That was when HIM released the EP.
A year later that I sent the album to the head of Gun Records Wolfgang Funk and his response was immediate and he wanted to see the band. Then they came to see the band in Finland and after three songs he said, ďYeah, lets make a deal, this band is great.Ē
Do you think Finland is a good place for a band to start from?
Yes I think itís pretty good. Itís a much easier market compared to the UK or the US. We donít have that much competition like in other countries where the whole music business culture is much more fragmented and sophisticated.
You really need to struggle much more to get a single or gig reviewed or a record deal at all. Itís much easier to get noticed in Finland. This is a small country and a small business here. Iím talking in a global scale.
Did your work change after the HIM success?
The HIM success was happening at the same time when Bomfunk MCís and Darude were successful. So it was three different hit acts from Finland in Europe. After that it became a lot easier to get songs listened to by major record companies in Europe. Thatís the most important thing. After 2000 people started to take Finnish music more serious.
How did you find Lordi?
I signed Lordi in 2002 and A&Ríd the first album which made gold then platinum. We had a big hit with ĎWould You Love a Monster Man?í The second album was much more difficult because everybody thought this was already done once. Then came the Eurovision. By that time I already had my own company. Because when Sony and BMG merged I left with the MD and started a new company, Helsinki Music Company.
When you signed Lordi, did they have the same style like today?
Definitely. They never played unmasked.
For the first record, did you look for songs for them or did they write their own material?
I actually did some pre-work for two years before we released them. It was more like they had the masks already in the beginning. That was the idea. They had songs but they were not strong enough. So I made them rehearse. It was a lot of pre-production work with them.
I listened to the songs and told them to write more songs and get a real band. Because in the beginning they only had a drum machine and a guitar player. They had a manager, who is still managing them, who had been looking for different companies but nobody actually wanted to have them.
He came to me and showed me the pictures of Lordi and I was totally in love with the pictures. But I said immediately that you need to have songs as good as the masks. Because if you only come up with the masks, people will think it is a novelty act and nobody will buy the record.
Did you look for outside songs, too?
No, when we started the third album they already had 20 songs and we picked out the best ones. Tomi Putaansuu, the man behind Lordi, knows 80ís rock and heavy rock inside out so he has the right concept for the songs and can write them.
Was the whole Lordi project planned or kind of a fun thing?
Usually you have to have fun if you want to make good music. But it was a business band because we mixed the band in London with Kevin Shirley, who has been working with Aerosmith, HIM, Iron Maiden and many other bands. Everything was very well planned beforehand, like the marketing concept based around the video and hit single.
Did you immediately get a hot rotation in radio and TV?
No, it was very difficult in the beginning. When you show a picture of that kind of a band, everybody thinks that this is a joke and thatís why we couldnít release it before we had a really good song and that was ĎÖMonster Maní. Then we showed the pictures and then the song and everybody said, ďYeah, thatís interesting. Thatís a good song.Ē
We made a video and got a good rotation with it in the national TV. We had spots between certain programs because one TV channel had kind of a midnight campaign where they showed horror movies. After those horror movies we got them to show the video. Then it started to happen in different places where people saw the video and started to talk about it.
Then radio played the first single and it started to grow. We had the single out for four months and it already went gold. We sold about 5000 singles, which is a lot for Finland where you normally sell 1000 singles. We had to stop selling the single after four months because we thought we need to save something for the album too.
Did they change the costumes over the years?
No, and they probably smell awful by now! They kind of update the characters all the time because there have been some changes in the band. So when there is a new player in the band, they create a new character. The drummer, the guitar player and Mr. Lordi himself have been there from the very beginning.
Is working with them different than working with other rock or heavy metal bands?
Not exactly. I would say they are a very well-thought and prepared band with their own particular style. In essence itís really much the same work. You go through the songs to see whether they fit to the whole concept; look for the right guy to produce the record and create a new interesting sound.
They have their own video guy who is doing all the videos for them, an old friend of Mr. Lordi. They come from the northern part of Finland. They have a certain kind of family, which pretty much does the things for them. Only the record producer is changing all the time.
What exactly are you doing in your company?
We have a music company, which is a different thing than a record company. Helsinki Music Company means that we have a record company, a publishing company and an agency, which sells gigs for artists, all under one roof. We have bands that are signed to all three departments. We think that this is the new model for the future of the music business.
What do you think is better in an all-inclusive company?
Well, if we would have management included it would be like this. But in a sense we manage all our artists and it goes towards that thinking. It is better that we donít have to think about that much to be successful immediately in the records, if we get revenues from the live scene. We can develop the career of an artist differently by developing their live performance, too.
We can find artists that can write good songs for themselves and at the same time write for other artists, for example. There are many combinations. When you donít have only one thing, you start to think more about an artistís career instead of just one project.
When I was working in the major company and I did a record for an artist I was mainly concerned of how the record does in the charts instead of thinking about a whole career of an artist. How does he or she do the gigs with the kind of stuff that is on the record? What about the song writing? Is it good enough to maybe write songs for other artists or put them together?
There is a synergy in many aspects of this. For example there was this rock band that started their career and hadnít many gigs and there were a lot of interest from other companies in Europe. So we arranged a kind of a tour for them before the record people were coming to see them. So we booked 15 gigs and didnít have to negotiate for that with an extra agency.
What kind of artists are you looking for at your label?
We have rock and pop bands, Schlagger artists; we cover a large area of music. We listen to unsolicited material and announce what we look for on our website. And of course sign acts from outside Finland too.
How would this look like? Would you work it in Finland or try it in their country?
I can imagine that we would sign something from Estonia or Sweden and start it in a close cooperation so that the artist can live where he or she lives. But itís definitely more difficult the further the artist lives.
