Having started as General Manager of Universal Sweden at the age 27, Joakim Johansson attained the position of Managing Director at 33, replacing Per Sundin in 2019. Since then, the label has maintained its position as Sweden’s largest record label with a growing roster of acts. I was invited to Joakim’s offices to talk about his background and journey through the ranks of Sony and Universal, as well as learn about his thoughts on the industry as a whole.

– Hi Joakim. It’s a pleasure to be speaking. Regarding your start in the music industry, I’ve heard you were booking live shows at the age of fourteen in 1999. Is that true?

Yes, it is. I’m from a small city in Sweden called Vänersborg and I played in different bands, but there weren’t many opportunities for us to perform live, so we got together some money and set up a small club. I became the one responsible for contacting agents to book their acts, and I developed relationships with the bookers at Luger, Monstera and United Stage. This was in the late 90s/early 2000s when the Swedish live scene was quite vibrant. Big artists usually performed on weekends, but since we needed bookings on weekdays, agents would let me book their artists during those slots. We’d sell out our 200 tickets every time and were able to bring in big local names like Looptroop Rockers. We didn’t make much money, but everyone had a good time.

During this time, I got a job in a studio and I learned how to be an engineer. I recorded local bands and also did their live shows, so the booking agents suggested I also handle the front-of-house duties on tour. When you’re only sixteen, people are okay with helping because you’re not a threat to their job, so I was offered a lot of opportunities back then that I’m grateful for.

– Over the course of your touring, I’ve heard that you did 800 shows in 36 countries. 

That’s correct. I was the tour manager and front-of-house for a pop-disco band called Alcazar that was big in Sweden, Germany and Italy. We did 300 shows a year, including six shows across three countries in two days. It was very intense but I took a lot of pride in my job, and was so serious about it that if I ever underperformed as front-of-house, I wouldn’t invoice for my work that day.

A bubble is created around people when they’re on tour because they travel, eat, sleep and work together. That’s why the relationships built on tour buses are stronger than almost any other ones in the music industry, and the decisions made there are more important than the ones made at business tables. Looking back at my tour life, I regret not taking more photos. It would’ve been great to preserve more memories, but most of my free time was spent sleeping from exhaustion (laughs).

– You went to work for Sony in their radio division at eighteen. How did that come about?

During my touring days, I realized that Stockholm was a hub for the Swedish music industry because the tour bus always departed from there, so I ended up relocating and was eventually offered a job in Sony’s radio department. I accepted the role but didn’t really know what it entailed, and I hated it at first. I didn’t see myself coming to work at an office and couldn’t understand what impact I had on the artists. But something clicked six months into the job and I finally understood what my role was and learned to enjoy the position.

– How did you go from the radio division to being Head of International, and what acts did you work with?

I had a successful run and was able to increase Sony’s market share of radio hits, so that led to considerations for other roles. I think the label had confidence in me and knew I aspired to work with international acts. There were older people who’d been around longer and they didn’t understand why such a young guy got promoted, but I had good relationships in the UK and US who could vouch for me.

I worked on campaigns for Pink, Beyonce, MGMT, Justin Timberlake and others, but when you’re working with international acts in a local market like Sweden, the job is to facilitate the marketing strategies created in the US or UK. So it was more about execution than being creative.

– You eventually moved to London and became Senior Manager for Global Marketing in Europe and Africa. Tell me about that.

Sony and BMG had merged and they set up the European Head Office in London, but the team changed every year. They’d fire people and bring in a new team, then do the same next year when things didn’t work. There was a guy called Kevin Lawrie who’d done a great job with his management company, DAY1 Entertainment, and he later ran Sony Latin. The label brought him over to run their European division and he wanted to start over with his own staff. He asked if I wanted to move to London and I gladly accepted.

A lot of music jobs were disappearing due to piracy and there wasn’t much flexibility in the industry at the time. Labels were satisfied with reaching their annual results and had no real view of the future, so Kevin said, “I want to fire everyone at the label without losing any actual employees “. He basically meant that we had the right people in the wrong places and needed to restructure the company, especially when it came to marketing. TV buying was no longer enough, so we started hiring data analysts, which was a new thing. Digital marketing was also new, and we had to educate ourselves on things like “Cost per click”and “Cost per thousand impressions”, plus we did a lot of hand-holding to educate our staff on good marketing practices. It helped save money in the long run because our campaigns became more effective.

