We Call it Swedish Techno
Founder and General Manager, Svaj Music Café
A while ago, I got a CD from a friend in London. He's not a DJ, but he had put together lots of tracks and I really liked what I was listening to. Then I realised that roughly one third of the tracks were by Swedish producers. He was quite surprised to hear this as he had no idea where the producers came from. And to be honest, perhaps it's not that important in the globalized music world of today. Still, I often hear people saying: "Oh, I just love Swedish techno" and then they go on listing names of producers. Perhaps it's not strange, given that in many specialised record shops internationally, you often find special categories such as "Swedish techno".
So, what is Swedish techno, and is it relevant to talk about a certain national sound? For me and many others, the answer is very much about an era in history when, about 15 years ago,Cari Lekebusch, Adam Beyer and Joel Mull were fiddling with sounds and created something new. When I was buying records as a techno DJ in the late 1990s these guys were favorites, but I also liked records by producers like Jesper Dahlbäck, Samuel L Session, Mhonolink, Robert Leiner and Thomas Krome.Swedish techno can be defined as loop-based and focused on compressed beats and the percussive elements in the track, compared to US or German techno that tended to focus more on raw bass lines and staccato synth stabs. Compressors played a large part in the development of the sound at this time—Cari Lekebusch even produced a track called "De Sju Skenande Kompressorerna", which is something like "7 Compressors Gone Berserk". Originally it was known as the Stockholm techno sound but gradually, with the contributions of artists from other parts of Sweden, it evolved into the Swedish techno sound. Swedish techno was also partially a club phenomenon that happened for a few years in the late 1990s.
Despite its internationally commercial success, the development of Swedish techno over the years has not always been an easy path for all of those involved. Especially between the mid 1990s and the early 2000s, the dance and club culture associated with techno was deemed unacceptable by the establishment and, thus, was heavily policed by the Swedish authorities. In addition, gendered informal structures and hierarchies within the Swedish techno scene have made it difficult for female DJs/ producers to be recognized and accepted on the same terms as the male majority.
In the beginning of the 1990s, there was no need to go outside Stockholm in order to enjoy a proper techno night out. Unfortunately the techno clubs were shut down, one after the other, as a result of policing and the crackdown carried out by the so-called "Rave Commission". This small division within the local police organisation was set up by the authorities in 1996 to fight drug abuse among youth, but has been criticised for being "culture police" whose methods were considered humiliating. Since they abruptly and efficiently closed down many good techno club initiatives in a short period, there have been several high profile clashes between police, party-goers and club promoters.
Ever since their emergence, electronic dance music scenes have formed in response to oppressive authorities and governmental regulations (St John 2009). This is certainly the case with the Swedish techno scene. The most prominent clashes took place at the techno club Docklands in Finnboda Varv, Nacka, just outside the Stockholm city center. The media's portrayal of techno clubs as "drug liberal" was all that was needed for the public and the authorities to support the police to close as many techno clubs as possible. By the end of the 1990s, the number of techno clubs in Stockholm had been reduced drastically, with venue owners categorically turning techno club promoters down in favour of clubs playing other kinds of music. Some commentators went as far as calling it "musical racism".
Even though a new generation of techno producers was emerging, techno was a rather rare commodity in Stockholm's clubs and bars by the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the following decade. This climate prevailed at the time when I, together with two friends, opened the DJ café Svaj in 2002.
Our aim with Svaj was to enable as many DJs as possible to have access to turntables, a DJ mixer and an audience in an unpretentious context. Also, by opening a daytime café, we thought we would avoid the disapproval of the Swedish authorities and those among the population who were critical of electronic dance music (EDM) and nightclub culture. But we were wrong. The fear and resistance surrounding the techno scene in Stockholm at that time was remarkable. During the first six months, the windows in our venue were covered in mud, we received anonymous letters and emails telling us that we should move back to the suburbs where we supposedly belonged, and we were also reported to various authorities, including the landlord, for causing unacceptable noise, smells from the kitchen, etc. We were also harassed by members of the Rave Commission, who visited us regularly. The police had an unmarked car outside Svaj for several months, and many of our guests told us they were stopped by the police leaving the café and were asked questions about cannabis and drug abuse. After some discussions with the police, they admitted that they were monitoring us because of the specific type of music (i.e. techno) played in the venue. However, after this initial period we received lots of positive media attention and also introduced an age limit of 20 years to have a coffee (!) at Svaj. As a result, the Rave Commission lost interest in our business.
