It is a remarkable success story, with both the geography of their home country and their chosen art form presenting significant hurdles. But quality of music and presentation, and a lot of hard work, has paid off and the band is enjoying increasing popularity across multiple countries. Johnny Black reports.
It will be hard for anyone to deny that Nightwish is now the world’s biggest symphonic metal band when they conclude their 82-date Decades world tour on 15 December, at Helsinki’s 15,000-capacity Hartwall Arena in their native Finland.
Having sold more than nine million records globally, notching up over 60 gold and platinum awards along the way, they were inducted to the Finnish Music Hall of Fame on 26 October.
“Nightwish is definitely the biggest Finnish band in the world,” asserts manager Ewo Pohjola. “They’re almost twice as big as HIM who used to be the biggest.
“We’ve been around for 20 years,” he says, before breaking into an ironic chuckle, adding “that was back in the days when albums were still actually selling.”
There are six members in the band, but it could easily be argued that Pohjola is Nightwish’s Seventh Deadly Finn.
He was one a guitarist with Finnish deathmetal pioneers Babylon Whores for most of the ‘90s, but moved on to the business side of things when he co-founded King Foo Entertainment in 2002, with his partner Toni Peiju, thereafter guiding the careers of bands including Sonata Arctica, Stratovarius, Enisferum and, of course, the most successful, Nightwish.
When Nightwish started, in 1996, being the world’s biggest symphonic metal band would have made them No.1 in a field of one, because they virtually invented the style. Since then, however, the genre has birthed acts such as Epica, After Forever, Sonata Arctica and Xandria, most of whom have publicly acknowledged the influence of Nightwish.
Pohjola, however, is quick to point out that, “Nightwish remains unique because most of these other bands have been influenced by Nightwish’s early operatic vocal style. Nightwish feel they’ve done that already, so they have become more rock-oriented.”
It’s a fair comment, because Nightwish’s operatic credentials rested largely with their original vocalist Tarja Turunen, who was replaced in 2007 by Anette Olzon. In her turn, Olzon gave way to the much more rock-oriented Floor Jansen in 2012.
The band’s musical direction, however, had always been dictated primarily by Tuomas Holopainen, who was not only a founder member but also their keyboardist and main songwriter.
Karolczak sums up Holopainen as “the band’s mastermind”, while Pohjola lists the keyboardist’s main musical inspirations as, “Movie soundtracks, Pantera, some elements of folk music and … all kinds of stuff, even doom metal.”
Holopainen’s catholic tastes were even more in evidence when, in one recent feature, he owned up to being the proud owner of Aqua’s Barbie Girl and chose Walking In The Air from The Snowman soundtrack as his “all-time favourite piece of music”.
As Pohjola puts it, “Basically, Nightwish songs are pop songs in a very heavy environment. You can hum the melodies of Nightwish songs.”
The Decades tour set off in the US at The Tabernacle (cap. 2,600) in Atlanta, Georgia, on 9 March. “We played 34 dates in the USA,” says Pohjola. “Our first nine tours there lost money but America is now going really well and we’re making money now.”
Next came a string of 14 European festivals between May and August, including Germany’s Wacken Open Air (75,000), FortaRock in the Netherlands and Copenhell in Denmark.
“We are playing the biggest festivals in all the European territories,” is how Karolczak sums up their festival strategy. Although some business gurus feel that festival appearances can detract from a band’s stand-alone concerts, Karolczak reckons that, “they tend to bring new people to the band because the festival audience is very mixed.”
George Daron of Pragoconcert in the Czech Republic confirms that Nightwish can combine festivals and concerts with no loss of attendance.
“In 2015, Nightwish headlined our Masters of Rock festival for 25,000 people, plus the city festival Havirovske Slavnosti for 17,000,” says Daron. “Then they sold-out a solo show in Prague for 12,000, making a total of 54,000 fans in one year, not bad for our small country.”
Equally impressed is French promoter Romain Turgel of Veryshow, “We headlined Hellfest in June on the Sunday night, closing the festivities right after Iron Maiden, which some might say is a dangerous spot,” he says. “I admit I was stressed, but when Ewo took me with him to the side of stage just before the show, I realised how much anticipation there was for Nightwish. The crowd was absolutely packed and, I can tell you, they cracked the night.”
Pohjola picks-up the tale. “Our festivals trek was followed by five shows in Latin American, with Mexico especially good. South American audiences are really fanatical, and loud. They even sing along to the guitar solos. Down there, though, we had to fly everywhere because the land is very mountainous.”
Carlos De La Pena at Dilemma has promoted Nightwish in Mexico for 15 years, and says, “The way they have grown from a little band to a major act is great. This year, although we were up against a festival on the same date we sold over 5,000 tickets with a range of prices from 800-1,300 peso [$40-$65]. The mix of a female singer with the orchestral aspects of the band are much liked here in Mexico.”
Cristian Carcagno at NWM Productions in Argentina states that he owes his presence in the music business to Nightwish.
“Back in 2003 I started a Nightwish fansite, which enabled me to interview them in 2004.” Their relationship blossomed and Cargano promoted them for the first time in 2012. Given Argentina’s current recession, he feels that the 5,000 fans who attended their Estadio Malvinas show in Buenos Aires was a more than satisfactory result.
This year’s tour has been ambitiously upscaled, as promoter Eric De Haas at Dynamo in Brazil observed.
