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Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Explaining the Swedish Success
  4. The Role Model Thesis
  5. The Early Adopter Thesis
  6. The English Proficiency Thesis
  7. The Globalization Thesis
  8. The Small Market Thesis
  9. The Industrial Cluster Thesis
  10. The Governmental and Institutional Support Thesis
  11. Discussion and Outlook
  12. References

In the minds of most Americans, music from Sweden is synonymous with the 1970s mega band ABBA. Careful observers of popular music know, however, that more recently Swedish artists have achieved both artistic acclaim and commercial success around the world. During the last two decades Sweden has become a force to be reckoned with in pop and rock music. This essay will explore the reasons behind Sweden’s emerging position as a popular music center. In no small part, geographic factors1 have played a role in this process. These include themes from cultural and economic geography, including Sweden’s position in the world as a small, outward-oriented country; the spatial arrangement of the music industry, both in Sweden and globally; and the propensity for geographic egalitarianism within Sweden.

Sweden had its musical moments before ABBA. A quirky, 1960s instrumental band called the Spotniks was popular both in Europe and Japan, and the band Blue Swede scored a number one hit single in the US with Hooked on a Feeling in 1974. But such forays into the world of pop paled in comparison to ABBA, who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 with the song Waterloo. That emblematic song was followed by an unprecedented string of world-wide hits until their final album in 1981. (The band’s tasteful Eurovision stage appearance is available on YouTube; in fact, the reader is encouraged to check out videos from all the songs mentioned in this article on YouTube.) Subsequent ABBA revivals, especially via musicals and films like Mamma Mia, Muriel’s Wedding, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert have solidified their songs (e.g., Dancing Queen; Fernando; Money, Money, Money; The Winner Takes It All) as bedrocks of the popular music canon (Figure 1).

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Figure 1.  At the 2008 Stockholm premiere of the film Mamma Mia, all four ABBA members appeared in public together for the first time in decades. From left in the picture, the ABBAs are the first, fifth, sixth, and twelfth individuals; all others are the film’s cast (see if you can recognize them!). Source: Daniel Åhs Karlsson, used by permission.

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After ABBA, a new generation of Swedish artists has made it to the global music scene. To begin, Sweden shares some of the responsibility for the hairspray-and-spandex heavy metal music that was popular in the 1980s; the band Europe scored a hit with The Final Countdown in 1986. A more sustained effort, nineteen Top-40 hit singles in the UK for example, was accomplished by Roxette from 1988 onward. The Look, Listen to Your Heart, and It Must Have Been Love are stand-outs in the group’s eminently hummable pop-rock repertoire. More blatantly using associations with ABBA (see Hartshorne 2003), the two men and two women formula of Ace of Base took The Sign to number one on Billboard in 1994. That same year Rednex capitalized on a concoction of Euro disco and American folk tradition and inflicted Cotton Eye Joe on the world. And in 1996, the indie band The Cardigans engaged in what had become a Swedish national sport – occupying the top spot on the US singles chart – with the charming hit Lovefool.

Moving into 2000, international stars headed to Sweden to take advantage of the prowess of Swedish producers and songwriters. Sweden acquired a reputation as a cutting-edge location where the latest musical trends could be harnessed. Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin, N’Sync, Kelly Clarkson, and Bon Jovi are but some of the famous artists who wanted their share of Swedish pixie pop dust. Especially the producer/songwriter team of Max Martin and Denniz Pop at Cheiron Studio in Stockholm attracted much international attention (similar to ABBA’s Polar Studio before that). The duo launched, for example, the careers of the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears (and can claim the songwriting credits for Baby One More Time and Oops I Did it Again).

