Thursday, March 23, 2023

Why is Sweden so successful in music? Scenes, it nurtures scenes.

Henrik Karlsson, Scene creation engines and apprenticeships, Escaping Flatland, Mar. 21, 2023.

After introductory material based on a story about specific musicians, Johan Schuster, Max Martin, and others, Karlston gets down to thinking:

But the most important factor behind Sweden’s outsized success seems to be that Sweden by accident created unusually good conditions for musical scene creation.

What is a scene? It is a group of people who are producing work in public but aimed at each other. The metal bands in Karlshamn, where Schuster grew up, were a scene. They performed on stage — but the audience was mainly their friends who played in other bands. If they were anything like the other local scenes I’ve seen, they challenged and supported each other to be bolder, more ambitious, better. A scene, to borrow a phrase from Visakan Veerasamy, “is a group of people who unblock each other at an accelerating rate”.

Almost invariably, when you notice someone doing bold original work, there is a scene behind them. Renaissance Florence was a scene for scholars and painters, flowering in Leonardo DaVinci. The coffeehouses of Elizabethan London were a scene for playwrights, flowering in Shakespeare.

But scenes are hard to get off the ground. They need resources and infrastructure that enable collective and open-ended tinkering. This is rarely achieved at scale.

But it was exactly this kind of infrastructure that evolved in Sweden during the mid-twentieth century. It was not done intentionally. Rather, it was an accidental side-effect of two political projects that were subverted by the grassroots: the Swedish public music education program and the study circle movement.

On the one hand:

In the 1940s, Swedish conservatives and church leaders were afraid that music imports from the US were leading to bad morals. They introduced an extensive and affordable after-school program for music. Kids could get tutoring 1-on-1 or in small groups for free once a week. They could borrow instruments, too. Later, fees were introduced, but around 30% of kids still receive free tutoring, and the fees only run up to about $100 per semester. About every third Swedish kid participates.

On the other:

In 1902, Oscar Olsson, a secondary school teacher, was working in the temperance movement, which aimed to steer the culture away from alcohol consumption and toward service of the community. To further this aim, Olsson started what he called study circles. It was basically a book club. A group of people would meet and discuss a book, and through these meetings they would develop themselves, forge social bonds, and inspire each other to raise their aspirations.

The temperance movement successfully lobbied the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, to get funding to purchase books. This funding was channeled through various grassroots organizations to their members on the condition that the books were made available to the general public afterward.

This funding led to explosive growth in self-organized study groups. By the 1970s, ten percent of the population were active members. But the study circles rapidly drifted away from Olsson’s original intentions. Instead of being a tool to further the agenda of political movements, it became an almost permissionless infrastructure for learning. [...] In a sort of exhausted truce, the control was ceded to the learners. Instead of ideological book clubs, people formed a myriad of learning communities: knitting clubs, discussion groups, and . . . bands.

This is turn let to the formation of lots of learning centers organized around different topics and activities, including music. And so:

The infrastructure provided by the music schools and the learning centers created fertile breeding grounds for scenes. This is where Max Martin, Johan Schuster, and nearly every other musician mentioned in this piece, spent their formative years.

And out of this breeding ground, another institution grew: the tradition for established songwriters to find young talent and nurture it through apprenticeships.

There’s much more at the link.

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