TARTAREAN DESIRE WEBZINE
This interview with Rami Hippi and Janne-Pekka Muikku from the Finnish record label Firebox Records was done by Fjordi in March / April 2004.
FireBox has become one of the most important and promising small labels in the metal milieu. Theyīre from Finland and funeral doom metal is their strong point if we take a look to the labelīs bands roster, though some of their bands donīt play that slow kind of metal. Their good work is remarkable enough to be interviewed by Tartarean Desire, and we contacted the core of FireBox, Rami Hippi and Janne-Pekka Muikku, to know more things about their activities, doom metal, Finland way of life and other things... read!
History of Firebox Records; why, where and when the idea did arise...
Rami: Firebox was established at April 2001 by me. I got the idea when I noticed it was really difficult to find doom metal albums for sale in Finland, and also the price for metal music albums here were much more higher than in other countries. Also the supply here was quite narrow. So I noticed there could be demand of mail-order company who can offer metal cdīs for reasonable price and import some really hard-to-find albums to Finnish market. Doom metal is the genre which normal record stores do not like at all, so that genre was the key to establish a new company.
The first year the company worked only for mailorder and I was the only employee of it. Another "employee" was Janne-Pekka Muikku, who helps a lot for practical things and contact other distributors and labels. The company hadnīt had so good start without Janne-Pekkaīs mighty help.
After one year we started also distribution, due to I noticed there were plenty of labels without regular distributor in Finland (like CCP, Black Mark, Listenable) and later when Spinefarm and MNW stopped to distribute loads of labels (Avantgarde, Season of Mist, Hammerheart etc.) we collect them all under our wings.
In autumn 2002 I heard from a guy who made reviews on our pages (Markus Marjomaa) that he had a doom metal band and he was looking for a label to release his demo-cd. Together with another local doom metal band we decided to publish a Split-cd [this is the Aarni/Umbra Nihil split CD -Fjordi] and establish a record label named Firebox Records. Soon after that we noticed that it would be nice to release also more doom metal albums, as there are so few labels who dare to release that kind of stuff. So next step was to contact the band My Shameful, which demo-cd I got somewhere and liked it much. So thatīs the start, after that we looked for other doom bands all over the world and asked them to send demo-cd and we signed everything which sounded good enough. Nowadays we have more than enough material wherewhom to choose, as weīve got new demos nearly every day...
Did Spinefarm pave the path in one way or another, or were they an example or reference for you, when starting up Firebox Records? What do you think about their work?
Rami: Spinefarm didnīt show any path to me. I didnīt actually know Spinefarm so well when I established Firebox, as they were a label and we only a mailorder store. I only bought nearly all Spinefarm releases and some which they distributed to my shop, but thatīs all. Spinefarm have done a great job here, they have had great bands (Nightwish, Children of Bodom; personally I liked only Shape of Despair...) and they have done a lot of good things for Finnish music industry. Nowadays, when Universal own the company, their work is a bit of suspicious, their new releases are quite shitty, all sound just the same (gothic shit like Charon, To Die For, For My Pain and melodic black like Ensiferum, Moonsorrow, Finntroll etc.) and they avoid any risks for taking new bands, that wonīt be so good strategy for a long. I think if Nightwish now send their first demo-cd to Spinefarm, theyīll be too careful to sign the band.
Ups and downs when creating a label... Tell us which are the things that make your work worthwhile, and the ones that make you feel sick.
Rami: One confusing thing was, that when you do a new label, there is a million things youīll have to take into consideration and many of those are quite expensive, so youīll need a great amount of funds in the beginning. Even that kind of thing as barcodes will cost over 500 euros, I think nobody knows that when calculating expenses. Also when youīll have a new label, it will take months and months to get any profits. So, in closery money is always a big problem. Anyway, good is every feedback that we got from fans of doom metal all over the world. Bad thing is when trying to find out reliable cooperation companies outside your country. Itīs very hard, at least countries like Sweden and England.
Your label seems to be especially devoted to doom metal, tell us if this is your favourite style of music, and explain what are the criteria to choose a band to join the FireBox camp.
