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8 reasons why Sweden rocks

Did you know that Sweden is the world’s most successful exporter of chart music, in relation to GDP?* From ABBA to Swedish House Mafia and Robyn, via Roxette and The Cardigans, there always seems to be at least one Swedish act at the top. Here are eight reasons why Sweden, with 9.7 million inhabitants, rocks the music scene globally.

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Yes, ABBA made it into this article. Obviously. But they are only one of many great Swedish acts.

Photo: Bengt H Malmqvist ©Premium Rockshot

#1 Municipal music schools

If you’re wondering why Sweden produces such great artists with staying power, it’s worth taking a closer look at how Swedish children are raised especially within the realm of music.

Anders Nunstedt, a music reporter and editor for daily newspaper Expressen, says the most obvious reason is municipal music schools (kommunala musikskolan) that – while not mandatory – were hugely popular in Sweden during the 70s and 80s and still are. ‘During these decades success from artists like ABBA gave young Swedish musicians confidence that, even though Sweden is a small country, we can still make a big impact on the international music scene,’ notes Nunstedt.

Access to instruments and classes are provided through music schools run by various local municipalities so many children try their hands at different types of instruments to finally find which ones they’re naturally good at.

‘I started playing drums at 13 after hearing my all-time favourite drummer Cozy Powell playing a drum solo.  I was totally overcome by the sheer power of drums and felt right away that “this was it”,’ says Europe drummer Ian Haugland, who did two years at kommunala musikskolan. ‘Apart from the drums I can also play a little guitar and keyboards, but not enough to scare the rats out of the cellar!’

#2 Singing in choirs

For those who can carry a tune, many start out in choirs. According to Sveriges Körförbund (the Swedish choir union), roughly 600,000 Swedes sing in choirs, and the union represents about 500 choirs. While these numbers may not seem staggering at first glance, they actually make Sweden the country with the highest number of choirs per capita in the entire world. Sweden’s strong choral tradition comes from a deep-seated culture of singing folk songs, especially around Midsummer and major festivities like Christmas.

Swedish House Mafia on tour in the US.

Photo: SIPA USA/Scanpix

#3 The Swedish government loves rock music too

Since 1997, the Swedish government has awarded its Music Export Prize in recognition of international musical achievements by Swedes. Past honourees have included Swedish House Mafia, Robyn, members of ABBA, The Hives, The Cardigans, Max Martin, and Roxette.

‘Our well-developed social system makes it possible for people to create music even though they do not have a lot of income’, says Daniel Johansson, music industry researcher at Linnaeus University and founder of music analysis firm TrendMaze. This is often jokingly expressed as ‘socialbidraget som ligger bakom det svenska musikundret’ (‘the social welfare behind the Swedish music miracle’) which highlights the Swedish government’s support of musicians and artists through the Swedish Arts Council.

The council funds those in the early stages of their careers by allocating roughly SEK 1 billion (USD 151 million, EUR 116 million) in the form of grants to performing arts every year. Singer Miss Li is just one example of artists who’ve received grants from the Swedish Arts Council. ‘Most of the really successful Swedish songwriters and producers have been able to learn their craft because of support from society’, continues Johansson. ‘If they’d been forced into traditional 9-to-5 desk jobs while trying to develop as artists, they probably wouldn’t have become so successful.’

Another interesting initiative is the Nordic Playlist, an online platform aiming to spread cutting-edge music from the Nordic countries to the rest of the world. The website is produced by the Nordic Music Export Programme.

Girl duo Icona Pop is Sweden’s most recent top tenner on the US Billboard charts. Their instantly recognisable tune ‘I Love It’ peaked at number 7 on the Hot 100 list in May 2013. The song was noticed by the wider American audience when it featured in an episode of HBO hit show ‘Girls’.

Girl duo Icona Pop is Sweden’s most recent top tenner on the US Billboard charts. Their instantly recognisable tune ‘I Love It’ peaked at number 7 on the Hot 100 list in May 2013. The song was noticed by the wider American audience when it featured in an episode of HBO hit show ‘Girls’.

#4 Swedes behind the scenes

You might be surprised to find that Swedish songwriters lie behind many chart-topping pop songs today. There’s songwriter and producer Max Martin, who has penned catchy pop tunes for Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Pink, Usher, Backstreet Boys, and ‘N Sync. There’s producer Shellback, who topped Billboard’s 2012 chart as the #1 producer and has written for Maroon 5. And there is RedOne, who has written for Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Pitbull, and One Direction. To name just three Swedes.

‘A lot of talent was attracted to Cheiron Studios in Stockholm where they recorded their smash hits alongside Swedish songwriters’, adds Nunstedt. ‘International acts like Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys came to Cheiron and left Sweden with Billboard top hits in their hand luggage.’

