Swede sound of success
Per capita, 2013 saw Swedish pop artists dominate the world with more hits than any other country.
Swedish artists such as Tove Lo, Avicii, Icona Pop, Lykke Li, Alesso, First Aid Kit, and Swedish House Mafia have all enjoyed tremendous international success in recent years – and the number of chart-topping stars who have had hits written or produced for them by Swedes is even longer: Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Madonna, Ariana Grande, Pitbull, Maroon 5, Coldplay and many more.
“I would argue that the Swedish music industry is quite unique right now, but still a long way from its full potential,” says Jesper Thorsson, CEO of industry organization Export Music Sweden. “Industry types around the world are always asking me, ‘What’s in the water in Sweden?’ ”
OK, so why Sweden?
There is a big reason that is easy to overlook. On a wall in the Swedish Music Hall of Fame, housed in the same building as the ABBA Museum in central Stockholm, is a plaque explaining how the modern Swedish music miracle was started twenty-five years ago by Denniz Pop and a Nigerian dentist.
Denniz Pop’s real name was Dag Volle, and he was a popular DJ at trendy Stockholm nightclubs during the 1980s. In partnership with various fellow DJs he launched the SweMix collective that produced club remixes of current hits. One day a man called him and played a song of his own for Pop over the phone. The song was to become Hello Afrika by Dr. Alban and was produced by Pop.
“If we had listened to the critics, we would never have released the disc. Everyone thought it was rubbish,” Dr. Alban later admitted. Even so, the 1990 release was the first major international success for the producer Pop.
The start of Cheiron
Two years later, Pop and his business partner Tom Talooma launched Cheiron studios in the center of Stockholm. Cheiron became the focal point for Swedish music, as well as the launch pad for a pack of successful Swedish producers and songwriters.
Jörgen Elofsson was one of the songwriters at Cheiron, getting his breakthrough with songs written for the then-unknown Britney Spears. Elofsson has since topped the US single charts twice and the British charts eight times. His songs have been featured on over 150 million albums and singles sold.
“Dag Volle was an amazing person,” says Elofsson. “He had some kind of aura around him, everything ran like a well-oiled machine without any hassle. Cheiron was the place to be. We were a special team where everyone slotted in, a kind of playschool but also a place where we produced powerful music.” The great success Cheiron was achieving, along with the amazing international interest that was being generated, had knock-on effects, persuading other people to try their luck.
Enter Kristian Wåhlberg. Wåhlberg used to stand behind the counter of a record shop where Pop was a regular customer. In 1997, he founded a music production company, Murlyn Music, with songwriter and producer Anders Bagge.
“Sweden was seen as a kind of Klondyke – with a vein of pure pop gold,” says Wåhlberg. “We didn’t copy our friends at Cheiron, so when artists came to us and wanted to sound like Dagge or Martin, we said that we did our own thing. A song we did with 98 Degrees reached the top three in the US. Suddenly everyone wanted to talk to us. The success of Cheiron paved the way for our success.” says Wåhlberg.
The most successful in pop history
The Murlyn label went on to gain major international hits with Janet Jackson, Madonna, and Jennifer Lopez, and it all helped consolidate Sweden’s position on the world pop map.
Today, Cheiron has acquired near mythical status. The special Cheiron sound defined the global charts in the 90s, right up until Pop’s death from cancer in 1998, and the closure of the studios two years later.
For Swedish songwriters and producers today, success is built on the platform created by Pop and Cheiron. And also by what Pop’s protégé Max Martin has achieved since then.
At this year’s Grammy Awards, Max Martin received his very first Producer of the Year award. About time, some would say. Only Paul McCartney and John Lennon have had more US chart toppers than Martin – and if you include top ten hits, he is the most successful in pop history with 54 (ahead of Elvis, Madonna, and The Beatles).
“Americans and Brits start by singing a new song. Swedes start by whistling it”
“In 50 years we’ll be reading about Martin’s achievements in a similar way to what we read about Ivar Kreuger and other famous 20th century industrialists and entrepreneurs today. What he has done is absolutely massive,” says Wåhlberg.
“Max Martin means an enormous amount to Swedish music exports,” says Thorsson. “It is one thing to have one hit, two hits, five hits, but to have remained at the very top of the pop world for as long as Max Martin has is totally unique. He seems virtually unstoppable.”
“Getting to number one on the US chart is like winning the World Cup in football,” says Elofsson with a smile. “I have done it twice, Martin has done it 19 times!” Exclaims Elofsson with a smile.
Martin learned his craft at the feet of Pop during many long sessions at Cheiron. Even though he mostly works in Los Angeles these days he still has links with Sweden.
“His infrastructure from Cheiron remains completely intact. He still has the same pals, the people he works with are the same people,” says Elofsson.
Wåhlberg now works at Lateral Management, which represents international artists and songwriters.
“Everything I do today would not have been possible without Dagge, who started everything, and Martin, who kept the ball rolling. Everyone in Sweden who is involved in international pop music today owes them a thank you, in one way or another,” says Wåhlberg.
Max Martin has himself praised the informal music college he attended as an important reason for his success. This, together with the dark Swedish winters that mean plenty of time indoors and Swedes’ excellent English, are just some of the factors that come up when you talk about why Swedes produce such great pop music. But there are other reasons as well.
Several factors behind the success
Ola Johansson is an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh who researches the link between music and geography. He feels there is no one single explanation for the Swedish music miracle and that it is a combination of several factors.
Johansson points to the importance of clusters. When he says “clusters” he means the sense of several songwriters and producers in close proximity to one another who have creative contact in a physical location.
“You could view Sweden as a cluster, with Stockholm as the hub,” says Johansson. “In terms of economic geography, cooperation is just as important as competition in developing knowledge in a special place. If these music creators had then spread out, it would probably not have worked as well, because you lose some kind of compass. That is something you often hear Swedish artists say when they start making their international breakthrough.”
Thanks to the internet and rapid travel, musicians who collaborate can be based anywhere in the world. But most of them choose to stay close together. In Stockholm, the majority of songwriting teams spend long working days in studios, producing tomorrow’s hits.
The work ethic is another important key to success.
“Most Swedish music creators are extremely goaloriented and hard working,” says Thorsson. “They know that it is possible to make an international breakthrough, because others have done it before, so they set the bar high for themselves.”
You can sense the attitude of “if they can do it, so can we” in Swedish music.
“Abroad, people respect that we do what we say we are going to do,” says Elofsson. “We work and work – and then we work some more. I do not think there is any special reason behind the Swedish music miracle. What there is is hard work, and a determination and drive among a small number of people who have succeeded and drawn others along with them. You could just as easily talk about the IT miracle, the auto miracle, the ball bearing miracle, or whatever. Sweden is an incredibly efficient country that has been an industrial powerhouse for a long time.”
And maybe music exports should be seen as an extension of successful Swedish companies such as H&M, SKF, Ikea, and Volvo, along with Minecraft, Skype, and Spotify.
Right from the beginning of the pop phenomenon Swedish music has been associated with strong melodies.
“Americans and Brits start by singing a new song. Swedes start by whistling it,” says Wåhlberg. “We begin with the melody itself. This means we are very melody-driven in everything we do.”
“We’re also very good on the purely technical side. Swedes learn both music and computers early on. And the music industry today is completely technology driven, which gives us an advantage.”
Why Swedes are so good at melodies in particular is hard to say. A shared musical heritage with melancholy folk songs could play a part. From a hit perspective, the melody is one of the first things that grabs the listener and stands out in the crowd.
“It feels like there is a shift taking place. I think the world is more receptive to female artists that are themselves."
One of the top-selling and most played songs in Scandinavia last year was “Younger” by Seinabo Sey. The Swedish songwriter has spent the last six months on promotional tours in the US and England, appearing at important music industry events and playing in front of millions of TV viewers when she appeared on the US talk show Conan. Even if Swedish songwriters and producers continue to dominate the music charts worldwide, Swedish artists still feel they are some way from the summit. Sey is one of them, saying she has a long way to go as an artist.
“Many Swedish artists are high quality, but it was only when I got to the US that I started to appreciate the work ethic and effectiveness of the really big artists,” says Sey. “I could probably sell out a 600-seat club in Chicago, but if you want to sell out Madison Square Garden one day, you need to understand the difference. I have a heck of a long way still to go.”
When she is abroad people continually ask her why Sweden produces such great music. Just as often they ask why so many Swedish female artists, such as Icona Pop, Tove Lo, Miriam Bryant, First Aid Kit and Sey herself, are emerging internationally right now.
“It feels like there is a shift taking place. I think the world is more receptive to female artists that are themselves. Sweden is very much a feminist country where women can express themselves in their own way,” says Sey.
Both Younger and Sey’s next album are musical collaborations between Sey and producer Magnus Lidehäll. Along with Vincent Pontare and Salem Al-Fakir, Carl Falk, and Swedish dance music phenomenon Avicii, Lidehäll has also been involved in writing songs for Madonna’s new album. Sey is a regular presence at the studios Lidehäll shares with Pontare and Al-Fakir.
“I know how hard they work, they work long hours. And I also know that Swedes can keep going. That is why you can rely on Swedish pop production,” she says.
Fifteen years after Cheiron closed its doors, there are no signs that the Swedish music wave is starting to ebb. Avicii and Alesso have put blue and gold electronic dance music on the world map, and on the heavy metal scene, Sweden has been a pioneer for several decades. On the pop front, new Swedish names pop up every month as songwriters or producers of big international hits.
Success breeds success
“I hope and believe that this run of success can keep going for a good while longer,” says Thorsson. “The Swedish music industry is on the right track in several styles. Something else we shouldn’t forget is that many people think the industry has been slow moving, but no other country has reoriented itself as quickly to the new form of digital distribution as the Swedish music industry.”
The most successful name of all is enjoying his best period yet. In 2014 alone, Max Martin had three chart toppers in the US.
Martin’s first big successes in his own right came with hit songs for the Backstreet Boys in the mid 90s. When the Miami boy band received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the media-shy Martin gave a speech for the group.
He started by name checking Denniz Pop and thanking the boys for helping him to realize his dream. He concluded his speech by quoting ABBA:
“I am Swedish so I can say this: Thank you for the music.”
Text: Anders Dahlbom Illustrations: Robert Hilmersson
Published: July 2, 2015