Music Information Centres in Helsinki, Oslo and Bratislava
The Information age

John Robert Brown

In this age of information, advice is everywhere. You want to know facts? Then join the 200 million people a day who consult Google. Having difficulty topping up your mobile phone? Call the company and ask. Are you suffering a glitch in your music-writing software? Phone the experts and consult someone. Today, help is ubiquitous.

No surprise, then, that the staff at any of the International Association of Music Information Centres around the world (there are 43 member organisations in 38 countries), can recite a list of inappropriate enquiries: "What time does the Rolling Stones concert begin tonight?," "Can you get me tickets to see Mama Mia!?," or even: "Where can my toddler enjoy swimming lessons with musical accompaniment?"

Minna Huuskonen, at the Finnish Music Information Centre in Helsinki, is astonished by some of the enquiries the Centre receives. She explains: 'Typical of these is a short email saying something like: "I'm interested in Finnish music. Can you send me some information?" They seem to think that Finland is a small country where all the music information can be summarised in one letter, or one parcel,' she says. 'It's not like that. We also receive enquiries from music fans who are looking for home addresses of prominent musicians, which is not the sort of information that the centre provides.'

But most enquiries come from professionals. 'They are our target group,' says Huuskonen. 'Even with them, the range of topics is very large. Some of them are so specialised that we might not be able to give a reply ourselves. We forward those to the specialist in the field. It might be a question about an old Finn Ugrian (Finno-Ugric, or Karelian) lament, an old tradition, and very specialised. Some people are interested in Gipsy music, or Sámi music from Lapland.' Sami people (also Sámi, Saami, Lapps, sometimes also Laplanders) are the indigenous people of northern Europe, inhabiting Sápmi - which today encompasses parts of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Their ancestral lands span an area the size of Sweden. The Sami people constitute one of the largest indigenous group in Europe. Their languages are the Sami languages, which are classified as Finno-Ugric. 'It's great that information about such music is there. But on the other hand, much more is needed,' says Huuskonen.

Music Information Centres across the world have underlying similarities. They provide specialised music resources for music students, performers, composers and music teachers; they act as visitor centres for those interested in learning about national musical heritage, and they develop audiences for new music through educational and promotional projects.

'In 2008 we celebrate our 45th year,' says Huuskonen. 'I've been here for ten years; we began in 1963. The Centre was transferred to the Foundation for the Promotion of Finnish Music in 1971. Later on we became part of the Finnish Composers Copyright Society (TEOSTO), of which we are still part, and which provides very stable funding.

'Mind you, we are now trying to influence the fact that the Ministry's share is quite small compared with the other Information Centres. Our budget is about EUR680,000 (£458,926). In the office there are ten permanent full-time staff. We employ extra staff for special projects, or during the summer time. Three people work on contemporary classical music, three people on popular music, and four in the music library.

'At the music library the clients are mainly conductors, musicians, composers and musicologists. We also get a lot of journalists, and festival event organisers who are looking for repertoire. Most library clients are from Finland, but other departments may work more with foreign guests. Books, library, magazines and access to the internet are all here on our premises. We have a sound archive where we have Finnish music on tapes, CDs and LPs. People can come and listen to the music, and have the score in front of them as well. That's what many of the conductors do. As a resource, we have notation programmes for those composers who still don't have them at home.' Appropriately, one of these is Sibelius Software.

'We provide advice of all sorts, whether it's about repertoire for a festival, or contacts for our own music makers seeking international markets, or advice about how to open careers in various market areas, or how to contact people. Anything, really.

'Half of our projects are repeated annually, and are related to international expos, music fairs, or conferences. Others are new ideas which we launch. Next year our focus is going to be chamber music, children's operas and contemporary folk music. The latter has been our focus for a year already, but we are continuing for another year or two. The children's opera and chamber music projects include various publications, cooperation with a chamber music festival, and export to Russia.

'Promotion is at least half of the job. In order to undertake promotion we need tools, these being our own publications - books, compilation CDs or brochures. The contemporary classical music team works more with publications. They publish books on Finnish opera, or Finnish chamber music or piano music.

'All of this is complimentary, and no cost to the client - except at the music library, where they sell sheet music. They also rent. That's the only team in our office that actually brings in money. There's some need to finance our activities more, while the composers' corporate societies internationally [performing rights royalty distribution organisations] are facing great competition. It's a new thing for us, because we've always been very sheltered. We've been providing information, and not really been worried about making money. That's changing.

'Nowadays, most of our enquiries are from overseas. In Finland, our activities are pretty well known. People know what they can find from our website. What they can't find they'll call and ask for. But whenever the phone rings, it's usually from abroad. I don't know the percentage breakdown by country, but they come from Japan to Brazil to Canada, Mexico, from everywhere.

