The story of the Polar Music Prize
You may think that one of producer Quincy Jones’s career highlights (so far) would be conducting the star-studded supergroup that sang “We Are the World” in 1984. Or maybe his work with Frank Sinatra, or Count Basie or Ray Charles. He played with Miles Davis, and jammed with Sammy Davis Jr. too. And he produced Michael Jackson’s Thriller album.
Ten years after “We Are the World,” Jones found himself at a party in Stockholm, eating a hotdog, even though he had just attended a sumptuous dinner at the Grand Hotel. The party was taking place at a villa in Stockholm’s affluent Djurgården area, and the host, Stig “Stikkan” Anderson, was walking around, very casually, in wool socks.
Anderson and Jones were old friends. The party was the post Polar Music Prize gala dinner party and it was being held at Anderson’s house. Jones had just been awarded the Polar Music Prize. He later said that it was this that was “one of the highlights of my life.”
This year, the Polar Music Prize, created by Anderson, celebrates its 25th anniversary. At a concert and ceremony at Stockholm’s Concert Hall in June, the latest Polar Music Prize laureates, Swedish producer-songwriter Max Martin and Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, will be honored. The lavish gala dinner will once again take place in Stockholm’s Grand Hotel. And once again there will be hotdogs, because that’s how Anderson, who died in 1997, would have wanted it.
Stikkan Anderson wrote lyrics to well over a thousand songs, including ones you have surely heard, like “Mamma Mia,” “Honey, Honey,” “Dancing Queen,” and “Waterloo,” the song that gave ABBA, a band he founded and managed, its international breakthrough in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest.
He started a record company, Polar Music, and made a series of such good investments that the financial press called his record company the “most profitable company in Sweden.”
After selling the company in 1989 for SKr 189 million, the equivalent of €31 million in 2016, Anderson decided to create an international music award that would make Sweden, and Stockholm, the center of attention, just like the Swedish capital was center stage every year when the Nobel Prizes were awarded.
After all, not only, but mostly thanks to ABBA, Sweden was already famous for its music exports.
“Stikkan thought it was interesting that there was no Nobel Prize for music,” says Marie Ledin, Anderson’s daughter and CEO of the Polar Music Prize.
Anderson contacted the Nobel Foundation that administrates the Nobel Prizes to see if he could make a donation that would create a Nobel Prize in music.
The Nobel Prize in economics had been established in 1968 after Sweden’s central bank, the Sveriges Riksbank, donated money to commemorate its 300th anniversary (the economics Nobel Prize is actually called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel).
Whatever the reason for their decision, the representatives of the Nobel Foundation politely declined Anderson’s offer. This did not discourage Anderson. He’d just have to do it himself. No big deal.
He set up a foundation and made a donation to the Royal Swedish Academy of Music so that the winners would be awarded SKr 1 million or about €100,000.
“He laid out detailed plans on how everything was to be done. He even wrote that the prize ceremony should be held on May 18, Erik’s name day in the Swedish calendar. I think he did that because one of his names was Erik but also because Saint Erik is the patron saint of Stockholm,” Ledin says. “We’ve actually never held the ceremony in May,” she adds.
Anderson had big plans.
The entire city would host a festival, a celebration of music, with glamour and stars. He also wanted it to be a Swedish event, laid back and down to earth but also with the King of Sweden in attendance.
“It was important for Stikkan that His Majesty was involved. The king loves music and he and Stikkan had a good relationship. The king also understood the importance of having an international music prize come out of Sweden,” says Ledin.
It was just as important for Stikkan to have a real party. And that there were hotdogs, and that a snapsvisa, a Swedish drinking song, was sung before the dinner. Even today, a snapsvisa is sung at the dinner, which also always features elements of traditional Swedish cuisine.
“We always used to have herring, but this year, we’ll have Västerbottenpaj,” Ledin says. Västerbottenpaj is a quiche made with strong Swedish cheese.