I thought I’d be Senior Manager of Global Marketing for a year and then get fired like everyone else, but it actually lasted two years (laughs). They eventually shut down our team and the entire office. Kevin was moved to the US to work with Epic and most of us got fired, but I was offered to stay on in a different role.

– It seems like promotions just kept coming in a way. Were you seen as an exceptional candidate for these positions, or was the instability at Sony-BMG opening up new slots?

I started in the industry at a very young age, so my work experience was equal or longer than those a decade ahead of me. I’ll soon be 38 and will have worked at major labels for nineteen years. I’ve also tried to have loyalty as one of my foundational traits. When I worked under Per Sundin, I was very deliberate about not vying for his job – I was there to work and make my boss look good, and I was lucky to have someone like him looking after me; we spoke regularly even when we worked at opposing labels. So I’ve been fortunate to create great industry relationships throughout all these years, and that probably helped with the promotions.

– By 2012 you ended up in New York as Sony’s Director Of International Marketing. What are some acts you worked with there?

I worked with the likes of Depeche Mode, Justin Timberlake, Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce. It was mostly artists on the RCA roster, as well as some others on Mom + Pop Music and Columbia. But it was  a short stint and I never worked directly with the US market because I was focused on promoting those artists internationally.

– How did you end up at Universal in February of 2013?

Per and I went out for dinner when he was in New York for a budget meeting. He told me about the growth of the EDM scene and his signing of Avicii, and he also said that Sebastian Ingrosso was playing that night. I hadn’t seen Sebastian in some years so I agreed to come, and I saw 5000 people fist-bumping on the dancefloor when I arrived. It was as if David Grohl was performing a rock show, and that’s when I understood that EDM was the next big thing. Per asked if I wanted to move back to Sweden and help him at Universal and I said I’d love to. Unfortunately, it led to tension between Sony and myself, but I was able to get through it.

– In previous interviews, you’ve talked about internal politics at labels can create conflicts between departments. Can you elaborate on that?

Internal politics can be a career killer, which is why personal agendas can’t be allowed to get in the way of the artist. During my time at other companies US, I saw how people at certain labels would backstab each other to advance their careers and would neglect certain projects to benefit their own. Employees in the US can often be hired and fired on a whim, meaning you can lose your job at any time for no reason, whereas in Sweden it’s very hard to get fired, and even places like the UK offer better severance packages. As a result, a US employee with a family to provide for will make career decisions that are more beneficial to himself than the artist. I wanted to do the opposite of that, even if it cost me my job. It’s always about the artist for me – I know the dreams they have, and our responsibility is to do the utmost to realize them.

– Was Universal different from Sony in terms of work culture?

It was. I felt a huge difference coming to Universal – I never felt any internal politics here. A product manager could call an executive in Germany or France and they’d pick up the phone and talk to you. When I compared the two labels, I saw Universal as being more aggressive for their artists and less corporate overall.

– Spotify arrived in 2008 when you were still at Sony. What do you remember about that and do you have any stories from being an early adopter?

I remember that Daniel Ek and his team were showing their first draft of the platform to all the Swedish labels. The speed of their client was incredible and could pull up any track in a heartbeat, which no-one was used to. I signed up immediately, but I remember the resistance in the industry against it. It divided people because our livelihood was still tied to physical CDs, and streaming wasn’t scalable yet.

In terms of stories, Mark Dennis is the current CEO of Sony Music, and we took a trip to New York around 2009, but he forgot to turn off roaming when using Spotify’s mobile app. When we got back to Sweden, let’s just say Mark got a heated call from the head of finance at Sony about his phone bill (laughs),

–  Why did you take on the dual role of General Manager and Director of Marketing when you started at Universal?

I’ve always wanted to wear multiple hats and believed that everyone should do whatever is needed. If my receptionist wasn’t in, I’d have no problem sitting at her desk and doing that job. I think the initial discussion with Per was that he needed a Head of Marketing, but I wasn’t moving back to Stockholm to just run the marketing department. I knew we could use my international relationships for more than just that, and I wanted to expand beyond my previous role by working closer to Per. So the “General Manager” title was thrown in.

– If you have two positions, do you get two salaries?

