Special Report : Music in Scandinavia
Karl Batterbee is founder of the Scandipop website & Aurotone’s ears in Scandinavia
Kenneth Bager is one of Denmark’s most famous recording artists and founder of the label Music for Dreams
Pär Berglund is founder of Swedish blogs Meadow Music & marketing blog Copenhagen journalist
Peter Krogholm founded the All Scandinavian website
Sweden has become notorious for producing female pop stars that know precisely how to create incredible electropop. The domestic airwaves and the global blogosphere are heavily peppered with prime examples of this sound, but in 2014 there are two young women in particular who have risen to the top as serious contenders to Robyn’s crown (and more on her later). First up is Frida Sundemo who has just released her second EP ‘Lit Up By Neon’.
The collection is made up of elegant, melancholic synth ballads (and one banger) that all reach stunner status. And more so than any other singer doing what she’s doing, it’s Frida Sundemo who is tipped for major things outside of the Nordic region. This will surely be helped along by the fact that Frida has just landed an acting job in the upcoming film adaptation of John Niven’s music industry novel ‘Kill Your Friends’. One girl who has already made the transition from Swedish charts to UK and US charts however, is Tove Lo.
‘Stay High’ has been a big hit for the Swede over the past few months in Britain, reaching the top 10 and staying there for weeks. The song is a remix of her original track ‘Habits’, and it’s that song along with the rest of the solid pop offerings on her ‘Truth Serum’ EP that have her earmarked for huge success around the globe in 2014. Clever lyrics and big melodies over drugbeat productions are her trademark sound.
On the comeback trail is whom many regard as the original and the best of the genre – Robyn. She has a new EP out with long-time collaborators, Norway’s Röyksopp. It’s called ‘Do It Again’, and the title track has already made its way onto the BBC Radio 1 playlist, with another track ‘Monument’ currently playing on Volvo’s latest ad campaign in Sweden. As expected, it’s tortured and euphoric electropop that’s the sound they’re going for, and it’s as epic as their past collaborations famously turned out to be. Elsewhere, Robyn has also duetted with another Swedish legend Neneh Cherry on her new album.
Royksopp and Robyn
The song is called ‘Out Of The Black’ , although it’s the remix by Norway’s Bouvet that steals the show – turning in a retro synth floor filler that is reminiscent of when Pet Shop Boys wrote for Girls Aloud. Robyn’s a busy girl at the moment – she’s also just launched the first artist on her own Konichiwa Records. Zhala and her new single ‘Prophet’ is an indie flavoured rave up that is more underground than Robyn’s usual output. But it’s commercial enough to have been taken on by Swedish radio and music blogs, and the song was recently given a prime performance slot at the Swedish Grammy award ceremony.
Summer 2014 seems to be the season of the comeback for Sweden’s most fashionable and well-loved ladies. Lykke Li has just returned with new album ‘I Never Learn’ – an album of crushing love songs about the pain of heartbreak. There is even less joy on here than on her previous effort ‘Wounded Rhymes’, but just as much fragile beauty. And the album has already been lauded with much critical acclaim.
Rebecca & Fiona
Also back are Rebecca & Fiona with their second album ‘Beauty Is Pain’. The LP sees the girls (who have just been on an extensive tour of the US) turn in another set of booming house music and synthpop, that’s been granted an unlikely marriage to their distant and nonchalant syrupy vocals. Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit release their much anticipated third album ‘Stay Gold’ in June. The lead single has already arrived though, in the form of ‘My Silver Lining’ – a familiar dose of their usual folk rootsy sound, but with an extra layer of strings and orchestration to make the whole thing more romantic and Americana. Second single ‘Cedar Lane’ finds the girls building that blue eyed soul sound into a thundering crescendo as the song progresses, with the last minute or so touching upon epic.
