For three decades, dozens of the world’s most renowned musicians have flown to Stockholm at the invitation of the Polar Music Prize committee to accept this prestigious award from the hands of the King of Sweden. To mark the 30th anniversary of the first ceremony in 1992, which honored Paul McCartney and the newly-independent Baltic States, Billboard spoke with the Prize’s managing director, Marie Ledin, and the chairman of the Prize award committee, Alfons Karabuda, about the long and treasured history of the Polar Music Prize, founded by Ledin’s father, ABBA manager Stig “Stikkan” Anderson, in 1989.
The long list of laureates from the fields of pop and classical music include Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Renée Fleming, Pink Floyd, Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Emmylou Harris, Sting, Metallica, B.B. King, Paul Simon, Isaac Stern, Patti Smith, Burt Bacharach, Ennio Morricone, Ray Charles, Ravi Shankar, Quincy Jones, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and many others. The 2022 ceremony, to be held on Tuesday (May 24), will honor Iggy Pop and France’s Ensemble Intercontemporain; 2020 laureate Diane Warren will also be honored after her ceremony was canceled because of COVID.
ABBAs manager Anderson was also a lyricist (on early ABBA hits like “Dancing Queen,” “Fernando” and “Mamma Mia”), music publisher and record label owner. His Polar imprint was home to ABBA and many other Swedish artists. Ledin remembers her father talking about the Prize long before it was created. “Stig spoke about this for years,” she says. “He had the vision for music to be seen as important and as valuable to society as science. There are Nobel Prizes for physics, medicine, chemistry, literature but not for music. Stig believed passionately that music should be similarly recognized so he decided to start his own foundation, and created the Polar Music Prize, named after his record label.”
As noted, the Prize was created in 1989 and first awarded in 1992. “The three years in between were taken up with organizing every aspect of the new foundation and also building support from the international music community,” Ledin explains. “Their recognition and support for the Polar Music Prize was crucial to its success, and still is. There was a great deal of work to do for Stig to make his vision a reality: setting up a prize committee, forming a board and talking to and winning the support and backing from media, journalists, the Swedish Royal family and companies that could be potential sponsors. He also designed the format for the ceremony and the banquet. It was crucial that every aspect of the Polar Music Prize was carried out to the very highest standards – as befitting the ambition of creating the most prestigious music prize in the world. Stig never lacked ambition, and he was determined that music would have its rightful place.”
It’s accurate to call the two main events of the Prize a “royal ceremony” and a “royal banquet,” as King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden is present for both and appears on stage to hand the Prize to the laureates. Ledin says that the King was enthusiastic about the Prize right from the beginning. “He loved the idea and the royal family has been very supportive, which we are very happy about. It’s a great honor to have them with us at the ceremony and banquet and it means so much to the laureates to receive the prize from the King. The year we honored Grandmaster Flash I did wonder how the King would respond to rap music, but as ever, he smiled throughout and enjoyed meeting Grandmaster Flash.”
Ledin did not attend the first ceremony in 1992, but for good reason. “I’d just given birth to my youngest son, Theo, so I saw it on TV. My father was a really big fan of Paul McCartney and my belief is he was chosen by Stig himself. It was a very smart choice to choose Paul McCartney as the first laureate, the most famous musician in the world, and a Beatle. In his acceptance speech, Paul said that because the award was global, it meant a lot to him. The Baltic States didn’t have music societies in 1992 so the Polar Music Prize gave them money to start societies like GEMA, STIM and BMI. I remember being told years ago that they invested their prize money in IT so they could start registering composers, song titles and publishers.”
In some ways the Prize has changed over 30 years and in other fundamental ways, it has not. “It has changed less than you think when it comes to the ceremony and banquet,” says Ledin. “We still have two laureates each year, one in the popular field and one in the classical field. The King gives the prize to the laureates each year. We have an elegant black-tie dinner and are entertained by mostly Swedish musicians and artists who celebrate each laureate. The event has expanded with the help of media such as TV and this year for the first time we will broadcast live through YouTube. We have run the Polar Talks for the last dozen years or so. This is a one-day conference, held the day before the ceremony, that has as its overarching theme the ‘power of music.’ So many people have told me how much they’ve missed the Polar Talks over the last two years, as well as the awards ceremony, but that was good to hear as I strongly believe in the Polar Talks and the impact they can have.”
The 2022 Polar Music Talks are scheduled for Monday (May 23). “This year I’m delighted that we have amazing speakers: Lyor Cohen, global head of music at YouTube; Diane Warren, laureate from 2020; Dr. Ahmad Sarmast from ANIM (Afghanistan National Institute of Music) and 2018 laureate; and Ensemble Intercontemporain, this year’s laureate who will talk about their incomparable work in modern classical music. It’s so fascinating to listen to people drawn from different parts of the music world, and to hear their stories and experiences. At every Polar Talk I learn so much and feel inspired. We have also added a pre-Polar party the night before the ceremony with musicians, artists and interested people for food and drinks, to meet each other the day before the ‘big’ event. And, of course, we have an after party at the Grand Hôtel in Stockholm. This year it’s being supported by YouTube.”
