How Sweden Has Re-Engineered the World’s Music

8 minute read
Lisa Abend

Linn Jans has seen the future. Seated in a lecture hall at Sweden’s brand-new Academy of Music and Business (AMB), the 16-year-old listened raptly as Jonah Nilsson sat at the piano, tossed back his bangs and broke into a song–part Stevie Wonder, part Michael Jackson–that sent chills down her spine. Jans had never heard of Nilsson until a few days before he appeared at her school, but as she learned what was in store for the 26-year-old performer’s band–a contract with one of Sweden’s most important producers, a record deal with Universal, a U.S. tour and all the fame and fortune she imagined coming with it–she had no problem understanding his newfound success. “He’s going to be the next Justin Bieber,” she gushed, then paused. “But I think I could be too.”

That’s not the outlandish claim it first appears to be. As one of the members of AMB’s inaugural class, Jans–who sings, plays piano and writes her own songs–is getting a uniquely well-tailored education in the finer points of making it in the pop industry. And more to the point, she is part of a group, simply by virtue of her nationality, that is currently the music business’s stealthiest success story. Consider the numbers. In 2011, Sweden had $135 million in foreign music sales, making it the world’s largest exporter of pop music per capita and the third largest in absolute terms, after the U.S. and U.K.

Ever since Abba burst onto the global pop scene in 1974, with their go-go boots and intentions of becoming Scandinavia’s Beach Boys, the country has periodically lobbed up notable pop acts: Ace of Base, Roxette, the Cardigans and the Hives all had moments at or near the top of the charts. But now seems to be something of a golden age. Two years ago Swedish House Mafia became the first electronic group to perform at–and sell out–Madison Square Garden. Coming off a summer-long gig at Ibiza’s always jammed Ushuaia club, Avicii is currently ranked the third-best DJ in the world by DJ Magazine; he was also nominated for Best Dance Recording at this year’s Grammy Awards. In 2012 that honor fell to Robyn, who was also nominated for Best Dance/Electronica Album.

But the two young women of Icona Pop are perhaps having the biggest moment. Stockholm natives Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt play an infectious brand of electro-dance music with enough riot-grrrl backbone to make it a favorite among young women everywhere. A spot last year on the HBO series Girls juiced sales of their first single, “I Love It.” By June it had gone double platinum and was ubiquitous at every dance club and frat party in the country. “A few weeks ago we were in New York and got to go out for the first time in a while,” says Jawo. “And at every club we went to, they played ‘I Love It.’ That’s when I thought, O.K., maybe we’ve made it.”

Jonah Nilsson seeks that same kind of breakthrough. A literal choirboy–his first music gig was at his church–he formed a band in 2009 with school buddies. But unlike the front men of most boy bands, Nilsson had a keen interest in understanding how songs work–and the talent to make them his own. So much talent that when the band, christened Dirty Loops, posted a YouTube video of themselves playing a jazz-inflected version of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” the response was what counts as overwhelming in Sweden: 5,000 hits within the first few days. “I have YouTube to thank for everything,” Nilsson says. “Until then, we were just typical teenagers who wanted to be left alone in the basement.”

The YouTube splash brought a call from superstar producer and songwriter Andreas Carlsson, who co-wrote “Bye Bye Bye” for ‘N Sync. Carlsson flew the group to Los Angeles, where Nilsson impressed Quincy Jones and producer David Foster. Carlsson told Foster, “It’s going to be sweaty for Timberlake after this kid comes out.”

Now views of some of Dirty Loops’ covers have topped 3 million, and Nilsson is preparing for what’s to come. “I want to do it all–go out on tour, play the big arenas, produce, maybe write music for movies,” he says. “And once I’ve done all that, I’d like to go back and write choir music.”

That’s the charming thing about Swedes: even their pop stars’ ambitions never seem obvious or insatiable. That ingrained aversion to standing out (in Swedish, it’s called jantelagen) may explain why the most influential Swedes in pop music–and they are legion–are hardly household names. But behind the scenes, Shellback, RedOne, Bloodshy and Avant, and the great Max Martin are responsible for a disproportionately large number of pop hits from the past decade or so. Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, ‘N Sync, Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, Pink, Katy Perry, Maroon 5: every single one of them has had a hit–more often quite a few–written and produced by Swedes.

The man credited with starting this trend is Dag Volle, a.k.a. Denniz Pop. He discovered Ace of Base in the early ’90s, when the band’s demo cassette got stuck in his car stereo. After being forced to listen to the same song over and over, he realized he couldn’t get it out of his head. (He would retitle it “All That She Wants.”) He and a partner later opened Cheiron Studios and got their big break when a group of five young Americans walked in to record their first album and walked out as the Backstreet Boys.

Until his death in 1998, Volle worked collaboratively, bringing in young songwriters and mentoring them. It was he who recognized Max Martin, perhaps the most talented–and still the most prolific–of Nordic music men. Martin (real name: Martin Karl Sandberg) has since written an astonishing string of hits, including Spears’ “Baby One More Time,” Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Usher’s “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love.” He was involved in 7 of the 10 most performed pop songs in 2012. His latest masterwork, Perry’s “Roar,” which he co-wrote and produced, hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

There’s no single explanation for how Swedish songwriters and producers keep turning out hits. For Ola Hakansson, who started his career in the 1960s with Ola and the Janglers–the first Swedish band to hit the U.S. Billboard charts–it comes down to a kind of ingrained adaptability. “We’re a small country, so we can’t set any trends,” says Hakansson, who now manages Icona Pop. “But we’re really good at picking up on other people’s, and we’re really good at mimicking.” Musically, he notes, American pop is rooted in jazz and blues, while European music is based more firmly on keyboards. “What we do in Sweden is to mix the jazz and blues with the keyboards,” he says. “If you listen to Abba, that’s what they did. Groups today are still at it.”

Others point to an older influence. “You hear that?” Carlsson asks, playing the unmistakable opening notes of Abba’s “Dum Dum Diddle.” “That’s a hook you’ll never hear anywhere else. That’s straight from Swedish folk music, which is very melodic.”

Another potent explanation for Sweden’s pop juggernaut comes from that most indigenously Scandinavian of things: the welfare state. Publicly funded arts councils give money to artists, venues and labels for recording, touring and even living expenses. The nurturing of musical talent begins even earlier. Children take mandatory music-appreciation classes in kindergarten, and cities run kulturskolan, which offer low-fee after-school programs for children that include music lessons and instrument rentals.

Earlier this year, Sweden opened its own music Hall of Fame, which includes an Abba museum. But the future of the burgeoning pop industry may lie in the newly created Academy of Music and Business. Founded by Carlsson and his former music teacher, Magnus Lundin, in their hometown of Tingsryd, the school opened Aug. 24. As a gymnasium–a kind of advanced high school–it receives €13,000 annually from the Swedish government for each of its 46 current students. (It expects to have 240 within three years.) “We’re standing in front of enormous changes in the music industry, and the industry itself doesn’t know how to prepare musicians,” says Lundin. “That’s where we come in.”

The school is also a step toward institutionalizing the phenomenon that began spontaneously in Cheiron Studios two decades ago. On the day that Jonah Nilsson visited AMB, Carlsson came with him and delivered a lecture about the songwriting process. For Linn Jans, his talk was just as inspiring as Nilsson’s performance. “Sweden is so little and America is so big,” she said afterward. “I really want to be famous in America.”

–With reporting by Carl Reinholdtzon Belfrage

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