IN THE 1940s, CHURCH leaders and cultural conservatives in Sweden rallied together around a solemn mission: to safeguard the country’s youth against the degenerate music — the “dance-floor misery” — that was being piped in from America. To combat this threat, the country built one of the most ambitious arts-education programs in the West.
Municipal schools of music spread across the country, offering morally uplifting instruction in classical music. Many of the schools, which were often free to attend, allowed students to borrow instruments, as if from a public library, for a nominal fee.
The aesthetically conservative intent of the municipal schools created an extremely democratic form of education. Because their purpose was to inoculate the masses against the corrosive effects of popular entertainment — and not to train a select group of virtuosos — the schools were widespread and accessible to children of all talent levels. (Fees have become more prevalent over the years, and currently run about $100 per semester.) When the schools’ curricular offerings began to diversify in the 1960s, Swedish students gradually started studying the very genres the schools were built to stifle.
Judged against their original purpose, Swedish municipal music schools have been a total failure. An initiative that started out as an antidote to the licentious sounds of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and the like, instead set loose a musical juggernaut that would help give the world such hits as Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” and Britney Spears’ “If You Seek Amy” (try saying it out loud: F, U, C…). As the super-producer Max
Martin once said, “I have public music education to thank for everything.”
On the most basic level, municipal music schools increased the odds that Swedes would discover their talents, while also giving the country an unusually music-literate domestic audience. Other knock-on effects were less obvious. The municipal schools provided an indirect subsidy to the music industry itself, for instance, by offering a steady supply of flexible teaching jobs to musicians. “Whether it was 10 hours a week or full-time,” says Christian Helgesson, a management consultant and former musician who has studied Sweden’s music industry cluster, “many of the musicians I knew during the ’80s and ’90s were able to participate.”
Eventually the aesthetics of Swedish music education came around to strikingly modern sensibilities. In the United States, the repertoire of primary and secondary music education still leans heavily toward the marching band. In Sweden, by contrast, rock and pop have been part of the curriculum in music schools since the 1980s, and in the 1990s courses in mixing and recording became available, too.
Outside the classroom, the government also encouraged young musicians with subsidies for practice space and even practice itself. “Every time we rehearsed, we’d get a couple dollars an hour,” says Ludvig Werner, a former musician and now the managing director of the music-industry group IFPI Sweden. Musicians couldn’t use the subsidy to pay their bar tabs; the money was earmarked for music. “You could use it to buy strings,” Werner says.
And perhaps most importantly, Sweden’s municipal schools gave rise to social networks of musically inclined youth — networks that ultimately formed the basis for the Swedish capital’s music industry cluster.