'Nowadays we stress networking with music professionals, both in Finland and abroad. We need to know the people, which is something we haven't really underlined before. Going out to meet individuals is essential. In the end this is about personal relationships.

'We try to serve all the professions who have anything proper to ask about Finnish music. That's the Finnish mentality, in that we are very responsible about doing the job right and not neglecting anybody who might want to know something. We take everything seriously. You never know; some little enquiry might lead to something greater in a year or two!

'When you are called a Music Information Centre, people can ask about anything,' says Senior Adviser Hilde Holbæk-Hanssen, at the Music Information Centre (MIC) Norway, in Oslo. 'Somebody once called us up to ask when the bus left for a suburb! In fact, our receptionist lived there, so she could give the exact answer. And we have a certain group we call the crossword people. They call about everything.'

Strange enquiries abound. 'Two years ago I was called up by one of Norway's biggest newspapers, asking if I knew the weight of a particular Norwegian singer,' says Holbæk-Hanssen. 'They had a reason for the question, but I think the question was quite impertinent.'

The Norwegian centre shares the premises of the National Library in the centre of Oslo. Opened in 1979, the initiative for the establishment of the centre came from the Society of Norwegian composers. Funded from the beginning by the Arts Council, Norway, the total annual budget is currently equivalent to approximately £968,000.

'We have some project support from the Norwegian Arts Council, and from the Ministry of Foreign Projects,' says Holbæk-Hanssen. 'People overseas can contact us for any kind of music. It it's published we'll send them on to the publisher. If it's unpublished, most of it is here. We are the main distributor of Norwegian sheet music, because the publishers in Norway are not so big. We copy about 300,000 pages a year of contemporary music and sheet music. That includes some catalogues. There's a catalogue online. Ours is one of Norway's most read web sites. The daily press here does not cover music very much, especially the more narrow genres, so if you want contemporary music, or avant-garde jazz, or underground rock, our magazine Ballade is much read.

'We have an online magazine as well, which is very popular. That's not only contemporary music, but popular music as well. We have about three million page views a month, or 20,000 to 30,000 readers a week. At this site we have our online catalogue to our database, in English and Norwegian. We are planning to put up digital sheet music on the internet as well, but we haven't got that far yet.

'At MIC we now have twelve employees, plus some project people. For the online magazine, last year we started a separate foundation, MIC Media, which employs five people, plus freelance journalists. So, on a daily basis, we are approximately 20 people.

'Most of our users are musicians and composers from Norway, but we get orders for sheet music from all over the world, particularly from Germany. Perhaps that's because we attend the Frankfurt fair every year, so more people know about us there. Last year there was a big Norwegian festival in Prague, which increased interest. The Prague Philharmonic Orchestra has a festival every year. This year they focussed on the Nordic countries.

Current President of the International Association of Music Centres is Ol'ga Smetanov". She is also Managing Director of the Slovakian Centre, which is housed in a building of historical value in the heart of the old town, the most beautiful part of Bratislava.

'Our centre in Bratislava is a governmental organisation, funded mainly by the Ministry of Culture. The International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC) is funded by members. Every IAMIC centre is quite different. I'm also the Director of the Music Centre in Slovakia, and our centre is a member of IAMIC. I was elected President of that association, in June this year. So I have two hats. My IAMIC Presidency lasts for three years, and I can be re-elected once only.

'Ours is one of the biggest centres in the IAMIC. Currently we have 33 people working in the office here. Our activity is not only connected with documentation and promotion of contemporary music and other genres. We are also a publishing house. We publish CDs, scores and books. We translate a lot of books from foreign languages into Slovakian, because currently we are the only professional music publisher in Slovakia. Of course, there are other publishing houses, which sometimes publish music books, but they are in the mainstream. Our translations are books which are devoted to professionals, being very specialised books about the history of music, or contemporary music, or an encyclopedia about Folk or Blues in Slovakia - systematic work covering different genres as well. Nobody else is doing this.

'We are also concert organisers. For example, we organise the Melos-Ethos Festival, which is biennial, the biggest contemporary music festival in Slovakia. We also organise school concerts, and many other concert events.

'A special project which we are currently working on is called Digital Music Education and Training (DMET). We are partners with five other countries, and the project is supported by the EU. As far as I know, there is nobody in Slovakia who is doing that properly, putting Slovak content on a digital platform so that it can be available for all.

'Initially we will make sound files available to download. We are aiming to have scores available in digital form for people around the world. The project will take us a few years to fulfil. But we are set in a direction which will be very exciting.'

An edited version of this article appeared in Classical Music, 27 October 2007. Used by kind permission.
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