An artist from Sweden could come for recording and the A&R but they can work with publishers in Sweden. That is what we do pretty much all the time at the moment. Swedish artists record through our contacts in Helsinki.
What kind of music do Finnish people like?
I would say itís pretty much local music. Local music has about 50% of market share and there is heavy metal, rock or schlagger. But of course there are also pretty much the same hits that are everywhere else in Europe.
Why do you think rock and metal are so big in Finland?
Maybe itís because life and the weather are so tough. Itís snowing like hell for half of the year and then you have this very hot and rainy summer. And itís also this gloomy period of the year when there isnít that much light.
For example I remember when I was playing one HIM song that was a big radio hit in Finland in Los Angeles to a record business guy. We were driving in Santa Monica with palm trees and the sun listening to that heavy, kind of doom metal song called ĎWhen Love and Death Embraceí for two minutes and then I had to take it off and said, ďNo, it doesnít work hereĒ.
Do you think there is space for new English-singing artists, as they have to compete then with the known international stars?
Yeah, itís true that they are competing with all the other artists that sing in English but we have the direct access for them because they can tour in Finland and they are around to do the promo.
How developed a band has to be?
It depends. For example, we now have a band consisting of 14-year-old kids. The singer is exceptional and they play very well so I donít know when they will be ready but we are developing them right now and we might release something in about a year.
What does development include in your company?
Song writing, playing and the whole awareness of what the artists are going to do. They have to understand in what business they are and what the key elements are. Like understanding what marketing is.
Itís more like coaching them the different aspects of the music business. When you play in a rehearsal room itís totally different than playing for an audience that has paid for tickets. For example for the band where the guys are just 14 years old we hired a coach. Or we put the bands on the road to develop their live performance.
Do you go after a time schedule when certain things should happen or do you let it evolve naturally?
Mostly you make short plans to see for instance what happens in a three month period. If certain things happen we can go on, if not we have to put in more effort.
Do you build it up in secret or do you try to get the media involved early?
First we have to make clear that the artist, the songs and the sound are ready. Then we come out with it. But rock bands mostly develop themselves in public. They start their career in very small clubs or with a friendís birthday.
Do you think itís important to create a fan base in the beginning?
Itís always nice if you have a fan base. But sometimes you can also create it very fast, if you have a pop artist with a new style of music or a hit song on the radio. I mean the fan base in this case normally doesnít last very long but you can still sell a lot of records with that.
How important is it for you to work long term with a band?
It is important but itís not the end of it all. More and more the business is like you can do it in a quick pace and you get good results but then itís over after one or two years. Not every band you sign can be Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. Itís a shame but thatís how it is.
How does the signing process at your label look like?
There is always somebody in our company who reacts to something. Then we go through it in our meetings and we discuss if this is a good thing for us and we usually check out the artist live and talk with them to see if they understand what we are trying to achieve. Usually itís a long process and takes half a year from noticing to signing, sometimes up to two years.
What in your eyes makes an artist special?
Sometimes there is a very charismatic person who has no clue that he or she is that way. Then you start to create things around this person. Or the song writing is good and you try to find the charisma.
How much influence do you take in a style or sound of an artist?
I donít push them in a certain direction but try to be an outsider who is looking in trying to help them find the focus of what is important in their music. I do that through finding the right people to work with them.
Did it happen that you signed an artist and the style changed totally in the development process?
Sometimes it changes but not totally. I think the best A&R decision is always to sign a good artist who takes care of the artistic process. Sometimes you have to help them, coach them or direct them a little bit. I donít believe that you can change the artistís style totally and come up with something good. There is always a reason why he or she started something.
What is important for a demo?
First that you have a name written on it! Because there are so many people who put their name just on the envelope and you have the CD in your hand and wonder, ďWhere is the name?Ē Then I think itís important to put three of your best songs on the demo, what you think is the best and what you want to represent.
And of course a picture and what you are trying to do and why and where can I see you. Most of the songs I get as MP3. I think itís easier than a CD. You go through your emails and let it play in the background.
How does a deal at your label look like?
I canít tell those things.
Do you take a share of touring and merchandising?
Do you have some marketing commitment in the contract stating what you want to spend on the artist?
How much does it cost to release a band?
I heard that there is support from the government for musicians in Finland. How does it look like?
Thereís some kind of support in the way of you get some kind of money of ESEK where you can send your master and itís reviewed there. If you are lucky you get somewhere between 3000-5000 Euros for an album master. But only a small percentage gets it.
Where can one meet music business people in Finland?
There are certain clubs in Helsinki like the Tavastia or the Semifinal and there are many clubs where you can play in Finland. Or you can go to a music and media meeting every autumn in Tampere, where all the record companies gather. Itís something like MIDEM or Popkomm for Finland.
You have been a judge in the Finnish Pop Idol. Do you think itís really a chance for an aspiring artist to go on such a TV format?
For some people it is the only chance. There are so many people in the world who donít want to play in bands but want to do something with music. A lot of people do not live exactly in the neighbourhood of record companies and they still want to be heard and seen.
I think these TV formats are only a TV presentation of the old traditional sessions that record company people were arranging for ages. TV is just a more dramatised version of life.
Donít you think that the artists from these shows can only have a very short period of success?
Many artists that release records have just a short period of success or normally donít have success at all. Usually people who win those competitions or come in second or third (there is usually one who doesnít win but is the most successful) can usually sell more records than so-called normal artists ever do, or do in ten yearsí time.
So even if it's just 2-3 years of success, you can go and do something else with your life afterwards. Itís not always a bad thing to have a short career. The people who win those competitions normally are not so frustrated like the people who have been trying to make it in the music business for ten years and never made it or sold just very few copies of their records.
Interview by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Josh Deutsch
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