‘Sweden gives artists the space to follow their dreams’

Sweden is good at music. From Abba to Avicii, Swedish music has been making its mark on the world for decades.

'Sweden gives artists the space to follow their dreams'
Artists Robin Stjernberg (l) and Lisa Ajax (r) have flourished under the record label run by Maria Molin Ljunggren (c). Photos: Robert Olausson, Capitol Music Group, Peter Sundevall

So it's no surprise that the country is also at the top of Eurovision charts. Only Ireland has won the song contest more often than Sweden – and in modern times Sweden has a much better track record.

But why exactly does Sweden have so many successful artists and songwriters? Do Swedes have a secret recipe for making it big in music? The Local asked Maria Molin Ljunggren, the woman behind one of Sweden’s most successful record labels, for answers.

Maria has always had a thing for music.

Raised in a little village in the north of Sweden, far away from the bright city lights and downtown rock’n’roll, Maria did what any young music-lover would do in a small-town high school: She sang in a band.

“I sang on weekends, and when I left school it became my full time job for a while,” she tells The Local. “You could say that was the real start of my love for music.”

It’s a classic tale. Maria decided to move to the city to pursue her dream, and Stockholm become home.

“I knew that I had greater chances of finding work involving music there,” she says. “I actually landed a job at a record company – and I immediately felt that it was right. I thought, ‘This is it. This is my thing.’”

The determined Swede has been flourishing in her field ever since, helping up-and-coming Swedish artists to launch their global careers. Today she’s one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in the Swedish music industry. Maria is CEO of Capitol Records, a massively successful record label which is part of Universal Music in Sweden.

The journey has been a long but enjoyable one.

“After less than a year working at that first record company job, the company got into financial problems,” she recalls. “And then I decided to start my own business.”

It may seem like a spontaneous and somewhat rash decision, but Maria says it didn’t actually feel like a big deal.

“It wasn’t that big of a step really, as I had been involved in entrepreneurship since I was 12 years old,” she remarks. “So at the time I was a fearless, hard-working young woman.”

In 1991 she merged her record business with her husband and his co-writer’s production company, and together the trio launched Lionheart Music Group.

The bold name is a perfect reflection of the bold, wild-hearted woman – and she hasn’t changed much.

Back in the day she took care of management and live bookings to finance record releases and make ends meet – and now her company is responsible for managing, booking, and releasing records for the cream of the Swedish musical crop.

“In 2007 we sold 51 percent of Lionheart to Universal, and in 2014 they bought the remaining part,” she says. “And that’s when we decided to start Capitol Music Group of Sweden.”

Capitol functions on the same concept as Lionheart – but it’s bigger, better, and broader. Capitol Music Group is an umbrella label for not just Lionheart Records but also Swedish labels Virgin Records, SoFo Records, and Kavalkad.

But it all started with Lionheart Music – still a key player in Melodifestivalen madness.

 Capitol artist Lisa Ajax made it to the Melodifestivalen finals in 2016 with My Heart Wants Me Dead

The company goes in whole-hearted for Eurovision and represents the lion's share (pun intended) of contestants in Swedish Melodifestivalen.

Lionheart Music's chief songwriter, Maria's husband Bobby Ljunggren, has had five songs in Eurovision, and the company has represented many an artist in the European final.

“Jan Johansen in 1995 and Jill Johnson in 1998 were Lionheart artists, and we worked with Charlotte Perelli and Carola as well,” Maria Molin Ljunggren has said. The company also represented Anna Bergendahl in the 2010 competition. “And in 2013 we represented Robin Stjernberg i Eurovision.”

Indeed, Ljunggren and Lionheart have at least one entry in essentially every year's contest, and frequently the songs go straight to the final – such as this year's popular hit “Constellation Prize” sung by Swedish heartthrob Robin Bengtsson, and “My Heart Wants Me Dead” by Lisa Ajax.

What’s the secret to such schlager success?

“We focus on really great artists first and foremost, and view Melodifestivalen as a great opportunity for promotion,” Maria Molin Ljunggren explained in an earlier interview. “Throughout the years the competition has been important for us as a sort of debut for artists.”

So how did it all happen?  How did a young country girl end up leading tomorrow’s Swedish artists into stardom, heading a massive record label?

“That’s a tough question,” she laughs. “It’s about everything from the company’s DNA to an extreme love for music in absolutely all genres.”

But it’s also about being able to spot talent, she says. “The most important part of our success is of course our artists, songwriters, and producers who give us such fantastic material to work with,” she says.

Capitol-signed Takida's latest album, A Perfect World, has hit the top of the Swedish charts

And it’s a symbiotic process, the Swedish musical circle of life – each generation of Swedish artists truly inspires the next.

“Sweden is quite a small country where some amazing artists and songwriters have become world stars, and they’ve made a strong impression. They have, in a very generous way, shared their knowledge and invited young talent into their creative work.”

Inspiration isn’t the only ingredient, of course. Maria adds that it’s the Swedish model itself which contributes to the nation’s musical moxie.

“I generally think music programmes in our public schools, the music education programmes both at the high school and university level, and the many mentorship programmes all of which are of huge importance,” she says.

“But also – maybe Sweden just generally has a society where we are given space and the opportunities to follow our dreams.”

Music is an ever-changing field with never-ending possibilities – especially thanks to the continuous digital development, and Maria notes that it’s gold for artists.

“The potential to reach a global audience is almost unlimited, so the international market is more important than ever,” Maria says.

But, in a country of just over 9 million people, the value of local music scenes hasn’t faded, she adds.

