Photographer: Johan Jeppsson/Bloomberg

This Is How Sweden's Global Music Factory Works

A pop song contest watched by half the nation feeds Eurovision, the world's biggest nonsports event. Then there's the guy with 19 Billboard chart toppers.
By William Lee Adams | March 30, 2015

The Swedish pop star Måns Zelmerlöw is sitting in a Stockholm coffee shop explaining how his leather stage pants breathe surprisingly well. The coffee shop is at the entrance of a busy mall, yet Zelmerlöw, one of Sweden’s most familiar faces, seems unfazed by the parade of shoppers. Most of them would recognize him as a former Swedish Idol contestant and host of Allsång på Skansen (Sing-Along at Skansen), a widely watched show shot in front of up to 25,000 people. It’s like Katy Perry hanging at Grand Central.

“In Stockholm, people look, but they never act,” he says. Behind him, two women snap photos of the back of his head with their iPhones.

It’s Wednesday, March 11, and in three days Zelmerlöw will compete in the final round of Melodifestivalen, or Song Festival.

Måns Zelmerlöw

Photographer: Johan Jeppsson / Bloomberg

Melfest, as it is known, is a six-week televised competition that SVT, Sweden’s state-run broadcaster, has staged in various forms since 1959. Measured by its popularity, star power, and production values, it makes American Idol look like a couple of people humming a tune in your living room. In recent years, reality singing franchises, including The Voice, X Factor, and Pop Idol, have cropped up from Australia to Britain to Ukraine. None can claim as much domestic influence as Melfest.

The show airs in prime time on Saturday evenings in February and March and has been Sweden’s most-watched program since 2000. It regularly claims an 80 percent share of TV-viewing homes, and nearly half of all Swedes hunker down in front of it. The producers have a captive audience—in February, Sweden’s coldest month, the temperature can plunge to -8 degrees F. in populous regions. The show has immense sway over the Swedish charts. In 1983, Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the world’s bestselling album. In Sweden that year, Melfest winner Carola Häggkvist’s debut album outsold it.

Melfest, in turn, is the gateway to the Eurovision Song Contest, arguably the world’s most watched nonsporting event, with a global audience of nearly 200 million people. Former winners of Melfest (Mello, in Swedish) who went on to Eurovision include ABBA, which failed to win Melfest with Ring, Ring in 1973 but won both Melfest and Eurovision the following year with Waterloo. In 2012, Sweden’s Loreen won Eurovision, and her song, Euphoria, shot to the top of the charts in seven European countries. It has now been streamed more than 90 million times on Spotify, the Stockholm-based online music service.

Hasse Andersson

Guld och gröna skogar (Gold and Green Forests)

Age: 67

He is a country rock star whose biggest hit is 1982’s All Dogs Go to Heaven. In the 1990s he hosted a popular music program inside a barn.

Lyrics: There was dancing and partying, in the barn all night long, it was summer, it was the moon

Eric Saade

Sting

Age: 24

Saade was born to a Palestinian-Lebanese father and Swedish mother. He prefers pilates to pizza. The winner of Melodifestivalen 2011, he shattered a glass closet at the climax of his song and went on to place third at Eurovision.

Lyrics: You’ll think about my girl, you’ll dream about my world, tomorrow’s gonna hurt like hell

Måns Zelmerlöw

Heroes

Age: 28

The heartthrob placed fifth on Swedish Idol in 2005 and won Let’s Dance the following year. A two-time Melodifestivalen finalist, he also hosted the show alongside Dolph Lundgren in 2010.

Lyrics: Don't tell the Gods I left a mess, I can’t undo what has been done, let's run for cover

Samir & Viktor

Groupie

Ages: 24 and 20

Samir, a former reality TV contestant on Paradise Hotel, and Viktor, a fashion blogger, teamed up for the single Success in 2014. Neither is a credible singer, but the song topped the iTunes chart in its first week anyway.

Lyrics: Nobody wants to be completely alone, take a groupie tonight

Beyond Eurovision, global superstars routinely call on Swedes for help behind the scenes. Songwriter and producer Max Martin has had 19 Billboard No. 1 hits, including Taylor Swift’s recent entries Shake It Off and Blank Space. That puts him third on the all-time record list in the U.S., behind only Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone, Britney Spears’s Baby One More Time, Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger, and Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl were all written or co-written by Swedes.

