Few events are opened by a country’s president or have such a wide-ranging musical offering, but then Tallinn Music Week thrives on being a uniquely enjoyable blend of the musically unexpected and a platform for the open exchange of industry views and ideas.
The team behind Tallinn Music Week (TMW) has bravely forged ahead throughout the pandemic and despite delays, uncertainty, and much red tape it has successfully staged the annual event twice, as in-person editions, since Covid-19 struck.
Access was fortunate to attend the most recent edition on 29 September – 3 October, which saw 177 acts from 21 countries perform shows across 60 venues in the Estonian capital. Meanwhile TMW’s Creative Impact Conference involved 129 speakers from 18 countries.
Bringing together such a broad mix of international music and industry talent was a remarkable achievement considering the intimidating amount of procedural paperwork and costly testing requirements involved in attending overseas events.
As well as a refreshingly varied range of musically adventurous Estonian artists, from Bjork-meets-folk trio Etnosfäär to the artful soul-pop of Mart Avi, the numerous oversees acts to play the event included US heavy rockers A Place To Bury Strangers and Icelandic techno BDSM act Hitari.
For a country with a population of only 1.3 million, the exposure that TMW brings homegrown talent is vitally important. TMW head of PR & communications Ingrid Kohtla says there has been no end of success stories resulting from the event, not least the duo Maarja Nuut & Ruum who went on to sign a contract with the UK’s FatCat Records and perform at festivals including WOMAD.
It was not just TMW’s music line-up that proved extraordinarily diverse, the event involved venues of all shapes, sizes and purposes. Situated largely in the city’s remarkably preserved medieval Old Town (pictured below), and achingly hip creative quarter Telliskivi (pictured above), they included everything from the city’s former power station, a club where shoes are banned, a photography museum, and Uus Laine – a renovated shack behind Tallinn station decorated with a gold elephant head.
During the daytime, the Creative Impact Conference saw industry delegates descend on the Nordic Hotel Forum and techno club HALL to hear from a fittingly diverse programme of speakers. They ranged from singer-songwriter Billy Bragg to Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid.
As if the appearance of the president didn’t sufficiently illustrate the level of government endorsement for TMW, the conference also saw former president Toomas Hendrik deliver a talk about the country’s history and the importance of singing as a way of Estonians sustaining a sense of identity in difficult times. He said that for a country that had been invaded on average twice per century, singing enabled Estonians to maintain an independent spirit.
“We sang ourselves free by being free in music,” he said.
Among the conference delegation was a sizeable group of UK industry executives including Glastonbury Festival booker and Great Escape co-founder Martin Elbourne, Music Venue Trust venue support manager Clara Cullen, BIMM senior lecturer Howard Monk, The Jazz Café promotions manager Jack Hersh, festival owner and artist manager Stephen Budd, and Tim Brennan a video director who has worked with some of the biggest touring acts in the world and is one of the leading figures behind the Carry On Touring post Brexit campaign.
TMW usually takes place in late March but was delayed twice this year due to pandemic related issues. With the aim of attracting the widest possible international audience, TMW was delivered this year as a hybrid event, with some interviews taking place online and all conference sessions being made available to stream.
Kohtla says digital delivery is likely to remain a key element of the event for the foreseeable future. She has been involved with the festival since its launch 2009, having started as a web editor before co-curating the conference and running showcase nights. “That’s not unusual, all members of the team have a finger in every pie,” she laughs.
Compared to last year’s event, which took place from 27 August, Kohtla says staging TMW was comparatively plain sailing this year: “We had compiled the line-up for the original May dates and when we postponed we had to change about 20% of it because not all acts could make the new dates. That was nothing compared to last years’ experience when we had to change the whole thing.
“In the summer this year it was still pretty unclear what the exact situation would be so we waited and observed the situation, prepared the health check system, and didn’t start booking flights until August. We were making little changes right up to the last minute.”
With the event finally up and running, the Estonian president used her conference opening speech to praise the resolve of the TMW’s team in making it happen physically for the last two years.
“I am very glad that Tallinn Music Week survived the pandemic,” she said. “It came back because [founder Helen Sildna] is brave, resourceful and creative, and everyone on the organising team is like her.
“Creative and brave people are a sign of a free society because only truly free people are creative.”