It is known that Sweden is American pop’s secret weapon. It’s very likely your favorite pop song was helmed by a Swedish producer or songwriter: Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande and Beyonce have all had the Swedish touch from Max Martin, Shellback, and more. As a fanlady of Sweden and their musical exports (Lykke Li, First Aid Kit, Molly Sandén, The Sounds, notably) I wanted to seek out the indie talents of the country.
This is how I landed at Pet Sounds Records. Pet Sounds thrives in the heart of Södermalm (affectionately called SoFo, for its locale of South of Folkungagatan street.) It’s the hipster island of Stockholm, filled with vintage clothing boutiques, cafes and people rocking rainbow colored hair and artsy trends. The store is a cult favorite of the locals, and Quentin Tarantino sings their praises as his favorite stop to buy vinyl. In addition to selling vinyl, they stock CD’s, DVD’s, Blu-rays, books, magazines, and sell collector’s items on Discogs with worldwide shipping.
Founder Stefan Jacobson worked in record stores since he was 15, until he opened Pet Sounds in 1979 in central Stockholm. The store moved to Södermalm in 1993 and expanded its size in 2004. He has dedicated more than 45 years of his passion to spreading music to the area. Its legacy was cemented in a book by Lennart Persson titled “Musik NonStop: Pet Sounds i Våra Hjärtan.” At this time it is only available in Swedish, but there is talk to have it translated.
Representing Pet Sounds are Niklas Berg and Johan Lindgren, who run the daily operations and Pet Sounds Paper, the editorial portion of the store. They told me that in Sweden, college and mainstream radio do not have a large influence on the tastes of listeners. Streaming is king, and as a musician, your goal may be to get your song on a Spotify playlist.
We also discuss Sweden’s massive presence in pop, the takeover of streaming, the impact of ABBA on the population, their vision for uplifting new Swedish artists and more! Don’t forget to check out and bookmark the Guest DJ playlist curated by them at the end of the interview.
XANTHE: Did you always know you wanted to get into music?
JOHAN: I started with radio when I was 13, then became a DJ in Stockholm. I started in a record store in the mid-80’s, then went straight into MCA Geffen Records… really hip label with Nirvana, Guns ‘N Roses, Beck, Mary J. Blige. Where everything cool started. I joined them, then it became Universal Records by end of 90’s. I kept on there until 2010, then moved onto Sony Music for 6 years. Now I’m consulting. I’m raised in the music, it’s my whole life.
NIKLAS: I was always into music, but I was a chef from Pet Sounds Bar before it closed. Stefan was also involved there. We right away got to be very good friends. When I quit the bar, it was the first job I asked for. It’s been great.
X: How do you choose what you put in the store?
N: Someone has to be able to speak for it, basically. We don’t have to like everything. It comes naturally.
J: But still, it is a bit of niched store. It’s not like all the pop and top 20. It’s a lot of Americana, classic music, rock, pop, country, blues, jazz, soul, hip hop. You wouldn’t go here as a consumer to buy the latest Justin Bieber album. You won’t find it. No disrespect to Justin, but it’s more mature.
X: What are the best selling records in the shop?
N: The best selling ever I guess is Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. More recent titles that’s done really well… we’ve sold a bunch of The Knife’s Deep Cuts, Amason’s Sky City and First Aid Kit’s The Lion's Roar.
X: What’s the story behind Quentin Tarantino? Did you guys meet him?
J: He’s been hailing this store as one of the best in the world. Just dropped in and fell in love.
N: No, I wasn’t in. He bought a lot of records. I think Stefan has been listening to his soundtracks because he asked for recommendations from him. I don’t think there’s been a particular song, but definitely I think Stefan’s been an inspiration to him. He hasn’t been to the store since then but his assistant has been back two or three times after.
X: How do you curate what goes on the digital side: Pet Sounds Paper?
J: It just launched. We found out it’s open for grabs. We don’t have any competitions within this part of the Nordics. The main reason for creating it is that there’s a big gap for artists and musicians in Sweden to get reviews, showcases, or classic media exposure. In America, you have several quality magazines. We don’t have one in Sweden. Everything is digital. The digital music landscape gets diverse into bloggers and influencers talking about music, but 10 years ago we had real magazines, daily papers. Nowadays, there’s so much less exposure possibilities. We thought that having a credible record store like Pet Sounds with 40 years within the industry, we should add editorial matching to the store.
Of course, “Live Sessions” is something people want to watch on YouTube. Even Swedes are looking for Tiny Desk sessions [like NPR]. We’re also creating “Podcasts” with music journalists, artists discussing music, the “Reads” section with editorial reviews and short stories. “Radio” is supposed to become a web radio broadcasting. We have music personalities every Saturday for the store. Could be artists with a journalist or a DJ with some friends. They perform live on vinyls from the store, kind of like [Amoeba’s] “What’s In My Bag”… then they just go freakshow on the turntables. We call it “Saturdays.” We also have “Pet Sound Loves,” which we link fun stuff in the music world. It could be a great article from Billboard magazine, a video, a live clip, an old concert with Sex Pistols from 1977, other blog communities or influencers.
Hopefully this will drive a new generation into the record store. Because I’m like 50 years and I’m the normal visitor of the store. We need to bring in a younger demographic, and this could be a real cool way to get the new Pet Sounds fanbase.
X: What local artists are you excited about?
J: We’re excited about a lot of local Swedish acts. There’s more music created in Sweden now than ever. And more music is traveling abroad. Of course, you’re familiar with the story of all the producers and writers hailing from Stockholm or Sweden. Sales wise in Sweden, domestic repertoire is really taking a bigger part of the avenue. Streaming wise, 95% of all revenue of music in Sweden comes from Spotify, they’re like the dominators. If you look at the charts today, there’s a really high percentage of Swedish music. But we love everything… almost, from Swedish acts. But of course, acts in the store for our sessions need to go hand in hand with the profile of the store. It might not be Swedish House Mafia performing. It will be more singer-songwriting, R&B, hip hop, country, alternative rock… which reflects the roster of the record store.
X: How has Spotify affected the record stores here? [Spotify’s HQ is in Stockholm]
N: In the beginning it was more of a struggle, but now, people use Spotify. I understand why. Spotify, CD, vinyl… it can co-exist. Of course, record stores sell less records and there are less record stores because of Spotify. That’s a fact. There’s no point in fighting it.
J: We tried fighting streaming for years. When I was with Universal, they were chasing us for five years before Spotify managed to get the big major labels on board. Then everyone learned when we worked together, the broader passion for music will get exposed. It’s been a struggle for pure record stores who are not niched. Pet Sounds is more than a record store. It’s an institution for passionate music lovers than what we would call a classic record store.
X: Do artists like to stay in Sweden or do they want to go international?
J: I would say it’s a bit strange, but not that many are looking into international success. There are a lot of Swedish acts that are happy to stay in the region.
N: Every once in awhile, they’ll drive a car down to Berlin. Play a gig.
J: Yeah, do a few shows in Germany then go back home. Swedes are lazy, we like long holidays, we don’t want to ruin that with global touring! Of course a lot of artists try to get international success stories, but they’re also aware of the enormous work to be done to make the success, and the price you pay for it is heavy. It’s tough. I’ve seen a lot of acts kill their creativity or musical dream after trying to come into the UK or US market. The competition is so big. Everyone talks about the Swedish music fab story, which is great, but mainly it's about producers and writers. That’s the real big Swedish exportation of music today. Max Martin and Shellback have seven tracks in the top 20 most played this year, globally. They still live here and pay taxes so they’re feeding the next generation. Who are your favorite musicians from Sweden?
X: I dropped by the Debaser Strand to see what’s going on, and there was this band Riga Tiger. I thought, “Wow these people are great!” I couldn’t understand the lyrics, but I listen to a lot of international music anyway, and the music and language is beautiful.
J: My personal favorite is -- also because I worked with many years, is First Aid Kit.
X: I love them!
J: The sisters are just adorable, not only as musicians, but in private they’re great.
N: Johanna dropped by the store just yesterday, actually.
J: When I worked with them at Sony Music, they were not signed in Sweden because they got their deal with Columbia Records in America. But we were mentoring the project due to their hometown and community. They were just fab. They cancelled their summer tour for the moment, so hopefully we can get them by the store this fall for an acoustic session.
N: I want them to do a Saturday.
J: Yeah, a mixed show with all the vinyls. They’re born and raised with a tremendous record collection. Their dad was the bass player in a 70’s punk band in Sweden. He really taught the girls what’s good or not. They have such a broad music landscape. We’d love to see that. Robyn is always one of my favorites. Such a great artist. I saw her pre-show in Stockholm before she went to New York. She sold out the Madison Square Garden -- 18,000. Everyone was singing along, which to me was like... I know she has an international status, but Robyn is a shy artist that doesn’t do much to expose herself in media, so I was surprised that she sold out the Gardens in two hours. I’ve been to Madison Square Garden like 50 times for shows, but I’ve never seen this sing-along moment. That’s cool. Then I felt proud of being a Swede. I was like, “That’s my girl!”
N: You know The Shout Out Louds? That’s one of my favorite Swedish bands in the indie stage.
J: Your favorites together with ABBA.
N: When it comes to indie.
X: You love ABBA too?
X: Oh, it was a joke. I saw that there’s an ABBA museum so I was wondering if that was a thing here.
J: Ah, yeah. Everything comes from them. We wouldn’t be here today so successfully working within the music industry as a small country if it hadn’t been for ABBA. I’m doing consulting work with Universal, and ABBA is still a revenue source for them in Sweden. But I remember 10-15 years ago, 50% of all bottomline revenue for Universal Music in Sweden came from ABBA’s catalogue. They’re still feeding the entire Swedish music scene 30 years after they entered as a band. I’ve worked with them on different levels. Benny Andersson has put together the Mamma Mia! soundtrack, which was a huge success here in Sweden and globally. They’re still power people when it comes to developing new acts and investing in new technology, but also in founding ways for young acts to break through. It’s admirable actually. So if you’re not sure about the relationship between ABBA and the Swedish population, it’s because the Swedes have never been proud of ABBA. They say, “That was such a shit music!” They never got their proper respect over here until now, when you’re reflecting back and people finally understand how they completely put all the kids in music classes when they were young. You wouldn’t have Max Martin, Avicii, or Shellback…
N: Recognizing ABBA’s heritage started a couple of years ago.
J: Hopefully I will have some royalties from the band when I’ve given them such a big up. Share some with us, we need it for the record store! You got the money!
N: When it comes to newer bands, there’s Amason.
J: They’re actually named after an old Volvo car model in the 60’s. Volvo Amason.
N: They released a record four years ago now. Great album. A small indie Swedish supergroup. They have their own projects. A year after that the singer Amanda Bergman released a solo album which is awesome. She has an amazing voice. She’s so great. Hopefully there’s a second album coming. Have you heard of Dungen?
X: No. They’re good?
N: Yeah. They’re releasing Mexican Summer in the states. One of them, Gustav, is also in Amason. They’ve been touring the US as well.
J: We need to mention Tove Lo. There’s so many of them. The independent music scene is exploding. It’s great because when I consult with Universal, I see the weekly reports and the first half year estimates 35-40% of all domestic repertoire in Sweden come from small labels. Three years ago, maybe 5% came from non record company businesses. So it’s a huge threat to the major big record companies, which is great, because it puts pressure on Sony and Warner, etc., to really step up their game and deliver more quality domestic. It’s so good for the new breed of young artists that you can actually create a story on your own. A little bit like Chance the Rapper in America, who built everything independently. Of course with 200 PR geniuses backing you, but without the traditional back up from huge management. It’s so healthy that you have much more balance now.
N: I think a lot of people don’t know when a band is Swedish. I get a lot of tourists asking if I can recommend a Swedish artist, and I recommend something. They say, “They’re Swedish?” They don’t really know because most Swedish songs are in English.
J: The biggest Swedish hit ever in America globally was “Hooked on a Feeling.” It’s been in a lot of soundtracks over the years. It was from a band called Blåblus, which is like Blue Shirt in English. I think that song stayed #1 in the Billboard singles chart for a month. Maybe 1973. Roxette was huge. In the 80’s and 90’s they had such a big American story going on.
N: Roxette took over ABBA… it was like, the same kind of pop melodies. They were huge all over the world. The biggest Swedish rock band ever was Kent. They made two albums in English and Swedish. They tried a career in the states and the UK, but no one wanted the English version.
N: I wouldn’t want a Sigur Rós album in English either.
J: I’d like to hear a Bob Dylan album in Swedish.
N: There’s a Dylan cover album in French. It’s pretty good.
J: I actually have the ABBA original album, Arrival in Spanish. They recorded in Spanish, German, French… and they couldn’t pronounce a word correctly. It’s such fun listening to “Dancing Queen” like “La reina del baile!” or whatever they call it. Hilarious. Find it.
N: There’s a collection of ABBA songs called ABBA Gold. They re-released that on vinyl, but in Spanish: ABBA Oro. I mean, stick to what you do best. Sometimes.
X: What are the stereotypes about Sweden and music, and what you feel is true and false?
N: Is ABBA the stereotype of Swedish music?
X: From our side, we hear that ABBA are gods in Sweden, but it sounds like it’s not true.
N: No no no, yeah, it is like Johan said.
J: They gained respect over the years, but when ABBA was big globally in 1976-1980, here in Sweden, as a kid, you never said you loved ABBA. That was like, nah that’s too cheesy! You’d say, I prefer Michael Jackson or global superstars. They always got slaughtered in reviews in Sweden. Media was laughing at them a little bit. Over the years, we the generation who never embraced them then, are embracing them now. Which is great. You can pay back your old bad behavior and show some love.
N: If you check with the ABBA museum, what percentage of their visitors are Swedish? How many are tourists?
J: Especially Australians!
N: I don’t know, maybe it’s 5% Swedish. It’s full all the time. Even if ABBA wasn’t the hottest thing in Sweden back then, it’s still influenced what Sweden became. Later on you appreciate their heritage more. The whole Swedish music scene.
J: Even if you were ashamed that you loved them in the 70’s, and you didn’t want to show people, they started the trend that almost every kid wanted to be a pop star. They saw it with ABBA.
N: They made it possible for the dream.
J: For the dream, but it also started an evolution of young kids going into private lessons of playing guitar, singing… so that’s absolutely the reason why Sweden has become such a big country for producers and writers. Everybody was well educated as kids in music. Thank you, ABBA, once again!
X: That’s why people are so musical here?
N: Yeah, absolutely. What else do people think about with Swedish music?
X: People say the language is very musical.
N: I’ve heard people say it sounds like singing.
J: That’s what we say about Norwegians. We think the Norwegian language is even more up and down. It’s like uphill-downhill every second word. [Makes Swedish Chef sounds]
N: The Swedish Chef sounds like Norwegian for us. It should be the Norwegian Chef.
J: We call it the hurdy gurdy language.
X: What’s your earliest vinyl memory?
N: Europe’s “Final Countdown” from my parents on Christmas. I was six years old. I remember when you got a weekly allowance, and you had to choose to go down to BK Records in Uppsala: should I buy a single? A 7-inch? Or shall I buy candy? It was like this every week. Luckily I bought a lot of 7-inches which I still have.
J: Oh my god, I had elder sisters who were really into music. I was raised on American west coast, classic old school LA early 70’s music. The Laurel Canyon era. The Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Carole King. The first one I bought was Eagles’ “Hotel California.” My first vinyl. [laughs]
N: Could be worse.
X: What would you advise to someone who wants to start collecting vinyl, but doesn’t know where to begin?
N: I would start with two classics and two new albums that you love.
X: And not get a cheap player, right?
N: It depends what you mean by cheap. If you buy a player for 50 bucks, then buy a 1 dollar vinyl, it doesn’t matter if it hurts the record. But here in Sweden, you should put down 400-500 dollars for a decent player.
Pet Sounds Records is located Skånegatan 53, Södermalm, Stockholm. [Disclaimer: this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.]
Guest DJ playlist specially curated by Pet Sounds Records for KXSC readers and listeners. This may be what you hear when strolling around the shop.