Swedish songwriters and producers, emboldened by ABBA’s success, started to think commercially and to sing in English, leading Ace of Base, Army of Lovers, Europe, the Hives, and Roxette to go global. And while Swedish groups don't often become worldwide superstars, many are sensations in Europe, Japan, and other markets. Sweden is the world’s third-largest exporter of pop music (by copyright revenue collected for its songwriters, publishers, and composers), after the U.S. and the U.K., and it's the largest exporter on a per-capita basis. It’s teaching us how to consume music as well: Spotify now has more than 60 million users around the world.

None of this is lost on Sweden, which sees the popularity of its music as a measure of its international standing. In January, the postal service launched a series of five stamps celebrating Martin and four of its other pop exports—Avicii, First Aid Kit, Robyn, and Seinabo Sey—for “spreading Swedish music across the world.” And there is ABBA: The Museum, in Stockholm, a 54,000-square-foot space that opened in May 2013, coinciding with Eurovision, which Sweden hosted in Malmö that year. It has a room devoted to ABBA’s Melfest and Eurovision victories that includes the outlandish costumes the band wore singing Waterloo at the 1974 edition of Eurovision in Brighton, in the U.K.

A museum of ABBA?

“They have sold almost 400 million records worldwide, and Sweden only has 9 million inhabitants,” Mattias Hansson, who runs the museum, observes.

Dinah Nah

Make Me (La La La)

Age: 34

Born Malin Sundström, she rose to fame in the 1990s as part of the girl group Caramell. Offstage she is a licensed skin therapist and nurse.

Lyrics: Like a plane in the sky, you got me so high, make me la la la

Jon Henrik Fjällgren

Jag är fri (Manne Leam Frijje) (I Am Free)

Age: 27

Adopted by an indigenous Sami couple, the Colombian-born singer has tended to reindeer all his life. “I’ll never leave my reindeer behind,” he says. “They’re all so close to me.”

Lyrics: Hey-ya-hey-ya

Isa

Don’t Stop

Age: 16

A champion street dancer, she moves so fast you worry her hips will snap. She has previously released two singles (Bomb and What We Are) and says her entry shows “the positive effects love can have on you.”

Lyrics: If I can just make you be mine, I'll probably walk on cloud nine

Magnus Carlsson

Möt mig i Gamla stan (Meet Me in Old Town)

Age: 40

He's competed seven times before. His 2007 song Live Forever failed to make the final but became the sixth-most-played song in Sweden for the year and charted in Poland and Russia.

Lyrics: I'm waiting in the Old Town, need you with me tonight

Melfest brings together 28 acts—some established, some new, all of them perspiring with ambition—culled from thousands of entries every fall. Divided into four heats, they perform original songs in front of packed Swedish arenas of up to 30,000 people. The top two acts in each heat advance to the final. Another four acts advance from a “second chance” round, in which nonqualifiers battle for redemption.

Those 12 performances, bound together by a pair of charming emcees (one can’t sing and doesn’t know it) and produced without inhibition, make up the event. The prize isn’t a recording contract—most acts are already signed to major labels. Instead, the winner earns the right to represent Sweden at Eurovision in May.

Unlike The Voice or X Factor, Melfest’s acts perform songs that have never been heard before, rather than covers, opening up a wide revenue stream for songwriters and artists. With record sales down, that's a boon to the writers, who are “bleeding,” says Aleena Gibson. Gibson has worked with Nick Carter, S Club 7, and Jason Derulo and has two songs in this year’s final.

Record labels such as Warner Music and Sony work to get their acts in the contest. “There’s an immediate and measurable response, and we can use the data to develop marketing campaigns to drive fans to new music and help people discover more of an artist’s catalogue,” says Jonas Siljemark, Warner Music’s Nordic chief executive officer. “After last year’s Melodifestivalen final, our acts had five singles in the top 10 on the official singles chart.”

Melfest “brings a little bit of glamour to those dark February evenings,” says Svante Stockselius, a former executive of SVT who overhauled the show in 2002. And it leaves the competition shaken, he says: “All the other TV channels just lay down flat and do not air new programs.” During Melfest’s time slot this year, TV4, Sweden’s largest commercial channel, is airing Tricked, a British show in which a magician plays pranks on B-list celebrities. The week after Melfest, TV4 will return to its own programming, airing its version of American Gladiators.

