Why Is Sweden So Good at Pop Music?

Reading the scholarly literature in honor of an Ace of Base anniversary
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Exactly 20 years ago, a co-ed quartet from Sweden called Ace of Base released “The Sign,” the fourth single off their multiplatinum debut album. It took Americans a few months to open up their eyes and see the sign themselves—the track didn’t top the Billboard charts until the following year, when it was released in the U.S.—but the song has become the band’s most enduring legacy, and it remains compelling evidence that Swedish people are great at writing catchy pop songs. 

From Abba to Icona Pop, from Roxette to Robyn, Sweden’s reputation for pop superiority has spanned decades, and it continues today. But the arrival of Ace of Base helped usher in the “Swedish Music Miracle,” a period of time from about 1990 to 2003 when Sweden’s musical exports were at their economic peak. A 1999 report from Sweden’s Ministry of Finance found that royalty payments to Sweden from foreign markets were twice the U.S. per capita figure. Today, according to other reports, Sweden is the third-largest music exporter in the world behind the U.S. and the UK. In 2003, Swedish music exports began to decline, but behind the scenes, the country’s pop talent has remained active: In May of 2012, half of the top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 were written or produced by Swedes.

What accounts for this miracle? According to Swedish academic Ola Johansson, it’s not biology, and it’s not the country’s cold climate, either—claiming Swedes make great music because they’re indoors all the time is like saying Seattle in the 1990s was only an alternative rock hotspot because of the rain.

For a 2010 article in the peer-reviewed journal FOCUS on Geography, Johansson examined the scholarly literature about Sweden’s economy, politics, and geography to develop eight theories behind his country’s hits.

Sweden Loves Its Role Models
In the 1970s, tennis player Björn Borg and alpine skier Ingemar Stenmark rose to international prominence as Swedish athletes, inspiring unprecedented numbers of Swedes to take up those sports themselves. Johansson suggests the same could have very well been true for music: After Abba’s early breakthroughs, more Swedes made plays for global pop success.

One critique of this theory identifies the lag time between Abba’s initial popularity and the next Swedish mega-hit, Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” which topped charts in a dozen countries more than a decade after Abba first got big. But Johansson argues that developing a country’s music industry takes time, and there’s evidence that the Abba operation played a key role in maturing Sweden’s pop-music community. He cites a Swedish-language paper from 2004 that credits Abba’s manager, Stikkan Anderson—who hired mostly Swedish staffers to help produce the band’s music, videos, and tours—with incubating Sweden’s music industry personnel. Other studies claim Abba’s simple, almost nursery-rhyme-like melodies and lighter, vocal-heavy production—in contrast to English and American pop music’s bass- and drum-heavy styles—pioneered an influential, region-less sound easily appreciated by foreign countries.

They Speak English Well
A European Union report from 2008 noted that 89 percent of Sweden can speak English, the highest proficiency rate among European countries where English is not a native language. Linguistically, English, like Swedish, is a Germanic language, which makes it relatively easy to pick up. Culturally, Sweden is quite cosmopolitan and welcoming to foreign cultures, lacking the kind of language purism countries such as France have become known for. The result, Johansson suggests, is a mastery of the nuances and emotional subtleties of English among Swedish artists—which makes sense if you’ve ever heard Robyn’s many evocative tales of heartbreak.

The language proficiency theory has plenty of exceptions, though. Roxette, Jens Lekman, and the Cardigans have all written lyrics that seem like they couldn’t have come from a native English speaker, and if you’re familiar with Ace of Base deep cuts, you know that some of their lyrics can actually read like @Horse_ebooks tweets. Even founding Ace of Base band member Ulf Ekberg dismissed the role of lyrics in explaining Sweden’s success. As he told newspaper The National in 2011:

“For Sweden [melody is] number one and has always been,” he says. “While the Americans, it’s the lyrics first, production second and melody last. I am not saying the lyrics are not important, but for us Swedes, for whom English is our second language, we just try to make it understood by a world audience. Because of this focus on lyrics, some of the American songs are complicated and can sometimes be not much fun. While for us, we always try to reach to as many people as we can, so we have feel-good melodies and simple lyrics so everyone can have fun.”

Sweden Keeps With the Latest Trends
Economic geographers have long identified Sweden as an early and successful adopter of new technology and business models. In the case of H&M and Ikea, fashionably affordable clothing and cheap, modern furniture aren’t exactly Swedish innovations, but those two companies have become some of Sweden’s most famous brands. Pandora Internet radio got its start in the Bay Area, but that didn’t stop Spotify, founded by Daniel Ek in Stockholm in 2006, from joining the forefront of streaming services.

