The Swedish music miracle
How come Sweden is such a chart-topping music superpower? Here are 8 reasons why.
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.
One reason is municipal music and arts schools (kommunala musikskolan/kulturskolan) that – while not mandatory – were hugely popular in Sweden during the 1970s and 1980s, and still are. 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.
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.
There is also Rytmus, an upper secondary school with a major focus on music, which at present has bases in five of Sweden's cities, including Stockholm. Tove Lo, Molly Sandén and Icona Pop are big names who went to this school.
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 – which equals 6 per cent of the population – and the union represents a few hundred choirs. While these numbers may not seem staggering at first glance, they make Sweden one of the most choir-dense countries in the world. Sweden’s strong choral tradition comes from a deep-seated culture of singing folk songs, especially around Midsummer and major festivities like Christmas.
Top 5 biggest selling Swedish acts
(albums and singles combined)
- ABBA – 500 million+
- Roxette – 75 million+
- Ace of Base – 50 million+
- Zara Larsson – 35 million+
- Avicii – 30 million+
3. Love and support
Every year since 1997, the Swedish government has awarded its Music Export Prize in recognition of international musical achievements by Swedes. Past honourees include Avicii, members of ABBA, Ghost, Max Martin, Robyn, Roxette, Swedish House Mafia and Tove Lo.
It's fair to say that some Swedish songwriters, singers and producers owe their success in part to getting financial support, allowing them to properly learn their craft and develop as artists. The Swedish Arts Council (Kulturrådet) is a government agency offering support to various art forms, with total yearly grants amounting to about SEK 2.5 billion. Musicians in the early stages of their careers can choose between around ten different grants to apply for. During the Covid-19 pandemic the Arts Council has added support for cancelled events to their list of grants.
At an industry level, Export Music Sweden helps promote the export of Swedish music. This is a non-profit organisation that supports songwriters, musicians, recording artists and companies in the music industry to go global.
And then there are initiatives like the Nordic Playlist, a cross-country initiative showcasing cutting-edge music from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden to the rest of the world.
4. Swedes behind the scenes
Did you know that many chart-topping pop songs have been written by Swedes? 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.
International acts like Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys came to Cheiron Studios in Stockholm to record songs alongside Swedish songwriters. They left Sweden with Billboard hits in their luggage.
Run by producer Denniz Pop – the brains behind Backstreet Boys’ hit ‘Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)’ – Cheiron Studios was where some of Sweden’s top producers and DJs convened to churn out memorable hits. Though the studio 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 stars like Kylie Minogue, Robyn and David Bowie, as well as director Jonas Åkerlund, who has pushed boundaries with edgy music videos for Madonna, Lady Gaga, Metallica and many more.
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 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.’
Other examples of independent labels 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.
Many Swedish companies have jumped at the chance of finding new ways to distribute music. 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 on their phones and computers. Available in most countries in the world, Spotify is home to more than 70 million tracks and has more than 150 million subscribers.
Epidemic Sound, founded in 2009, offers an audio library with thousands of royalty-free tracks. Subscribers can use the music to add a soundtrack to a video or other content.
Back in 2008, SoundCloud opened a platform enabling artists to upload their own music and making it available to their fans. Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li has actively used the platform to spread her music to fans, followers and fellow artists.
Sweden’s ESC Winners
2015 (Vienna): Måns Zelmerlöv, ‘Heroes’
2012 (Baku): Loreen, ‘Euphoria’
1999 (Jerusalem): Charlotte Nilsson, ‘Take Me to Your Heaven’
1991 (Rome): Carola, ‘Fångad av en stormvind’
1984 (Luxembourg): Herrey’s, ‘Diggi-loo diggy-ley’
1974 (Brighton): ABBA, ‘Waterloo’
Sweden’s annual Melodifestivalen is the most watched TV programme 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's latest Eurovison triumph was Måns Zelmerlöv winning in Vienna in 2015 with ‘Heroes’. With that, Sweden now boasts six Eurovision wins, making it the second most winning country after Ireland, which has won seven times.
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.
After ABBA, who ruled the 1970s and early 1980s to become the second most successful group ever behind the Beatles, came Roxette, Neneh Cherry and Europe who rocked the 1980s and early 1990s.
The 1990s 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, Zara Larsson has made it onto the all-time best-selling list and Robyn's 'Dancing on My Own' has been named best song of the 2010s by the Rolling Stone magazine.
And, yes, ABBA's greatest hits compilation 'Gold' has become the first record to spend 1,000 weeks in the UK's album chart.