What do companies like Blue Microphones, JZ Microphones, Sonarworks, Gamechanger Audio, and Erica Synths have in common? They all make sound technologies. Their products are used by the biggest music stars and record artists all over the world. And they're all Latvian startups – founded in the small country of just under two million inhabitants and zero mainstream music stars.
While there are countries that make hits, Latvian startups makes the tech and tools necessary to record them.
Rock legends like The Rolling Stones and Richard Z. Kruspe (Rammstein) are fans of Gamechanger Audio's guitar pedals.
Sonarworks' sound calibration system is used and recommended by 11-time Grammy nominee Mark Needham who's worked with Pink, Shakira, Elton John, and other big-name music stars. And Blue Microphones has long been the top choice for many artists, including Imagine Dragons – currently one of the best-selling bands.
The question is: How did a country you've never heard of in the context of the music industry become one of the leading soundtech hubs?
In Latvia, people appreciate music
Some in the Latvian musictech world say the country’s success in this field is at least in part due to the country’s interest in traditional music.
Dainas – little quatrains of ancient Latvian wisdom captured in song and passed on from generation to generation – are big in Latvian culture. The country takes pride in the Latvian Song and Dance Festival – a national cultural phenomenon that gathers tens of thousands of participants who sing in one choir once every five years.
From an early age, kids are taught to appreciate this national heritage, so anyone who can carry a tune is put into a school choir. Back in the 90s, choir even was a mandatory subject that started in the first year of primary school – just like maths or science classes. Today, the country might not have any global pop stars, but its name is well known in the international choral communities.
''We position ourselves as the singing nation, and music has always been an integral part of our everyday life,'' says Latvian music journalist and DJ Kaspars Zavileiskis.
Latvians are also eager to pass their appreciation for music further on to next generations. Aleksandrs Roga, cofounder and CEO of Babbit, says he's always been an audio gourmand who can't imagine his daily life without music. Now, together with his wife, he runs a soundtech startup that has built a Hi-Fi sound system for kids.
According to the founder, their hi-tech toy helps children from a very young age ''develop their taste in music and appreciation of quality sound.''
Latvian startups have access to tech know-how
Interest and appreciation of quality music, however, is just one small part of the national success in music tech. The other is access to tech talent.
As far back as the 19th century, Riga was already known as the regional centre of technology – electronics, mechanical engineering, and more. The State Electronic Factory – VEF – was an internationally recognized electronics manufacturer, especially known for their radios.
When Latvia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, VEF, just like many other factories, went bankrupt as it was unable to cope with international competition. But the engineering know-how survived, creating a strong foundation for further generations.
Today, new tech talents are nurtured in Latvian universities that not only offer a strong education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths), but also provide startups with the necessary support when it comes to developing new products and business ideas.
Latvia offers the physical infrastructure to create tech products
Atop of that, Latvia has built a robust infrastructure for physically creating electronic and tech products.
''We've got six large and highly-qualified factories to which startups can outsource their product manufacturing. They don't require large orders, which is a big benefit – entrepreneurs can actually afford to bring their products to life,'' explains Girts Ozolins, board member of Latvian Electrical Engineering and Electronics Industry Association (LETERA) and the person behind Erica Synths.
Ozolins believes that accessible manufacturing services are one of Latvia's best-kept secrets. Meanwhile, the demand for Latvian-made soundtech goes hand in hand with the general development of the music industry.
''Artists, producers, music recorders are all looking for innovative, premium products. And Latvian manufacturers are able to provide production of such small-batch, premium soundtech,'' he says.
As a result, we've come to the point where behind a large portion of international hits, there's a Latvian who's made them sound top-notch.