The Three Secrets Behind The Swedish Music Wonder

andreas liffgarden
Jul 7, 2016 · 5 min read

It’s a fact. Swedes punch above their weight in the music industry. It’s remarkable that a country of a mere nine million people can produce acts like ABBA, Avicii, Max Martin, and products like Spotify, and a whole bunch of other creative start-ups.

As a Swede, I often get the question — how do you guys do this? Is there something in the water? Is it the cold, long, and dark winters?

Fundamentally, I believe Swedes hacked the system by doing three things:

#1. No barriers of entry to the education system

Since the 1940s, Sweden has a system where we removed all the obstacles for people to enter into the school system. Rich or poor, man or woman, regardless of family name or social class — the Swedish education system is entirely based on academic achievements. There are no tuition fees, student loans are affordable, and it’s all funded by the public. This idea belong the bigger idea of “Folkhemmet

Why would you offer free schooling?

For starters, Sweden is a small country. With nine million people and scarce natural resources, Sweden needs to be a country that competes on competence and innovation.

The idea that education should be exclusive to those that can afford it is just odd to Swedes. If we want to be successful in the global market, we need to be all hands on deck. The more of us that are educated, the better we’re off as a country. See it as the Swedish version of “equal opportunity” and “be all that you can be.”

Naturally, these ambitions span wider than music and Sweden has been the birthplace of many of the world’s greatest companies like Volvo, Ericsson, Astra Zeneca, Electrolux, H&M, IKEA, and Skype to name a few.

But I do believe that Sweden’s success in music is rooted in the same underlying tradition of a broad, free, and available education.

#2. “The block flute university” i.e. Kommunala Musikskolan

So the second reason is a result of the first. Music education followed as a part of a broader ambition of an educated population.

In the 1940s, a couple of municipalities started a public music education called the “Kommunala Musikskolan” (Municipal Music School). It was believed that a music education should not just be available for those who could afford private music tutoring, or receive tutoring from the church or the military marching bands.

The main idea was — what’s the likelihood of a kid ever seeing a violin if he or she was born on the wrong side of the tracks? How could you ever practice on a grand piano unless your family owned one?

While it started small, it grew significantly in the 1960s and in recent years, around 300,000 Swedes (about 3% of the population) receive a music education through these publicly funded music schools each year. This makes Swedes the most musically educated population in Europe.

So the upside is that you have a large percentage of Swedes who know how to play an instrument. The downside is that average Swedish parents have suffered a lot of school exams listening to their kids playing poorly tuned block flutes (the entry level instrument before you get upgraded to more advanced instruments.) But I guess that’s a cheap price to pay …

Jokes aside, in parallel, again in the tradition of broad education, organizations like ABF (“Arbetarnas BildningsFörbund” or the Workers Educational Association) began to provide facilities such as rehearsal rooms for young musicians and bands.

In combination, a lot of Swedes learned to play instruments and also had places to rehearse and play together.

#3. “Studio in the bedroom” — The Home-PC

The third reason is another unique Swedish innovation called the “Hem-PC” (Home-PC.) In 1998 the government made purchases of PCs with internet connections tax-deductible, so average families were able to buy computers with gross salary rather that with taxed salary. Since Swedish taxes are high (+55%), this was an instant success.

More than a million Swedes (11% of the population) got their first computer between 1998–2002 through this program.

This penetration of computers alongside the early roll-out of high-speed internet in Sweden meant that computer literacy and adoption of digital technology in Sweden skyrocketed.

In 1990 0,6% of Swedes had access to the Internet. In 1999 it was 41.4% and in 2014 it was 92.5%, among the highest in the world. (Source: World Bank). We shouldn’t underestimate the impact that the Internet has had on Swedens creative industries (tech-wise & culturally).

Putting it all together

To sum it up, many Swedes can play instruments and are also accomplished in using the computer as a recording tool.

It’s not uncommon to meet Swedish band members who learned how to play in the “Kommunala Musikskolan” then formed a band and rehearsed at ABF, recorded their songs on a “Hem-PC,” and then self-distributed music online over broadband provided by incumbent operator Telia.

Also, the fact that Sweden is a flat society without hierarchies makes sure that creativity can grow without imposing rules and preconceptions on what music should or shouldn’t be. Ironically, with the exception of ABBA who at first we’re considered far too commercial by the Swedish prog-movement in the 1970’s…

Where to now?

The music industry is already one the most digitised industries. In Sweden, over 80% of all music consumed is through digital means such as Spotify or YouTube. Furthermore, creation. production, distribution, consumption, marketing & monetisation are already mostly digital processes today.

Looking back at our Swedish history, initiatives like the municipal music school and the home-PC required significant investments and follow-through. These initiatives took significant political ambition to happen but also paid great dividends.

So how do we make sure that we continue to be successful and also keep progressing at the same time?

In my experience, there is one thing that we miss and it’s a bridge between the skill-sets of entrepreneurs and creatives (performing artists, composers and producers).

  • If you’re an entrepreneur wanting to start a music start-up, how do you navigate the music industry with intricacies of copyright and licensing?
  • If you’re a creative, looking to live from your art, how does music distribution works today? How does the digital music business work? How do you market & monetise your music? and so on…

Having seen many music start-up’s, my first-hand experience is that many ideas would have benefitted from a understanding of the business of music. This is true both for the creative and technical idea. Also, a lot of entrepreneurs would have benefitted greatly from a better understanding of the art of music.

Creating this bridge could make the Swedish Music Wonder even better!

andreas liffgarden

Written by

Personal blog about the music industry. Early in Spotify doing Founder of Soundtrack Your Brand.