Similar to their Viking predecessors who sailed from Scandinavia in search of new lands, a veritable horde of Nordic producers, writers, artists, and entrepreneurs are conquering the pop music world in a way perhaps not seen since the British Invasion of the '60s. The Nordic countries, particularly Sweden, are proving to be unstoppable musical juggernauts.
Though it boasts a population of roughly 9.5 million — only slightly larger than that of New York City — Sweden is the largest exporter of pop music per capita in the world (and the third largest overall behind the United States and England, according to the Swedish-American Chambers of Commerce USA). It is estimated that Swedish pop music exports totaled more than $800 million in 2008 alone. But Scandinavia's tremendous musical influence has gone unnoticed in some parts of the world, likely because the main players are part of an elite group of behind-the-scenes writers/producers.
Scandinavian studio gurus such as GRAMMY nominees Andreas Carlsson, Max Martin and Shellback, and GRAMMY winners RedOne and Stargate are the masterminds behind hits for global artists such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Pink, and Taylor Swift, among others. In 2012 Martin and Shellback ranked on Billboard's Top 10 Songwriters Airplay chart. And Martin alone is responsible for selling more than 135 million singles, with more than 38 songs topping 1 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The success of these writer/producers marks a change from the late 20th century when Sweden was better known for its performing artists, including ABBA, Ace Of Base, Europe, and Roxette. But recently, Swedish electro-pop duo Icona Pop (featuring DJs Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo) have bucked the writer/producer trend, earning fame for their inescapable hit "I Love It," which was certified double platinum in the United States and has spent more than six months on the Billboard Hot 100.
"There's an excitement," says Jawo. "People are proud, because it's pretty hard to come from a little country like Sweden. It's great when you come back to Sweden, and you can see that people are so happy for you."
Icona Pop's Swedish-based talent agency Company Ten hopes to produce even more Scandinavian hits with up-and-coming singer/songwriters such as Erik Hassle, Elliphant and Zara Larsson. But despite the in-demand nature of Scandinavian pop, helping artists gain exposure outside their native country is far from easy, according to Company Ten General Manager Adis Adamsson.
"Most people don't understand what it takes to break internationally because they don't see all that other work," Adamsson says. "It's a lot about trying to get record deals, and finding a way into the market. It's about setting everything up with other managers, the record labels, the agents, [and] the publishers. It's about trying to find songs, collaborators, co-writers, mixers, [and] producers. I'm constantly traveling between London, New York and L.A."
The hard work is paying off for Company Ten, which recently signed a first-look agreement for its artists' recordings and releases with Sony Music Entertainment and has future hopes to conquer the music world by focusing its promotional efforts in the United States and England.
"When our artists are touring or doing promotion in America or wherever, we say they're also doing promotion in Sweden," Adamsson adds. "That's because the best promotion you can do in Sweden is to be successful internationally."
GRAMMY Playlist: The Nordic Invasion
A sample of some of the biggest hits of the past two decades crafted by Nordic writers/producers Andreas Carlsson, Max Martin, RedOne, Shellback, and Rami Yacoub
Icona Pop's breakthrough success is the latest notch on Scandinavia's hit-making belt. The past 12 months have seen an explosion of chart-topping songs with a Nordic connection. In 2010 production trio Stargate (Mikkel Eriksen, Tor Hermansen, Hallgeir Rustan) earned a GRAMMY for Best Dance Recording for Rihanna's "Only Girl (In The World)." Martin and Shellback co-composed and produced Taylor Swift's GRAMMY-nominated single "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." Martin also co-produced Katy Perry's smash hit "Wide Awake." Additionally, Rihanna's recent hit ballad "Stay" was co-produced by Swedish songwriter/mixer Elof Loelv. And on his recent single "Feel This Moment," Latin GRAMMY nominee Pitbull sampled "Take On Me," the '80s hit by Norwegian synth-pop pioneers A-ha.
Scandinavia is also mining its share of influential dance/electronic artists with Afrojack, Avicii, Swedish House Mafia, and Tiësto, while artists such as the Knife, Lykke Li and Röyksopp are redefining pop. Nordic heavy metal is a genre unto itself, spawning internationally revered bands such as Amon Amarth, Meshuggah and Opeth. The country has also made waves on the technology front with online distribution service SoundCloud and the popular streaming service Spotify, which today is used by more than 20 million people worldwide. Scandinavia is also home to Clavia, manufacturer of the revolutionary Nord brand of keyboards heard on countless hit tracks.
It's clear that Scandinavia is on a major musical roll, but one question remains: Why? What political and cultural factors are fueling this historic revolution in the Nordic music industry?
A closer examination yields some possible answers. The Nordic economies are assertively capitalistic — the Global Competitiveness Report 2013 ranked Sweden as the world's fourth most competitive economy. That economic aggressiveness is coupled with strong governmental support of the arts. The Swedish Arts Council provides financial support for promising musicians, while the Swedish government awards a Music Export Prize for internationally recognized achievements in the music industry by Swedes. Past award recipients include Roxette, the Hives, Swedish House Mafia, and Robyn.
Though Sweden's writers/producers are notoriously mum about their methods of operation, the world got a glimpse into their techniques in 2009 when Max Martin protégé Savan Kotecha offered a peek into the work habits of his mentor.
"Working around Max, I saw how to craft songs properly," Kotecha said during an interview in 2009. "He works on songs until they're right, even if it takes weeks. He taught me to not get so attached to a certain part of a song that you can't kill it [in exchange for] something better."
That sort of uncompromising perfectionism promises to strengthen Scandinavia's global musical profile. Denmark's Emmelie de Forest recently won the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest — Europe's equivalent to "American Idol"— further cementing Scandinavia's conquest of the music world.
Next for the Nordic pop industry is Icona Pop's debut album, This Is…Icona Pop, set to drop Sept. 24. Industry experts will be paying close attention as the duo attempt to build on the international success of "I Love It." Dismissing the pressure, Jawo offers a comment that could serve as a metaphor for the entire Nordic pop industry.
"It's been a crazy, chaotic time for us, and it just keeps getting better and better," she said. "We're living our dream right now."
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)