Data from various economic indicators, such as royalties and albums sold, indicate that the Swedish “music miracle” started circa 1990 and continued uninterrupted until 2003 (Export Music Sweden 2006). The Swedish government took notice and outlined the music industry in an official report (Forss 1999) noting that the music export per capita was higher in Sweden than in Great Britain, Australia, Denmark, or Ireland. Royalty payments from foreign markets were twice the US per capita figure. The notion of Sweden as the third largest exporter of popular music after the US and the UK became a mantra in the description of the country’s music industry success (Hallencreutz et al. 2004). Revenue from abroad came primarily from the two top markets, the US and the UK (Lofthus 2001)2, but Swedish record labels have successfully targeted the significant Japanese market. The Japanese responded favorably, as they reportedly love the simple melodies, especially in the indie pop genre, from a place they imagine to be clean and populated by nice people (STIM-nytt 1997; Bergendal 1998). In truth, the music industry probably never accounted for more than 0.5 percent of Sweden’s overall exports in any given year, but Hallencreutz and Lundequist (2001) point out that it nevertheless equals the value of iron ore or Absolut Vodka flowing out of the country.

Since 2003, Swedish music exports have declined. This can be partially explained by the ongoing worldwide downturn in the music industry, but it also appears that Swedish pop hasn’t produced as many top sellers lately. In 2003, music exports were valued at 7.0 billion Swedish kronor (one billion USD), but dropped to 2.0 billion kronor in 2006, the last year with available data (Export Music Sweden 2006). At the same time, Swedish artists continue to do well internationally, but in smaller niche genres like death metal, garage rock, dance/electronic pop, and indie pop (Wiren 2006).

Explaining the Swedish Success

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Explaining the Swedish Success
  4. The Role Model Thesis
  5. The Early Adopter Thesis
  6. The English Proficiency Thesis
  7. The Globalization Thesis
  8. The Small Market Thesis
  9. The Industrial Cluster Thesis
  10. The Governmental and Institutional Support Thesis
  11. Discussion and Outlook
  12. References

Sometimes the discourse about Swedish music latches onto easily understood, but only marginally accurate, descriptions. In the popular imagination it is commonly assumed that a particular nation is inherently different from other places, and that its natural environment has shaped its people’s culture and behavior. Gordon Sander (2001: 31, 35), for example, writes in the Scandinavian Review that “like the Irish, and other musically-inclined people, most Swedes…are virtually born with a tune on their lips” and that the climate – that “long, cold, dank Swedish winter”– is responsible for Swedes huddling indoors making music. Bell (1998) has noticed similar popular arguments about drizzly, grey, and grungy Seattle, but as geographers we remain for good reasons highly skeptical about assertions that too crudely employ environmental determinism. At the same time there is a credible literature on why Swedish music has caught on internationally. In the following sections a set of ideas are introduced that can explain the Swedish success, drawing primarily on material that has thus far only been available in Swedish.

The Role Model Thesis

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Explaining the Swedish Success
  4. The Role Model Thesis
  5. The Early Adopter Thesis
  6. The English Proficiency Thesis
  7. The Globalization Thesis
  8. The Small Market Thesis
  9. The Industrial Cluster Thesis
  10. The Governmental and Institutional Support Thesis
  11. Discussion and Outlook
  12. References

One explanation for Swedish success is that ABBA’s popularity created a role model for other Swedish artists to follow. The role model thesis fits into a larger narrative of Swedish progress during the 1970s in a wide variety of areas. Within a couple of years of ABBA’s breakthrough, the sports stars Björn Borg and Ingemar Stenmark set off an avalanche of world class Swedish tennis players and alpine skiers where none had previously existed. Why would music be different? At closer inspection, the problem with the role model thesis in the case of music is the significant time lag between ABBA’s arrival on the world stage and subsequent success. The first major post-ABBA hit was in 1986, Europe’s The Final Countdown, more than a decade after ABBA’s breakthrough. At the same time, an infrastructure for music making and marketing had to be built, so perhaps a time lag is to be expected. Moreover, the business mastermind behind ABBA, the manager Stikkan Anderson, used Swedish music industry personnel in production, video and touring to support ABBA’s international crusade, and that acquisition of knowledge was to be applied later during Sweden’s music expansion (Hallencreutz et al. 2004).

