Wednesday, October 17, 2001

There's more to Sweden than just wireless, herrings and vodka

The Chambers Theater in the Tribeca Grand Hotel was filled with hip people in hip dark clothes but the topic was much lighter. As part of the Swedish Pop Music Seminar on October 17th, attendees heard from a variety of professionals in the US and Swedish music industry. Swedish Consul General Olle Wastberg welcomed the guests with a brief overview of the day's theme. Moderated by Billboard Magazine's Fred Bronson, managing director of the Polar Music Prize Stuart Ward and managing director of ExMS-Export Music Sweden Christer Lundblad discussed the Swedish music scene. The overall comment was that it is more fluid and less segmented between the major labels, independents and artists than the music scene here.

Next up was a discussion on the "Swedish Pop Music Sound on the International Scene." Still moderated by Fred Bronson, we heard from Rudolph & Beer partner George Gilbert, RCA Records NYC former VP A&R International Dave Novik, Talent Trust founder Petri Lunden and ASCAP assistant VP Publisher Relations Gary Ford. We learned that the men behind many of today's leading American pop stars are Swedish players. Songwriter Alexander Kronlund and songwriter/producer Max Martin are partly responsible for the success of stars like 'N Sync and Britney Spears. And Stockholm's Cherion studios have helped artists like Celine Dion, the Backstreet Boys and Bon Jovi with their clean pop sound. No kidding!

It wasn't always like that though. Gary Ford commented how in the 1980s California and American music was very big in Sweden. Now the tables have been turned and there's a strong influence of Swedish music in the States. However, "a lot of things need to work together in order to take an artist beyond just Sweden for success internationally," stated Petri Lunden. And George Gilbert noted that whether in Sweden or the US, "it's hard for musicians who are strong in the pre-teen market to carry their fans through into the teen and adult markets."

When this panel finished, the room got full of excitement in anticipation of the big presentation-the Sales Award of 20 million albums sold for ABBA. Of course, to keep us all on the edge of our seats, we first heard comments on "Managing the ABBA Brand" from Famestudios AB CEO Ludvig Werner and Universal Music Sweden's Gert Holmfred and Marko Soderstrom.

Gert started out with a query. What would you expect from a country with 8 million people, a coin more unstable than the lira, a car named after a tracker, a winter longer than the summer, a furniture maker being attributed to causing the missing link and where the majority of the male population has tobacco under their upper lip and a mobile phone attached to their head? Would you expect the world's most branded Swedish music? And yet ABBA is just that. Sweden is also the 3rd biggest exporter of music to the world, which is quite significant if you consider the size of Sweden to German and the US.

ABBA's success is quite phenomenal. With eight albums and five hits per album, the group's success has grown since the early 80s when they disbanded. Gert attributed their success to five elements: they had a visual style based on happiness (yea!); they had good strong writers (always a plus); they had a talented, visual performance; they were hard working (nothing like putting in the hours); they had a sympathic way to deal with problems.

And as all good brand managers know, protecting a popular brand is as much hard work as building it up in the first place. One of the main issues the brand managers deal with at Universal and Famestudio is turning down deals that do not offer the same value, integrity and quality as the ABBA brand. They've been very selective with who they collaborate with and license the music to.

And what's the newest scoop for a band that hasn't technically been around for twenty years? Well, if you haven't heard, the musical Mamma Mia!, which is written by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (the two B's in ABBA), just opened on Broadway on Thursday, October 18th after successes in London and throughout Canada and the US on tour. Bjorn wanted to do a show based on the songs of ABBA for a while, but he didn't want to have the miserable experience he had with Chess (which was on Broadway for 3 months to London's 3 years). Written by Catherine Johnson, the musical is interspersed with 22 ABBA hits, each little love stories themselves.

The next major development is the relaunch of their Web site. Here is where ABBA still exists in real time - online. In addition to pictures, bios, songs and official ABBA gear, the site takes a departure from other fan sites by allowing fans to upload their own pictures, bios and create a vibrant, ongoing community where the site visitors have as much say in what the site's content is as the website creators. Check it out at:

Between the two B's and all the blond Swedes, I was having a buzzing afternoon, even without a coffee. There was one more panel and a rousing party afterwards in the Tribeca Grand Hotel Chambers with a performance by Malin Elino. Skol!