Anderson died on Sept. 12, 1997 and his family has carried on what he started. “You won’t be surprised to hear that Stig left copious briefing notes for all of us and of course we’d been to the ceremonies so it was very much in our DNA. My brothers Lasse and Anders are on the prize award committee, which chooses the two laureates every year. Anders and I are on the board for the prize. Anders also oversees the budget and I’m the managing director, so it’s still a family affair in many ways. I’d like to think that Stig and Gudrun, our mother and an important part of the family team, would approve of our stewardship of the Polar Music Prize. We’re passionate about the Prize and always will be. It’s hard work but I often reflect how lucky I am to work on something I love and that can genuinely make a difference in people’s lives. I’m thinking here of the many laureates who have donated their prize money to charity and the foundation’s charitable work.”
With the Prize is its fourth decade, Billboard asked Ledin what some of the highlights have been for her. “There are so many,” she reflects. “Every year we say ‘well that was the best ever, how do we follow that,’ and yet year after year magic happens in the room. What is so lovely to see is the powerful effect the evening has on the laureates. The magnitude of the award hits them, having the award presented by the King of Sweden and hearing their music played with such passion as a homage to them; that’s often the point when the tears flow. So many laureates have said to me, ‘I’ve been lucky to have several awards but the Polar Prize is on another level, I didn’t realize it would be like this; I feel profoundly moved.’ The Afghanistan National Institute of Music was very special, and in the light of what has happened in their country since, even more so. The Polar Music Prize and Polar Talks bring people together. I love seeing the connections made, the joy of perhaps meeting a hero, the surprise that often the public personae is nothing like the personal one. And the sheer warmth and love in the room – it sounds trite, but it’s true.”
While everything about the Prize is meticulously planned, the unexpected is welcome. “We try to create music surprises for the laureates. Sting was shocked when Annie Lennox appeared on stage and performed ‘Fragile.’ Max Martin was dumbstruck when his daughter sang. Deep Purple surprised Metallica by reading their citation.”
One of the most-asked questions about the Prize is how the laureates are chosen. “Every year starts a new process for the award committee, with its members putting forward their nominations for the following Polar Music Prize laureates,” award committee chairman Karabuda explains. “To this is added the many nominations received from the public, senior advisors and for some prizes we have the support of the International Music Council. Historical statistics are provided and discussions on the many elements of musical diversity are raised. With everything in place, the focus will then fully be on the many aspects of musical excellence and how it has affected the audience, colleagues in the field of music and society as a whole. It is a challenging and inspiring process resulting in the award committee being proud to stand by the decisions taken. Usually the committee members immediately start thinking about who next year’s laureates should be.”
And how long is the list of artists being considered as future laureates? “The award committee has had a continuous discussion over the years with many names reoccurring,” says Karabuda. “However, there is no fixed waiting list as the Polar Music Prize wants to [make] decisions based upon fresh and updated global research, making sure that every decision builds on the values set by the late Stikkan Anderson to honor extraordinary achievements according to both historical measurements and the most recent ones.”
For over 30 years, the Prize has been awarded to musicians from all corners of the globe, including the U.S., the U.K., Finland, Afghanistan, Brazil, Senegal and many other countries. “The importance is to show music simultaneously being both international and local,” says Ledin. “The award committee does not award certain citizenship. If anything, you could argue being from the U.S. might be an obstacle, having already had so many laureates, but the Polar Music Prize disregards this in favor of musical excellence.”
When he created the Polar Music Prize, Anderson also funded it. The budget includes all the expenses of producing the ceremony and banquet and the cash awards of one million Swedish Krona (just under $100,000) to each laureate. “We still have money from Stig’s original donation but we also have sponsors who help us with money and support us in many ways,” Ledin explains.
No one should be surprised that the Polar Music Prize is one of the gifts Sweden gives to the world. While the Scandinavian country is not the world’s biggest music market, it is a nation known for high quality pop music, along with world-class musicians and songwriters. “Sweden is a small country but we punch above our weight with the talent we have,” says Ledin. “There are so many gifted Swedish composers, artists, as well as bright tech people. I’m so proud that the Polar Music Prize is respected the world over and has the power to bring people together, here in Stockholm, from different worlds of music. I think that’s a brilliant legacy to have. What this means for Sweden and in the world – I can only hope it makes people happier, inspires them and comes from a very pure place, the love of music. Music brings us together as people; that’s the most important thing here.”