Music festival in Stockholm
Photo: Visit Stockholm

Why Stockholm’s pop music scene has swept the world

By Invest Stockholm in collaboration with The Local

Stockholm's pop music scene is an overachieving hub of export growth and artistic genius. As the annual Polar Music Prize – described as the "Nobel prize of music" – approaches, we look at the reasons behind the Swedish capital's success.

In fact, regardless of population, Sweden is currently the third largest exporter of music in the world, just behind the US and the UK.

And the hub of that business is Stockholm, where this year the Polar Music Prize will be awarded to the ‘Godfather of Punk’, Iggy Pop.

The Polar Prize – founded in 1989 to honour exceptional achievements that transcend music genres – is awarded annually.

It is described in Sweden as the “Nobel prize of music” and was established by the late Stig Anderson, whose record company released the songs of Swedish supergroup Abba.

Marie Ledin, the CEO of the Polar Music Prize, thinks Stockholm’s success as a pop music hotspot is partially down to the city’s blend of nationalities and cultures.

“The mix of people who live in Stockholm, not just from Sweden but also from abroad, is a major component of the city’s success as a music hub,” Marie says. “To live in a city where you can hear English, French, Spanish or many other languages, and enjoy a multitude of cultures, broadens your imagination and connects people to each other. And it’s a small city – people who are interested in the same things tend to meet each other. The music business hub in Stockholm is tightly-knit but it’s also multicultural and welcoming.”

Proof of this success is the stellar career of Max Martin. When Coldplay and BTS’s “My Universe” reached number one in the American Billboard charts last October, it was Swedish pop wizard Max Martin’s 25th number one (he co-wrote and co-produced the song) on the chart – and a significant entry into the world of K-Pop, one of the world’s most popular genres.

Martin now boasts the third-most number ones among writers in the chart’s history, trailing only Paul McCartney (32) and John Lennon (26) of The Beatles and way ahead of artists such as Michael Jackson and Madonna.

Martin’s phenomenal success over the years (his first big hit was Britney Spears’s …Baby One More Time in 1999) has cemented Sweden’s status as the largest exporter of pop music per capita in the world.

Alfons Karabuda, chairman of the Polar Music Prize Award Committee and executive chairman of SKAP (the Swedish Association of Composers, Songwriters & Lyricists), agrees that Stockholm’s heady blend of nationalities and cultures is a major contributory factor to the city’s pop success but believes that there is an additional ingredient – the way Swedes adapt other cultures to produce something unique.

“Stockholmers have a brilliant way of absorbing elements of others’ cultures, and making them their own,” Karabuda says. “You can also see that with food. If you look at Stockholm, we have fantastic restaurants, but the best ones put a Swedish twist on other nations’ cuisines. I once met an amazing Japanese chef who was raving about how a Stockholm restaurant was modifying Japanese food by using typically Swedish ingredients. And that’s what we do with pop music.”

This cross-cultural fertilisation is not a new phenomenon. Of course, Avicii recently welded voguish electronic dance to American country and traditional western music in the mid-2010s, but Abba got there first in the late 1970s with their album Voulez-Vous, which took their bright Beatles-y pop and gave it a dazzling sheen of disco, the pop genre du jour. And an important marker of how much emphasis Stockholm puts on pop music is the seriousness with which it takes the Eurovision Song Contest. While other pop giants, such as the UK, disdain the competition, Sweden embraces it, because, when you have a small population/customer base of 10 million, Eurovision’s television audience of 180+ million is not to be sniffed at. As the vast follow-on success of Abba’s 1974 win proved.

Stockholm’s global reputation as a heavyweight player in the music industry goes back decades, whether your taste is more Cornelia Jakobs or Roxette. And perhaps like millions of others you stream your music of choice via Stockholm-based Spotify. Meanwhile contemporary Swedish pop stars, such as Zara Larsson and Tove Lo, continue to underline the importance of Stockholm as an international pop behemoth.

The figures back this up. In 2019, Stockholm’s music had a total revenue of 6.8 billion Swedish kroner and employed more than 1,800 people. Compared to 2018, this is an increase of 500 million Swedish kroner in revenue and a rise of 23 per cent in employees.

So what accounts for Stockholm’s preeminence in pop music?

As with most things Swedish, it all starts at preschool. A large part of a child’s preschool years is taken up with music and singing. By the time they start school at age seven, kids have learned a great deal about singing and rhythm.

Then in year two they’re encouraged to play instruments at school. When they reach high school, students can choose to study music and have a variety of classes to choose from. Many Stockholm children, meanwhile, have access to publicly subsidised after school music education, and adult education associations offer space, equipment and workshops, while grants are available for bands to reduce the costs of hiring rehearsal space.

Alfons is certain that the accessibility of musical education at a young age for children is vital. “If you ask Max Martin, he says it’s very important that we have access to music schools and musical instruments when we’re young. At Swedish schools you’re not made to choose between football and music at an early age – you can do both. We will give you the resources to follow both paths.”

Many Swedes join choir groups in their teens, regardless of gender or religious affiliation. Sweden boasts the highest number of choirs per capita in the world – a startling six percent of Swedes sing in choirs. Artists such as Lykke Li, Mapei and Sabina Ddumba are among the Swedish pop stars that have taken their fledgling vocal steps in the choir.

As Marie Ledin says, “We start to sing a lot in school and many people continue to sing and end up in choirs. We know that singing is really good for your wellbeing – it’s actually prescribed in Sweden to help those with depression!

Of course the Covid-19 pandemic has dented the Stockholm music scene like every other global music city, but the Swedish government, in recognition of the economic importance of Swedish culture has, since 2020, pumped 2.5 billion Swedish kroner into underpinning the cultural sector.

There can’t be many industries that have faced more direct challenges as a result of Covid-19, than the music industry. But now that restrictions have been have been lifted and gigs have returned, Stockholm’s live music scene is already bouncing back strongly, further cementing the city’s status as a leading musical talent base.

Alfons is in no doubt that Stockholm is more durable than most other global music hubs. “No other city enjoys Stockholm’s combination of language skills, cultural values, a tight-knit cluster, and supportive public policy,” he says.

Marie suggests that the answer to Stockholm’s success is more uncomplicated. “I think the Swedes just love to play and listen to music. I think we all just love music – it’s as simple as that.”

The winners of the 2022 Polar Music Prize are awarded on May 24th. The award is one of the most prestigious and unique music prizes in the world, crossing over musical boundaries and awarded to individuals, groups and institutions in recognition of exceptional achievements.