Måns Zelmerlöw performing Heroes

As for Zelmerlöw, of Sing-Along at Skansen fame, victory has proved elusive. In 2007, he came in third with a generic dance song, Cara Mia, which went double platinum and spent four weeks at No. 1. Two years later, he returned with another upbeat track, Hope and Glory, backed by six female dancers in black hot pants. He led halfway through the voting, and cameras caught his shocked expression when he ultimately came in fourth, losing out to an opera singer performing a dance track in falsetto. He sees Melfest as a reboot.

“During these six weeks, the hysteria is huge,” says Zelmerlöw, 28. “Melodifestivalen is the perfect way to do a comeback.”

He enters the final as the bookies’ favorite, with odds of 5 to 4, for his song Heroes, an insistent, repetitious electro anthem. “I’ve always said that one of my greatest dreams is to go to the Eurovision for Sweden, so of course that’s my goal, that’s my hope,” he says. “If I don’t place in the top three, I would probably be disappointed. Second or third, I would think that was OK.”

He thinks about it. “First would be amazing.”

It would be even more amazing if Jon Henrik Fjällgren won.

Fjällgren has a voice and a backstory. Born in an Indian village in Colombia, he wound up in an orphanage at six months of age, and a Swedish couple soon adopted him. Members of the indigenous Sami community, they took him home to Mittådalen, a reindeer foraging area in northern Sweden, where the community tends a herd of 350. In Sweden, where the majority of the population remains pale to pink, the darker-skinned Fjällgren stands out, both among Swedes and among his adopted Sami community.

He was bullied but found strength in interpreting the joik, a Sami musical tradition similar to the chanting of Native Americans. During his semifinal, he chanted while wearing traditional dress, and bloggers drew crass comparisons to the animated film Pocahontas. His chant has no words, just “emotional sounds,” says Fjällgren, 27. Behind him, three backup singers were raised to the sky dressed as angels.

Jon Henrik Fjällgren performing I Am Free

Some news media interpreted the airborne singers as the demons of his past. When he was 20, six of his closest friends died, some from suicide, some from illness. Fjällgren says he developed uncontrollable nosebleeds and contemplated taking his own life. Music became a form of therapy. “Daniel, my friend, he said to me before he died that with my music I can be a big artist,” he says. “I believed in it and tried my wings.”

During his audition for Sweden’s Got Talent, he spoke of his long days tending to his reindeer and made the judges cry with a joik devoted to Daniel. As he progressed on the show, he received Facebook messages from Sami, Eskimos, Indians, and other indigenous people around the world. He went on to win the prize of a million kronor (nearly $120,000).

Of the other songs in the Melfest final, he says, “Nothing new. It’s music that you hear on the radio all the time.”

If Fjällgren is the maverick and Zelmerlöw the studiously modest product of media training, fan-girl favorite Eric Saade is Zelmerlöw’s cheeky foil. “This business can be pretty plastic,” says Saade, 24. “People very often lose their personalities. But I didn't want to do that.”

He hasn’t. Take #dpov, the Instagram hashtag he coined that spread like wildfire among his 103,000 followers and beyond. It stands for “dick point of view” and refers to pictures he takes from that thoughtful vantage point. Or his Melfest entry, Sting, which is already charting at No. 6, ahead of the final. On the pop-funk track, he sings, poignantly, about guys who want to be him but can’t.

Eric Saade

Photographer: Johan Jeppsson / Bloomberg

One of Saade’s many breaks came when Fredrik Kempe, a legendary songwriter with 18 numbers in the final round in the past decade, spotted him at a Stockholm restaurant in 2009. At the time, Saade was part of a fledgling boy band called What’s Up! and was dating pop star and Melfest alum Molly Sandén.

“I looked to the entrance and there was Molly and Eric,” Kempe says. “It wasn’t her changing the ambiance at that moment. I turned to my friend and said, ‘Do you realize that a star just entered the room?’ ”

A few months later, Kempe wrote Saade a song called Manboy with only five notes, and Saade advanced to the final of Melfest 2010. At the climax of the performance, a shower drenched him. He came in third. The song topped the charts and stayed in the Top 60 for 33 weeks. “It was everything,” Saade says. “It launched my career here in Sweden.”

They returned the following year with Popular, a song with many more notes, and won it all. Saade then came in third at Eurovision, behind contestants from Azerbaijan and Italy.

