Why Is Sweden So Good at Pop Music?

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 producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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