Access was back in Estonia for the 16th edition of Tallinn Music Week, which hosted 1,300 delegates, along with 174 artists from 35 countries.

Tallinn Music Week (TMW) again demonstrated the power of live music and European-wide collaboration in testing times.

TMW organisers Shiftworks has hosted several challenging editions of the event over the last few years – including bravely forging ahead with the 2020 event during the pandemic, then moving it to the Russian border straight after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Now in 2024 with even further uncertainties ahead – not least AI and rising costs – the conference touched on pressing issues like the fragile position of grassroots music venues, following the recent closure of one of Tallinn’s most beloved venues, Sveta Bar.

Duo Mann & Juula. Pictured by Jürgen Joost

After TMW founder Helen Sildna proudly announced a 30% increase in ticket sales for this year, the former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, also took to the stage to highlight the importance of the event – particularly “at the end of the post-cold war era” which he says began with the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014.

“Here we are at the dusk of the post-cold war era, we don’t know what lies ahead but what I count on is the creative minds of Tallinn Music Week coming up with new ideas.

“Ezra Pound said poets are the antennae of the race, I like to think of Tallinn Music Week as one of the antennae of Europe.”

In snowy conditions, Tallinn’s hip Telliskivi neighbourhood was again buzzing with activity, hosting showcases from the likes of Africa NOW!, Keychange, Made in Canada and Taiwan and South Korea. The festival also showcased a record number of Finnish artists.

Among the weird and wonderful venues is the Club of Different Rooms, where attendees swap their shoes for slippers upon entry, as well as a new outdoor stage, the Travelling Hedgehog – a sculpture made for Burning Man by Estonians.

Travelling Hedgehog. By Helen Strom

Burning Man Project’s associate director of city planning, Bryant Tan was joined on the conference programme by speakers including britpop architect Jane Savidge, R.E.M.’s advisor and manager Bertis Down, and music industry psychotherapist Tamsin Embleton.

The vital role of grassroots venues was discussed heavily in Tallinn following the recent closure of Sveta Bar. The issue was highlighted by Dutch independent promoter, agent and label manager Koen ter Heegde, who founded Yugofuturism – a platform focused on connecting emerging acts from Central and Eastern Europe.

Speaking to Access with his Rotterdam post-punk five-piece Tramhaus, ter Heegde said, “This is a European problem, it’s not only here in the Netherlands but everywhere it’s an issue – fighting gentrification, rising costs but also an industry that really does not care that much about grassroots venues.”

Haldi & ans Flamingo. By Eve Naaber

The issue was also discussed in a grassroots venues panel which featured Cath Hurley, head of skills and development at 280-capacity Birkenhead music venue, Future Yard.

Following discussions in UK parliament for concerts arenas to add a £1 ticket levy to help small UK venues, Hurley said, “There’s a lot of talk about grassroots venues being the stepping stone to playing arena gigs and massive shows – it’s not just that – there are people who work in the grassroots venues scene who don’t want to play on huge stages. We need to appreciate that the role of the grassroots music scene isn’t just a stepping stone – it’s somewhere that people want to inhabit and live and breathe.”

Another pioneer of the Baltic underground scene is Mark Dieler, co-founder of Cindy & Kate – a trust-based network of Baltic grassroots cultural venues.

Speaking to Access outside of 300-cap venue Uus Laine, Dieler said, “The idea [of Cindy & Kate] is to create a mapping exercise, put all the data together, and then we can show numbers that can be comparable to promoters like Live Nation. Then we can show we are part of the economy through a trickle-down effect.

“This is the nursing ground for all the big artists. If there is no grassroots scene, where are artists supposed to come from?”

Jeongsu Park. By Kersti Saumann

Also speaking at the conference was Wasserman senior vice president Rob Challice, who highlighted the decline in popularity of small venues and camping festivals among young people. Challice also claimed that the industry now “follows the artists”, citing the impact of artists such as Fred Again.

Oslo World Music Festival director Alexandra Archetti Stølen says she is pleased to see an increase in gender-balanced lineups and female festival directors across Europe. The consensus is, though, that there is still much more work to be done, as highlighted by industry campaign group Keychange, which presented its Impact Evaluation Report during the event. Among its representatives at TMW included founder and PRS Foundation CEO Joe Frankland.

Says Frankland, “TMW was the natural home for the launch of our impact report and the Keychange Manifesto 2.0 which will certainly shape our collective effort to forge a more inclusive and more effective music industry.”

TMW 2024 also saw the official launch of Music Tech Europe, an umbrella association of national music technology associations and music industry bodies. Ave Sophia Tölpt, director of Music Estonia, which co-created the conference programme said, “Estonia is considered a tech country, but music tech companies is something you don’t see so much of – so that was a focus for us this year.”

Bedless Bones. By Elena Mkrtchian

Ter Heegde sums up the event well: “Tallinn Music Week doesn’t go for the easy choices when it comes to showcasing bands.

“Estonia feels like the end of the world for a lot of people. By the country creating their own thing with Tallinn Music Week, they also brought the world to Estonia. A small country with only a million people and a small language chose to highlight their country and their city using culture as a medium. That’s a radical choice.”