Michael Jackson is the self-proclaimed “King of Pop,” so Jaakko Salovaara may just have to be the future “Duke of Dance.” However, Salovaara is no Wacko Jaakko.
Five years ago, Europe was “rocking the microphone” as Finnish Bomfunk MC’s single “Freestyler” climbed the charts and won the hearts of the music lovers and MTV loyals. The black and white video that MTV had in rotation was shot at a Helsinki subway station and it featured the band members as puppets in a kid’s video game.
What it didn’t feature, though, was the co-writer of the song, and the man who produced the disc, Jaakko Salovaara.
But the people in the business knew.
And when Finnish Darude charmed the socks off European clubbers, it was the artist, Ville Virtanen, who got the attention – not the man who found the talent and produced the song.
But the people in the business knew.
Naturally. When somebody produces Europe’s best-selling single in any given year, the branch professionals take notice. Especially, when six million discs, produced by that same person, are sold worldwide. Producers and Djs are the new stars of the dance scene, just like star directors and producers are as big stars as the actors in Hollywood.
But when Salovaara walks into the Helsinki café on a sunny August afternoon, riding his scooter in style, he’s not surrounded by screaming fans. He’s not even being talked about or pointed at, behind his back. He greets a couple of friends on his way in, but then again,so did I.
“Well, I am not as big a star as the artists,” he says, smiling. “And it’s good, I don’t need all that chaos around me.”
In a music business so thoroughly dominated by the Anglo-Saxon markets in the US and the UK, a new sound and new actors from Finland became news, just for being Finns. At least in Finland which, as a nation, would give its collective right arm to have a local band hit the number one spot on Billboard Top100.
The Turku, Finland native doesn’t have anything against being a Finnish pioneer on the dance and pop charts, but it’s not something he keeps thinking about when he’s in his studio, working.
“I don’t really care where anybody is from, to me, the music is the most important thing,” he says, and pauses for a while. “I don’t think many people in the inside do, actually. It’s like every time a Finnish sports team does well, we tend to think it’s everybody’s success so maybe me being Finnish is more important to others.”
Salovaara has always been around music and musicians as his parents were members of the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra. Anxious to encourage their 5-year-old son on the musical path, the enrolled him in the Turku conservatory for cello lessons.
Jaakko didn’t let the parents down and eventually he, too, took a place in the Turku Philharmonics.
“I guess the fact that I, the producer of dance music, played in a philharmonic orchestra seems very odd now, so different magazines like to bring it up.”
“However, cello was my major, and I did graduate as a professional musician at that. I did play some piano, too, and one of my dreams had always been to play drums, so I added that to the curriculum. Playing drums seemed just so much cooler than cello,” Salovaara says, and flashes his mischievous smile again.
Now that he had the drums, he wanted a band of his own. Of course .
“The problem was that I thought all the band members should be friends and I didn’t have any musicians as friends. I tried all kinds of things, but they never stuck,” he says.
And while looking for that perfect band, Salovaara stayed at home and created new arrangements for songs. Old vinyl maxi singles often had an a cappella version of the song – which Salovaara used for his own experiments.
Then one summer Salovaara met a guy with a sampler and a workstation at a camp. It rocked his world in more ways than one.
“I flipped out,” he says. “I persuaded my parents to buy me an Atari computer and a sampler, and I realized that I didn’t need a band anymore. I could do everything on my own. That’s how it started.”
Salovaara’s first recorded song was called “Hypnosynthesis.” He was 16.
“There was a disco in Turku at the time that these two guys owned. They made that vinyl single, and the run was probably the smallest possible, a couple of hundred copies,” Salovaara says. “I guess they sold a few copies at the disco,” he says.
It may not have been the biggest selling record in Europe, or Finland, or even Turku, but it was a real record. Salovaara’s music was real.
“Making a record is fantastic. It’s much more gratifying than just writing music for fun. I don’t even want to write music if I know it’s not going to be released anywhere. The first record gave me such a kick,” he says.
It’s not the only thing that rushes the adrenaline in his veins. According to Salovaara, nothing beats the feeling he gets when he is at a packed club and the DJ plays a great song that just raises the roof. Except when it’s his song that he plays.
“But the best feeling was when I heard my own song on the radio for the first time,” he adds. “It didn’t matter which station it was, or how many listeners it had. It was my song, and it was on the radio.”
After he reached the chair in the Turku Philharmonics, Salovaara played the cello to pay the bills, just like his parents had thought. That lasted for about a year.
“The cello is out of the picture. Apparenty, my parents were mostly worried about whether I could live on the other kind of music. They never really understood rock’n’roll but with all the success, they began to appreciate it more. Now they are just confused about the whole thing,” Salovaara says.
Yes, the success. There was a lot of it.