Rami: My fave music styles are doom (new wave of), brutal death and some pagan/folk styles. Otherwise, I like nearly all doom bands, but only few brutal death metal stuff, best are Nile, HatePlow and Blood Red Throne. Even we have signed nearly only doom metal bands to our label, that donīt mean we do only this genre. We can receive all kind of music and if itīs enought good we sign it to our label. Itīs not my foul that all black, death and thrash metal demos we have received have been rather of shitty. Total Devastation have been only exception for that, and thatīs the reason why we have sign it. Possible the reason is, that there is too much black/death metal bands already nowadays, so all new demos sounds just the same than billion other bands. Doom metal is smaller genre, so nearly all demos what weīve got have sounds so fresh.
Janne-Pekka: While Rami is a one of a hell Doom Metal freak, I don't even listen to it! :-) Ok, I dig some more classic doom era oriented bands like Orodruin, Pale Divine and Pentagram, but out of our own bands I mostly dig Pantheist and Until Death Overtakes Me. So, while Rami decides the "artistic" content, I tend to look for the financial side of the things and such, checking a bit that there is no skeletons in the closet sort of things. Many bands don't seem to understand that when you write a recording contract, you underwrite a legally binding document. Of course we don't want to make deals with persons who might be of a dubious 'fame' or whatnot. There is too many dishonest persons in this planet and the last place where I want to find them out is in our bands line up.
Donīt you think that extreme, slow ,ultra-doom metal, is maybe one of the most uncommercial genres of metal? Many people relates "extreme music" with speed, blood and satan only... In my opinion, itīs very brave to release such bands!
Rami: Yeah I know very well that. Doom metal is really one of the most difficult genre to sell. Iīve heard so many distributor the same point "I personally like your stuff, but we canīt sell it... ". Fortunately there is always some smaller labels which have more courageous to try to sell bit of more difficult music...
Anyway, we will continue our work and I donīt care is the music easy to sell or not. If it sounds fantastic, I sign the band thatīs the one and only reason. When doing good promotion there will always be some fanatics who want to buy our releases.
...and that last question leads to another one: donīt you think that doom metal is maybe behind black metal or death metal when it comes to distribution, albums supply, merchandising and coverage in general in zines and mags? When I attend stores regularly, you can find plenty of black and death records, but if you are interested in good dark doom metal bands your efforts usually are in vain and you must use mailorders... is it a problem of distribution? Mobīs preferences? Lack of labels devoted to doom metal like yours? What are the reasons of that situation?
Rami: Yeah youīre absolutely right for this. Stores keep black and death metal releases available, even nearly all of them sounds just same shit. Many stores reject new band, just when they heard itīs doom metal. Due to that our goal is to get our releases to all decent mailorder companies, as they are only reasonable way to spread out doom metal nowadays. Only problem is, that like this our releases wonīt ever sell more than few thousand copies, as only very active music listener know how to buy in mailorder shop. If you like to achieve better sales, your cdīs has to be in all supermarket shelves, at least in Finland.
J-P: First of all, when speaking of 'our' version of doom metal sound, it won't ever be mainstream music (apart from Until Death Overtakes Me that might evolve with time to pureish ambient form?) and to be honest, I don't think that it's place will ever be in the shops. This music is part of subculture and for subcultures you need a certain own space what "normal" music culture doesn't really offer. So, it's natural that you either buy the music straight from the bands or via mailorders. Of course there is here and there some shops that stock title or two of extreme doom metal, but it's nothing when compared to the alarming numbers of mediocre black metal, crappy melodeath and brainless power metal albums what the shops stock. And magazines. It's hard to believe the number of magazines and webzines that are asking for the promo parcels and it's hard to believe the number of reviews what we have found. Take for example My Shameful and their "Of all the wrong things" album. We send out some 300+ promo's and after seven months we can find barely close to 30 reviews. Not too impressive number. And not to speak of those "contributors" to this and that magazine - everyone seems to be contributor to Terrorizer, though I'm not sure that does the magazine know any of them at all...