In the present day, the legacy of the Rave Commission is disputed by various key players such as government research bodies, journalists and prominent cultural commentators. However, for many years the Commission had strong support in the media, which contributed to public suspicions about rave, techno and dance club culture. At this time, "rave" meant "drugs" more than dancing, and any techno party was reported using words like "rave", "razzia" and "drugs", with newspapers running headlines in 1996 like "The Police Razzia Ended the Rave Party", "Drug Dealing at the Rave Party" and "14 Arrested After Rave Party" (Jägerbrand 2006)
In about 2003, techno started to become more popular in clubs categorized as more "upscale" in Stockholm. Gradually, techno and EDM made their way into the commercial areas of the city center, with promoters booking famous international DJs/musicians. As techno gained acceptance among the general public, the Rave Commission was forced to scale down its activities. As techno became more frequent in the Swedish club scene, the media also started to change their attitude towards techno.
When techno started being played more frequently in Swedish clubs in the middle of the last decade, it was all about a style called "minimal techno", which is more melodic and softer sounding overall compared to the more slamming, faster-paced techno sound of the pre-2000s. New names started to emerge in the techno scene, not least artists coming from other genres such as pop, house, trance, and so on. Those among the big Swedish hitters in the 2000s include Håkan Lidbo, Swedish House Mafia, Eric Prydz, Axwell, Pär Grindvik, Thomas Andersson, Anders Ilar, Aril Brikha, Ozgur Can, Staffan Linzatti, Acaric/Patrik Skoog, John Dahlbäck, Ida Engberg, The Rice Twins, Petter, The Field, Dada Life, Zoo Brazil, Minilouge, Hardcell, Andreas Tilliander, Style of Eye and many others. These producers are all Swedish, but it would be very difficult to talk about them representing a certain "Swedish" sound.
In sum, "Swedish techno" has traveled a path similar to many other genres that started among a few underground and dedicated enthusiasts and then "broke through" to become gentrified as a marketable brand in the commercial centers of the national and international music and club industry. This did not happen overnight, but rather through the persistence of DJs and promoters who have struggled to keep the scene alive year after year despite hostile authorities.
One thing that stands out about Swedish techno (along with most EDM genres) is the male dominance among "big name" DJs and producers. When media reported on the club and DJ scene, prior to and throughout the time of Svaj (2002–2007), the female contributors tended to disappear among the big names within the scene. As studies on electronic dance music culture have demonstrated internationally (Gavanas 2009; Hutton 2006; Pini 2001; Rietveld 2004; Rodgers 2010), it is no coincidence that techno culture, DJ technology and DJing have been associated with men and masculinity. Male DJs are part of the norm while female DJs are considered exotic exceptions. Furthermore, socialization around DJing and DJ technology in techno culture tends to exclude female participants. Consequently, it is an uphill battle to become accepted and recognized as a female DJ in the techno scene—even in "gender equal" Sweden. Given the general oppression and policing against early Swedish techno culture, there were internal hierarchies among participants in the scene that denied some people recognition and acceptance while celebrating others.
During the years I was working with Svaj, I noticed some interesting patterns. For example, mostly male DJs approached us for gigs and, without any hesitation, they frequented the turntables, irrespective of their skills. Obviously, there were lots of women who wanted to DJ as well, but they were considerably more modest in their approach and it took a fair bit of encouragement to get them onto the turntables.
In the beginning, most of the DJs assumed that it was my male colleagues who were running Svaj and especially the music part of the café. Being a woman, it was assumed that I was responsible for the kitchen. When the DJs came to Svaj to give us their mixes, they always asked for the guys if I was the only person working. On our web page there were congratulations "to the boys at Svaj" for a great music place and if DJs wanted to book gigs they always approached my male colleagues.
Obviously, I was not approached about DJ matters because women in the techno scene were not expected to possess any musical knowledge or technical skills. There were also some really comical situations when some of the male DJs had problems with the equipment and there was "only" me in the venue. DJs rarely came up with the idea to ask me for help and many were obviously embarrassed if I asked them if they needed help with the technology, especially if I then managed to solve the problem. After a while working at Svaj, I used to entertain myself by not asking those who had problems with the DJ gear if I could be of any help. Instead I waited to see how long it would take before they admitted they could not figure out what was wrong with the equipment (or them). Sometimes it happened that DJs would ask me to call the guys who worked at Svaj for assistance if they were not there.