One ABBA-influenced perception of Swedish popular music is that it is placeless, marked by an international style with a barely audible Swedish component. ABBA’s music, unlike Anglo-American pop and rock, deemphasized heavy bass and drum beats in favor of a light and sparkling vocal-oriented sound that, according to Hartshorne (2003), appealed to audiences around the world. A musical analysis of subsequent successful Swedish pop songs also concluded that their melodies tend to be simple, almost resembling nursery tunes, and therefore easily appreciated by many different cultures (Sandgren 2000). Swedish pop is also, from this perspective, often considered to be unabashedly commercial. There is probably some truth to this observation, and the strategy again appears modeled after ABBA.

The Early Adopter Thesis

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Explaining the Swedish Success
  4. The Role Model Thesis
  5. The Early Adopter Thesis
  6. The English Proficiency Thesis
  7. The Globalization Thesis
  8. The Small Market Thesis
  9. The Industrial Cluster Thesis
  10. The Governmental and Institutional Support Thesis
  11. Discussion and Outlook
  12. References

But one band’s success can hardly be the sole explanation for sustained musical productivity. There are additional underlying cultural, economic, and political factors that play significant roles. Economic geographers stress that Sweden is an early adopter of new innovation and technology (Porter 1990). Swedish business has the capacity to capitalize on new ideas and trends that are not necessarily indigenous to Sweden. For example, IKEA embraces trends and produces furniture for mass markets around the world, and in clothing H&M similarly offers fashionable but relatively inexpensive products. And as noted earlier, Swedish artists and producers can quickly crank out catchy “right here, right now” pop music better than just about anyone.

The early adoption phenomenon has been a trait of Swedish music for a long time, both among artists and listeners. British and American rock acts became popular in Sweden earlier than in other non-Anglo countries (Brolinsson and Larsen 1997; Nylöf 1990). Before rock’n’roll, jazz was also more popular in Sweden than elsewhere. Foreign artists, usually British bands testing the waters outside the UK, took notice. For example, the Beatles’ first tour abroad occurred in Sweden in 1963, coinciding with (and perhaps creating) a wave of new domestic pop bands in Sweden during the 1960s. Fifteen years later, the Sex Pistols spread the punk gospel in Sweden before they attempted to do so elsewhere.

The tendency to adopt outside trends readily may be, particularly if you ask a Swede, a result of the malleability of Swedish culture. Modernity is valued over tradition, and, from a comparative perspective, a relatively weak national sentiment is characteristic of contemporary Sweden. In other words, a cosmopolitan outlook shapes social life in Sweden. For Swedish youth (especially among the middle class) to study abroad, spend time as an au pair (if you’re female), or simply bum around the globe for awhile is a socially endorsed and encouraged experience that is expected to form a cosmopolitan-minded citizen.

The English Proficiency Thesis

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Explaining the Swedish Success
  4. The Role Model Thesis
  5. The Early Adopter Thesis
  6. The English Proficiency Thesis
  7. The Globalization Thesis
  8. The Small Market Thesis
  9. The Industrial Cluster Thesis
  10. The Governmental and Institutional Support Thesis
  11. Discussion and Outlook
  12. References

Any American who has recently visited Sweden knows that the level of proficiency in the English language is high. European Union (2008) data show that 89 percent of the population of Sweden can communicate effectively in English, the highest level in Europe where English in not the native tongue. Like English, Swedish is a language of Germanic origin so English is not too distant and problematic to learn. Movies and TV are subtitled, rather than dubbed, so all Swedes are exposed to English virtually on a daily basis. But this is true for approximately half of Europe, so subtitling is not a perfect explanation for proficiency in English, but there is a high correlation between the two. And, in line with the cosmopolitan outlook suggestion above, the forward march of English into daily life in Sweden is not particularly contentious; there is little in the way of a linguistic purism movement á la France in Sweden.