No, I don’t (laughs). In this industry, you learn that having multiple titles doesn’t mean you make more money,

– Universal Sweden had multiple sub-labels when you started. I’ve heard that part of your job was to consolidate the marketing effort across all of them. How was that process? 

It was difficult. Per had set up seven different sub-labels and I think the idea was for them to compete and stay on their toes. He also wanted a variety of destinations for artists, but the problem was that when we hired a Digital Marketing person for one sub-label, we had to hire six more so each label had equal resources. It wasn’t financially viable in the long run and I knew that our staff had to work with each other rather than for one sub-label each. So we started centralizing a lot of functions and put people into different hubs, which allowed us to do more at less cost.

– Universal Sweden has its own agency called Creative Labs. How did that come about, and was there any pushback from the parent company when setting it up?

Major labels in the early 2010s were mostly seen as a bank or distribution channel, and I hated that. We had an in-house team that mostly worked with external businesses in need of music for their campaigns, and I said, “We need a creative engine for our artists, not other companies “. I want to be a music company that was creative at heart, so we transformed that department into the Creative Labs agency by hiring the kind of expertise that was missing from the industry, like copywriters, analysts and data engineers. I think we were the first major label in the world to have its own agency in-house.

There was no pushback from the parent company. The beauty of Universal is that there’s a freedom towards entrepreneurship – if you have a good idea, you can run with it, but be prepared to bear accountability. It’s great if you’re successful, but it’s on you if it’s not. Plus, a core reason to keep things in-house is that our relationship with the artist is much closer than if you use a freelancer or outside agency.

– What have been some of Creative Labs’ most successful campaigns?

We do between 800 – 1000 campaigns a year, so there’s a lot of examples. All the ones for Avicii, from his album launches and videos to the posthumous campaigns were all done by Creative Labs. All the media seen in ABBA’s recent comeback was also created here. We’ve also done a lot for our export artists like Tove Lo and Seinabo Sey, and also for local acts like Veronica Maggio.

– You said earlier that major labels in the 2010s were seen as banks. In what ways do you think this has changed?

It doesn’t matter whether an artist is on an indie or major label, they’ll always need a team. The difference is that an indie artist will be responsible for making sure everyone does their job and gets paid. At a certain point, their artist career will become more of an admin career to oversee the team. Some people can manage that, but others need a major label, and the beauty of today’s industry is that you can tailor your relationship with your label. So I think labels have changed, but the old reputation takes a decade to get rid of. I still have sixteen year-olds who come into my office and tell me their view of a label, but it’s reminiscent of how people talked in the 90s.

One of the biggests shifts I’ve seen in the last decade is that most of the major label executives are music enthusiasts or former A&Rs, especially in the US. Sony has Peter Edge and Sylvia Rhone, and Universal has Avery Lipman and John Janick. These are people who live in the studio, which is a shift away from having corporate businessmen as the CEOs.

– Around the mid-2010s, it became common for labels to sign artists primarily off their social media numbers, rather than talent or potential. What are your thoughts on that?

I don’t think its ever been common for labels to do signings without any underlying data. At the start of the digital music revolution, we had more data than we knew what to do with, but we’re now in a place where data is one of many tools, and the right formula for evaluating an artist is a combination of data, experience, passion and relationships. In the pre-Spotify era, you basically signed an artist off a hot club song or their audience size at shows. So whilst Universal can certainly take risks with a new artist that lacks a following, it takes time and resources, and using data helps in the decision-making process.

– But in the 80s and 90s, you had guys like Chris Blackwell and Clive Davis who signed artists based on their talent and potential. That kind of visionary mindset isn’t being employed at today’s majors.

It could also be that you don’t hear those stories in the same way you used to do. Back then, you could put a new artist on a TV show and break them overnight, whereas things are less predictable today. Take Tove Lo as an example: she wasn’t a rising artist when we signed her, and we had a completely different strategy than what became successful for her. We had our own idea of what song to push until the Hippie Sabotage remix of “Habits” went viral. We never thought of it as a single, and more importantly, the sound of the remix wasn’t something she created. But it was a door-opener that led people to talk about her. It was similar with NOTD – they were two guys who’d only ever made remixes. They released their first original music only after signing with us, and now they’ve done over a billion streams. So there’s still a lot of great acts being signed, though it’s not as newsworthy as it used to be.

