Alba Records celebrates 20th anniversary: The art of the possible

November 2012 marked the 20th anniversary of the first CD release by Alba Records. The existence of a tiny Finnish label specialising in classical music is something of a rarity in this day and age. Carefully considered risk-taking and the Finnish arts subsidy system have helped the label to survive in an incredibly challenging market.

The Alba record label is in practice a one-man show; the man is producer and musician Timo Ruottinen, who has been leading the company since it was founded. An important factor in the creation of Alba was Tampere Hall, inaugurated in 1990, at the time a significant new acoustic space for performing music.

Alba was the brainchild of 16 performing artists from various genres, and according to Ruottinen the original idea was to release albums covering a wide variety of musical styles. A reality check came swiftly as the founders realised just how tough the competition in the popular music sector was. The decision to focus on classical music was thus a virtue born out of a necessity. Ruottinen describes Alba’s current policy as ‘acoustic music’, which covers not just classical music but jazz and world music too.

Ruottinen recalls that among the many strategies outlined at the start, one was immediately recognised as paramount: quality is everything. This policy has been followed religiously, and as a result the Alba catalogue contains not a single financial failure to date, even if there are some artistic embarrassments. Carefully considered risk-taking has made this possible.

“One has to keep one’s feet on the ground, and all financial risks must be sustainable. The record business is the art of the possible,” says Ruottinen.

Acoustic music from Finland

The very first Alba release, a double CD featuring the six Partitas for keyboard by Johann Sebastian Bach, attracted considerable attention in Finland soon after it was launched in November 1992, and Alba managed to gain the sympathy of the Finnish media right out of the starting gates. In 1994, the Finnish Broadcasting Company awarded a special rookie merit prize to Alba for “refreshing and diversifying the field of the Finnish recording industry with its high-quality releases”.

Since then, the Alba catalogue has swelled to more than 300 titles, most of them featuring contemporary Finnish music performed by Finnish musicians. Key composer names include Jukka Tiensuu, Pehr Henrik Nordgren and Seppo Pohjola. Regular Alba performers include the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Juha Kangas, organist Jan Lehtola, guitarist Ismo Eskelinen and pianist Janne Mertanen.

In recent years, Alba has kept up a steady rate of almost 30 releases per year. In 2012, the company’s major hit seems set to be the disc Metsän poika [On the Fields of Tapiola], featuring Jorma Hynninen singing solo songs by Toivo Kuula and Kimmo Hakola.

How to control a risky business

Ruottinen notes that Alba sales have remained relatively steady even through troubling times for classical music and that the company finances are sound. For the past nine years, the Tampere-based operation has been run by two people – prior to that, Ruottinen did everything himself. The actual production process is generally project-based, drawing on an extensive and reliable network of sub-contractors. Alba receives invaluable support from public grants for recordings.

“I consider the arts grant system for classical music in Finland to be fair and relatively predictable. Many albums would never have been made without this financial support from the public sector,” says Ruottinen.

Alba gets most of its sales revenue from Finland, but its international sales have been steadily increasing over the years. The label’s principal export markets are the USA, Japan, Germany and the UK. A new distributor was obtained in the UK this year, and Ruottinen has high hopes for that market.

In Finland, Alba recordings are regularly acclaimed and rewarded. Awards received by the label include EMMA prizes granted by Finnish music producers and Record of the Year awards from the Finnish Broadcasting Company. The most significant international merit to date is that the label’s release of the symphonies of Eduard Tubin made it onto the ‘Greatest recordings of all time’ list of Gramophone magazine, selected by 35 well-known performers.

Ruottinen has now moved sideways from managing director to chairman of the board, with a view to retiring in the near future. He hopes that the company will remain in Finnish hands. He feels that reports of the imminent death of classical music or of recordings as we know them are exaggerated – this debate has been going on for at least the 20 years of the company’s existence. Indeed, the most serious challenge faced by Alba will be finding a successor for Ruottinen: someone with the capacity to identify risks and the courage to grasp opportunities.