How does this documented English proficiency matter in terms of music? Most importantly, it enables an understanding of the nuances of British and American English, both in their standard form as well as contemporary idioms and slang. The meaning of music is transmitted, in part, via lyrics, so it is essential for an artist to have a firm grasp, not only of grammar and syntax, but also of the subtleties of expression that offer much needed “credibility” in pop culture. True, there have been awkward moments when Swedish artists have adopted English, but unlike their German or French counterparts, Swedes can compete on a reasonably equal playing field with native English-speaking artists. Many Swedish artists even prefer to sing in English because they say that the Swedish language has an awkward rhythm that makes it unsuitable for rock and pop music, and some even point out that it is convenient to “hide” behind vague English lyrics because singing in Swedish makes the lyrical content too immediate, intimate, and emotional. And, of course, few people consider Swedes to be excessively emotional and extroverted; at least that is the cultural stereotype.

The Globalization Thesis

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Explaining the Swedish Success
  4. The Role Model Thesis
  5. The Early Adopter Thesis
  6. The English Proficiency Thesis
  7. The Globalization Thesis
  8. The Small Market Thesis
  9. The Industrial Cluster Thesis
  10. The Governmental and Institutional Support Thesis
  11. Discussion and Outlook
  12. References

Early in their career, ABBA couldn’t break into the British market. There seemed to be British resistance, especially among the gatekeepers in the media and music industry, to accept non-Anglo pop artists as legitimate (Palm 2008). Likewise, the band never truly conquered the US market. This legitimacy monopoly of Anglo-American artists lasted for a long time, but it has diminished more recently. Today, most Swedish artists who are successful at home are subsequently marketed in Britain and/or United States; that wasn’t the case in the past (Löwstedt et al. 2001).

On the other hand, Swedish artists, and the Swedish music industry in general, also had some learning to do, both in terms of developing commercially viable music and being able to market that music globally. Part of the problem was that the Swedish media landscape of the past was very different than it is today. With only two television channels in Sweden well into the 1980s, and only non-commercial radio with limited popular music programming, the capacity for Swedish artists to absorb international influences was restricted (despite the early adoption tendencies discussed earlier). Eventually, the arrival of MTV had a significant impact. Burnett (1996) suggests that MTV Europe was so popular in Sweden that the station programmed a large number of Swedish artists, which resulted in more exposure of international artists in Sweden, and vice versa.

With ABBA as the early outlier, Swedish music started to globalize in the early 1990s. More artists from a wide range of countries found audiences around the world; hence, the globalization thesis is not applicable solely to Swedish music, but it does provide a context in which Swedish artists managed to thrive.

The Small Market Thesis

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Explaining the Swedish Success
  4. The Role Model Thesis
  5. The Early Adopter Thesis
  6. The English Proficiency Thesis
  7. The Globalization Thesis
  8. The Small Market Thesis
  9. The Industrial Cluster Thesis
  10. The Governmental and Institutional Support Thesis
  11. Discussion and Outlook
  12. References

Sweden is a country of only nine million people, and thus a correspondingly small number of potential artists, listeners, and record buyers. However, the smallness of Sweden can also be an advantage. In parallel with other industries, Sweden’s economy has been traditionally dominated by large companies that grew from a domestic base to become large transnational corporations (Sölvell et al. 1992). The logic behind this form of globalization is that because the domestic market is small, it does not properly allow for companies to grow. Basically, when Volvo has sold a car to just about every Swedish household, the only way to expand is to pursue an international strategy. Certainly, many Swedish artists do well by singing in Swedish and capturing a significant share of the home market (approximately one-third of the Swedish music market is domestically produced music). And even for artists with global aspirations and a cosmopolitan way of absorbing global influences, a demanding home market is foundational for their development and ability to go global. Moreover, there are only so many times that an artist can schedule a concert in a Swedish city without diminishing returns setting in, so touring circuits have to be broadened, primarily to Europe, and possibly to the US and the rest of the world. This imperative is increasingly important because, like elsewhere, playing live is one of the few remaining ways for Swedish artists to generate enough capital to stay in business.