– Per departed Universal in 2019 for a role at Pophouse. Given the time you spent working together, what were your biggest takeaways from him and were you surprised when he left?

He’s by far the best mentor I’ve had in this industry. He’s unmatched in his ability to see where he needs to expand his knowledge, so when something isn’t his area of expertise, he always brings in experts to teach him. For over 20 years I’ve seen him hire new people from other industries and put them in position to help the overall goals of the company. He’s also believed in me from day one, and I’m very grateful for it.

It’s hard to top working with Avicii and Spotify unless you create something new that no-one’s ever seen. So when he saw how Björn and Conni had envisioned ABBA Voyage, it was a no-brainer for him to join Pophouse. He pulled me aside one day and said, “Listen, at some point I’m going to leave Universal and you’re gonna take over “. My boss is Frank Briegmann, so the final decision probably lay with him, but it didn’t come as a surprise when the transition finally occurred.

When I interviewed Per, he said you were the smartest person in the Swedish music industry. Do you know why he said that? 

Per and I have been working closely for the past ten years and we complemented each other well, and it’s very humbling that he’d say that, though I don’t know why. But it only encourages me to work harder not to prove him wrong.

– In a past interview from 2017, you said “I’m probably the least educated of all the music bosses that run labels “. What does that say about older executives if you’re the least educated yet still got put in charge of Universal Sweden over them?

I think education is important as an entry point, but I’ve soon been working at a major for 20 years and that’s longer than most, so I have a good amount of work experience. Being the “least educated” means I haven’t spent as many hours in school as my peers, but rest assured I spent more hours in the office than most.

– What’s been the biggest shift in the company since you became the Managing Director?

It’s hard to say because Universal Sweden has different needs at different times. When I took over, we had to restructure the company and lower the bar for artists to interact with a major label. So we immediately revamped our domestic departments and A&R efforts. We’d had huge international success with Tove Lo and Avicii, but once the pandemic struck, the global industry shut down and markets became more localized. We saw the rise of the domestic hip-hop scene across the world, similar to punk in the 80s or grunge in the 90s, but Universal Sweden wasn’t structured to be an attractive partner to them. So we had to shift focus into finding great A&Rs, labels and create a feeling of solidarity with the artist instead of just being a financial partner.

I remember a quote from Mark Zuckerberg where he said, “the future is going to be private”, and that’s what’s happening. The days of billboards, TV commercials and mass marketing are over. Companies now want to be a part of the conversation between peers, and it’s changed the way we do media buying, data analysis and artist signings.

We also did a major acquisition of United Stage, which is the biggest live agency in the Nordics. Universal already had live music operations in Denmark, but United Stage were in Sweden and Norway. The reason we targeted live music so aggressively was to be able to present artist stories on stage the same as they are on other platforms. We were unable to do so without acquiring that company.

– Some years back, you talked about using esports and TikTok as means to promote your artists. How did that go? Was the focus on getting songs played during gamer livestreams and TikTok videos?

That was one goal. Others were developing games together with streamers, sponsoring teams and having artists perform at events. Some of those things didn’t work out, but others did.

We had a lot of success with Tiktok and were actually early adopters of that platform. We developed our own marketing strategies for how to promote artists there, and I believe we opened up doors for others to do similarly.

– You also said in past interviews, “The task of a major label is to break artists. If we break artists, we did our job; if we didn’t break artists, we didn’t do our job “. So in the last twelve months, what artists have you broken?

Probably not enough, but the never-ending question is how do you define “breaking an artist”? If you look at what we did with Belle, Björn Holmgren and Olivia Lobato, we’ve probably introduced more artists to the Swedish audience than any other label in the last few years. But have we established a new superstar? Probably not, though it takes time. Look at Daniela Rathana – she does incredible live shows and sells tickets, but a majority of Swedes have yet to hear her music, and it’ll take a year or two for that to happen. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that building a music career is a marathon, but we’ll eventually get there.

– What do you make of the fact that we’ve hardly seen any superstars emerge in last 15 years similar to a Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson who have unequivocal talent?