Saade accepts that Zelmerlöw is the favorite. “Sting might be a little bit more catchy, but Heroes is a great tune,” he admits. “If he wins, I'm totally going to be happy for him. I already won one time, and he hasn't.”

Jessica Andersson

Can’t Hurt Me Now

Age: 41

In 2002 she dropped out of the Swedish reality show Fame Factory to give birth and went on to form a duo called Fame with the show’s winner. Together they won Melodifestivalen 2003 and placed fifth at Eurovision.

Lyrics: I rise above my need for love, I know one day I'll fly again, but that won’t be because of you

JTR

Building It Up

Ages: 20, 21 and 24

On their debut album Touchdown, brothers John, Tom, and Robin sang songs written by their Swedish mother and Australian stepfather. They placed seventh on X Factor Australia in 2013, and their album charted in Europe and Down Under.

Lyrics: Do I have to say please? You know it's for real 'cause I'm down on my knees

Linus Svenning

Forever Starts Today

Age: 24

This heavily tattooed and pierced singer placed fifth in Melodifestivalen 2014 with the song Bröder (Brothers), which explored his emotions following the loss of his brother to chemical pneumonitis.

Lyrics: I close my eyes, I count to ten, I realize that I can breathe, I can breathe again

Mariette

Don’t Stop Believing

Age: 32

As a teenager she caught a heart-shaped guitar pick that her idol Alanis Morissette threw from the stage. She placed fourth on Swedish Idol in 2009 and in 2010 was named Homo of the Year by QX Magazine.

Lyrics: I’m here, and when we're two we'll never be alone

Melfest is almost certainly the most expensive program on Swedish television. SVT, the state-run broadcaster, produces the show itself. It doesn’t disclose how much it spends or how much it earns from sponsors. The Aftonbladet newspaper recently reported that Melfest generates revenue of about $14 million, consistent with earlier tallies. The singers and their labels can help finance a pricey song—one of the more elaborate acts reportedly cost $30,000. SVT declined to comment on the reports.

Melfest producer Christer Björkman says that this year he received roughly 2,500 song submissions, which come with an artist attached, though SVT reserves the right to reassign songs to artists it prefers. A jury of 16 people—eight men and eight women between 20 and 60 years old, half professional, half fans of the show—listened and rated them, and their top 13 made it to the live shows. The jury pinpoints the broadest possible hits, which cut across all demographics. Björkman fills the remaining slots with oddities and celebrities that will make for good TV. This year, he has Hasse Andersson, a 67-year-old Swedish country-folk singer, and Samir & Viktor, a reality TV star and a fashion blogger before Björkman chose them for the show.

“The entire industry is saying, ‘What are they doing here? They are not singers. They come from a soap opera,’ ” Björkman says. “Well, people like them. We live with the fact that Melodifestivalen is like a soap opera. We go on for six weeks and have to feed the media with controversy.”

In the early 1980s, Björkman ran a hair salon, eventually finding his way to music. He won Melfest in 1992 with I morgon är en annan dag, or Tomorrow Is Another Day. At Eurovision he competed in a boxy black suit, deployed a flourish of jazz hands, and came in second to last. By 2002 he found himself helping cull songs for Sweden and slowly worked his way up the ranks. The papers have sometimes described him as a power-hungry despot or a sort of godfather. He has the power to make careers through Melfest and to stall them through exclusion.

Pop stars and record labels now spend a lot of time trying to get on Björkman’s good side. But Melfest hasn’t always had that pull.

“I saw the show 2001 in Malmö, and it was a disaster,” says Stockselius, the former SVT executive. The show consisted mostly of no-name artists singing traditional Swedish folk-dance music. “Even though the ratings were OK, I could really see this patient was going to die,” he says.

Christer Björkman

Photographer: Johan Jeppsson / Bloomberg

When Stockselius took charge the following year, he decided to overhaul the program, drawing inspiration from professional sports and recasting Melfest as a tournament like the World Cup. He added four semifinals and the second-chance round and staged them on consecutive weekends in Växjö, Norrköping, Sundsvall, Falun, and Stockholm to get the whole country involved. On the night of the final, held in Stockholm’s Globe Arena, more than 40 percent of the population watched Afro-dite, a trio of black singers, shimmy to victory.

On Thursday morning, Björkman stands on the stage of Stockholm’s Friends Arena. Wrinkled and hip in black and gray, he looks like the reformed pop star he is. One by one, the 12 finalists march into a sunburst of flashing camera bulbs. They stay there until Björkman tells them to move.

By Friday, the Swedish media are giving Melodifestivalen front-page billing. Expressen publishes an image of Saade and Zelmerlöw poised to hug, or choke, each other. It describes Saade as “cocky” and Zelmerlöw as “a mother’s dream.”

Another article quotes Zelmerlöw defending his songwriters. Heroes, it seems, is reminiscent of the French DJ and producer David Guetta’s song Lovers on the Sun, so reminiscent that Zelmerlöw and his songwriters are accused of ripping it off. They deny it. Earlier in the week, his rival Saade magnanimously pooh-poohed the charges, suggesting merely that the issue could taint Zelmerlöw, and all of Sweden, if the song advanced to Eurovision.

The bookies take Fjällgren, the reindeer shepherd, as an outside bet against Zelmerlöw, at 11 to 2.

The night of the show, more than 30,000 people file into Friends Arena. They’re dressed to dazzle, with sequined hats and pink boas. Another 3.8 million Swedes are watching at home. Zelmerlöw’s Heroes sits at No. 2 on the Swedish singles charts, just behind Rihanna and ahead of Ellie Goulding. On the album charts, Fjällgren’s 2014 release Goeksegh has climbed back to No. 2, just behind Sam Smith and ahead of Ariana Grande, Maroon 5, and Madonna.

Saade, dressed in white from head to toe, looks like a louche waiter and takes flight in a spaceship that shoots pyrotechnics. Zelmerlöw, wearing a top just tight enough to show the curves of his biceps, bends and poses dramatically while stick figures, digitally projected behind him, mimic his moves. Fjällgren’s performance oozes the same spirituality that brought him to the final. During the bridge, as fake snow falls around him, he kneels, looks straight into the camera, and says, “I am free. Sweden, this joik is for you.”

Eric Saade performing Sting

An international jury, consisting of music professionals from 11 countries, including Armenia, Estonia, and Malta, accounts for half the final score. As they announce their verdicts one by one, Zelmerlöw builds up an enormous lead, with nine of the 11 juries ranking him first. The U.K. throws its support behind Fjällgren, while Israel goes for Mariette, a singer who, in 2010, won the prestigious Homo of the Year award from QX Magazine. Members of the public can vote a maximum of 80 times from each telephone subscription, at $1.40 a vote, most of the proceeds going to charity.

By the end of the evening, SVT has received more than 1.5 million votes. A staggering 545,601 of them, or 35 percent, go to Zelmerlöw, who wins in a landslide. Fjällgren rakes in 19 percent to come in second, while Saade musters only 6 percent. He finishes fifth, behind the aging crooner Hasse Andersson.

Fjällgren looks on from just a few feet away as photographers snap Zelmerlöw raising the winner’s trophy on stage.

“This is a little too hard for me,” Fjällgren says. “I long for nature and all animals. I am rootless if I'm not in the mountains, and then I'm lost. I can be away for some time, but then I need to return home.”

As part of his Melodifestivalen preparations, Zelmerlöw has cut down on alcohol and gone on a special diet of cottage cheese and berries. He’s added eight pounds of muscle. He celebrates by eating a pastry backstage.

Now the real work begins. All 40 countries competing at Eurovision 2015 have selected their artists and songs, and the campaign—replete with glossy music videos, media interviews, and concerts across Europe—is in full swing. Latvia has elected to send Aminata Savadogo, perhaps the only singer in Riga who can trace her roots to the African nation of Burkina Faso. In Finland, tele-voters chose Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivä, a heavy metal band whose members all have Down syndrome. In Poland, the state broadcaster bypassed a national selection contest; instead, executives chose to send Monika Kuszynska, a songstress who was left paraplegic following a car accident in 2006. Like so many others, she’ll sing about love.

Zelmerlöw, the son of a professor and a surgeon, may lack their dramatic personal stories, but he comes with a pop-obsessed nation behind him and a mainstream song that sticks in the head like a hatchet. A few days after the show, and for the first time since 2007, he reaches No. 1 on the charts, leaving Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney behind.

Design & Development: Sheryl Sulistiawan

Photo Editor: Brent Murray

Editor: Peter Jeffrey

Digital Producer: Bernadette Walker

Headshots: Janne Danielsson/SVT