The small market thesis does not only explain the globalization of mainstream Swedish pop, but also its niche-oriented music. Swedish hard rock, especially within specific subcultural genres, has had international success. For example, Sweden is viewed as a center of so-called death metal (Figure 2). The market for this music is so narrow that artists (e.g., Amon Amarth, In Flames, and Meshuggah) have a great incentive to seek out an international audience. The effect is that bands that are relatively unknown in Sweden sell a lot of records abroad; in the case of death metal, Germany is a particularly large market. Admittedly, these artists are not household names, but a few weeks before writing this article, I was engrossed in a lengthy discussion with my local Pennsylvania Sears salesperson about the merits of Millencolin, a Swedish skate punk band who also has sought a global niche audience (Figure 3). This suggests that if you’re in the right demographic – in the case of Millencolin, let’s say a 20-year-old wearing baggy shorts, Vans sneakers, large key chains, and riding a skateboard (at least when he’s not at work) – these bands are huge!

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Figure 2.  The death metal band Amon Amarth, whose music is sometimes also called “viking metal,” due to the frequent use of themes from Nordic mythology. Source: Photobucket, used by permission.

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Figure 3.  The cover of Millencolin’s 2000 album Pennybridge Pioneers. To symbolize the band as both global and Swedish, the artwork shows landmarks from Millencolin’s hometown of Örebro (which loosely translates as “Pennybridge”) as well as a generic big-city skyline. Source: Epitaph Records, used by permission.

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The Industrial Cluster Thesis

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Explaining the Swedish Success
  4. The Role Model Thesis
  5. The Early Adopter Thesis
  6. The English Proficiency Thesis
  7. The Globalization Thesis
  8. The Small Market Thesis
  9. The Industrial Cluster Thesis
  10. The Governmental and Institutional Support Thesis
  11. Discussion and Outlook
  12. References

Not only the skills and strategies of the artists, but also the nature of the Swedish music industry have been emphasized as a fundamental aspect of Sweden’s music exports. Geographers at Uppsala University have investigated Swedish music from an economic-geographic perspective, applying economist Michael Porter’s industrial cluster model to the Swedish music industry (e.g., Hallencreutz and Lundequist 2001; Hallencreutz et al. 2004). According to this research, the Swedish cluster consists of specialized input (production companies and songwriters), strategic services (publishing and video production), and supporting institutions (music education and industry organizations). Forss (1999) has also noted connections between music recording technology skills and engineering knowledge in other sectors of the Swedish economy.

Because of these interconnections, the Swedish music cluster exhibits high levels of innovation and competitiveness. The number of companies in the cluster has also reached a critical mass to be dynamic; approximately 4-5,000 companies according to recent estimates, most of them very small (Hallencreutz et al. 2004; KK-stiftelsen 2007). Geographically, all major3 record companies are headquartered near one another in downtown Stockholm. Overall, half of all the firms in the music industry are located in the Stockholm area (Power 2003). This concentration to Stockholm is not very surprising as the capital city is the center of much economic, political, and cultural life in Sweden. However, some creative aspects of the industry – e.g., the origin of artists – exhibit a more dispersed geographical pattern, which is typical of rock music in the US as well (Figure 4). Moreover, two-thirds of the independent record labels are located outside Stockholm (Arvidsson 2004). Because of the industry’s relative smallness, the non-Stockholm segment is also part of the network of cooperative learning, and thus it is appropriate to speak not only of a local Stockholm cluster but also a national music industry cluster in Sweden (KK-stiftelsen 2007).

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Figure 4.  The origin of contemporary Swedish artists who have achieved some international popularity. The geographic pattern approximately corresponds to the distribution of the Swedish population, which supports the notion of a wide distribution of talent. Note that the northern half of Sweden is very sparsely populated. The sample of artists was compiled by the author for a forthcoming paper (Johansson, unpublished).

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This small industry is characterized by a network where people know each other as both rivals and partners and where exchange of ideas and knowledge frequently takes place. The industry has cooperated in an attempt to build Swedish music into an international brand. Export Music Sweden is a Chamber of Commerce-like organization for the Swedish music industry with the goal of promoting Swedish music abroad through music exhibits at venues such as the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. Its goal is also to promote the economic importance of the Swedish music industry, to develop industry statistics, and to facilitate intra-industry networking (Ward 2003). Export Music Sweden has also worked with the national government to promote Swedish music abroad. The government understands the potential of music as a branding tool – to reposition Sweden as a creative place in a strategy reminiscent of the Labor Party in Great Britain, which promoted “Cool Britannia” while former Prime Minister Tony Blair was seen socializing with the Gallagher brothers of Oasis –the band for many years in the UK.

The music industry in Sweden consists of subsidiaries of the global music industry (record labels and their distribution systems) plus a few independents that either have historic roots in Swedish music or are small, recent start-ups. This globalization of the industry took place during the late 1980s and early 1990s (Burnett 1996), which coincides both with general globalization tendencies in the world economy as well as the successful international emergence of Swedish music. The majors, with 80 percent of the Swedish market (KK-stiftelsen 2007), generally developed through the acquisition of domestic labels, so they too have a Swedish lineage. The majors’ original intent was to capitalize on the domestic market, but now they also scout local artists for global markets. One label, Stockholm Records, for example, was founded with the explicit goal to develop artists to sell abroad, and to date its most successful artist is the indie pop band the Cardigans.

The question is whether the transnational ownership of the industry has been positive or negative. Most studies suggest that it has, in fact, been positive. First, it awards Swedish artists a potential global network, as major labels are better positioned to help with contacts, marketing, distribution, and so on (Åberg 1999). This advantage is, however, not unique to Sweden but rather a global economic trend. Second, the local subsidiaries of the music industry majors operate with relative autonomy and can therefore build locally-based competencies, which has, according to Lundequist and Hallencreutz (2003), added to the cluster’s competitiveness and profitability. Arvidsson (2009) expresses a similar opinion, stating that the strategic decisions of the majors are often the same as their Swedish predecessors, so they operate as de facto Swedish companies. One industry report has, however, observed at least one drawback: organizationally the industry has not been able to create enough collective institutions (e.g., Export Music Sweden) because it is foreign-owned (KK-stiftelsen 2007).

The Governmental and Institutional Support Thesis

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Explaining the Swedish Success
  4. The Role Model Thesis
  5. The Early Adopter Thesis
  6. The English Proficiency Thesis
  7. The Globalization Thesis
  8. The Small Market Thesis
  9. The Industrial Cluster Thesis
  10. The Governmental and Institutional Support Thesis
  11. Discussion and Outlook
  12. References

Finally, one must also consider the broader social and political environment within which Swedish popular music has emerged. The Swedish state has a reputation for providing a generous amount of services to the population, and that is true for music-related support as well. Some say the widespread tradition of musical training in Sweden has laid the foundation for the global success of Swedish music (Persson and Lindström 2004). The primary mechanism is the municipal music schools (kommunal musikskola). Approximately 30 percent of Swedish children attend such publicly subsidized music education after regular school hours (Hallencreutz et al. 2004). That’s where virtually all Swedish musicians started out. For example, super producer Max Martin assesses its importance: “I have public music education to thank for everything.” (Löwstedt et al. 2001: 349 [my translation]).

In addition, Swedish adult education associations (studieförbund) offer rehearsal space, musical equipment, workshops, and concert opportunities in a later stage when actual bands are formed. Approximately 100,000 people play music though education association activities. These associations are non-profit organizations but are subsidized by the state. For example, bands that participate in “study circles” (e.g., band rehearsals) receive a state grant if at least five people are present (Fornäs 1994). The public sector also provides rehearsal space and amateur concerts at youth recreation centers (fritidsgård). Does that mean the Swedish state is culturally enlightened and values popular music for its own sake? Not necessarily. Bjerde (1994) states that government support primarily has a social control objective – if youth are playing music, no matter how awful it is, at least they’re not “out on the streets” drinking alcohol.