Media is a problem as doom metal IN GENERAL is not a radio friendly format and most of the bands tends to prefer obscurity as their appearance, so it's quite hard to make longer stories or interesting interviews with them. And then you have the general prejudices against the doom metal i.e. "easy stuff to play, doom metal is the Ramones of metal" and such.
Another problem in media is that you encounter more and more of magazines that make demands for ads if you want to get a review of your cd, not to speak of stories or proper interview! This is irritating especially when magazine is asking promo's from you and
ONLY after receiving them "remembers" to say that "no ad = no review." Fuck Metal Kingdom (Chile). And most of the German magazines too... "Might be interview, would be nice to have ad..." Big labels burn money on ads and magazine editors learn to be greedy. Sad but true.
I suppose there will be a bunch of bands that you would be very pleased to sign... tell me who they are.
Rami: Well, I donīt think there is so much of them. For realistic thinking I know our resources are not big enough for great bands like Septic Flesh or Nile so I donīt ever dream those kind of bands. Preferly I like to stay nearly underground, find new bands, try to grow them big and bring up our label at the same time. But, if I have to choose, Evoken should be a nice band to get for our catalogue.
Labels in general have an awful image from bands and fans, and theyīre often regarded as the ones that rip off the bands, suck their money and illusions and other "nice" things like these... sometimes people donīt understand the real thing at all, and the huge difference between majors and small labels like yours... tell us what are your thoughts on this topic, the bad reputation of the labels... you can give some light onto the subject! Explain us the point of view of a young label like Firebox is.
J-P: I think we have a good reputation when it comes to Firebox as record label. We promote quite a lot, even take some ads in magazines time to time. We are prompt with payments to bands and so. Personally I would like to think that we even keep up a good communication with the bands, even thou there is of course periods when we are not asking that what's happening and so. We have been quite lucky, NOT MUCH rockstar attitudes among our bands, but note the wording... In a cliche way, I might say that we are a one big family, but basically our channels of communications are quite straight forward. For labels to get a bad reputation, there is just so many different ways for that but usually it's just bad management. Many labels can afford to release an album or two on a time and they need to recoup money from those sales in order to release the next albums. Sometimes those albums don't sell enough and that will push the releases of the next albums to further. This is tricky when you are a label which signs plenty of bands yet your cash reserve is very limited. For these, every release can mean the death of the label if the album doesn't sell well enough. We have had our own rescheduling of the releases, but this has been because the bands have had problems with the studio or mastering, never because we have not earmarked enough money for a release.
Another issue that gives labels bad reputation is that they dump band if they don't sell enough. We might dump one band, but because they have not been able to record their album on time and we have given them already a year for it. We probably wait another year or two and then simply breach the recording contract. At the moment we have 13 bands in our roster and I think that it's quite manageable number of bands when considering the communication, promotion and all that what it requires. I know some people who are doing the same promotional tasks as me, but for some 50 or so bands and I feel pity for them, as they have to place bands to A, B, C categories just to have some time to concentrate on the few "Priority A" bands.
Another issue that blurs the reputation is that the labels and the bands don't really sit down together and sort out that what they have really agreed when doing the record contract. As far as I know, all the bands in our label know at least in general terms what kind of distribution/marketing/promotion/ad policy/etc we have. The main difference between us and say Nuclear Blast is that we release music, they release background noise for elevators [hahahahaha, quite true Fjordi].
Another question stemming from that: bands are sometimes the ones going just for the money... have you found any band with too high pretentions when negotiating a deal, showing rock star attitude or anything similar? You can tell names, why not, hehehe! Itīs up to you...
J-P: Our own Wasara can be labelled as one of those, but we have managed to reach a working relationship, to my surprise. And of course among the demo bands that are looking for deals, there are quite a few bands who doesn't seem to understand that there is this thing what we call reality. Many bands are demanding a lot but they donīt really offer anything, a quite bad combination.
The internet downloads of music and piracy canīt be understated, and being you from a record label you will have several things to say about it... express yourself!
