What song is stuck in your head right now? Is it “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift, “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga, “Starships” by Nicki Minaj or any other song from this week’s – or any other week’s – Billboard Hot 100 list? If so, there is a good chance that the song is Swedish. If you have ever heard the name Max Martin, you know the Swedes are exporting more than Ikea and meatballs. Sweden is the third-largest music supplier in the world, after the US and the UK, and has been supplying the world with hits since the days of ABBA.
The K-Pop Connection
Most surprisingly, Swedish songwriters have found some of the greatest success in the Korean pop (K-Pop) scene. It seems that the Swedes’ knack for creating catchy dance rhythms fits perfectly with K-Pop’s focus on choreography. Girls’ Generation and BoA are just a couple examples of K-Pop bands whose top-selling hits can be traced back to Swedish songwriters.
Scandinavians have been behind the scenes in the K-Pop industry since its inception in the mid-90s, when one of the first K-Pop girl-groups, SES, hit gold with a cover song from Finnish band Nylon Beat. It was several years before the international community really took notice of K-Pop artists.
The turning point for Swedish pop came in 2008, when the K-Pop entertainment company SME approached Swedish music executive Pelle Lidell. At the time, Lidell was working at the Swedish hit factory, Murlyn Studios, and was known for selling hit songs to the likes of Britney Spears, Jenifer Lopez, and Christina Aguilera. Lidell’s success enticed SME executive Lee Soo Man, who bought 10 songs from Lidell right away. The relationship continues to this day.
Today, Lidell works as a European executive of A&R at Universal Music Publishing and estimates that, between him and his roster of European songwriters, he has sold upwards of 10 million K-Pop records since 2008. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Lidell claimed that he has never had a single in Korea sell less than 400,000. Lidell and his team are active in other Asian markets besides Korea, but have found that they miss out on royalties in China and Taiwan due to piracy.
The Secrets behind the Swedes’ Pop Success
What is it about the Swedes that makes them some of the most successful songwriters in the world? It could be their superior music education system. According to a 2004 study, 30 percent of school children in Sweden attended publicly funded music programs. Not only are young people in Sweden able to learn to play a musical instrument for free, they have access to continuing music education throughout high school, with classes on subjects like music production.
In addition to their edge in music education, other factors may play a role, such as Sweden’s high levels of computer literacy, excellent language skills, small independent music studios funded by the government, and the many grants offered to musicians and artists through the Swedish Arts Council.
It may also be that the Swedes’ focus on melody works to their advantage in creating global hits, whereas American and British songwriters tend to concentrate on lyrics and production first. Because the Swedish market is so small, Swedish songwriters have always looked abroad to sell songs, relying on simple lyrics and catchy melodies to make up for the language barriers. Whatever the Swedes are doing, it is working.
What the Swedes are Doing
To develop the next K-Pop hit, Swedish songwriters gather together at multi-day “songwriting camps”, often with members from SME or one of the other major K-Pop agencies, who provide briefs and feedback. At a 2010 songwriting camp in Stockholm, organized by SME and Universal Music’s Swedish production company, the Kennel, 25 writers were brought together for a week, for the sole purpose of creating the next K-Pop hit.
Anyone who writes for K-Pop artists knows that they must write with the choreography in mind. K-Pop is all about the dance, costumes, and choreography. Writing a catchy song with sharp harmonies and a funky dance beat is key. Songs are written in English and then, if sold, they’re translated into Korean. Melodies with more syllables are preferred, in order to accommodate the Korean translations.
Once the entertainment company makes their song selection, they are sent the instrumental version (or versions). From there, the entertainment company can tweak and rearrange the song to best suit their artist before adding in the vocals and lyrics. The whole process can take anywhere from three months to three years.
What’s the next sound for K-Pop? In an interview with Chinese news outlet gbtimes.com, Lidell predicted the next trend would be an “organic Motown-style”. Whatever pop music trend happens next, you can bet a Swede will be behind it.