Tallinn Music Week: An Unexpected Lesson in How to Do a City Festival Right

The "festival circuit" gets a kick in the Baltics.

It’s a strange time for the music festival as a concept — the Coachella-style megafestivals keep getting bigger and bigger, hoovering up big artists and even bigger piles of money, while the sad and ongoing demise of ATP has demonstrated that the boutique festival isn’t as viable a concept as it was ten or so years ago. Add to this the fact that the first generation of avid festivalgoers — Gen Xers, basically — are moving into their mid-30s, a time at which camping out for several days in (shudder) a tent starts to seem less than attractive, and you have a situation that presents both a challenge and an opportunity for festival promoters. There’s clearly still a lot of people who like the idea of a multi-day music binge, but unless you’re Coachella, you can’t appeal to them on the basis of big headliners alone — you have to provide something more.

It’s perhaps because of this that the city-centric festival has become a more prominent phenomenon over the past few years. Being able to stay in town presents several inherent advantages over the Glastonbury-esque field-in-the-middle-of-nowhere model, not least of which is the chance to stay in a proper hotel, sleep in a proper bed, and wash regularly. It also presents its own logistical challenges, though — organizing a festival across multiple venues must be a hell of an undertaking, and when the festival becomes too bloated and/or too successful for its own good (yes, I’m thinking of CMJ in NYC and SXSW in Austin), it can also be a logistical nightmare for attendees.

For this reason, the city festival seems best suited to small-ish cities — Moogfest in Durham, NC, and Soundland in Nashville are examples where this model has worked well. But perhaps the best example of all is in a place where few might expect: Tallinn, the capital of the Baltic nation of Estonia, which has been holding an annual Tallinn Music Week since 2009. The 2016 edition of the festival was held last month, and the organizers were kind enough to invite Flavorwire along — full disclosure, they were also kind enough to fly us out there and put us up in a hotel, which is very kind indeed — and out of curiosity, as much as anything else, we were happy to accept the offer.

It’s fair to say that the average US citizen’s familiarity with post-communist Baltic states is pretty minimal, so let’s note from the outset that Tallinn isn’t all Soviet architecture and leaden skies. It’s a beautiful little city, in fact, with a wonderfully preserved medieval old town, a pretty waterfront, a church that was the tallest building in the world circa 1400 or so, and an amazing Depeche Mode-themed bar. Happily, too, the local obsession appears to be fine dining — in the same way that, say, San Francisco is into craft beer or Seattle is into coffee, Tallinn is into food, with the result that the city is home to a disproportionate number of Really Good Restaurants. Huzzah.

Beyond its setting, Tallinn Music Week enjoys at least one advantage over festivals closer to home — the Estonian national government clearly has no problem providing state funding for such an endeavor, as well as getting involved in other, more hands-on ways. And by that, I mean that the freaking President of Estonia played a DJ set at this year’s festival. As much as “cool” is an integral part of Barack Obama’s brand, it’s hard to imagine him getting on the wheels of steel to drop an impromptu Chicago house set. (I’d love to be proven wrong about this, obviously.)

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, however, appeared delighted to DJ at one of the festival’s gala events, presenting a selection of songs from Teenage Wildlife, a compilation of favorite songs from his youth that he released last year for a charity. He relegated actual mixing duties to, um, his national security adviser — I’m not making this up, I promise — but his selections were pretty spot on, so much so that your correspondent may or may not have hollered, “Tuuuuuune!” when he dropped Plastic Bertrand’s “Ça Plane Pour Moi.”

Kristjan Indus/Tallinn Music Week
President Ilves: a better DJ than certain other world leaders (Kristjan Indus/Tallinn Music Week)

 

It’s easy to be cynical about such things, of course, and I’m sure that Estonian politics is just as appreciative of a well-orchestrated photo op as the politics of any other country. But it also shows that the festival has some serious institutional backing, which manifests in little touches like streets being closed for shows and festival branding being prominent throughout the city (and also in one of the city’s trolleys being set aside for a performance by the 2015 winner of Estonian Idol, a performance that to my eternal discredit I managed to miss by misreading the tram timetable.) It also demonstrates the relative intimacy that a small country can enjoy — all jokes aside, our President could never DJ to a bunch of randos, all of whom were within touching and high-fiving distance, for fear that someone would shoot him. That fear, however founded or unfounded, does not seem to keep Ilves up at night.

And finally, it demonstrates that this festival is for something. Quite what that thing is remains open for debate, but it seems there’s a concerted effort here at presenting Tallinn and the region as a whole as forward-thinking, modern and progressive. As The Quietus point out in their review of this year’s event, “The festival gently exploits our latent cultural snobbery, our “Western” notions of “The Other” for its own ends. It drives ideas of change using tropes and events based round issues that many sensitive types hold dear, like ‘preserving traditions’, or ‘authenticity’. Tallinn is full of people brought in locally and from around the globe, invited to talk about TMW’s agenda.” The fact that the festival’s budget extended to flying Flavorwire from NYC goes some way toward demonstrating how concerted this effort is; we’re proud of our publication, but as far as our profile goes, we’re not quite the New York Times, y’know?

Ilves’ DJ selections were entirely UK or US music — he grew up in New Jersey, curiously enough — but they were the only familiar songs I heard over the course of my week in Tallinn. The festival line-up was almost entirely bands from Estonia and thereabouts — I ran into one solitary Australian band at the bar, because there is always an Australian band at the bar, but apart from them, it was pretty much entirely Eastern Europe. A festival entirely populated by bands you’ve never heard of mightn’t seem like a selling point, but in its own way, it is — you’re only going to be pleasantly surprised, and I was pleasantly surprised more often than I expected. Metal is clearly as big in Estonia as it is in the rest of Europe, which is to say BIG — amongst other things, the festival line-up features, gloriously, an Estonian stoner metal band called “ESTONER” — but so too is experimental electronic music and ambient noise.

Martin Ahven/Tallinn Music Week
The Funky Bus! Eternal Erection: just out of shot (Martin Ahven/Tallinn Music Week)

 

There’s even something called a “classical rave,” which is perhaps a better idea in conception than execution — if I’m honest didn’t hold my attention for more than 15 minutes, but then, I wouldn’t pretend to be a classical aficionado. And elsewhere, if you’ve never seen a Latvian funk band play on top of an orange bus called The Funky Bus (which apparently belongs to another band called “Eternal Erection”), you’ve never lived. The latter performed at Kultuurikatel, a fascinating post-Soviet industrial area that’s been reinvented as a cultural center. (“This was done entirely by market forces,” festival director Helen Sildna assured assembled journalists, a curious choice of words that harked back to the 1980s, when capitalism was seen as a benevolent force. It all seems so naïve now, right?)

It’s hard to say bad things about a free trip, of course, which is why they’re frowned upon in journalistic circles, but as someone who’s been to a lot of music festivals over the years, I’ll happily say in all honesty that Tallinn Music Week is most certainly one of the best I’ve been to in recent, and certainly the most interesting. In an age where the festival “circuit” exists to satisfy the needs of an aging and increasingly wealthy one-gig-per-year demographic, it’s a pleasure to attend an event that exists for an entirely different purpose — even if that purpose is, in its own way, just as commercially driven.