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Welcome to the machine

How Sweden’s domination of the international pop charts started when a failed glam rock front man met a bootleg DJ who couldn’t play a chord (and neither one was in Abba)

Welcome to the machine

Text by Toby Skinner / Illustrations by Thomas Burden

Guess the song. It was written by a Swede and produced by three Swedes. It was initially rejected by the Backstreet Boys and TLC, before a young American singer agreed it would work as her debut single. When she recorded it in Stockholm in 1998, she was so nervous on the first day that she needed a big night out in the Swedish capital to calm her nerves. When she did nail the vocals, she had two Swedes as backing singers, a Swede on guitar and a Swede on bass.

The result was number one in every country in which it charted, sold more than 10 million copies, and its video (hint: schoolgirls) was voted the third most influential music video of all time by Canadian magazine Jam! You’ve possibly guessed by now that we’re talking about Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time, which was produced by Rami Yacoub, Max Martin and Denniz PoP, three of the great Swedish pop producers of the last 20 years.

You could play a variation of this game with countless recent pop hits. Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl, the Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way and Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger are just a tiny sample of the international mega-hits produced by Swedes, not to mention home-grown acts from Ace of Base to Robyn, Swedish House Mafia and Avicii. Sweden is the world’s third biggest exporter of music (behind the UK and the US), and in 2011 the Swedish music industry turned over SEK6.3 billion (NOK6bn). Last year, more than 40 US top 10 hits were produced at least partly by Swedes.

“The music which rules the charts today was first created in Sweden,” says John Seabrook, an American journalist who has spent a lot of time with Swedish producers and written extensively for The New Yorker on the Swedish pop phenomenon. The question is how, and why?

One version of the story has Björn Ulvaeus at a Beatles concert in 1963, the same year that Ulvaeus’s folk band, the Hootenanny Singers, had a hit with Jag Väntar Vid Min Mila (I’m Waiting by My Charcoal Kiln), which was somewhat put in the shade by Love Me Do. He told one newspaper, “I thought to myself, bloody hell, I would love to be in a pop group… Deep in our hearts, what we wanted to do was pop music in English.”

The rest is history, but Seabrook says Abba are only part of the reason Swedes came to dominate modern pop. “Abba made it okay to listen to pop music,” he says. “When they started, progg political music was in the ascendancy and Abba were initially seen as the ultimate plastic commercial schlock. When they were finally accepted at home, it became cool to be pop, or at least not uncool.”

But acceptance of catchy schlager music (the German translates roughly as “a hit”) has only a tangential relationship to how the modern pop sound started, according to Seabrook.

One more appropriate starting point might be 1992, when Denniz PoP (christened Dag Krister Volle), a former DJ known for producing bootleg remixes of underground hits, received a demo track called Mr Ace from an unknown synth group called Ace of Base – after playing it over and over in his car, he decided to give it a dub-reggae makeover and call it All That She Wants. The song became one of three number ones in one of the most successful debut albums of all time, and Ace of Base – who adopted PoP as their producer and mentor – eventually sold more than 40 million albums, a number bested only by Abba and Roxette among Swedish acts. 

As All That She Wants played across America and the world, PoP co-founded Cheiron Studios with Tom Talomaa in Kungsholmen, Stockholm, and soon came across Karl Martin Sandberg, nicknamed Martin White, the leader of a moderately successful glam-style metal band called It’s Alive. PoP, with a touch of irony, had been seeking a heavier, rockier style (this was the era of Nirvana), and produced an album for It’s Alive. The record tanked, but PoP – who couldn’t play a chord – saw something in Martin, a gifted musician who could transcribe partitures for violin. PoP asked Martin to help him write songs, and on an early track sleeve changed his name to the catchier Max Martin without consulting with him. (“Who’s that?” Martin asked when he saw his new name).

Somehow, PoP and Martin’s backgrounds in everything from underground dubstep to funk, classical and glam rock helped form a brand of pure pop that would dominate the charts for years. As PoP and Martin led a group of producers, including Yacoub and Kristian Lundin, Cheiron’s first smash was with a group of Florida teenagers called the Backstreet Boys, who had been playing at SeaWorld and shopping malls when they flew to Sweden, intrigued by PoP’s work with Ace of Base.

“With the Backstreet Boys, Cheiron somehow came up with a winning formula,” says Seabrook. “If you listen to their early songs, like Britney’s, it’s this danceable, keyboard-heavy music, with hard-hitting funky rhythms. It became the way that pop music sounded, and they started it.”  

By 1998, when Denniz PoP died of stomach cancer, aged 35, he had also helped launch ’N Sync, Robyn and Five. Martin, meanwhile, was on the way to becoming the most prolific pop producer of all time. In 2001, with Talomaa, he founded a new pop factory, Maratone, and started churning out hits for, among others, Celine Dion, Avril Lavigne, Pink and Christina Aguilera. He’s had 17 US number one hits, and been the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ (ASCAP) songwriter of the year in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2011, 2012, and 2013, reflecting a stellar last few years in which he’s brought Katy Perry and Taylor Swift to the world’s attention.

