The seventh Fonal Festivities takes place in Tampere University's Student Union. On one of Finland's precious few warm summer nights, nearly two hundred people have made their way here. The crowd is young, the atmosphere more low-key middle class bohemian than oppressively hipster. Taking the stage are the lively TV-Resistori and the bitingly ironic Risto. Both are celebrating their debut Fonal releases. But the festivities are also acting as Sami Sänpäkkilä's twenty-ninth birthday party and his going-away bash. Why is this so significant? Because Sänpäkkilä is Fonal Records.
The label boss is also a musician. Working under the moniker Es he creates fragile collages of organic loops, found sounds and ambient turntable noise, and as part of the ensemble Kiila he hews more closely to traditional songwriting. As a child it was film soundtracks that attracted him to music, more specifically the snippets of dialogue and sound effects between the songs. This fascination with sounds that fall between the cracks aptly fits Fonal's profile, for the label's catalog contains a spectrum of musicians that hovers at the periphery of Finland's small but diverse record industry.
Not many independent labels, in Finland or elsewhere, can boast of having a roster as varied as Fonal's. Yet Moonfog Prophet keyboardist and vocalist Mika Rättö's surreal opera Oopperse Le Feti Le Grande Anaale rests easily with Office Building's tragic melancholia - reminiscent of Radiohead's dark acoustic moments - and even Ville Leinonen's country-rock. Es' airy electronica seamlessly meshes with the psych-folk experiments of Kemialliset Ystävät, Isjala and Kiila. It is a strange mix, one that speaks of Fonal's strong personal appeal. The label's definite personality stems entirely from Sänpäkkilä's involvement in every aspect of the company.
Sänpäkkilä, enjoying the sunshine at outdoor table of Tampere's rather elegant Cafeteria Runo, has a gentle manner, and his scraggly goatee makes one think him a shorter version of Scooby Doo's Shaggy. He enthusiastically answers my questions, and our discussion slides easily from his rather effective concept of time to the everyday workings of Fonal.
The Hands-On Approach
Sänpäkkilä started Fonal in 1995 with a self-produced cassette featuring his first work as Es, his then-duo Kiila and the now defunct Slaughterhouse Quintet. The cassette was distributed by Belgium's KRAAK, who had until recently been Fonal's distributor. Sänpäkkilä views running the label as a compromise between his artistic aspirations and his business leanings, two sides which earlier in his life had generated conflict. Fonal was officially incorporated in 2001, but that has not changed the way it is run.
Something of a workaholic and a quintessential multi-tasker, Sänpäkkilä is always ready to address his label's needs, large and small, and to creatively meet new challenges. He has taught himself about music and recording technology, studied off-set printing to help produce Fonal's packaging and designed the label's website.
He works mostly nights, a tendency due to the way he views time: instead of feeling the pressure of a temporal sequence, he sees layers of emotions and experiences. With only amorphous blocks of time to fill, he manages to handle all of Fonal's day-to-day operations. He answers e-mails, posts record orders, sends out promos, listens to demos, deals with the artists, records, masters and designs the packages. Until his recent deal with the Scandinavian distributor Playground Music, he also had to haggle with distributors and record stores.
He runs the label from his childhood home in the tiny village of Ulvila. His parents aid in the laborious task of assembling Fonal's somewhat complicated packaging, which consists of a thick paper slipcase for the disc, a three-panel cardboard cover and a paper seal that keeps the whole thing together. The covers are printed at a print shop next door to his home (the CDs are pressed in Germany), a local element that only adds to the label's homegrown feel.
Besides the label, Sänpäkkilä's other focus is filmmaking. His film studies will put Fonal on temporary hiatus this fall while he attends a three-month exchange program at the Ontario College of Art and Design. You can still order records, there just won't be any new Fonal releases this year. Sami will still be answering your e-mail, but his mother will be posting the records, all of which are stored safely in his old bedroom.