You’re talking about an artist who crosses generations – someone the whole world agrees is a great talent. But to be honest, I’m not sure if that was even the case with acts like Bon Jovi or Britney Spears. It usually starts with younger audiences educating the older ones until a particular song comes along that connects both sides, like “Bed of Roses” or “Toxic“. You also have bands like Hov1 – for years people said they only had one great album, but they kept reinventing themselves and now they’re the band with most Number 1s in Swedish chart history. But ultimately, music is driven by the youth, and today’s artists might not have a song that connects to older generations. But culture has also gotten more fragmented; we’re not gathering at the same places to share experiences, be it a TV show, radio station or festival. But I’m certain that decades from now when we look back at the 2010s, there will be classic milestones, like what Einar did for Swedish hip-hop or what Avicii achieved for dance music. Billie Elish is also an artist like that – she might not be a star in the way a 90s artist was, but what she’s done for songwriting, composing, storytelling and performance is incredible. It might not be comparable to Whitney Houston, but I can easily compare it to Madonna.

– What are your thoughts on the state of arena artists?

People have always complained that no new arena artists were being created, and that we kept seeing the same names like Bruce Soringsteen and Rolling Stones play in arenas. But actually, more arena artists have come along in the last fifteen years than prior. You have international acts like Ed Sheeran, as well as domestic ones like Laleh and Håkan Hellström. Ullevi is the biggest arena in Sweden, and it had the most summer shows ever in 2022. And I don’t mean the Rolling Stones doing six consecutive shows, but a bunch of different artists. So I’m more positive about the future than I’ve ever been. People across the world are laughing at the same memes and enjoying the same content, and music is no different. That’s why two of the biggest Grammy’s went to Bad Bunny and BTS – they’ll probably be two of the biggest artists in America this year.

– A show like Idol has been quite popular in Sweden and saw many talented artists come through the auditions. How come major labels haven’t pursued more of the singers from there?

We do work with artists from Idol and have had success with that, but it isn’t sufficient to only be a technically good singer – there’s plenty of those out there, and given the recent developments with AI, there’s going to be plenty more, but it won’t be enough to capture the hearts of music lovers. For that, you need the authenticity to convince people that you’re worthy of their time. One example from Idol that managed to do that is Loreen. Sometimes you get nervous when you see an artist on stage and you hope their voice can deliver; I’ve never felt that with her. She’s going to deliver a performance that’s expressed not only through her voice, which is what happened at Eurovision this year..

– Streaming payouts have been a long-debated topic for the last decade, with many artists complaining about what they earn. What are your thoughts on that?

I think one remedy is what Lucian Grange said at the start of the year – we have to change the distribution model to a more artist-centric one that prevents fraud and leads to more even revenue payouts. In other words, artists who drive more engagement on the platform should be rewarded for that. On Spotify, new tracks by hobbyists or ASMR artists are being paid as much per stream as “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, and that’s not fair. I’m not saying there isn’t an audience for those kinds of sounds, but it’s not a fair distribution model and that needs to change.

– Wrapping up, I’ll ask you the same question I asked Per: apart from yourself, who’s the smartest person in the Swedish music industry?

I can think of many people, but one name that isn’t credited enough for entrepreneurship in the music industry is Björn Ulvaeus. Not only has he written some of the best lyrics ever, but he has more energy at his age than anyone I’ve met. He also pursues his own creative ideas, whether that’s a Pippi Longstocking show at Cirkus, the ABBA Voyage project, being the president of SESAC, or talking about the music industry on a TV couch. Sure, he’s credited with being an incredible artist, but I think he should be credited even more for being an incredible advocate who opened doors for many people. Everyone in the Swedish industry should be grateful for what he’s done.

– Given what you’ve already achieved at such a young age, what kind of legacy would you like to leave behind when your time at Universal is over?

Universal has been here for 100 years and will be here for another 100, so my part in the company is limited. I’ll hopefully be here for more years until one of the higher-ups says, “Joakim isn’t the right guy anymore; time to hire someone else “. So I have a limited amount of time to maximize on what I believe is right, and 80% of what I do might disappear when a new CEO takes over, but 20% will remain, and that’s my dream – to leave a piece of myself behind.

– Thanks for talking to me, Joakim. It’s been a great chat. What’s next for you and Universal Sweden?

We’re going to be relentless about breaking artists and creating new catalogs. If a financial firm were examining the industry, they might ask why we invest so much into the frontline, but that’s what we’ll live off for the next century. So that’ll keep happening for the rest of year and hopefully we will be successful with it.


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