With a population six times smaller than the UK, Sweden punches well above its weight in the global music industry.
There’s ABBA, of course — powered by the songwriting genius of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus — plus Robyn, The Cardigans, and the guy with all the hits, Max Martin.
In recent years, Eric Prdyz, Swedish House Mafia, Avicii, Icona Pop and Tove Lo have joined this revered hit parade.
And now Zara Larsson is earning her place on that list.
TEN Music Group is the company behind Larsson (whose debut album, So Good, is out this week), as well as Icona Pop, Niki and the Dove, Elliphant and Erik Hassle.
The Stockholm-based independent spans publishing, recording and production – and boasted the most successful pop composer in Sweden last year in Markus “Mack” Sepehrmanesh.
Sepehrmanesh is one of the key songwriters behind Larsson, having contributed to hits Lush Life, Ain’t My Fault and Girls Like (by Tinie Tempah ft. Zara Larsson).
TEN has global ambitions with every one of its artists – helped by a ‘first look’ five-year licensing deal with Sony which founder Ola Håkansson agreed with Doug Morris in 2013.
(Larsson is released through Epic in the US and Black Butter in the UK, Hassle goes through RCA and Elliphant is with Kemosabe. Icona Pop are signed to Atlantic.)
Håkansson started his career in the ‘60s as an artist, in pop group Ola & The Janglers.
After touring for a decade, he went back to school and returned to the music industry as manager of Sonet Publishing.
In 1992, he founded Stockholm Records as a JV with Polygram, with a familiar goal – launching Swedish and Scandinavian artists internationally.
Global success came with A-Teens (pictured), The Cardigans and Stakka Bo, as the label sold 10m albums outside of Sweden.
Håkansson sold his share in 2001, before returning to his studios in Stockholm to launch TEN as a publishing company in 2003.
Having grown frustrated with the speculative song pitching process, he decided to find his own artists to team with TEN’s growing stable of writers.
A then 17-year-old Erik Hassle was the first development project. After being promoted through YouTube, he was soon signed to Universal in London by Sir Lucian Grainge.
Icona Pop and Niki and the Dove followed, as TEN evolved into the multi-faceted operation it is today – with seven studios in Sweden and four in LA.
“TEN is a ‘360’ company because we wanted to work very closely with the artists, who are all quite young, and look after them while they are in the studio,” Håkansson tells MBW in an exclusive interview.
“In the beginning, managers are not interested in artists that haven’t done anything, so you have to manage them anyway.
“It’s a day-and-night operation. The artists are in the studio, we talk to them, we educate them, and we managed their tours too.”
Larsson first entered TEN’s Swedish studios aged 14, accompanied by her mother. After hearing her sing, Håkansson signed her immediately.
Larsson spent the next few years recording countless songs, in order to discover her sound.
Eventually, it was her time: her debut single Uncover was released in 2013 and hit No.1 in Sweden. Through Sony, she was then introduced to the international market in 2015 with Lush Life, which reached No.3 in the UK.
Manager Roger Ames has helped direct Larsson’s US and UK strategy, largely centered around Spotify and social media.
Collaborations with MNEK, Tinie Tempah and Clean Bandit have strengthened her brand in Britain, and Larsson now boasts three Top 5 UK singles.
Alongside Sepehrmanesh, a number of eminent songwriters and producers have contributed to So Good, including Julia Michaels, Ed Sheeran, Stargate and Steve Mac.
Additional priority projects for TEN this year include brother and sister duo Strandels (pictured), who are licensed to Black Butter in the UK, and 19-year-old singer/songwriter Benjamin Ingrosso — the cousin of Swedish House Mafia member Sebastian Ingrosso.
Håkansson is also launching a singles-led sub label called Tenacity, which will release songs that aren’t tied to an artist development marketing plan.
“When you find a song you really love you want it out there straight away,” he explains.
“The energy when you hear it is lost when you wait eight or nine months for an artist launch project to be figured out.”
Below, MBW asks Håkansson about competing in the major-dominated world of pop, his ambitions for TEN’s future and why you need to rely on more than streaming to truly break an artist…
How does having your HQ in sweden affect your capability to find and develop artists?
I think it’s an advantage because we’re a market that’s hooked on songs.
It’s easy to find songwriters and producers, ask them to come into the studio, and start working together. It’s very uncomplicated to do writing sessions and most of the artists are always willing to try a song.
It’s much more complicated in the UK and US where you have a lot of managers involved in the beginning.
“We are good at developing and finding talent, but we still need expertise in the big markets in order to be able to launch talent worldwide.”
We are good at developing and finding talent, but we still need expertise in the big markets in order to be able to explore them.
For me, it’s a perfect match when you have something in Sweden that’s connected to someone who understands marketing in the US and UK. We lack the expertise needed to launch talent worldwide alone.
Markus Mack was the biggest songwriter in Sweden last year. He’s also VP of Creative at TEN. How to you attract and develop new songwriting talent?
We go to the unestablished songwriters. We offer them a studio, and help in the studio, in order to have them sign to the publishing company.
For a new songwriter, it’s very important to have other writers to work with so they have a chance to develop. We can’t offer a big advance – that’s not the way we work.
The studios are not fancy, I must admit! We called the company TEN because the studio is No.10 on a very humble street in Stockholm called Hagagatan.
When I was thinking of the name for the company, I couldn’t think of anything that’s further away from 10 Downing Street as 10 Hagagatan!
It’s in the basement, it’s cold in the winter and hot in summer, but we have a few windows to let sunlight in and there’s great people and a good atmosphere.
You said the strategy with Zara was led by social media and streaming. Is that the same approach you take with all your acts?
You never go to commercial radio first in Sweden – they want some proof before playing tracks.
Spotify is very important in order to get commercial radio; the most important thing is streaming here.
With social media, we have more tools than ever before, which can make things complicated because you need to use everything. Timing is so important.
Do you think the dominance of streaming in Sweden will be replicated worldwide?
I think it will become more and more important, but even in Sweden, you still need traditional media like TV or radio in order to make a streaming hit huge.
Success on streaming is a good thing to start with but it’s not enough on its own.
“Success on streaming is a good thing to start with but it’s not enough on its own. Even in Sweden, you still need traditional media like TV or radio in order to make a streaming hit huge.”
Spotify can make a song, but they cannot build an artist.
To have a one-hit-wonder is one thing, but to establish an artist and a brand is something totally different.
How difficult is it to make breaking an artist financially viable for an independent company like Ten in 2017?
It’s difficult. It takes time to get the money earned from streaming; it’s slower than shipping one million albums or whatever you had to do with an artist before.
Back catalogue is the most important thing for the major labels and a new company like TEN doesn’t have a back catalogue right now.
“We don’t have to be strategic or political, if we find an artist and song that we love, we go for it.”
As an independent company, if we can’t afford to do something, we have to wait. But the upside is that we don’t have to be strategic or political, if we find an artist and song that we love, we go for it.
When you are a new company you can’t afford to sign established artists, so that’s forced us to work with young artists and employees who’ve come straight out of school.
As a result of that, I think we have a fantastic team here and some very interesting new artists with most of them aged 18-20.
Have you ever taken on investment?
No, we haven’t.
Once very early on, I must say that [UMG UK boss] David Joseph helped us out when we were like: ‘Oh my God, can I [afford to] fly back to Stockholm or do I have to stay in London?’
The same thing happened when we signed Icona Pop (pictured) to Atlantic in the US; I had to pay for the flights myself because we didn’t have any money!
Doug Morris and Sony also helped us out, but we are still independent and very proud of that.
How important is it for you to remain fully independent?
It’s not that important to us anymore.
At the beginning I think it was, because you have more flexibility in trying your own way of doing things.
“It’s not that important for us to be independent anymore. Now we’ve achieved what we wanted, maybe it’s the right time to bring someone in who can help us grow.”
Now we’ve achieved what we wanted, maybe it’s the right time to bring someone in who can help us grow.
It’s always a question of timing and you have to look at what is best for the artist and the company.
Spotify still isn’t profitable; what needs to happen in order to make it so? Can you imagine them doing direct deals with artists and songwriters in future?
Perhaps, but that’s dangerous because they need to have good relationships with labels.
I think the most important thing for them is to have more subscribers that pay.
The UK and US have traditionally been very focused on breaking artists that come from their own territories. In a global music business, do you think they could better capitalize on music from elsewhere?
Yes. I believe the use of music is going to become bigger — I’m not just talking about listening to music as a consumer but as the backbone to other businesses like Apple. Repertoire from all markets will only help drive that.
“The use of music is going to become bigger and repertoire from all markets will only help drive that.”
The UK and US might be afraid that bringing in artists from outside their home country will steal audiences from their own local artists, but I think that is wrong. We benefit from everyone who is in this industry.
The music industry is very small when you think about how important music is in people’s lives, and it’s still very cheap.
We are not very good at using the tools that we have within the industry.
What does the future hold for the music industry at large?
We need to show people that music is for more than just ‘consumption’.
It’s so important for all human beings. Even for animals; if you play the right kind of music to cows, they give better milk!
We have so much potential but we are always being too protective. If we open up more I think there is a lot of possibility for the music industry to connect with other industries.
“Music is so important. Even for animals; if you play the right kind of music to cows, they give better milk!”
In the past, we haven’t let outsiders come in, and that’s totally wrong. We need to change because the world around us is changing.
The music industry cannot be an isolated island in the media landscape. The most important thing you need to be in this industry is curious about what’s new, and willing to try it out.
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