Mirroring those three big comebacks are three startling debuts, all via young Swedish girls who are adding extra heart to their downbeat and reflective takes on the icy Nordic torch song. Sabina Ddumba adopts her gospel background on her first single ‘Scarred For Life’, a strangely uplifting example of what’s otherwise typically Scandinavian heartache. Naomi Pilgrim has featured heavily on blogs with her debut ‘No Gun’, but new single ‘House of Dreams’ manages to exceed even those initial charms. The song is anchored by a chorus that resembles what can only be described as a depressed nursery rhyme. Seinabo Sey’s debut single ‘Younger’ has seen the 23 year old Stockholm girl chart highly in both her native Sweden and neighbouring Norway, with many other countries predicted to follow. The soul ballad finds her surprisingly mature vocal paired with lingering organ notes, and the result is an almost ecclesiastic sounding effort that’s more hymn than pop song. New single ‘Hard Time’ picks up where that left off, and cements Seinabo’s burgeoning reputation as Sweden’s new soul siren.
Every year in Sweden sees its domestic dance artists compete to have the season’s big summer hit – the song that soundtracks the long days of the Swedish summer months, and all of its Valborg and Midsommar themed parties. 2011 was undoubtedly the year of Eric Amarillo’s ‘Om Sanningen Ska Fram’ (that year’s biggest hit), and this year he’s launched his latest pitch – ‘Fulldans’. Translated as “drunk dance” it’s a hugely silly and shamelessly transparent ploy to appeal to drunk teenagers enjoying the summer’s well lit evenings and outdoor parties. It’s as catchy as it needs to be, and has already had the support of Sweden’s biggest radio station P3. Also in the running to have a big smash in the coming months are three young pop guys, who have each individually put out their own latin flavoured, Europop themed, summer singles. There’s Darin and his reggae tinged ‘Mamma Mia’ (currently soundtracking Sony Xperia’s latest ad campaign), Oscar Zia’s Balearic infused ‘Ballare Con Me’, and John Soul’s ‘Ella Baila’ – which is a pop, rap, and house hybrid that’s performed in English, Swedish, and Spanish. Also getting in on the latino pop tip, is Norway’s Adelen – a 17 year old girl who has just released the Euro EDM influenced ‘Always On My Mind’ , and has a song on the official FIFA World Cup album called ‘Ole’. She’s just been to Brazil to film the video, under the wings of Simon Fuller’s management company.
Boyband pop is currently enjoying something of a renaissance in the UK, and in Scandinavia it’s been turned on its head somewhat by the arrival of Sweden’s The Fooo. The boys, who range from 15 to 16 years of age, have built up a name for themselves by accompanying their songs with YouTube videos of them performing flashmob style streetdance routines around different Swedish towns. Their music lends itself well to the awe inspiringly choreographed performances that the band give. Well produced pop music that veers from start-and-stop hip-hop to guitar based songs like what One Direction made on their first album, and all via a cover of the Bomfunk MCs’ ‘Freestyler’. Their quickly earned popularity has resulted in them becoming the nation’s biggest pop act currently, with even police escorts required for every performance – something that’s normally unheard of in Sweden’s usual culture of not being that bothered with the concept of celebrity. Neighbouring Finland has since launched the soundalike boyband Kliff, who have found big success with their debut single, the r&b edged pop of ‘Mun Jopo’. Elsewhere on the boyband front you have Norway’s The Main Level (impossibly catchy chorus on their debut single ‘Blackout’), Finland’s Satin Circus (an older version of The Vamps/5 Seconds of Summer, but with equally as teen appealing guitar pop), and Sweden’s three brothers JTR, who have this year found fame on Australia’s version of The X Factor, and just released their debut album over there.
Swedish rap artist Elliphant has set a trend in the region – with two more similar sounding ladies currently receiving heavy airplay (alongside the original herself) at the moment. Gnucci channels the sound of M.I.A on her new EP ‘Psychohappy’, which showcases eccentric raps layered over tribal beats and squelching synths. TARA impresses with her debut single ‘Manners’, which is a more pop orientated version of what Gnucci is doing, with the emphasis being more on a big sing-a-long (or rather, shout-a-long) chorus. And then Elliphant continues to command the genre with her latest track ‘Revolusion’. She growls over the top of an industrial rave-up, adding blaring sirens into the mix, and producing a song that puts those imitators in their places.