J-P: Well, this a problem for labels that release weak crap or hit oriented music. I have talked with one guy from the upper echelon of Warner Music and he admits that it's alarming how much pop(/rock) music is made just for 'the moment' i.e. for the duration of 3-4 months. These singers and producers are not aiming to make any evergreen hits, but they are producing songs that are kind of discarded after the radioshow rotation. That kind of attitudes also feeds the people to think that the song on mp3 is just a disposable commodity or some kind of media product, not, well..., not a song...
It's sure and clear that all Firebox titles are in the Internet pirate channels and so. We can't do anything about that, that is beyond our reach, simple as hell. But when speaking in the business terms, we are operating in a market segment where the consumer is prone to pre-evaluate the product (i.e. listening to mp3's) and when finding the product's specifics desirable, they actually purchase the product. In other words, plenty of people like to listen (free) mp3 albums, but still prefer to have the real CD on their record shelf. Thank God for the metal scene's basic urge to be a record collector!
Geography is sometimes a peculiar link between music and bands... Musically speaking, Finland is mainly well known for happy metal bands (Stratovarius...) and ultra slow decadent, depressive acts such as Skepticism or Unholy... so if I had heard that a new label would give support to slow paced doom bands, and I have been asked where it came from, I had instantly thought that it just could come from Suomi, like it was the case! But a question is almost forced: why Finland is the cradle of such dramatic, tragic, funeral doom bands and, at the same time, is the homeland of people like Sonata Arctica? I think itīs really weird...
J-P: Well, from Denmark come Happy Daze and not so happy Mercyful Fate... Basically you can draw the conclusion that in Finland, the basic mentality is one of pessimism or cynicism. This is due to our long history of hard work with little reward and quite unforgiving nature and weather. In the old days, you could scrape together a meagre living but you could not really think that you are able to hit a jackpot. Think that kind of living generation after generation and you don't think that death is something bad, it's a relief from the worthless life. This tradition has been carried to today's Finland too. Some persons embrace it, some try to escape from it and then there is huge grey area in-between that fluctuates from one side to another. So, in that sense it's nothing new that from Finland you can find both extreme ends of certain musical styles. And after all, it's up to individuals themselves to decide what they will do. And after that the masses can copy the originators to death.
What is the trend nowadays in Finland? Is black metal the most established extreme style of music? The demos arriving to your mailbox, do they belong to any particular type of metal?
J-P: Children of Bodom is the hit right now, you can see it when you go to any festival, just count the T-shirts. Melodic death metal in all forms (either mixing with NWOBHM, black, gothic, folk, doom, industrial, whatever) is the ruling genre without a doubt. Why? Because that genre has the widest offering of established bands and also plenty of labels are always looking for new bands, so start a band and you might have some reasonable expectations to get signed. Black metal is not so established simply because majority of the bands are studio only and mostly lack the quality control i.e. plenty of so-so releases. The days are over, those days when just because you worshipped satan and wore corpsepaint, people bought your CD. People expect at least some resemble to quality.
We receive something like 7-10 demos per week. I used to listen to all through, but as I now live in Hungary, I have no idea about what the guys in Seinäjoki are doing nowadays, but I think that they have no time to listen them all through. 90% of the demos what we receive fall into metal, the rest being gothic, industrial and ambient kind of music. And in the metal lot, it's mostly deathrash, melodeath, death/black metal. 90% Finnish, the rest from all around the world.
Rami: I think black metal and brutal death is quite dead here now, best selling genres are maybe that melodic/gothic shit which Spinefarm release and then viking/folk/melodic styled metal. Also melodic (death) metal goes very well. And of course doom... (proportionally thinking). The demos we got are mostly melodic death or thrash metal. Too few demos what are worth of listening more than a couple of first tracks. Lately I have received a bunch of demos from Italy, nearly all are in the same category, some kind of "art metal". Quite torture to listen to them, sorry Italianos...
Iīd like to know what is the band that you are more satisfied to have signed for FireBox, or your favourite signed band, if you have a preference.
