Geo Focus: Sweden

Following in the footsteps of the bigger players in the industry, Sweden is showing tentative promise as it climbs the pro-audio ladder. Matt Fellows reports…

In the northern reaches of Europe, a market is rising up. Sweden is well-known for its economic strength and the prosperity of its citizens; the country is the seventh-richest in the world based on GDP per capita and boasts the eighth-highest per capita income globally. This can be something of a double-edged sword for many pro-audio firms, however – while it means that the average Swedish consumer is relatively more affluent when compared to those in other markets, it has also dealt a blow to professional audio services that can increasingly be tackled domestically. But how is the industry fighting back?

“Like the rest of the world there has been dramatic changes in Sweden over the last few years, and the pro-audio business has been forced to adapt,” explains Ida Persson, studio manager at Spinroad Recording Studios in Gothenburg.

Joakim Hammar, head of the audio department at rental firm United Audio Starlight AB, agrees. He believes that while Sweden appears to be slipstreaming other big players, this may be indicative of the country moving up in the global pro-audio pecking order: “I think the way the market in Sweden has developed is to become more like the larger markets around the world; this is probably due to the market becoming more mature. But it also means that the technical level is quite high in Sweden as equipment has not had time to become old or obsolete yet – except with some companies that have been around for a long time.

“The market has become increasingly segmented in corporate/AV, live events, broadcast, etc,” he continues. “Because we have merged with a number of companies we have a presence in all market sectors and we can draw resources from all parts of our group. But generally I think the market has compartmentalised more.”

Drawing closer to the home territory of Starlight, Hammar notes that despite complications in many other sectors, the rental sector is performing well: “The rental market is quite healthy, with most companies having a decent amount of work and lots of co-operation. Many companies are specialised in a particular field or product, and there is a healthy amount of cross-rentals rather than trying to buy in to each others markets,” he reports.

Riding the Wave

When Persson speaks of ‘dramatic changes’ in the country, this could not be more true of the recording industry here. One of the greatest burdens on Sweden’s studio culture, like in so many other places, is the advent of a cottage industry brought on by the increased availability of high-end hardware and software outside of professional studios. And it’s only exacerbated by the otherwise beneficial level of relatively high personal wealth among Swedish citizens.

“One of the reasons why a lot of large studios are having to close down is the fact that over the last few years, people have been able to record themselves at home or in smaller studios,” Persson tells us. “The recording technology that is out on the market now has a higher quality than before and it can provide pretty good results. Together with the possibility of spreading your music online, this has given artists the opportunity to reach out to new audiences without recording in professional studios.”

However, despite this move in the industry, Persson believes that home recordings can never truly close the quality gap when compared to professional recordings; a fact that consumers are becoming gradually more aware of: “I think that people are now starting to realise that professional studios can provide better results at a higher quality level –a level that the consumer used to take for granted only a few years ago,” she comments.

Despite the advance and availability of technology bringing seemingly unavoidable sector-specific woes, it is Sweden’s strong cultural base that seems to be helping to pull the country towards success where others are falling by the wayside.

“I don’t think there’s a huge difference in Sweden compared to the rest of the world when it comes to the industry developments, but Sweden does have a thriving music culture,” Persson reveals. “Sweden has been investing in training musicians and facilitating the music culture for a long time, which has resulted in Sweden having an extraordinary range of talented musicians and artists. This, of course, is a good thing for the recording studios.”

In the face of such resonant changes to the sector, Persson believes the only real key to survival is to embrace the change and roll with the punches: “A lot of the large studios had closed down and the ones that are thriving are accommodating the changes. For example, instead of only dealing with labels, the large studios are now also working directly with musicians, bands and their managers.”

Shifting Frequencies

Likewise, the Swedish broadcast sector looks set to tread the same problematic path as other regions, with industry figures noting the ever-growing issue of wireless spectrum allocation, and its threat to Program Making and Special Events equipment.

“Allocations of frequencies for 4G and mobile broadband have encouraged us to replace a lot of wireless equipment to use new frequencies,” Hammar explains. “And over the next few years we will see a decreasing amount of frequencies being available for wireless microphones but the market seems to increase the use of wireless equipment. This will pose increasing challenges for users and equipment providers.”

Kjetil Laukholm, owner of Merging Sweden, reports that although business has been good for the distributor lately, the sector has also witnessed some notable upheavals: “The big change for us has been the move to audio networks, notably AES67 and Ravenna often together with Ovation, Merging’s playout system, and Pyramix. Most Swedish theme parks have already gone this way and the Royal Opera is currently looking at expanding from three to six Pyramix/Ovation systems with a Ravenna infrastructure.”

“Tighter environmental laws have had a major impact on the use of OB trucks in the cities,” he continues. “As a result, many engineers are looking at flypack solutions such as the Ravenna-based Horus and Hapi interfaces.

Such changes have left the climate of the sector uncertain, leaving the future difficult to predict, according to Laukholm. “I think there is some flux in our segment of the market, in part due to the problems operating OB trucks and in part due to the quick shift towards audio networks. Audio networking is fairly new to most systems integrators.”

Placing Bets

Despite an ostensibly healthy climate, the future of the Swedish pro-audio market may not be as clear as others, but that isn’t stopping industry professionals from casting their tentative predictions.

“The market is quite healthy but near saturation, so growth will probably be quite slow. For example we have seen a few festivals this summer that have closed down due to poor ticket sales,” notes Hammar.

Laukholm, meanwhile, puts his money on a surge in audio networking dependence: “I am convinced that we will be seeing a big move towards audio networks such as Ravenna, Dante and AES67, particularly in broadcast, theme parks and large concert venues,” he predicts. “It is clearly the direction things are heading, but it is still unknown territory for most engineers.”

Amid a strong economy that finds itself in something of a transitional phase, like many in the country, Persson remains pensive but optimistic: “I wish I owned a crystal ball, but because of all the investment that has been made in musicians, etc in the last few years, we hope that the market in Sweden will keep on thriving.”