The Secret Behind Pop Hits: Swedish Songwriters
Group of Lyricists, After Writing Hits for Others, Seek to Create Their Own Star
Songwriter Arnthor Birgisson, who has written lyrics for Janet Jackson and Jennifer Lopez, is trying to break out with his own pop star. Ajda Dzambic
Over the past two decades, Swedish songwriters have had an outsize role in creating hits for American pop singers, from 'N Sync's 1998 hit "Tearin' Up My Heart," co-written by Kristian Lundin, to Kelly Clarkson's 2002 smash "A Moment Like This," penned by Jörgen Elofsson.
Now some of those same songwriters are trying what they hope will be an even more lucrative approach: cultivating homegrown stars to perform their songs.
This year Sony Corp.'s 6758.TO +2.13% Columbia Records will release the debut album of Swedish singer Kim Cesarion, a 23-year-old music-school graduate. He was plucked from obscurity by a group of Stockholm hitmakers and their manager four years ago while Mr. Cesarion was working at a shoe store.
Over the last several years, the Stockholm songwriters have composed dozens of songs to showcase the delicate falsetto of Mr. Cesarion. They are helping him develop "a new, competitive international sound," and a "cool, fashion-minded style," while giving him lots of onstage practice, said Linus Andreen, the songwriters' manager.
His single, "Undressed," has been streamed more than 20 million times on Spotify and has topped sales charts in Australia, Scandinavia and Poland. It isn't yet available in the U.S.
"It went from zero to 1,000 very quick," said Mr. Cesarion on a recent evening in a studio in Los Angeles. He had come with his songwriting team for a week to craft tracks they hoped would resonate with U.S. listeners.
The strategy spotlights the shifting economics for songwriters in the digital age. In the album era, songwriters had a safety net: every writer on an album earned a percentage of the overall album sales, regardless of which tracks were radio hits driving the sales. Pop stars and their producers, meantime, were willing to let lesser-known writers try their hands on songs less likely to get radio airplay
But in an industry fueled by digital song sales and online streaming, artists now release many of their songs individually before putting them out as albums.
Pop singers are increasingly reluctant to roll the dice on new songwriters for these singles, lest a dud slow their momentum. Katy Perry, for instance, collaborated with American producer Dr. Luke on most of the singles from her latest album, "Prism." Pink enlisted Sweden's Max Martin, the co-writer on "Tearin Up My Heart," to write and produce many of her singles in recent years.
Royalties from album sales—which slipped 8% to 289 million CDs and digital albums in the U.S. last year—are no longer enough to sustain the songwriters who don't pen hits.
At the same time, income is being squeezed even for the songwriters who do land singles, as pop stars and producers demand growing chunks of the songwriting credit, hoping to make up in publishing royalties from airplay and licensing what they've lost in record sales, down more than 40% in the U.S. since their peak in 2000.
Sweden's Kim Cesarion, a pop star developed by Swedish songwriters at Aristotracks, will release his debut album this year. Ajda Dzambic
Singer-rapper Frank Ocean, who started his career as a songwriter for artists such as Brandy and Justin Bieber, expressed his frustration on Twitter TWTR -1.26%several years ago, writing: "it's a bad trend that artists try to muscle for credit on songs they had no part in writing." Mr. Ocean's publicist declined to comment.
All of those factors have made it more attractive for songwriters to turn the tables and develop acts over which they have more creative and financial control. A hit song can generate millions of dollars in royalties for a songwriter, depending on the writer's share of the publishing rights. Songwriters are also more likely to get a bigger share if they manage the artist and control production.
Sweden claims to export more music per capita than any other country. The nation's songwriters became particularly sought after in the late 1990s, when Stockholm songwriting house Cheiron Studios began churning out hits for acts such as the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync.
Arnthor Birgisson, an Iceland-born songwriter who moved to Sweden as a toddler, was working with Cheiron veterans at another songwriting shop when he decided to start his own songwriting company, Aristotracks. Tired of politicking to get pop stars to record his work, he embarked on a hunt for his own charismatic male solo performer.
He found Mr. Cesarion, and was captivated by his confidence and love of the spotlight, in addition to his falsetto, similar to that of Michael Jackson's .
Aristotracks writers will have the bulk of the songwriting credit on Mr. Cesarion's debut album, and will share in his concert-ticket sales, sponsorships and other revenue streams. The company is also developing and composing songs for a female solo artist, Tiaan, whose smooth, soft sound is reminiscent of British vocalist Sade's .
Other songwriters have tried developing their own artists in recent years with varying success—and risk. Dr. Luke, whose real name is Lukasz Gottwald, signed singer-songwriter Kesha to his record label and publishing company in 2005. She has sold 30 million singles and 2.8 million albums in the U.S., but their relationship has been rocky: last year the party-rap star's fans circulated a petition to emancipate her from Mr. Gottwald, whom the petition alleged was "controlling her like a puppet" and stifling her creativity.
RedOne, a Moroccan-Swedish producer whose real name is Nadir Khayat, started a label in partnership with Vivendi SA VIV.FR -0.52% 's Universal Music Group several years ago, signing Jennifer Lopez along with a number of lesser-known artists for whom he'd written many songs, though his label has yet to release an album.
On a recent trip to Los Angeles, Aristotracks' Mr. Andreen accompanied Mr. Cesarion to grueling workouts each morning as the singer prepared for a shirtless performance. In the studio one night, Mr. Cesarion riffed vocal lines over a loop of a song that Mr. Birgisson said they might call "Submissive," about a woman who "casts a spell" on a man and makes him do whatever she wants.
Mr. Cesarion, who started played piano and violin at a young age and developed his singing voice in high school, said he gets to say "yes or no" to all creative decisions, and has input on song concepts and melodies. But he leaves the lyrics to the rest of the team since English isn't his first language.
"I'm working on it," he said.