Sweden Makes Music: How Diversity, Education and Tech Propel Swedish Artists Onto the World Stage

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Lauren Silberman / Consulate General of Sweden in New York
Janice performs at the fifth annual Sweden Makes Music showcase at Baby's All Right in New York City on Dec. 13, 2017.

Sweden may be a small country -- roughly the same size as California, with just one-quarter of that state’s population -- but its artistic community has been a dominating force on the Billboard charts for decades, and the national government is investing more money in providing the same global resources to the smaller, local acts who need it most.

Blue Swede became the first Swedish act to top the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974 with their song "Hooked on a Feeling," and a wide range of artists from ABBA and Ace of Base to Zara Larsson, Tove Lo and Avicii have since continued this chart-topping legacy. Perhaps the most prolific Swedish music exports are actually the ones working behind the scenes: songwriter Max Martin has written or co-written over 20 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 to date, while producer Shellback (one of Martin’s protégés) has landed nearly 25 singles in the Top 10.

This steadily-rising collective fame has proven to be a boon for the wider Swedish music industry. According to research firm Musiksverige, not only has Sweden’s music revenue grown by over 50 percent since 2009 -- totaling 1.13 billion Swedish kronor (US$137.3 million) in 2016 -- but the country’s music export revenue also doubled over that same time period, reaching two billion Swedish kronor (US$243 million).

Interestingly, streaming captures over 85 percent of the total Swedish music market, suggesting that the format has fueled rather than cannibalized the industry’s financial health. This is in no small part because Spotify, the world’s largest streaming service by market share, was founded in Stockholm and has since transformed the city into a thriving music-tech hub. A myriad of startups like Pacemaker, Auddly, Auxy and Soundtrap (recently acquired by Spotify) have chosen to plant their roots in Stockholm, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in total funding for the music-tech sector annually.

But what does this all mean for local acts in Sweden? To what extent are indie Swedish artists benefiting from the national industry's growth and from Spotify's unparalleled influence -- and where is there still work to be done?

One way the Swedish government has been trying to support the local indie scene is through Sweden Makes Music, an annual showcase in New York City of emerging Swedish acts that celebrated its fifth anniversary last month. Co-hosted by Export Music Sweden and the Consulate General of Sweden in New York, the two-day event began with an industry reception at the Consulate General’s residence on Park Avenue, and culminated in a free concert at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn on Dec. 13, 2017.

Live Nation-owned Scandinavian concert promoter Luger curated the showcase lineup, which featured R&B/soul singer Janice, minimalist rock duo Pale Honey, folk singer-songwriter Sarah Klang and ambient electronic artist sweeep. All four acts were making their U.S. debuts, and were recruited more for their musical distinction than for their social followings: while Janice has 156,200 monthly Spotify listeners, sweeep has only around 300 monthly listeners, while Pale Honey and Sarah Klang fall in the middle with 77,600 and 71,600 monthly listeners respectively.

Crucially, all these acts were also female -- making a deliberate statement about Sweden’s commitment to gender equality in music. Indeed, women working in the Swedish music business have spoken out in critical mass against sexual assault and harassment, with nearly 2,000 of them signing an open letter in Nov. 2017 calling for major changes in the industry.

At Sweden Makes Music’s industry reception, Linda Portnoff, CEO of Musiksverige, revealed that females account for only around one-third of board members and one-fifth of CEOs at Swedish music companies -- below average compared to other industries in Sweden, and on par with analogous industry breakdowns in the U.S. Musiksverige has officially announced on its website that fostering a more inclusive music business “now tops [its] agenda,” and that the association will be restructured accordingly.

In fact, several music initiatives catering to female empowerment already exist in Sweden, such as pop star Robyn's Tekla Festival, women-only music festival Statement, girls-only music camp Popkollo and Spotify’s The Equalizer Project (co-founded with Max Martin). Education also remains a crucial pillar in the local music scene, with 30 percent of Swedish children attending publicly funded after-school music programs -- including Martin himself, who studied the recorder, French horn, drums, and keyboard in addition to playing in his school orchestra.

In 2015, Martin said on Radio Sweden that he “would not be standing in this place today if it weren’t for the public music school [system]” in his home country. “Swedes have become more demanding music consumers with more diverse tastes, as a result of having grown up in this environment,” Leif Pagrotsky, Consul General of Sweden in New York, tells Billboard.