In Stockholm's techno scene at this time, many male DJs had no experience relating to females as equals in a music context. I remember especially one male DJ who I had a dialogue with for quite a long time at Svaj. When I told him about a recent gig I had at the same club where he had also DJed, he was genuinely surprised and said:"What!! Are you also a DJ? Is it your boyfriend who has taught you how to DJ?"I thought it had been obvious that I was a DJ due to our discussion, and besides that, I am pretty sure he did not know whether I had a boyfriend or not. He just assumed that I had a boyfriend since I knew how to handle turntables. I did not know how to answer his question, so I just asked, with a smile on my face, if it was his girlfriend who had taught him how to DJ. For some reason he thought this was hilarious, because he laughed hysterically and said he would definitely come to my next gig: "How interesting to get the opportunity to listen to a female DJ"!
So why would it be interesting to listen to a female DJ? It's not more interesting than listening to a male DJ, I'd say. But since there were very few women playing the major clubs in Sweden during the 1990s and early 2000s, female DJs became exotic. Further, female participation in, and contribution to, the music business is measured differently than male participation and contributions. Women are often perceived to be less technically skilled then men. On the other hand, if you "surprise" the audience with your technical skills as a female DJ, you get more attention as a DJ than a male DJ with the same level of skill. The phrase "Not bad for being a lady" is definitely something I've heard quite often. While male DJs get assessed according to their musical and technical skills, female DJs are judged not only on their skills but on many other factors, including the way they look. I have often come across comments about the way female DJs look rather than what type of music they represent. For example, I've heard on more than one occasion from other (male) DJs that if there was an apparently unattractive woman behind the decks one could expect greater technical skills, and vice versa. I've also heard comments among other (male) DJs, that attractive female DJs were "attention seekers". Yet at the same time, young and attractive female DJs were definitely more popular than those who were older and/or less attractive to some of the promoters in the more upscale areas in Stockholm, where one's appearance becomes more central to one's success. It was also in this area that one big promoter made a big thing about booking one of the world's most famous "topless" DJs. Further, in interviews with the press, other female DJs and myself were always asked questions like "what's it like to be a female DJ?" and "what do you do to encourage other female musicians?". As far as I know, my male DJ friends were never asked similar questions.
Working with Svaj, I got a good sense of how many active female DJs there were, especially in Stockholm, and what their music style and skills were. At our clubs and events we always set our target at 30% of performances by female DJs and succeeded at attaining this, even though that meant booking the same female DJs quite often. Aiming for 50% would have been impossible because there were not enough female DJs.
While some promoters in Stockholm were putting on "ladies nights" with exclusively female DJs, we did not do this at Svaj. Instead, we wanted women to play on the same terms as men. But it was not without protest, especially when women were featured as main acts. I remember one guy complaining that he would not attend one of our club nights since we had booked a female DJ—one of the busiest female Swedish acts—in a prime slot. That the (male) DJ who was playing afterwards, also in one of the prime slots, was far more inexperienced than this female DJ was apparently of no issue.
Today, we're seeing significantly more women establishing themselves among the top techno DJs, and journalists now show plenty of interest in both techno and female techno DJs. There are, as I see it, three main reasons behind this development. First, techno has grown increasingly popular, has a greater audience and is more accepted than before. The media cannot, therefore, ignore techno as they did when it was an exclusively underground scene. Also, it is likely that some of those who went to rave parties in the 1990s are now journalists themselves. Since techno has grown in popularity, there are also more people—both males and females—who become DJs. Additionally, since there are now role models among female DJs playing the clubs, many young females are encouraged to become DJs themselves. Finally, over the years, women in the EDM industry in Sweden have networked, organised clubs, formed record labels, produced music, worked closely with labels, joined EDM programmes on radio channels, worked as managers for artists in the industry and talked about gender attitudes in the media—whether they wanted to or not. Together, these things have made it easier for female DJs in Sweden in 2011.
Anna Ostrom has been part of the Stockholm techno scene in several ways over the years. She was one of the founders of Svaj, a techno café that was open from 2002–05, the promoter of Svaj Club during 2006–07 as well as an organizer of different parties and events from 2002–07 with the name of Svaj. She has also been active as DJ Anaya for over ten years and she was part of Ana International Penetrator. Together with DJ Gavana, she founded the DJ network Sister Sthlm that was active2003–07. At present, she lives in London. <www.myspace.com/djanaya>. Email: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
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Pini, Maria. 2001. Club Cultures and Female Subjectivity: The Move from Home to House. New York: Palgrave.
Rodgers, Tara. 2010. Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hutton, Fiona. 2006. Risky Pleasures? Club Cultures and Female Identities. Aldershot: Ashgate.
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