J-P: Well, based on sales, Total Devastation is the number one, because it has the most "mainstream" appeal of all our bands. Based on further sales, Until Death Overtakes Me was a surprise. I knew that it's excellent music, but would it sell? To my surprise it has sold nicely and there is demand for it. Based purely on artistic things, then I think Pantheist might be my pick of the most favoured band. They show that doom metal can be something else that just repeating the same riff time after time.
Rami: Total Devastation, definitely. They are a very promising and young band and they have great and professional attitude for all what they do. For doom bands Pantheist is also my favourite, also due to their great attitude.
Time for the other side of the interview: Iīd like you to tell me what are your visions of these Finnish entities: Hanoi Rocks, Impaled Nazarene, Nokia, Värttinä and the Kalevala.
J-P: Hanoi Rocks: The first Finnish music export success.
Impaled Nazarene: They suck goatpenis [Thatīs an excellent answer Fjordi].
Nokia: It's scary to know that the biggest stockholders in this formerly Finnish company are American pensioners via various investment institutions.
Värttinä: Theyīve never been my fave music but deserve the national and international recognition.
Kalevala: Quite boring book, I had to read it through in the primary school and didn't like it.
What are your favourite beer? Are you keen on Lapin Kulta?
J-P: Lapin Kulta is reindeers' piss in a bottle. I don't drink beer at all.
Rami: Well, I think Koff is the number one. But I think thereīs not so much difference between different beers, I couldnīt separate them once if someone would test me for that.
What is the main difference between Finnish people and the rest of the world? I mean, about behaviour, attitude, personality... what thing makes Finland special? (I admit yours is a country that Iīd like to visit in the future...)
J-P: Maybe the biggest difference is that in Finland people tend to worship idiots. Take for example the ice hockey player Jere Karalahti. He had his chances in the NHL and he just bombed it all with his attitude that he has his right to booze when he wants. So, the guy had a chance to make his dreams true on the NHL ice but he rather wanted to... well, mess around. When he returned to Finland, the ice hockey circles, instead of pointing out that he screwed up, made him a sort of hero who doesn't take a shit from any American coach (who probably doesn't know a shit about ice hockey, anyway). Ridiculous is the perfect term to describe the whole mess. [Itīs a pity, because there have been plenty of good Finnish ice hockey players in the NHL as a good example for him, e.g. Saku Koivu Fjordi].
The difference. Of course me being a Finn doesn't really help me to analyse the differences, but since basically all my friends are non-Finns, they have given enough feedback that I can make some judgements. Basically you can say that there is one huge problem in Finland and Finns and it's isolation. Finland is a country far away from everywhere and that has shaped some thinking patterns of the Finns during the decades and centuries. That has been a reason why Finns were the pioneers to develop mobile phones and the actual Internet usage. We still talk about "Going to Europe" when talking about alcohol consumption, freetime usage, fashion, movies and all that. It's still deep in our psyche that we are out there in the edge of Europe, not INSIDE Europe. For me, being able to live in Hungary has opened my eyes quite a lot and I'm able to see many things in a very different light. Actually I can say, and my friends say that too, that these years here have changed my behaviour but people still recognise certain Finnish characters from me. As I come from a small town/countryside area, I grew up with certain expectations about other human beings, but time has shown many times that you should see how people do and act, instead of expect them to behave as you expect. That way you can avoid a lot of unnecessary misery and problems. In theory it's still so, that in Finland man's word is worth the trust, but I would not really believe in that anymore, too many idiots and scumbags around. We can always talk about nations, but we should always remember that every nation is made of individuals.
Thank you very much for your answers. If Iīm not wrong, youīre the first record label interviewed in FromBelow! Tell us something that you wish to express, or which we may have forgotten to ask, to close this session...
J-P: Thanks for the interesting questions, I could see that you have spent some time with them and I hope that my answers give some insight to Firebox posse. Beyond that, I guess that my last words are that I just want to live my life free among equals, nothing more, nothing less.
Rami: Thanks for all these nice questions, I donīt think I have anything to add.
Links of interest: