From ABBA to Ace of Base: How program failure paved the way for Sweden's pop industry

Guitar close up
  • Published Date: 15 August 2019

Written by Marinella Padula, ANZSOG Research Fellow

Oh baby, baby… If you remember the late 90s, then the opening bars of ‘...Baby one more time’ were as familiar as your own doorbell. While it was hard to avoid Britney Spears’ breakout hit, her Swedish songwriter-producer Max Martin would go on to be even more ubiquitous, aurally at least. His calculated approach to creating instant bangers made him much sought and copied.

Over the next two decades he also penned No.1 tracks for NSYNC, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and The Weeknd, amongst others, earning a place as one of the most successful songwriters of all time.

In case you have spent the last 20 years off-grid:

Martin’s rise was mirrored by other Swedish producers and artists such as Robyn, Tove Lo, Lykke Li and Jens Lenkman. From dance music to death metal, Swedes excelled in all kinds of genres. Stockholm, especially, became something of a hit factory – attracting international talent and propelling local music makers onto the world stage.

Despite what she says, Robyn is not dancing on her own:

How did a small European nation come to dominate gobal pop charts? The answer lies in a government program which evolved far beyond its original goals and ended up delivering public value in unexpected ways.

According to a Swedish Institute report, in 2014 some 25% of US chart toppers were written by Swedes. And several times this decade, half of America’s Top 10 singles could claim Swedish heritage. This kind of prominence wasn’t especially recent: the small Scandinavian nation had been one of the biggest pop exporters for more than thirty years. In the 1970s, ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest and progressed to Beatles-level success, whilst charting a career path for acts like Roxette and Ace of Base to follow. Speaking of Eurovision, Sweden went on to claim five more crowns making it the second most successful nation in the competition's history.

The winner takes it all and ABBA did:

Academics and journalists have attributed the ‘Swedish music miracle’ to various factors including:

  • geography
  • a strong social safety net
  • near-universal English fluency
  • tech-positivity
  • and a culture of mentorship.

But the key factor was one that Max Martin also credited for his success: “I have public music education to thank for everything,” he said. Ironically, that education had its beginnings in a program designed to stamp out popular music.

The War on Jazz

As World War II closed in, conservative elements and church officials in Sweden were fretting about contemporary music (i.e. American and jazzy) and the way it supposedly promoted “moral shallowness” and “dance floor misery”. Fearing for the nation’s future, they successfully lobbied local governments to establish municipal music schools by the late 1940s which made classical music instruction accessible to Swedish youth, irrespective of ability or background. The idea was to preserve traditional forms of music and inoculate youngsters against corrupting modern melodies. Lessons were held after normal school hours at minimal cost to parents. Uptake was healthy and the program expanded, even as it failed at its original aim: Swedes were embracing modern sounds just as avidly as everyone else.

Over time, almost all of Sweden’s 290 municipalities had established a music school but by the 1980s, pop had well and truly infiltrated the curriculum. Eventually students would be able to learn electric guitar, synths and even studio production techniques. Today, they can play any instrument or genre they want and switch as they please. "We can afford to make mistakes and experiment," said emerging musician Sara Hjellstrom in a 2018 interview:

“You can afford to find yourself, and your own expression, without having any pressure, money-wise.”

Writer-producer Patrik Berger, who has collaborated with Robyn, expressed similar sentiments:

“It was just part of life: Kids should learn how to swim, kids should learn how to play an instrument. If you can't afford a saxophone, you just rent it – for basically nothing. What can be more encouraging than that?”

Music is also a longstanding part of the compulsory school curriculum where classes emphasise group and ensemble work. Even after leaving school, Swedes can access facilities such as rehearsal spaces at affordable rates, thanks to strong government support for adult education. Although government funding for music-related activities has diminished since the 1990s, participation is still high. More than 230,000 students attend municipal music schools each week with average fees of €64 per term. Few will become professional musicians but the impact of broad-based music education seems widespread and enduring. For instance, Sweden has approximately 600,000 choristers in a population of ~10 million - the highest per capita choir membership of any nation.

The country has also produced leading musical innovations. Streaming services Spotify and Soundcloud got their start in Sweden. (Though whether they represent a net gain to the music world is debatable.) Stockholm, meanwhile, is home to hipster darlings Teenage Engineering – makers of pocket synthesizers. And there’s no shortage of high-end Swedish audio for your listening pleasure.

Beyond the studio, the country can boast a pretty enviable track record when it comes to startups. According to the World Economic Forum, Sweden hosts Europe’s largest tech companies and Stockholm has spawned more billion-dollar tech companies per capita than anywhere outside Silicon Valley.

Music lessons

So, what can we learn from the Swedish example besides ‘careful what you wish for’ and ‘you can’t stop the beat’? Well, perhaps that if we want a more secure place in the future economy, then governments may need to think more broadly about how they foster innovation. The Harvard Business Review notes that as technological developments encroach ever further into knowledge industries, “work that requires a high degree of imagination, creative analysis, and strategic thinking is harder to automate.” Jobs cultivating human potential will also require the personal touch for some time to come. We may also have to rethink our attachment and approach to metrics. While ‘value for money’ and the like are important considerations, the pathway to creative and innovative outputs is rarely neat or linear, nor is the payoff immediate.

Research has linked music education with improved cognitive functioning in areas as diverse as empathy and social awareness, verbal and mathematical ability, memory and attention span and brain connectivity. The latter believed to enhance creativity and problem-solving. Benefits have been observed across demographics, though particularly for children. The size and cause of these effects have been questioned but less contested is the idea that music education has positive emotional and social impacts. Through music and performance children learn about co-operation and collaboration. It can expand students’ social networks, improve school retention rates and divert teens from screens and less desirable activities.

Is music education the key to Sweden’s success in innovation and entrepreneurship? Unlikely but high levels of interpersonal trust among Swedes and a collegial culture have been identified as an important social ingredient. Feeling safe to share ideas and make mistakes is a critical part of moving concepts forward., as is the ability to work together towards a shared goal. Maybe messing around in bands helps? And maybe, in an increasingly divided and suspicious world, a good singalong is more powerful than we realise?

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