Electric Lady Lab
Roxette would appear to be back in fashion once again, with Danish synth duo Electric Lady Lab sampling ‘Listen To Your Heart’ on their new single, the atmospheric ‘Hurts’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RO6vH6h0BR0. And over in Norway, Tommy Fredvang’s new single actually sounds like it could have been one of Roxette’s bigger hits in the 90s – the cheeky rock flirtation that is ‘Kom Igjen’. Denmark’s current line-up of pop boys are looking stateside for their influences however. Basim will represent Denmark at the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Cliché Love Song’ , a Bruno Mars soundalike that is predicted to give the Danes their second win in as many years. Meanwhile Christopher is channelling Justin Timberlake to enormous success on his new album ‘Told You So’ . His advantage seems to be that he’s sounding like Justin Timberlake when he was still producing radio hits, as opposed to the Justin Timberlake of today, with many Danish critics noting that ‘Told You So’ is the album that the world would have wanted Justin Timberlake to return with.
Finally, Swedish pop music that’s unknown in the UK seems to be a current trend in British television adverts. This summer, British audiences can hear the frantic dubstep stylings of Stockholm Syndrome’s ‘Pretty Girl’ in L’Oreal’s newest advertising campaign (starring Cheryl Cole), the Icona Pop-esque ‘We Are Young’ by Le Kid being used in Fanta’s latest ad, and the retro motown pop of Miss Li’s ‘Can’t Get You Off My Mind’ selling Durex condoms. British ad agencies are clearly rifling through Sweden’s recent, lesser-known archives for inspiration. Karl Batterbee
The view from Copenhagen
“There’s no way around Marie Key, Danish pop’s leading woman right now, and MØ, who’s taken both domestic and international critics and audiences by storm in the past year. More recently Broken Twin have really made an impact with her debut album, not least outside Denmark, and retrorockers Go Go Berlin – one truly great live act – are about to launch in the US with an all star team behind them, so that could turn out one of those rare global success stories for a Danish act.
There’s a post-punk/new wave thing happening all over Scandinavia right now -be sure to check out Denmark’s Shiny Darkly and RA from Sweden.
The Minds Of 99 (playing a new version of 80s Danish post-punk) are receiving a lot of praise right now. For more international appeal, I think we’re going to hear a lot about Kill J (just saw her in front of a string quartet and she is an amazing vocalist) and Blaue Blume (an indierock cousin to When Saints Go Machine), and hopefully hip hop fans will discover Negash Ali, who’s released his best work yet with his African Dream EP. Also brand new personal discovery from Finland, Jaako Eino Kalevi, who’s signed to Weird World/Domino as the first Nordic act, could face a big break in the immediate future.”
The Swedish Music Industry
It may come as a surprise to many who associate Scandinavian music exports with women, but Par tells us that in “Sweden the industry is still heavily dominated by men on all levels, and the debate about this inequality has been heating up more and more. What started with a discussion in the media about the male domination among the business and organisation leaders continued with a debate about the role of the live venues in the choice of artists and has now also come down to the most important question of them all: why are there so few female recording artists in proportion?”
Another current issue is about the validity of old record deals in the digital era. In the beginning of May a number of artists filed lawsuits against record labels, stating that the labels have violated the intellectual properties of the artists. The royalties from the back catalogues is a substantial part of the major labels’ earnings – which makes this a hot topic in the Swedish music business if the court rules in favour of the artists.
Ian in Tokyo tells us that 2014 has seen a couple of big Japanese music industry stories emerge. “Firstly, Spotify’s long-delayed Japanese launch is rumored to be finally happening over the summer – hopefully forcing much-needed change upon a long-stagnant industry.”