“Nightwish is now travelling with a total of five tons of equipment, their complete backline plus sound and light desks. The visual aspects have also changed enormously, from a single backdrop in 2008 to a massively impressive LED wall on this tour.”
Lights in the dark
The foundations of the Decades jaunt are its European leg, which kickedoff from Gothenburg’s Partille Arena (5,400) on 2 November, with Beast In Black as support.
Despite being delighted with their festival appearances in the summer, Karolczak points out that, “Nightwish’s indoor shows are very special indeed. They have their greatest impact in the dark where their visuals and pyros work best.”
They took to the road as a party of 65, travelling with four busses and six trucks.
“We are carrying our own PA and lights, two backlines, because there are two bands, and the massive LCD screen.” says Pohjola. “We have our own kitchen, and we carry lots of merch. We are like a travelling bookstore now, because we have several books about the band which have proved popular with the fans. Books and movies are probably the main interest of the band and also of their fans.”
At that opening gig in Gothenburg, says Rickard Nilsson of promoter FKP Scorpio, “We had a sold-out show – metal is a big genre in Scandinavia in general, but Nightwish deliver a unique, grand rock music with a touch of folk which is attracting a big following in Sweden.”
The first of nine concerts in Germany found them at Berlin’s Max Schmeling Halle on 5 November. “As well as being the band’s agent for most of Europe, I promote all of their shows in Germany,” points out Carolczak, “because my company, Contra, is also a promotions business. I am travelling with the band to virtually every show on this tour.”
Carolczak is, however, not their agent for Finland or the UK because when he started with Nightwish in 2002, they already had well-established arrangements in those territories.
Their gig at the AccorHotels Arena [19,000] in Paris, was promoted by Veryshow’s Romain Turgel, who informs us that, “the band had made France a priority territory very early in their career. In fact, my partner Mehdi El Jai who runs our label was the first man to sign them in France and he still often recalls their first show in Paris, at Elysee Montmartre [1,200] in 2000, which sold out weeks in advance.”
Crossing the divide
Switzerland, with a population of just over eight million, hosted no less than three Nightwish Decades events.
Stefan Wyss of Gadget can boast, “we did two arena shows – Zurich and Geneva – plus a summer festival, so this has been a very special tour for us.”
Gadget has to promote in an environment where, despite a relatively small population, the nation is divided into two distinctly different audiences.
“Bands that are popular in France, tend to sell well in the French part of Switzerland,” notes Wyss. “On the other hand, in the German part, the big German bands do best. Luckily, Nightwish is big in both France and Germany, so we can do successful shows in both markets.”
Their show at Incheba Expo Arena in Bratislava, Slovakia, sold out six weeks in advance, which, as promoter Patrik Svitek of Nucoast points out, “is really difficult in a market with just five million people.
“They put on a really spectacular show now, but I remember my first gig with them in 2003. They were much smaller back then but I knew they were going to be the next big thing. Our show was at an open air theatre in the middle of the country and this was before social media, when pre-sales did not work very well. Neither us nor the band knew what to expect but, in the end, the venue was packed. I still remember Ewo´s smiling face.”
Ewo Pohjola was, no doubt, grinning from ear to ear when their Decades show in Poland delivered also spectacular sales.
“This was the most surprising gig of the tour, because we have not played in Poland for 12 years,” he reports. “We sold 16,000 tickets at the Tauron Arena in Krakow.”
It’s a similar story in the UK, with concerts at Manchester Arena (15,000), Arena Birmingham (15,800) and The SSE Arena – Wembley (12,700) in London.
“This is the biggest tour they have done here, in terms of venue size,” says Live Nation executive president of UK touring Andy Copping.
“There is something unique about Nightwish. They have a prog rock feel as well appealing to a metal/rock audience. Having had very strong female vocalists over their career has been a significant factor in the band’s success.”
If there was ever any concern that the band’s popularity could be affected by changing their female singers, it was dispelled rapidly.
Gabor Kosinszky of Concerto Promoters in Hungary vividly recalls how, in May 2008, Nightwish played their first show in the country after parting ways with Tarja Turunen.
“We actually had to upgrade the show to a bigger venue due to the massive demand, and the best we could find was an Ice Hockey Hall, obviously not built for big production concerts,” he says. “The band arrived late due to border crossings and traffic jams, so we had a couple of hours delay in putting the production on stage.
“Nevertheless, everything went well, the audience got a great show, as always, and went home satisfied with a band that came back stronger than ever before.”
From Enrico Karolczak’s perspective, “Floor, who has been the band’s singer for six years, had a complete classical education, so she can do the opera thing and the metal thing too. Also, having had success with other metal bands before Nightwish, she really knows how to deal with being the only girl on a tour bus with 12 men.”
The Decades tour will wind-up in their home territory of Finland, where Finnish Fullsteam has handled not only the two local concerts, but also the Swedish appearance which started the European leg.
“Partille Arena in Gothenburg was sold-out, Hartwall Arena (15,000) in Helsinki, will sell-out out and Gatorade Center (11,800) in Turku will do big numbers as well, so the band is in a great place at the moment,” says Fullsteam’s Rauha Kyyro,
Ewo Pohjola notes, “It will be terrific to end the tour with a couple of Finnish dates,” but he’s also well aware that Nightwish have become a global phenomenon.
“In Finland, they’re now way too big for any local competition, so it’s really international artistes they compete with, and a lot of promoters in Finland consider Nightwish to be like a foreign band, because they are so big.”