Sweden’s taste in music is similarly progressive. Before the advent of rock and roll, Sweden was one of the largest consumers of jazz music in the world, though the genre is hardly indigenous to Sweden. The Beatles’ first international tour took place in Sweden in 1963, and years later, the Sex Pistols also toured in Sweden before taking their act to other countries. Because the Beatles’ tour preceded—or perhaps inspired—a wave of Swedish pop bands, Johansson suggests the country’s receptiveness to outsiders and new sounds kickstarted its own industry and music scene.

Globalization—and MTV—Had a Big Effect
Despite its early-adopter reputation, up until the 1980s, Sweden ran a limited number television channels and radio stations, making it difficult for its artists to discover music from other countries. And then came MTV: The music-video channel was so popular when it arrived in Sweden in 1987 that MTV Europe began programming a higher number of Swedish artists’ music videos, giving Swedish music international exposure.

Johansson argues that this new platform opened new routes to success: In Abba’s early years, the band had trouble cracking the British market, which was more skeptical of and less receptive to international pop acts than it is today. Now, Swedish heritage can practically be a selling point for new pop acts, and most successful Swedish acts have made international moves following domestic success.

Sweden’s Music Scene Is Tight-Knit
In his 1990 book, The Competitive Advantage of Nations, economist Michael Porter introduced the idea of a business cluster, a geographic concentration of businesses and suppliers whose proximity to one another increases productivity, drives innovation, and stimulates new business. In the early 2000s, Geographers at Sweden’s Uppsala University applied Porter’s concepts to Sweden’s domestic music industry, and identified a similar network of talent (songwriters, producers) and supporting industries (music publishers, video producers, educational groups), most of which were concentrated in Sweden’s capital of Stockholm. One such institution is Export Music Sweden, a nonprofit that promotes and helps fund Swedish artists abroad, including setting up South by Southwest appearances and collaborating with the national arts council.

Though most independent record labels in Sweden are based outside of Stockholm, its majors labels—responsible for 80 percent of domestic pop music—are nearly all headquartered in the capital. Some of them were even founded with the intent of launching Swedish artists abroad, as Stockholm Records did when its act The Cardigans scored an international hit in the mid-90s with “Lovefool.”

But Sometimes It’s Too Tight-Knit
More than 316 million people live in the United States. Sweden, on the other hand, has a population of about 9.5 million people, which means artists looking to build career longevity have a greater incentive to court international audiences. After all, in such a small market, an act can only tour so many times in the same cities before ticket sales diminish. This pattern of growth, from small domestic act to international operation, is indicative of the broader Swedish economy, which has historically been dominated by large companies, like Volvo, that went from domestic brands to transnational entities after tapping the local market. Johansson suggests that this thesis also explains why Sweden, in addition to pop music, is also a significant exporter of death metal—a niche genre that can’t support itself on Swedish audiences alone.

The Government Wills It
Sweden’s public policy helps groom next-generation pop stars at an early age. A 2004 Swedish-language study reported that 30 percent of Swedish children attend publicly subsidized, after-school music programs. Max Martin—the hitmaker behind “...Baby One More Time,” “Teenage Dream,” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”—is one of these programs’ most famous alumni, and the superstar producer has publicly credited his early music education with his professional success in interviews.

The government’s Swedish Arts Council, statens kulturråd, has generously supported adults, too. In a 2010 Pitchfork column, “What’s the Matter with Sweden?”, Marc Hogan reported that each year the council gives out approximately $1.65 million dollars to more than a hundred music acts, $3.3 million to concert venues, and $30.9 million to regional music groups. (It also gave $8.9 million annually to a national concert series that has since been discontinued.) Though Johansson notes that pop and rock music only gets about 20 percent of government funding, some of the country’s most high-profile exports have benefitted: Swedish electro duo The Knife received two grants of several thousand dollars in 2001 and 2006, which helped pay for their debut album and their first U.S. tour.

And Thus, We Can Conclude That ...
Sweden’s knack for high-quality pop songs isn’t a genetic trait that gets passed along from generation to generation alongside like blond hair and blue eyes. Johansson argues that it’s the result of the fact that no other small country has the right combination of language skills, cultural values, tight-knit industry, and supportive public policy to transform itself into the music-exporting phenomenon that Sweden has become. So the next time you find yourself humming along to “The Sign,” don’t write it off as simple, reggae-lite relic of decades past. Get into the light and accept the song for what it really is: a triumph of some complex geopolitical systems.

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Nolan Feeney is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Entertainment channel. 

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