“I’m a strong believer of the local music scene – and for ordinary Swedes, that ‘closeness’ to the artist will always be important,” she says.

This article was produced by The Local and sponsored by Musiksverige

Read more about Music in Sweden

'Sweden gives artists the space to follow their dreams'
The man behind Sweden's biggest music festival
'Sweden's Lauryn Hill' touches the country's musical soul
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What are the best concerts in Sweden this autumn?

Now that Sweden has lifted its audience restrictions for public events, The Local's Paul O'Mahony lists his recommendations for the best gigs to attend over the coming months.

Crowd at a music concert in Debaser, Stockholm
Crowds return to Stockholm venue Debaser after pandemic restrictions on events were lifted. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Sweden’s musicians, concert promoters and venue operators have struggled to varying degrees through the pandemic. One surefire way to help get them back on their feet is to give organisers and artists the financial reassurance they need by pre-booking concerts. 

Of course these recommendations only apply if you feel safe attending large events; remember that you should stay home and take a Covid-19 test if you experience any symptoms that could be linked to the virus, even if vaccinated. And make sure to check with organisers if there are any specific coronavirus requirements you need to be aware of. 

Coming up: top gigs in Sweden over the next few months 

As a regular gig-goer, live music is the one thing I’ve missed most over the past year and a half. So it is with some excitement (and, I’ll admit, a degree of trepidation) that I prepare to go see Norwegian band Pom Poko this Friday at Hus 7 in Stockholm. Their melodic art-punk album Cheater sparked the year into life on its release in January. They’re also playing Plan B in Malmö on Saturday night

Plan B is also the venue when Squid hit Sweden with a thrilling dose of post-punk on October 15th. Tickets remain available for the show at the time of writing (an absolute steal at 120 kronor), though that’s sadly not the case in Stockholm where their October 16th gig at Melodybox sold out a long time ago. (Although you can sign up to be added to a waiting list). 

Another artist well worth checking out in October is Gothenburg guitarist and singer Amanda Werne, better known as Slowgold. Her live shows are great and she is embarking on a Swedish tour on October 8th. 

Emma-Jean Thackray, one of the UK’s most interesting jazz artists, will be at Fasching in Stockholm on October 15th

For the best kind of sonic assault, Anna von Hasswolff’s band Bada are scheduled to play in Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg in late October. 

Have any of you ever seen Gothenburg electronic veterans Little Dragon live? I haven’t but might check them out in November when they swing by Malmö, Stockholm and Gothenburg

Amason are also heading out on the road for a Scandinavian tour in November. If you haven’t heard Amanda Bergman’s voice in a live setting before this will be a treat. 

The inimitable Sibille Attar released her superb second album A History of Silence at the start of the year and she’s finally getting the chance to play her eighties-inspired gems live at Slaktkyrkan in Stockholm on November 18th

Cassandra Jenkins long lurked in the background as a musician in touring bands for people like Eleanor Friedberger and Purple Mountains. But this year’s album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature has really established her as an artist to be reckoned with in her own right. She’s coming to Södra Teatern in Stockholm on November 26th

Always popular in this part of the world, The Jesus and Mary Chain return to Sweden for dates in Stockholm and Gothenburg at the end of November

Wry Finland-Swedish indie outfit Vasas Flora och Fauna have some of the funniest (Swedish) lyrics and catchiest tunes around. They’ll be in Stockholm and Gothenburg the first weekend of December

UK experimental rockers Black Midi are also playing Stockholm and Gothenburg on December 4th and 5th. So prepare to travel if you want to catch both them and Vasas Flora and Fauna. 

As if that wasn’t enough, Bob Hund’s annual ‘week 48’ show also takes place on December 4th. But that has been sold out for ages so no decisions to make there. It is also worth noting though that Sweden’s hardest working band has also written a musical that’s going to be performed in Helsingborg (October-November) and Gothenburg (November)

Bonus: For a post-Christmas pick-me-up try to get down to Little Simz at Slaktkyrkan on January 14th if you’re in Stockholm. The UK rapper’s new album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is one of this year’s best releases. 

Selected artists playing Sweden in 2022: Henry Rollins, Sarah Klang, Yann Tiersen, Mogwai, Pearl Charles, Wolf Alice, Lloyd Cole, Lord Huron, Future Islands, Josh Rouse + Vetiver, Tricky, Snail Mail, Porridge Radio, Aldous Harding, Shame, The Kooks, The War on Drugs, Echo and the Bunnymen, Kings of Convenience, Fontaines D.C., Alex Cameron, Lucy Dacus, The Divine Comedy, Mdou Moctar, Iggy Pop, Chubby and the Gang, Sparks, Belle & Sebastian, The National, Sharon Van Etten, Teenage Fanclub, Tindersticks, Suede, Viagra Boys, Pavement. 

For bigger arena shows, Ticketmaster covers a lot of the bases. Big-name acts with gigs in the offing include Ed Sheeran, Zara Larsson, Whitesnake and, lest we forget, ABBA

And that’s just a fraction of what’s going on. Tour schedules are busier than ever now that artists are finally getting back on the road. To keep track of what gigs are coming up I can recommend checking in with Luger, FKP Scorpio, and Live Nation. Follow your favourite venues too: sometimes they cut out the middleman and do their own booking and promotion. I also use the Bandsintown app, which comes with the added bonus of receiving messages from your favourite artists which let you pretend to be their friend. 

Enjoy the gigs, and stay safe! 

Paul O’Mahony is editorial product manager at The Local. In his spare time he plays the best new indie and alternative music as host of the Signals show on Nerve Music.