First, Salovaara’s own project, JS16. In 1998, he released an album called “Stomping System” that climbed to number six on the UK club sharts. In Japan, the single “Stomp to my beat” was number one on two radio stations’ dance charts. In the US, “Stomp to my beat” peaked at #17 on the Billboard maxisingle chart that is based on sales.
Two years later it was the Bomfunk MC’s turn. The band’s debut album, “In Stereo”, sold 800 000 copies worldwide, but it was the hit single, “Freestyler,” that really had an impact.
It became the number one single in twelve countries, and was number two on the UK charts in 2000. By the end of the year, “Freestyler” was Europe’s best selling single in 2000.
In hindsight and from the outside, it may seem easy. But even if Salovaara still seems puzzled by the success, and unable to analyze the elements of success, he points out that “Freestyler” was by no means a slam dunk.
“We tried long and hard in Finland alone,” he says. “Freestyler was the fifth single off that album. The two first ones got a good response, then we tried two others, and decided to release one more, and that was Freestyler. And it just took off.”
Then there was that one guy in Turku who tried to get Jaakko Salovaara’s attention, and wanted him to listen to his demo.
“Then one time, I took the disc and said I would listen to it,” Salovaara says. “So I did, and on that demo was “Sandstorm. I thought it was a great song, and wanted to make it an awesome song.”
More than that, Salovaara was also out to find new artists to his own record company that was first founded as a funnel for Salovaara’s fees from deejaying. The company’s net sales had then increased with the success of JS16 and Bomfunk MC’s.
“I thought it was time to try to do it myself. I had had good friends helping me out, and I had learned a lot. I wanted to find a artist, and found Darude.”
And what Salovaara had in his hands, was a successful business. He even received the prestigious Finnish Marketing Act of Year award in 2000 for his work with Bomfunk MCs and Darude.
What he found out was that the more you start thinking about success and focusing on writing hit singles, the harder it gets and the worse it goes.
“In the middle of the Bomfunk and Darude success, we weren’t thinking much. It’s only afterwards that I have tried to analyze the whole thing. And the more I think, the more off I am,” Salovaara says. “And there isn’t just one explanation, it’a not like I possess some marketing wisdom that nobody else has.”
“Except, the most important thing was that all the people working with the marketing of the singles, around the world, were excited and believed in it. You should always find partners like that,” he adds.
Salovaara emphasizes the importance of the song over and over again. The magic of marketing music comes down to one thing: the music itself.
“When we worked with Darude, there were no tricks, we just sent the single everywhere. The song sold itself,” he says. “And once you reach the critical mass, once you go over the tipping point, it just explodes.”
And once the singles hit the charts, the artists hit the road and Salovaara the studio. Not only had he tasted a success almost beyond his wildest dreams and was out to write new songs to repeat it, his reputation as a producer and mixer brought him some interesting new projects as well. Like remixing Britney Spears’s single “Overprotected.”
And then it was time to repeat. Everybody expected it. The artists wanted it, the record company wanted it and Jaakko Salovaara wanted it. But if he had thought then that he had the magic formula for hits, he had to change his mind quickly.
“Maybe there were some external expectations, but the biggest expectations are always my own. I want to write good songs.”
Even if Bomfunk MC’s second album sold well in Finland, it wasn’t the international hit that they hoped for. And that was the lesson Salovaara needed to learn.
“My goal has always been the same, to be as successful as in 2000, but the biggest lesson I have learned is that you can’t mix the creative side of your work with business. There has to be a balance between the two, the business side can’t be in charge.”
At 30, Salovaara is a father of a baby boy – “he won’t be playing cello, but maybe something else” – and he’s at some sort of crossroads. His new project is called Dallas Superstars and he has high hopes for it. All in all, Salovaara says he would want to leave a mark in the music history as one of the best of his era, even outside Finland.
“I am sure people think that I have a very glamorous job, but I imagine that it’d be boring to sit in the studio with me for 12 hours. I can assure you that it involves a lot of repetition and routine, in search of the perfect sound,” he says.
The perfect sound. Salovaara says that even if he’s not a computer wizard – and for this we have to take his word – he’s lucky in that only the results matter, even if the way to the perfect, new and interesting sound is crooked and, to the purists, “wrong.”
“It’s not always easy, but if you like the actual work process, it’s fun all the way. I’ll get my kicks when the song is finished, and then once more if it is successful,” he says.
“I will not settle for “pretty good.” When you’re pouring your heart and soul into your own thing, it has to be just right. Sometimes, if there is a deadline and I have to, I guess I will have to send a not-perfect song, but I don’t like it. Mediocrity won’t get you anywhere. It’s best to turn out the best possible product and see what it leads to. At least you can be happy about it yourself.”
Published in Profile in September 2005.