"Warm and Small"
Of course, success in the music business is a relative term. Sänpäkkilä states he has reached a point where he can release a record whenever he wants, but he is by no means supporting himself with the label. He sells a decent amount of records to US distributors like Eclipse and Aquarius Records, and relies also on mail orders.
In Finland's small recording industry (one dominated by the Big Five, who account for nearly 80% of sales), serving a population of 5 million, Fonal's impact has been minor. There are over one hundred and sixty labels in the country, and in 2003 total CD sales topped the 9 million mark. In its entire existence, Sänpäkkilä estimates that he's sold a maximum of ten thousand records.
The label therefore depends on a few, comparatively speaking, big sellers. Office Building's 2001 album To See Only Shadows was Fonal's first high-profile release, followed in 2002 by singer-songwriter Ville Leinonen's hugely popular (again by Fonal standards) Raastinlaulaja. Kiila's Heartcore (one thousand copies moved) and Kemialliset Ystävät's Kellari Juniversumi (five hundred copies) have done well over the long term, both selling out their original print run. With the proceeds from the more successful acts, Fonal can release more left-field projects like the battered folk of Isjala, other KY releases, 7"s by the likes of Circle and Kuusumun Profeetta, three records by Es and even a Kiila VHS.
Such small sales and Fonal's championing of outsider music prevents the label from taking advantage of financial aid from two of Finland's biggest supporters of the music industry, Luses and ESEK. Both are foundations that use funds from, among other sources, mechanical royalties, blank tape levies and other copyright proceeds to fund recordings and promotional campaigns. The foundations often give grants based on sales potential, meaning pop music, and tend to favor jazz and classical acts.
Sänpäkkilä is not bothered that Fonal does not apparently meet these standards, and instead points to Finland's overall democratic atmosphere for music-making, which he still sees as giving an opportunity to many. "When you see a guy you know from the next village start a band and release an album," he says, "you start to think you can do it, too."
Releasing a record and running a label are two different animals, yet Sänpäkkilä has carried this democratic accessibility to all aspects of managing the company. He oversees a record's genesis from beginning to end. He uses only oral agreements and often guides the record from recording to packaging to release. It's an arrangement Sänpäkkilä says with which the musicians are content, citing Ville Leinonen's comment to him that the singer earned a larger percentage with Fonal than he has with larger labels.
A Logo, A Sound, A Goal – but No Ads
While Fonal does not have a specific vision, it does have a goal. Sänpäkkilä would like people to buy Fonal records simply because they are from Fonal. Toward that end he's developed the complex packaging, with the only consistent feature being the Fonal logo - one Sänpäkkilä designed himself - complete with a Braille translation. The album artwork is doled out to various artists, with KY's Jan Anderzen contributing his intricate, fantastical paintings to the most recent string of releases.
But more significantly for the music, Sänpäkkilä gets hands-on with the recording and mastering in order to achieve a signature sound. He prefers a democratic mix that emphasizes all sounds equally, one that the self-taught engineer quips sounds like crap on car stereos, but makes for dynamic home listening. By turning up your stereo you can get clear highs and deep lows.
It's the obsessive music lover that Fonal caters to, and as of yet there are no plans to offer large-scale digital downloads. MP3 samples are available from the website, but Sänpäkkilä is too much in love with the physical recorded product to completely switch. Instead, he plans to offer more elaborate packages in the future, such as larger formats, and for a KY reissue he has slated Anderzen to create a full booklet of original art.
In a bid to keep the label's intimate appeal Sänpäkkilä eschews advertising, not wanting to litter our information environment with even more input. Such a non-strategy means Fonal relies on word-of-mouth and Internet traffic to the website, which for all practical purposes is the label's public presence.
But such a low-impact, disembodied existence fits snugly with the "warm and small" credo. Fonal's music is there for the listening, and Sänpäkkilä is confident that those who are really interested will seek it out.
By Matthew Wuethrich