Swedish Hit Factory (Scanorama 11/00)

Stockholm has turned into one of the world’s premier pop music hot spots and the Swedish touch is topping charts worldwide. Now MTV Europe will come to the city’s Globe arena to host its annual music awards. Gordon F. Sander swooped into town to check Stockholm’s pop music pulse.

Every so often, it seems, a city or a place gets to be a hot music town. In the 1970s that place was Nashville. Remember when everyone from Bob Dylan to Dusty Springfield was winging over to Tennessee to catch that special “Nashville sound?” Then the musical torch was passed to L.A.

Now it’s Stockholm. Following the lead of pop diva Britney Spears, whose 1998 hit ditty, “Baby, One More Time,” was concocted for her by Swedish studio magician Max Martin, such varied foreign singers as Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion, and Joe Cocker have slipped into Stockholm or otherwise called on Martin and his fellow tunesmiths in search of their next chart-topper.

Fortunately, Stockholm is still the sort of town you can slip into. If you wish to be a star, that’s cool. If not, that’s all right, too. But everyone knows who’s in town, just as this summer everyone knew that the Backstreet Boys (the boy group that is one of pop’s current monster acts), were in Stockholm to record with Martin. Of course, the Swedish teenyboppers who camped outside Martin’s now legendary Cheiron Studios, one of dozens of recording studios scattered around greater Stockholm, also provided a hint.

Meanwhile, Swedish singers and musicians themselves continue to enjoy remarkable success in the global, English-speaking pop music market. The current catalog of top Swedish export talents includes the Cardigans (rock), Robyn (R&B), Eagle-Eye Cherry (rock), Andreas Johnson (pop), Antiloop (techno), and many more. Together these artists generate estimated annual revenues of about a quarter of a billion dollars, making Sweden the world’s third-biggest music exporter, an extraordinary achievement for a nation of nine million people located on Europe’s periphery.

Even the Swedish government, which used to ignore pop, has jumped into the act. “The export success of our popular music industry is more impressive at the moment than that of Volvo and Ericsson,” say Swedish Minister of Trade Leif Pagrotsky. To show his appreciation, Pagrotsky has created an annual award for the band which has done the most for Swedish export “services.”

Sizzling Stockholm, as Newsweek recently dubbed the buzzing Swedish capital, is filled with trendy clubs and bars, one of which is the ultra-hip Lydmar Hotel. As much a hangout as a hotel, the Lydmar is the kind of place where the waitresses are accomplished DJs, and the hotel lift has a customized hi-fi system which plays 10 different kinds of music for its upscale guests, many of whom are involved in the pop business in some way.

“This city is amazing,” said Carlos Thornton, a visiting R&B producer from Atlanta, as he hung out at the Lydmar with his multinational crew on a luminous summer evening. “The energy coming out of this place is fantastic.”

“You’ve got to hand it to those Swedes,” the teddy-bearish producer said with a wink, as he looked over at his Swedish partner, local music heavy and superagent Peter Swartling, who was talking into his mobile in rapid-fire Swedish. “They have rhythm!”

“I heard that,” said Swartling, turning his phone off. Swartling, an intense, multi-stud bearing, bald-pated man of 35, is co-CEO of Lifeline Management Company, one of a wave of entertainment firms which have accompanied the new Swedish pop boom.

Within moments, Swartling’s mobile rang again. “MAX … MAR …TIN,” Swartling mouthed for my benefit, referring to Stockholm’s elusive songwriting guru. Evidently, Martin and Swartling were supposed to hang out that evening; Martin was phoning to cancel. He was too busy working with the Backstreet Boys.

Did he, perchance, have time to give an interview to a visiting reporter? Swartling asked for me. No, sorry. I should have known. Like Phil Spector, the reclusive and highly successful U.S. producer of the 1960s, best known for his “Wall of Sound” — to which Martin’s own, synthetic-music-laden “Cheiron Sound” has been likened — Martin never gives interviews. But he sent his best. No problem: The man needs his mystique.

Is there anything especially Swedish about the chart-topping ditties that Martin and his musical munchkins whip up for Britney Spears and his Backstreet Boys? One might argue, as some Swedes do, that Martin’s uncanny talent for swallowing the bubblegum form whole and blowing out hummable new lyrics is, somehow, in itself, very Swedish. As I hop scotched around the Stockholm music scene over a two-week period this past summer, I kept asking myself why Swedes are so adept at making pop for the English market.