“The interesting thing about Max Martin,” says Seabrook, “is that he went out of fashion after 9/11, when his music was seen as too light and soft. But he reinvented himself in 2004 with Kelly Clarkson and a more hard-hitting rock sound. He’s a master of the melody, and working it into parts of the song. He’s also great at hooks in a chorus, so that it has maximum impact on the dance floor. Everyone’s trying to do it, but he’s the one to beat.”  

Today, Martin is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Swedish producers. The likes of Klas Åhlund (Kylie Minogue, Robyn, Madonna), Shellback (Usher, One Direction, Taylor Swift, Icona Pop) and Martin Terefe (Westlife, James Blunt, KT Tunstall) have regularly produced international chart-topping hits in the last few years. Swedes have also recently conquered the world of J-pop and K-pop.

According to Seabrook, Swedish producers still largely follow the collaborative formula used by Cheiron. “If you look at American producers, there’s often a lot of ego,” says Seabrook. “You’ll get one guy wanting to do the whole song, and to say, ‘That’s mine’. The Swedish way, which PoP and Martin mastered, is a lot more group-oriented. You might have different guys doing various beats and melodies – it’s often a collaboration, and there’s an ability to let people stick to their areas of expertise. It helps, too, that Swedish producers tend to be very professional – they don’t turn up stoned and three hours late.”

And while many have put the success of Swedish pop producers down to cluster theory – the success-follows-success idea that, for example, saw a glut of Swedish tennis players in the wake of Björn Borg – there are other factors at play. Karin Jihde of STIM, a non-profit organisation that provides royalties to Swedish music creators, says: “A lot of factors have come together in Sweden to create this space for creating pop music. For a start, Swedes have always looked abroad, because we don’t have a big enough market at home – and the fact of singing in a second-language has helped put an emphasis on really strong melodies. Then you’ve got a growing interest in the Melodifestivalen (the feeder competition for Eurovision), high levels of computer literacy and great musical education – Swedish youngsters can learn an instrument for free, and there are high-school courses on music production.”

According to a 2004 study, 30 per cent of Swedish children attended publicly funded music programmes – and it was one of these that nurtured Martin’s talent. According to Pitchfork, the Swedish Arts Council contributes more than SEK300 million (NOK288m) a year to musicians, venues and regional music organisations. “That education keeps going, and there’s a tradition of mentoring,” says Jihde, who nonetheless says that music funding has reduced in recent years. “The top guys pass down what they know.”

What Swedish producers don’t tend to do much is talk much to journalists. For this piece, we approached Max Martin, Klas Åhlund and Sebastian Ingrosso, formerly of the Swedish House Mafia, as well as Norwegian production duo Stargate, who are responsible for many of Rihanna and Beyonce’s biggest hits. None of them spoke to us.

“Max Martin says no to almost everybody,” says Jihde, “as do most of these guys. They are songwriters, and if they wanted to be on stage they’d be on stage. They’re happy in a studio, hanging out and jamming. It takes a certain personality to sit for hours to find a single note that might make the best take.”

Plus, says John Seabrook, the industry doesn’t really want to hear about the producers. “If they put out too much, they get in trouble – the artists often don’t like it and, in terms of image, you want to feel like that’s a Katy Perry song, not something written by a bunch of middle-aged Swedes in a conference room.”
But, really, that’s the truth. As much as you want to think that Britney came up with …Baby One More Time at the end of a boring day at school, it ain’t so. Britney, Backstreet Boys, Katy Perry… their biggest hits are as Swedish as Ikea.

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Big in Korea

Max Martin and Denniz PoP’s form of factory-produced pop has perhaps reached its logical conclusion in Korea’s “K-pop”, where Swedish and Norwegian producers are an increasingly dominant presence in a market that grossed US$3.4 billion (NOK21.3bn) in the first half of 2012. Take The Kennel, a Swedish production company administered by Universal Music, who have had 60 number ones since the company formed in 2009, most of them in Korea. They’ve created hits for the likes of nine-member girl group phenomenon Girls’ Generation, who last year won video of the year at the YouTube Awards; and BoA, the “Queen of K-pop”, who has sold more than 24 million records.

“There’s something about the Scandinavian melodies that fits K-pop,” says The Kennel’s Pernilla Svanström. “The songs are always choreographed, so you need a performance concept as well as a catchy melody. It suits the way we make the songs.”

The Kennel’s involvement in K-pop began in earnest when Korean label SME approached Universal Music, who organised a 2010 songwriting camp in Sweden, inviting the likes of Trondheim’s DSign Music. “We had 25 writers for a week, working together with three in every room and working out how to create hits,” remembers Svanström. An A&R executive from SME was also there, offering advice like skipping any pre-choruses and keeping things simple.  

K-pop is sometimes criticised as music by numbers – Kennel-produced number ones include (f)x’s Rum Pum Pum Pum and Wa$$up’s Nom Nom Nom – something echoed by the bands themselves. SME has been criticised for pioneering a trainee system whereby artists begin their training at nine or 10, learning not just dancing and singing but foreign languages to make them more exportable. Talent agencies reportedly spend US$400,000 (NOK2.5m) training and launching a new artist. One thing’s for sure: if you spend that much on your talent, you want guaranteed hits.  


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