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The Swedish Model

Nancy K. Baym
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Sweden is a small country, yet it has one of the world’s biggest and best-selling music scenes. You might think ABBA, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but they’re just the best-known starting point of a very long tail, with thousands of bands spanning every genre and degree of success. Sweden is also home to The Pirate Bay, the world’s top torrenting site, which ABBA songwriter Björn Ulvaeus has decried as made by and for those who are lazy and stingy and don’t understand that, if creators can’t anticipate payment, they will never release music (“ABBA Star” 2009). Since the advent of recording in the early twentieth century, recorded music has been the central economic good of the music business. Hence, it is no wonder that the mainstream industry has been so vociferous in its efforts to demonize and sue uploaders and to support national policies that limit the ability of listeners to spread music.

Further down the tail, though, Sweden is home to many artists and labels trying to forge a new way through this thicket, one that rejects the notions that certain payment is a precondition for artistic expression or that file sharing detracts from the economics of their business. The attitudes and actions of The Swedish Model, a consortium of seven independent labels committed to a more optimistic dialogue on music’s future, and other Swedish labels and musicians put spreadability at the center of their hopes for the future of the music business. The tiny label Songs I Wish I Had Written, headed by Martin Thörnkvist, who also heads The Swedish Model, shared an office with a Pirate Bay cofounder, and Thörnkvist uploads his label’s catalog in the highest quality to Pirate Bay. Labrador, another Swedish independent label, gives away annual samplers through Pirate Bay and posts all its singles for free download on its website.

These entrepreneurs have taken to heart that if their music doesn’t spread, it may as well be dead. The logic goes like this: We are small and have minimal budgets. There are few mainstream venues that will promote our music, so few people will have the opportunity to hear it through mass media. The more people who hear it, the larger the audience will become. Even if most of that audience does not pay for CDs or mp3s, the slice that does will be bigger than the entire audience would otherwise have been. And the slice that doesn’t pay to buy music may well pay for other things. As Thörnkvist put it when addressing the music industry audience at MIDEMNet, “I’d rather have one million listeners and one hundred buyers than one hundred listeners and one hundred buyers” (2009).

This alternative perspective is not unique to Sweden, but the Swedes have worked at it particularly well and with great success, gaining international audiences that far surpass those of much larger countries. The free flow of music in this scene, as in many others, is facilitated by a host of fan activities. Labels begin the process by uploading the music to peer-to-peer trading sites, commercial music-streaming sites such as Spotify and Last.fm, social network sites such as MySpace, and their own (and the bands’) websites. They reach out to fans through these sites, through Twitter, and through email lists. Fans help upload the music they love to P2P sites. Third-party sites such as Last.fm and iLike allow fans to chart their listens, showing the world and their peers which bands they love, and to make and export widgets placing songs and playlists on their own social network site profiles and webpages. They forward the bands’ messages and help send their own contacts to bands’ and labels’ sites. The most enthusiastic write mp3 blogs in which they draw attention to songs they find compelling. Some, such as Absolute Noise in France and Swedesplease in the United States, focus exclusively on Swedish music.

The result is not the death of Swedish music but a successful synergy in which the need of small artists and labels to reach an expanded audience while staying within limited budgets meets the needs of fans to make music listening a collective activity (see Condry 2004) and to incorporate music into their own online identities. For labels and bands, the strategy has worked well. Labels Labrador and Hybris tell me that anywhere from half to two-thirds of their sales of CDs and mp3s are outside of Sweden, that some bands have achieved hits (“Young Folks” by Peter, Björn and John is one example), and that several of their bands have found themselves able to live off revenues from international licensing and have been touring in countries including Indonesia and Brazil where they never would have had audiences before. The expanded audience has also allowed them to earn money selling scarce goods. One Swedish band, The Embassy, created a limited-edition single with only three copies, which they auctioned off on eBay. Another artist, Moto Boy, gave his single away as an mp3 but sold a nicely packaged wind-up music box that played the song. Both activities generated considerable publicity among fans and people covering the digital music industry.

This embrace of spreadability has worked well for fans as well. My interviews with the most active fans show that their engagement as proselytizers has costs but brings many more benefits (Baym and Burnett 2009). They gain new relationships with other fans and with musicians, discover more music, and gain subcultural status (Thornton 1996), which they are sometimes able to convert into paying positions. Meanwhile, less engaged fans benefit from being able to explicitly mark themselves as fans in constructing their online identities by embedding and passing along the songs they love within the social network sites they participate in.

Even without the cries of those whose careers are displaced and disempowered by this model, it is not without problems. The Swedish Model could easily be accused of utopianism. It’s not clear how songwriters get paid if they’re not in the band. No one’s likely to get rich. Many of these musicians and entrepreneurs are still working other jobs to earn a living. And fans may come to feel disillusioned if the free labor they provide replacing publicists and journalists is not adequately respected or rewarded. The balances between everyone’s costs and rewards with the principles governing the fairness of those exchanges are murky and evolving. There’s much room for exploitation, bitterness, and disappointment. But, then, this has always been true in the music business.

Still, it’s hard not to admire the world they are after. These musicians and labels are seeking to transform the one-way producer-consumer relationship into a collaborative culture of relative equals. Music is not, first and foremost, a way to make a living but a way to “gather like-minded individuals,” as one musician and label owner told me: a way to celebrate common values so that, as another label entrepreneur put it, “the whole culture benefits.” They are happy to sacrifice their own power to empower their audience, and they trust that, in a moral economy, they will reap just rewards. “Let’s stop the exploitation of music,” a musician wrote to me. “Let’s stop thinking of music as export business merchandise products. Let’s stop the people who try hard to infiltrate music scene just because they see money potential in it. Let’s socialize. Start a band. Put up some songs. Let’s discuss, let’s agree and disagree. Listen to songs, read thoughts, think, feel, be inspired, be saved. Reclaim music.”

References

“ABBA Star Blasts ‘Stingy’ File Sharers.” 2009. The Local, Feb. 17. http://www.thelocal.se/17654/20090217/.

Baym, Nancy K., and Robert Burnett. 2009. “Amateur Experts: International Fan Labour in Swedish Independent Music.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 12 (5) (September): 433–449.

Condry, Ian. 2004. “Cultures of Music Piracy: An Ethnographic Comparison of the US and Japan.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 7 (3): 343–363.

Thörnkvist, Martin. 2009. Remarks as part of the “Serving Artists, Serving Fans: What Is the Best Organisation?” panel at MIDEMNet in Cannes, France, Jan. 21.

Thornton, Sarah. 1996. Club Cultures: Music Media, and Subcultural Capital. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.

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