The second relates to the revival by Japan’s police of archaic laws that make late-night dancing illegal under provisions initially designed to regulate the sex industry. “Used by the police seemingly to bypass the need to obtain search warrants for drug raids, the use of these laws was widely ridiculed both inside the country and internationally, and there are signs this curious hangover from a previous age may be coming to an end – hopefully providing a boost to Japan’s legendary club culture.”
This year’s big Japanese global story is Babymetal
, “the teenage idol group whose metal-influenced take on bubblegum pop went viral in the spring and who were immediately confirmed for the UK’s Sonisphere rock festival. Elsewhere, TV-orientated ‘idol music’ remains the biggest business in music, although there are strong signs that genre leaders AKB48
have peaked in the public consciousness and their influence is waning, with the idol base diversifying in favour of quirkier acts like Momoiro Clover Z and Dempagumi Inc.”
Music in China has long been dominated by the scenes in Shanghai & Beijing, but this is starting to change.
Pete Jackson, editor of Shanghai 247, tells us that “there are huge cities that are virtually unknown outside China which are just beginning to develop music scenes of their own. We’re seeing more and more acts come out of second-tier cities, and we’re seeing local and international acts touring places that nobody would have really thought about a few years ago – cities like Wuhan, Dalian, Tianjin, Chengdu and Guangzhou. This points to a slow but growing desire on the part of audiences around the country to experience music outside the karaoke and reality TV sphere.”
He notes that “the first generation of independent rock bands are still innovating, testing the boundaries of censors and breaking new ground for others to follow.”
In Shanghai, club culture continues to dominate. In particular, “the new SVBLKVLT label – an offshoot of the famed Sub-Culture nights at local club The Shelter – is making large strides, putting out great material and raising the standards for club nights that showcase original talent.”
“These guys are playing an important role in turning China into a hub for a pan-Asian bass scene that has come to incorporate cities as distant as Tokyo, Manila, and Singapore. We’re hoping that this label might do for electronic musicians in Shanghai what the Maybe Mars label does for bands in Beijing – to help independent artists develop beyond the DIY stage. The results so far have been fantastic.”
Pete tips big albums from the main players in the underground rock scene such as P.K. 14, Carsick Cars (both Beijing bands on the Maybe Mars record label) and Top Floor Circus in Shanghai, which “continue to raise the bar in terms of production, musicianship and lyricism.”
To Korea, and Shawn in Seoul notes that Korea’s rock and indie music scenes are continuing to make global inroads. “March saw Korea making its largest ever showing at SXSW with 15 acts performing and only two of them falling under the K-pop umbrella. And early May saw six Korean indie groups making their way to the UK for Liverpool Sound City, including Dead Buttons & Asian Chairshot.” The former are a duo “whose punchy mix of anthemic bluesy garage rock and punk is turning them into one of the more buzzed-about upcomers in Seoul’s underground rock scene”, while the latter are a “psych-tinged grungy alt-rock trio who are currently showcasing material from their Horizon album which dropped on May 28th and was produced by Smashing Pumkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder.”
However, the most impressive overseas tour for a Korean indie band belongs to Jambinai. “Definitely one the country’s more unique sounding groups, Jambinai’s music merges Korean traditional music with post-rock, metal, and folk. The award-winning act – their fantastic 2012 Différance debut won “Best Crossover Album” at the 2013 Korean Music Awards – will play 25 shows in 14 countries between May 28 and July 27. Included in their itinerary are appearances at high-profile fests such as Glastonbury, Roskilde, and Serbia’s Exit Festival.
Australia & New Zealand
South to Australia, and Dayna in Sydney tells us that “Australian music has become a bigger export internationally and is still growing stronger with a lot of other countries tuning in to what’s happening and breaking here. Dance music is becoming increasingly mainstream too – you only need to look how many DJ/producers are getting added to radio playlists now compared to a few years ago to see that it’s truly broken wide open. Australia has always had an active dance music culture though – raves and warehouse parties have been going on from the early 90’s, before moving into clubs in around 1997/1998 and festivals have been running with electronic content since the mid 1990’s also (Big Day Out being key to this) – so it makes sense that our music, culture and artists would be pushing through internationally.”