Beyond music education, the National Council for Cultural Affairs (statens kulturråd) supports music via recording grants (fonogramstödet), although pop and rock music receive only 20 percent of the monies. Forss (1999) detects a modest positive impact on the domestic market for artists that have received recording grants, but no discernible impact on exports. Also, County Music Organizations (länsmusiken) support musical events financed by regional and national funds, and various community-level non-profit organizations arrange concerts and festivals, in part supported by public funds.

Particularly in the past, “people’s parks” (folkets park) brought domestic and some international artists even to small town and rural Sweden. These venues are quasi-public in character and strongly tied to the country’s labor movement (Figure 5). The exposure to new music across the country may have enabled disadvantaged areas and their residents to be influenced by recent trends and in turn provide talent to the music industry. For example, the people’s parks made rock music available around the country early in the 1960s, which promoted nationwide artist and audience development (Löwstedt et al. 2001). Overall, Sweden is characterized by relatively modest cultural differences between rural and urban areas, especially in comparison to the United States, and it is notable how many new Swedish artists come from small towns (Gradvall 2004; see also Figure 4).

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Figure 5.  A people’s park in the central Swedish rural community of Laxå during the 1930s. The structure to the right is a rotunda for dancing and performances. Most parks expanded over time to accommodate larger audiences and performers. Source: ArkivCentrum Örebro län, used by permission.

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Discussion and Outlook

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Explaining the Swedish Success
  4. The Role Model Thesis
  5. The Early Adopter Thesis
  6. The English Proficiency Thesis
  7. The Globalization Thesis
  8. The Small Market Thesis
  9. The Industrial Cluster Thesis
  10. The Governmental and Institutional Support Thesis
  11. Discussion and Outlook
  12. References

Several explanations that may explain the prominent international role of Swedish music have been discussed in this article. The most researched topic is the Swedish music industry cluster, which is comprehensive and innovative and appears to be central to the Swedish success. At the same time, the music industry developed in a national cultural and political environment, much like other industries in Sweden did. Culturally, Anglo popular music was adopted early in Sweden, including the propensity to sing in the English language. Thus, in the post-ABBA period when the music industry globalized, Swedish artists were well positioned to find markets around the world. Politically, the provision of music-related services by the state and the non-profit sector has most likely enabled talent to develop. However, these cultural and political factors are less covered in the research literature, perhaps because their level of importance is not easily quantifiable. Table 1 shows that Sweden, together with Denmark and Great Britain, are especially well positioned among European countries to develop a successful music industry due to the existence of the right economic ingredients (e.g., a sizeable, globalized, and technologically advanced cluster). The table also suggests that some of the hypothesized cultural and political circumstances are also important. Yet Swedish export music sales have declined recently. Is that decline simply a reflection of where the music industry in general is heading, is it a temporary down cycle, or has Sweden’s glorious moment passed (with this article as a requiem), or something else? There is no single answer to these questions, but a few points are worth making.

Table 1.   Pre-conditions for the development of an export music industry. Adapted and translated fromForss 1999
 BelgiumDenmarkThe NetherlandsNorwayIrelandPortugalUKSwitzerlandSweden
Breadth of music educationNoYesNoYesNoNoNoYesYes
Extensive publishingNoYesNoNoYesNoYesNoYes
Critical mass of companiesNoYesYesNoYesNoYesNoYes
International companiesYesYesYesNoYesNoYes-Yes
Production technology linkagesNoYesYesNoYesNoYesNoYes
Industry cooperation and strong institutionsNoYesNoYesYesNoYesYesYes
Anglo pop cultureNoYesYesNoYesNoYesNoYes
Role model- early export success-YesYesYesYes-Yes-Yes