On the artist side, Export Music Sweden’s involvement in Sweden Makes Music also raises an important question for any creative community: what does it mean for an indie or emerging artist to be “export-ready”? Aside from providing additional A&R investments, music export offices also focus on expanding networking opportunities and teaching cultural adaptability -- two important tenets in an industry which, despite (or perhaps because of) the rise of streaming, still leans heavily on face-to-face relationships.

“For us, ‘export-ready’ means connecting with New York fans, and being ready to invest time and energy in the U.S. market,” Niklas Arnegren, Head of Cultural Affairs and Public Programs at the Consulate General of Sweden in New York, tells Billboard. “Swedish artists in general are internationally fluent, and also progressive, tech-savvy, equality-minded and consensus-driven in a way that's uniquely Swedish. We wouldn't want them to change, and luckily they don't have to.”

Sweden is one of a handful of countries with a designated music export office; analogous offices exist in other European markets including France, IcelandNorway, LuxembourgDenmark, Finland and Latvia, and the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) has awarded over two million pounds to U.K.-registered indie music companies over the past three years through its own Music Export Growth Scheme. Yet, it remains true that less than a quarter of countries globally have a music export bureau, according to Sound Diplomacy.

Export offices play an instrumental role in artists' careers in part because international audience development is a long, challenging process that requires much more than just a singular show. With the artists at Sweden Makes Music, for instance, they played just one show in New York -- and for a 280-cap audience with many Swedish delegates in attendance -- and need to make a continued succession of visits to the U.S. if they want to stay in the export game here for the long haul.

“Sweden Makes Music gives a really valuable first taste of what touring abroad could be like," Johan Calissendorff, founder of Valen Agency and manager for Sarah Klang, tells Billboard. "But you need much more support from international record labels, booking agencies and governments to go a second time in a way that is meaningful.”

For Klang, that "second time" is forthcoming: a performance slot at this year's SXSW, which is itself a hotbed for export offices and international showcases. But even festivals like SXSW are just preliminary checkpoints for the most globally ambitious artists. "Eventually, flag-waving must lead to strategic partnerships," reads Sound Diplomacy's Global Music Export Pledge report. "There is such a thing as too many showcases for particular bands, where showcase festivals become more of a circuit than a step in the right direction."

Thankfully, the indie concert scenes across Sweden's major cities are also flourishing. Calissendorff discovered Klang at Oceanen, a small, 180-cap music venue in Gothenburg whose vision for supporting emerging talent is become more and more of the rule rather than the exception. Four new grassroots-focused venues opened in Gothenburg within the last year alone, and local restaurants are also starting to host more musicians for shows. "All of this inspires not just more bands to play, but also more audiences to go out and see shows," says Calissendorff. "It's such a small city, but there’s something going on every day, and the venues are always more or less packed. There’s a real movement happening."

That being said, there is little funding for live shows beyond the three key cities of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö -- which may make it more difficult for artists to rally a robust local support base before heading abroad. “I’d like to see more engagement from the Swedish government in terms of growing the live music scene beyond just those cities,” says Calissendorff. “Otherwise, young, local artists trying to build a career can’t really tour in Sweden. It’s a big difference from other European countries like Germany and France, in which you can develop an entire career as an artist within country borders.”

In addition, there has been a significant decline over the past decade in available studio and rehearsal spaces for young musicians in Sweden. "The recent wave of property privatization in urban areas has been subjecting every square meter to more and more profit squeeze, particularly in Stockholm," says Pagrotsky. "Many of these studio spaces have been converted to commercial use, and it’s become more and more difficult to access this kind of infrastructure that is so necessary for new artists. Of course, recording technology has advanced as well, and not everyone needs the same equipment as before. But if there are five thirteen-year-olds who want to start a band and play together without getting complaints from their neighbors, where do they go?"

Hence, a delicate balance is at play. On one hand, the modern music-tech boon that Spotify brought to Sweden has undoubtedly empowered local artists and songwriters to venture beyond their home territory. On the other hand, there remain gaps in local support systems that have not yet been alleviated by the rise of streaming. Initiatives like Sweden Makes Music promise a more holistic approach to closing these gaps and growing the local industry -- championing education and diversity in additional to technological innovation and cultural exchange, in order to set a strong foundation for Swedish artists' continued future influence on a global scale.


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