Launched in 1986 under its original name SweMix, the studio was run by producer Denniz Pop, the brains behind Backstreet Boys’ hit ‘Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)’. The studio changed its name to Cheiron when it was sold to BMG in 1993 and it was where some of Sweden’s top producers and DJs convened to churn out memorable hits. Though Cheiron Studios closed its doors in 1998 due to Denniz Pop’s untimely death, its producers such as Max Martin have gone on to elevate Swedish songwriting globally.

Sweden also boasts music video directors such as Johan Renck, who has directed music videos for Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams, and Sweden’s own Robyn, as well as director Jonas Åkerlund, who keeps pushing boundaries with edgy music videos for Madonna, Lady Gaga, Moby, Christina Aguilera, Pink, and U2.

#5 Independence is valued

Many Swedish artists take full control of their creative process – from songwriting to owning their own labels and marketing themselves independently – and pop rock sensation Robyn is just one example.  She founded Konichiwa Records in 2005 to cover all aspects of her music career such as media management, recording contracts, and her creative process.

‘I reached a point where it was no fun anymore’, Robyn says regarding a previous record company relationship. ‘I wanted to alter my situation and create a bubble of my own where I could decide the parameters myself.’ This keeps their style and sounds organically unique without the pressures of third party management companies.

Other examples include: Today Is Vintage Records, which was founded by Swedish rapper Rebstar; Rabid Records which is run by electro-pop duo The Knife; and INGRID, which is a collective label founded by 13 artists and musicians including Lykke Li and Peter Bjorn & John.

#6 Technology

Many Swedish artists also control how their music is consumed and disseminated digitally. Audio platform SoundCloud allows artists to upload, record, promote and share their original sounds. Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li actively uses SoundCloud to spread her music and share it with SoundCloud’s 20+ million member-strong communities of fans, followers, and fellow artists.

Internationally acclaimed Swedish DJ Tim Bergling, more widely known as Avicii, organised the X You project which was touted as the world’s largest music collaboration – bringing together 4,199 people from 140 countries who contributed 12,951 melodies, basslines, beats, rhythms, breaks and effects – all made possible by technology.

Sweden-based Spotify is the modern day digital equivalent of ‘word of mouth’ music recommendations. Started in 2006 by Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon, Spotify allows users to freely listen to, stream, and share millions of music tracks to their computers and smartphones. Many artists, both international and Swedish, maintain Spotify profiles – Avicii is one of them.

With Spotify’s Facebook integration, users can also see and listen to what their friends are currently playing as well.

#7 Eurovision

Sweden’s annual Melodifestivalen is the most watched TV program in Sweden, with roughly 4 million viewers out of almost 10 million residents unleashing their inner music critic while voting. More importantly, the winner of Melodifestivalen goes on to represent Sweden in the annual Eurovision Song Contest – the world’s most watched non-sporting event.

Sweden has won Eurovision five times, making it the second most winning country after Ireland which has won seven times.

Winning Eurovision in 1974 with their chart topping ‘Waterloo’, it certainly has come full circle for ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus who, alongside Avicii were tasked with composing the official anthem for the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest held in Malmö, Sweden.

#8 The ABBA effect

It’s nearly impossible not to include the influence of ABBA in a list like this one. Chart-topping Swedish musical acts and songwriters keep passing the proverbial hit-making baton to each other as they move through the decades.

‘We have a strong tradition of folk music in Sweden but I also think great artists serve as inspiration to other artists to make it’, says Ian Haugland. ‘Let´s say The Spotnicks in the 60s inspired ABBA in the 70s which inspired Roxette in the 80s and so on.’

After ABBA, who ruled the 70s and early 80s to become the second most successful group ever behind the Beatles, came Roxette, Neneh Cherry, and Europe who rocked the 80s and early 90s.

The 90s also brought with it Ace of Base and Neneh’s brother Eagle Eye Cherry alongside bands like The Cardigans who would later pass the baton into the early 2000s on to the likes of indie rockers The Hives, Peter Bjorn & John, and Jens Lekman. Today, artists Robyn, Lykke Li, and Miss Li now dominate pop charts in their respective genres.

Visitors can learn more about ABBA’s impressive career at the new ABBA Museum as well as Sweden’s contribution to global music at the Swedish Music Hall of Fame – both located on the island of Djurgården in Stockholm.

*According to a paper by American researchers Joel Waldfogel and Fernando Ferreira of the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, Sweden is the number one exporter of chart music relative to GDP in the world, followed by Canada, Finland, the UK, New Zealand and the US (based on data from 1960 to 2007).

Last updated: 14 April 2014

Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Lola Akinmade-Åkerström is a Stockholm-based freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, BBC and CNN among others. She's the editor-in-chief of Slow Travel Stockholm, contributes as a photojournalist to the Swedish Red Cross and has also been Sweden.se’s photoblogger.