First of all, we may have a small sample problem; international sales relied on a small number of artists. The oft-repeated story (see, for example, Burnette 1992) of how Roxette scored its first U.S. hit illustrates that chance plays an important role in success or failure. The band initially did well in Sweden, where upon an American exchange student brought the single The Look back to the US and put it in the hands of a local radio DJ, and the song spread from one radio station to the next, eventually reaching the top of the charts. Also, the music industry is affected by a certain herd mentality; in order not to be left behind when trends move at the speed of light, you copy the strategies of your competitors, including production teams with a recently proven track record, or sign artists from the latest hottest place with a perceived music scene. One day Seattle, the next day Stockholm, after that…who knows?

Thus, some fluctuations may be expected, but it is also possible that the Swedish blues is caused by illegal downloading of music, which may have hit Sweden harder than other countries and thus is choking the industry. The basis for the argument is that individual broadband access in Sweden is among the highest in the world, which would allow for illegal downloading; with lower sales, it is harder for labels to support international marketing and subsequently exports have dropped (Soltani 2004). The problem with this argument is that, according to Bernstein et al. (2007), music piracy does not appear to be higher in Sweden compared to other developed countries. This confusion may be explained by the Spotify factor. Spotify is a Swedish-based, free (and legal) Internet service of streaming music that is currently dominating Swedish music listening (and quickly spreading elsewhere). So far, the music industry and the artists are not profiting from Spotify. However, the lack of marketing by the industry may be increasingly irrelevant today as fans of Swedish music promote, blog about, and even book concerts for Swedish bands around the world (see for example the US-based Scandinavian music news site It’s a Trap! at http://www.itsatrap.com) and bands use social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Reverb Nation to by-pass the traditional music industry (Baym and Burnett 2009; Wirén 2006).

Finally, and from a long-term quite worrisome perspective, the hegemony of neo-liberalism and the accompanying dismantling of the welfare state and its role in creating a fertile ground for Swedish music export must be addressed. During the days of ABBA, Sweden was a model welfare state with global ambitions and a successful export-oriented economy. The social safety net allowed people to pursue an otherwise risky career in music. The general affluence of Sweden allowed music consumption (and playing) to be one of the highest in the world on a per capita basis. The picture is different today. Music sales in Sweden are only average compared to other developed countries (Bernstein et al. 2007). Publicly supported music education has recently suffered from reduced funding. The municipal authorities that provide many of these services are cash-strapped, and the music industry does not have the capacity to invest in such musical infrastructure either (Persson and Lindström 2004). The people’s parks circuit has declined in importance, which is due mostly to the corporatization of the live music business. Public support for live scenes, rehearsal space, studios, and public music education is important, but when such support declines, can the talent develop as it has in the past? One thing is certain though: Sweden has played a role in the global music landscape during the last two decades well beyond its small size. To what extent it will do so in the future remains to be seen.

Footnotes
  • 1

     Music as a spatial phenomenon has interested geographers for some time, including themes such as local music scenes, music and place identity, geographic imagery in music, economic agglomeration, and many more. See for example Kong (1995), Bell (2010), Johansson and Bell (2009) for overviews of music geography.

  • 2

     The Swedish export to the United States is remarkable as the US music market is 95 percent domestic (Power and Hallencreutz 2003), meaning there is a small share for international artists to compete for. Together with countries like Egypt and Pakistan, the United States has one of the least internationalized music markets in the world. US popular culture remains insular and deeply suspicious of anything foreign.

  • 3

     The global music industry is dominated by a handful of very large corporations, the so called majors. Currently there are four majors – EMI, Sony, Universal, and Warner.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Explaining the Swedish Success
  4. The Role Model Thesis
  5. The Early Adopter Thesis
  6. The English Proficiency Thesis
  7. The Globalization Thesis
  8. The Small Market Thesis
  9. The Industrial Cluster Thesis
  10. The Governmental and Institutional Support Thesis
  11. Discussion and Outlook
  12. References
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