Miks in Sydney echoes this: “It would seem the Australian Invasion is here to stay. With plenty of our artists doing well overseas (Courtney Barnett, Vance Joy, Gang Of Youths, DZ Deathrays to name a few), Australia is starting to cement itself as a go to location for all sorts of new music, and not just electronic.”
In terms of emerging trends for the rest of the year, Dayna notes that “EDM in its current format is receiving a lot of backlash – whilst not suggesting that it will collapse under its own weight (it has substantial legs still), other forms of electronic music are continuing to claw their way to the top so as to balance out the commerciality of EDM. Acts such as Flume, Chet Faker, Ta-Ku, Client Liaison below), Nicole Millar, Basenji, Chiefs to name a few.”
Miks adds that “the cultural cringe that has plagued the Australian music landscape appears to be slowly dissipating. With singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett and rapper Seth Sentry (both of whom perform in a distinct Australian accent) performing on late night American talk shows in the last few months, there appears to be a move towards finally championing Australian artists who perform in their ‘natural voice’ on an international level.”
The state of the live music scene has also been a hot topic over recent months, and the big news has been the state of music festivals in Australia. Miks reports that “with Vans Warped now rumoured to be scrapped after only one year, people appear to be moving towards more specific, boutique festival experiences.”
New Zealand’s Lordes was one of the biggest music stories around the world last year, and many of you would have seen it here at least a year before it broke thanks to Greta in Auckland.
Greta tells us that the buzz around her has continued following her number 1 in the US and elsewhere. Other recipients of NZ hype include the latest albums from CHVRCHES and King Krule, and recent highlights have included Kirin J Callinan’s live shows.
Throughout 2014 Greta notes that people in NZ will be talking about “Neutral Milk Hotel, Foals and the huge number of pop acts heading this way – including Rihanna, Justin Beiber, One Direction, Taylor Swift and Beyonce.”
And, with a distinctly New Zealand flavour, Greta notes that “The Neo Kalashnikovs video Gorgeous Baby starring Helen Flanagan has gone viral.”
We visit Mexico for the first time, and Héctor in Mexico City tells us that the Mexican indie rock scene is in great shape.
“If you go back 25 or 30 years it was really difficult for new bands to be noticed and to have places to play. As time passed Mexico began to be taken into account as a place where an international band should stop by during their world tour. This growth in the offer of bands has consequently brought new venues and new upstarts as well as established bands.
Now, many South American bands decide to come to Mexico, even to live here, because Mexico represent the next step for their careers. Here they can find a lot of opportunities to play live. I think this will continue to grow and that’s perfect because it will create lots of opportunities for new music to be shared and listened to.”
Héctor points to some examples from different Mexican scenes. Firstly, La Banda Bastón: “a Mexican hip-hop band that is gaining a lot of recognition in Mexico and Latin America with their latest album.”
Next up: The Plastics Revolution : “a relatively new band in the Mexican rock scene that has already taken part in some of the most important festivals in Mexico like Vive Latino and Corona Capital.”
Little Jesus is one of the most promising underground rock pop band in Mexico. “Only a year old, and they already played in Costa Rica, Colombia and in Ceremonia Festival in Mexico with bands like Animal Collective.”
Also worth checking out are Big Big Love : “Another promising Mexican project, known for their incredible and explosive live shows, and who are being compared to bands like Foals and My Morning Jacket”; Mexican Institute of Sound (above) “mixing traditional Mexican folk styles with electronica, hip-hop and even Bollywood”; Quiero Club “A Mexican pop-rock band with a long history in the independent scene”; and Dapuntobeat “an independent electronic band well-known in the Mexican and Latin indie scene.”