The first Polar Music winner was Paul McCartney in 1992. “That was an obvious choice,” says Ledin. McCartney is one of the few recipients of the award not to have accepted the award at the ceremony in Stockholm. But that is probably due to this being the first one and the routines were not quite established. Nor the prestige.
“It’s such a high honor that even big-heads like me get impressed,” McCartney said of the prize later.
But who wouldn’t be delighted to be included in the company of the ex-Beatle and other musicians such as Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Yo-Yo Ma, Patti Smith, Björk, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, and Joni Mitchell? And according to Ledin, the laureates feel some kinship with each other.
“I know [1995 laureates] Elton John and Mstislav Rostropovich stayed in touch until the Russian cellist’s death. Bruce Springsteen and the late Eric Ericson got along great, and Renée Fleming and members of Pink Floyd stay in touch. And Patti Smith and the Kronos Quartet have even performed together,” Ledin says.
Today, the list of winners is an impressive who’s who of music, and not just popular music. Anderson, in his notes, also stipulated that the prize should be given annually – if possible – “for significant achievements in music and/or musical activity, or for achievements which are found to be of great potential importance for music or musical activity, and it shall be referable to all fields within or closely connected with music.”
“It’s one of the most prestigious music prizes in the world so it’s very important to me,” said Peter Gabriel, Class of 2009.
Creating a new tradition isn’t easy and can’t be done overnight, which is why it’s taken the prize a quarter of a century to become the Nobel Prize of music.
“In the beginning, when we contacted the artists and their managers, we had to explain what the prize was about. We don’t have to do that anymore. And with Max Martin, we’ve now reached a new generation of artists as well,” Ledin says.
In 2008, the Royal Swedish Academy of Music withdrew their involvement, and the Polar Music Prize has been an independent organization ever since. Ledin is the CEO, and her brother Anders Anderson serves on the board, the 12-person strong election committee, and as the head of the investment committee.
Recently, the Anderson-Ledins brought in a third generation when Marie’s (and Swedish pop star Tomas Ledin’s) son John joined the organization as project manager on an advisory board that works to raise the prize’s profile internationally.
“When we make the winner announcement, the New York Times will cover it, but it won’t be big,” says Ledin. “We’re well known in the classical music world, and we see a peak in media coverage every time we have winners from new countries. When [the Venezuelan conductor, composer and economist José Antonio] Abreu won it, we had reporters from Venezuela here in Stockholm.”
The SKr 42 million that Stikkan Anderson donated originally won’t last forever without smart investments. Ledin and the others have to find sponsors, donators, and other partners to not only keep the tradition going, but to raise its profile.
This year, the Polar Music Prize organization has struck up a partnership with H&M, and the Swedish fashion giant will sell special Polar Music Prize T-shirts in its flagship stores in Sweden. The T-shirt is designed by Mary McCartney, daughter of Paul McCartney.
This year’s ceremony with Martin and Bartoli will naturally include tributes to their music, performed by some of the biggest and brightest stars in Sweden, just as Stikkan would have wanted it. Except for one thing. Marie has moved the post-dinner party to a pre-dinner party on the day before the ceremony.
“It’s casual, and gives everybody a good chance to get to know each other. There’s music and there are warm encounters between people. Last year, Evelyn Glennie met her first music teacher at the party. There are so many emotions, and that’s what music’s all about,” Ledin says.
The pre-ceremony party will also help everybody, and especially the laureates, to relax and simply enjoy the event. “Everybody’s nervous about meeting the king. But they don’t need to be, they’ll be fine, and we always tell them what to do and what not to do,” Ledin says. “We don’t usually tell the laureates exactly what will take place at the concert, only that it’ll be a tribute to them. Paul Simon said he was too old for surprises, so we told him.”
When the music started to play at the Concert Hall in 2012, and Loreen – the
Eurovision Song Contest winner that year – sang her version of Simon’s 1970 hit “Bridge Over Trouble Water,” the singer-songwriter closed his eyes, put his hand on his wife’s hand, and squeezed it. Another highlight, for sure.
Text Risto Pakarinen
Published: June 10, 2016