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Not Just ABBA: From Pop To Death Metal, Sweden Rocks The Music World

A vast number of planet music's cash cows - including a little act named Madonna - originated on the synthesizer keyboards of Swedish songwriters, but can the country hold its high note?

Thank you for the music, Sweden
Thank you for the music, Sweden
Rinny Gremaud

STOCKHOLM — "Sometimes people wonder if there isn’t something in the water here in Sweden", says Johan Fridell. “We seem to have an innate sense of melody. I can’t explain it. Our compositions end up in everything from folk to traditional music, although God knows I never listen to that shitty stuff!”

Fridell has black-dyed hair so long it comes down to his hips. Although he’s only 37 years old, his face looks older, probably because of his hard-drinking lifestyle. To compensate, today he’s chosen an ageless outfit: threadbare T-shirt, tight-fitting jeans and ankle boots. Fridell is a Satanist who uses the professional name Nephente when performing with his death metal group Netherbird. But he’s a Satanist in the romantic sense of the word. Clearly highly intelligent, this jovial man speaks perfect English, quotes 19th century British occultist poets, and argues that the real message of Satan is the most liberal there is — an invitation to do whatever we want.

Fridell is a member of the Swedish metal scene, which invented the amazing oxymoron melodic death metal (sometimes called melodeath). “It consists of a very characteristic type of chords and chord progressions,” he says. “You can’t describe it more precisely than that. But it makes us very identifiable abroad. And envied.”

Netherbird is not a professional group in the sense that most of its members have day jobs and don’t earn their living from music. Nevertheless, they perform about 30 concerts abroad every year, mainly in eastern European countries. Their biggest fan club is in Transylvania (Romania), where guitarist Pontus Andersson says they play to delirious crowds.

The Blackest Breed - Netherbird

Transylvania! Can you believe it? It’s so great!” says Andersson — stage name Bizmark — who is the only one in the group to earn a living from music. He also plays with other groups and has his own studio where he produces varied musical styles, including a few that embarrass him. “That’s why I sign my productions under another name, and use a stage name with Netherbird. To stay credible, I have to separate the two worlds.”

When instrument lessons were compulsory

When Bizmark and Nephente are on tour abroad, they hate being reminded that their first instrument was a recorder. Until recently, instrument lessons were compulsory for Swedish schoolchildren, and it is regarded as the primary reason why there is such an abundance of musicians across all genres in Sweden.

Andersson prefers another explanation that tends, and it’s the one he gives when he tours. “I grew up in a small town in the north of Sweden. When we were in our teens, a friend and I wanted to play music, but we didn’t have any money. So we went to a city-subsidized cultural center where they had rehearsal rooms you could use for free along with instruments. There were drums, electric guitars, everything you could dream of. All we had to do was fill out a form, and the next day we were able to start playing. We could also take the instruments home with us if we wanted to. And the most incredible thing is we were also paid for this! Every hour we spent rehearsing was translated into points that we could convert into vouchers to buy stuff like picks and replacement strings. It wasn’t a lot of money, but for teenagers like us it helped a lot.”

Sweden is one of the world’s biggest music exporters. Per capita, it pays the highest royalties in the world. One might imagine that the ditties by Agnetha, Benny, Björn and Anni-Frid of the iconic group ABBA would account for a large slice of that, but they are far from being the only ones. When, for example, at the end of a hockey game “The Final Countdown” is played, a certain Rolf Magnus Joakim Larsson (alias Joey Tempest) earns a little bit of money. Roxette, Ace of Base, Dr. Alban, Robyn, The Cardigans and Army of Lovers are also Swedish artists and excellent export products, even today.

The Swedish Royal Military Orchestra also plays ... ABBA - Video: remyworldpeace

In the kingdom of Carl XVI Gustaf, where Eurovision is queen, pop songs are manufactured non-stop. All kinds of songs, all genres, from catchy melodies that make people want to dance to big-time show tunes, house to hip-hop, jazz to punk, the most obscure metal, you name it: The Swedes are everywhere, often very low-profile and never suspected for one instant being from a non-English-speaking country.

A music mecca

Reading the names in the Swedish Music Hall of Fame, in the Stockholm building that also houses The ABBA Museum, it's amazing to learn just how musically powerful this small country is. It’s a pop hit factory. Did you know, for example, that if Britney Spears mews “Baby One More Time,” or Katy Perry brags that “I Kissed a Girl,” they owe those successful songs to a genial Swedish lyricist-composer-producer? You may never have heard of Karl Martin Sandberg (aka Max Martin) — or of Karl Johan Schuster (aka Shellback), or Christian Karlson and Pontus Winberg, who sign their work Bloodshy & Avant. Yet these eminent Swedes produce and write for the cream of the entertainment crop, including Pink, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Backstreet Boys, Kylie Minogue, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Madonna. A vast number of planet music’s cash cows originated on the synthesizer keyboards of Swedish songwriters.

“The Swedes have a culture of entrepreneurship you also find in music,” says Carl von Schewen, owner of Sound Pollution, a record store cum distributor and label specializing in punk and metal. The 52-year-old, with white hair and Sex Pistols T-shirt, has played mentor to many of the country’s rock groups. “To succeed, it’s not enough to have talent. You have to have the courage to let go of your moorings. If groups like Entombed and Ghost are international references in their genres today, it’s because those guys’ wives let them quit their day jobs to devote themselves entirely to promoting their work.”

Von Schewen is himself an example of entrepreneurial success. His small company founded in the mid-1980s has a dozen people on the payroll and hasn’t suffered much from the crisis devastating the record industry. “In our niche, people haven’t stopped buying CDs or vinyls in addition to having a Spotify subscription and downloading music from other places.”

A work ethic is one thing. Then there are the subsidies, the governmental and private help for touring artists and other musical projects. Elisabet Widlund is the director of Musiksverige, a Swedish umbrella organization that supports and promotes music as well as artists and other professional musicians’ unions. “We speak for them in political contexts, like a lobby, and also try to give everyone involved an overview so that we’re all reading from the same songsheet, for example, when it comes to targeting the most interesting export markets,” she says. That there are a number of para-governmental and private support organizations requiring coordination says in and of itself a great deal about the conditions of creation and export of music in Sweden.

Music appreciation compulsory from the first year of school; extracurricular music lessons that are virtually free; a network of cultural centers with not only the infrastructure but also coaching for musicians who want to become professional; and all manner of support for musical projects including touring or exporting abroad: These are the components behind the musical Sweden that makes such a huge impact.

Can Sweden hold its high note?

But will it retain its status? “Unfortunately, for several years now music has no longer been compulsory in schools,” says John Eric Eleby, 51, a professional singer (bass baritone), director of two amateur choirs, and former singing teacher. “Today, training options to become a music teacher are disappearing. Funds allotted to cultural centers have been reduced. The government is in the process of deconstructing policies that encouraged music and had been producing excellent results since the 1950s.”

Several decades will doubtlessly be needed to know if the fine mechanics of the Swedish music box can survive these budget cuts. Unless there really is something in the water.

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Young people across Europe are drinking less, which is driving a boom in non-alcoholic alternatives, and the emergence of new, more complex markets.

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