Ayomide in Nigeria notes a definite commercializing of the music industry. As Nigeria becomes the telecoms heavyweight of Africa, the country’s key artists are scooping up lucrative endorsement deals with companies like Glo & MTN.
Artists set to dominated conversations in 2014 include Wizkid: “Wizzy (as he is fondly called) has released a number of tracks in 2013 that has kept the anticipation level of his album at fever pitch. It is definite that Wizkid will be highly talked about during the end of the year and beyond.”
Also high on the radar is Ice Prince Zamani: “The sheer size of Ice Prince’s status in Nigeria’s pop field will ensure that he will be talked about when his LP drops. His singles ‘Aboki’, ‘More’ and ‘V.I.P’ have dominated pop charts since the beginning of the year. He has also made incursions into the international market by working with French Montana, Wale and UK Grime artist Chipmunk.”
Olamide was arguably the hottest Nigerian rapper of 2013. “Olamide, who raps mostly in Yoruba, has risen from a little-known rapper in the Southwest region of Nigerian to one of the biggest rap stars in the country. The demand for his music has been so immense that he is working on a new album that will be dropped before the end of the year. His smash hit ‘Durosoke’ has been huge on the streets and his collaboration with Igbo rapper Phyno on ‘Ghost Mode’ has helped him crossover to the Eastern part of the country.”
Ayomide tells us that “right now in Nigeria we are witnessing a gradual shift from the fast tempo pop song with easy rhyme structures and catchy hooks to slower conceptual pop songs. Acts like Burna Boy and Black Magic are getting mainstream attention for their afro-fusion style of singing. Burna Boy has just released his debut album L.I.F.E that has been a success story so far. The success of Burna Boy and other similar artistes shows that the consumers are beginning to demand for songs that are different from the fast paced syrupy pop songs that have ruled Nigerian airwaves for the last few years.”
He notes that “we’ve also witnessed the release of conceptual albums from artists such as Banky W, Waje, Omawumi and Burna Boy. This trend is in contrast to the manner in which albums were constructed before. Artists would normally lump a bunch of songs together with no concept or theme tying them together. Now artists are taking creative chances and releasing conceptual albums. Albums that have been released this year and have been conceptually loose have not fared well in the market place except for Iyanya’s Iyanya Vs. Desire sophomore album, which rode off the success of his monster singles.”
Ben in Barcelona notes that “Spain may be better known for its straight-up house & techno than bassy electronics, but in the country’s bigger cities the random mutations of UK bass have been warmly welcomed. Headbirds – aka young Catalan producer Dani Guijarro – could be seen as the Spanish response to this phenomenon, his music combining the influences of UK funky, dubstep and bass with an innate understanding of how to move a crowd, much like Disclosure before him.”
Guijarro’s debut release Dead Kingdom “drew attention from the likes of XLR8R and he’s now signed to El Segell, the record label of the Primavera Sound festival, who recently took him on tour around Spain as part of their Touring Party.”
Across in Portugal, and Alex from Lisbon indie band Youthless tells us that “the big trend is solo projects, experimental side projects by established artists and an interesting mix between dance and experimental rock music.” He notes that “Octa Push reached # 1 in the national charts; PAUS put out their second LP after touring the US & Mexico; Frankie Chavez has been conquering Italy, and Pernas de Alicate is a ground breaking new project formed by a drummer and a visual artist, and featurs some of the best musicians in Portugal. New albums are due from Brass Wire Orchestra and Keep Razors Sharp as well. There’s lots of good stuff happening over here.”
Russia, like elsewhere in Europe, has felt the wave of deep house. Maxim in Moscow reports that “the major trends in Russia have been retro, italo-house, mash-ups and the commercialization of deep house. This has especially been felt in Moscow, where deep house is heard in all the trendy bars, clubs & restaurants.”
Maxim notes that this is coupled with the dropping off of the popularity of US pop like Beyonce & Lady Gaga.