“You have to remember that Swedes are a very musical people to start with,” Boel Rydena, the earnest and articulate managing director of Stockholm-based Nordic MTV, told me over breakfast at the Lydmar. “Music — particularly melody-making — is important to us, and somehow we all seem to be good at it, perhaps because we are all exposed to it at such an early age. Song, and the making of song, is a national art here. We all love to sing.”

One of the unspoken mottos of modern Swedish democracy is “music for all.” Secondary school students are encouraged to study musical composition. It’s also easy for anyone who wants to play an instrument to do so. End result: Tens of thousands of bands, some superb, some good, some awful, all playing at the weekend in garages across the country.

Another key component behind Sweden’s musical prowess, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, were the so-called people’s or folk parks. A unique Swedish tradition, these parks are free outdoor venues, throughout the country and supported by the government, where both new and established singers and bands can try out their material. ABBA, among other Swedish bands, were in part a product of the people’s park circuit.

Like some peoples (most notably the Japanese, who, coincidentally or not, are avid customers of Swedish pop music), Swedes have a distinct and proven flair for absorbing and adapting foreign cultural forms, particularly filmic and musical ones. Musically, this is often accomplished by melding foreign songs and lyric ideas with the hooky, childlike melodies of Swedish folk music.

Another factor behind Swedish flair for creating commercial pop music for the English market, numerous Swedes pointed out to me, is the fact that American and British movies are subtitles, rather than dubbed as they often are on the continent. Consequently, Swedes are able to grasp American and English idiom and cultural nuances far better than, say, the ordinary Frenchman and Italian.

And then there’s the climate: What better way to while away the long, dark Swedish winter than to head for the garage or the recording studio, and get down!

At least as far as the outside world was concerned, Swedish rock was something of a shaggy dog joke during the 1960s and early 1970s. Unfairly, Sweden was better known for its pornography than for its pop. Then, in 1974, four preppy-looking Swedish musicians named Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny, and Anni-Frid took the Eurovision stage in Brighton, and jokes about Swedish pop abruptly stopped.

Twenty-five years later, the world is still ready for ABBA. Witness the lines for Mamma Mia, the ABBA-inspired musical in London, not to mention the continuing sales of ABBA, which recently passed the 250 million mark. “Great songs, great music, great art lives forever!” is the way Gorel Hanser, managing director of Monomusic, Benny Anderson’s music company, sums it up.

The scene was rejuvenated in the early 1990s when two groups, Roxette, a light pop band, and Ace of Base, the Swedo-reggae combo, became world-famous. Roxette’s breakthrough with the smash song, “The Look,” was something of a fluke, the result of an American student who brought the record back home and had his local DJ play it, whereupon it swept the U.S. market.

The apparatus for properly marketing Swedish pop abroad was not quite in place. Then, in 1994, came the astounding Ace of Base phenomenon, putting any lingering doubts about the consistency of Swedish pop to rest for good. Their 1994 debut album, The Sign, sold more than 20 million copies, making it the best-selling debut album ever.

Ace of Base worked closely with Denniz Pop, founder of Cheiron Studios, Max Martin’s production company, who along with his fellow Swedish producers was acquiring a deserved worldwide reputation for audial craftsmanship and wizardry.

It wasn’t long before the big multinationals — Warner, EMI, Polygram, and others — decided to get in on the action and set up their own Swedish divisions, or, rather, buy out the most successful Swedish indie labels, a process that left a lot of bruised egos. In a matter of years, the Swedish music business had metamorphosed into a bona fide industry — or, better put, a bona fide branch of the global record business. It also had lost some of its innocence. Today, there is only one major independent company, MNW, left.

Nonetheless, as far as the viability and worldwide sales and status of the business are concerned, the multi-national invasion has clearly been a boon for Sweden, creating an environment in which the qualities and attributes cited above — Sweden’s “inborn” melodiousness, knack for copying, etc. — could reach a critical mass, leading directly to the extraordinary ferment of today, where we see indigenous Swedish musicians and allied artists consistently turning out worldwide hits, both for themselves and, as in the case of Martin and his melody-makers at Cheiron Studios, for other savvy international melody-shoppers.

“Everything has really come together over the last few years,” says Nils Hanson, the respected rock critic for the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter. “People know their trade. And, finally, there’s a broad consensus that Swedish pop actually sells.”

In November, various kingpins of the Swedish music industry will be showing off their euphonious wares when Stockholm hosts a week-long music exposition along with the MTV Europe Music Awards. The fair, called Stockholm Music Week, is expected to attract recording industry heavies from around the world and further add to Stockholm’s buzz.

Put simply, Stockholm rocks.

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