Lisa Lang

Sara Herrlin - Music Tech Connector

by Music Tech Fest | MTF Podcast

Sara Herrlin is, among other things, the founder of STHLM Music City. She’s a music industry professional with an enormous global, national and local network. Prior to returning to Sweden to provide the glue that holds together the whole music and tech sector, she has worked in Asia, the Middle East and the UK during her career in the music industry, which included seven years as Head of International at EMI Virgin. 

Sara’s mission is to build bridges between the traditional music industry and the start-up world through STHLM Music City and Nordic Music Tech - as well as her role as international ambassador for the Stockholm startup incubator SUP-46.

STHLM Music City


Dubber      Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m the director of Music Tech Fest, and this is the MTF Podcast. Sweden is one of those countries that, as U.S. President Barack Obama once observed, punches above its weight. This is particularly true in a number of domains. Well, music, obviously. Sweden is one of only three net exporters of music in the world. That means they send out more music than they bring in. Britain, the U.S., and the People’s Republic of Pop Production. It’s also true in technology and innovation, in start-ups and new business models, in design. It’s true in gender equality, social inclusion, and economic fairness. And someone who connects all of those things together, and all of those groups together, is Stockholm hyper-connector Sara Herrlin.

Sara’s the founder of STHLM Music City and Nordic Music Tech. She’s the co-founder of the Next Stage Challenge, a two week online music industry hackathon to help the live music sector during the pandemic. And she’s the international ambassador for SUP46, the start-up hub for exciting new business ideas from Sweden. 46 being the country dialling code, if you were trying to crack that reference. And, of course, she had a hand in the success of some Swedish pop royalty, but I’ll let her tell that story.

But more than anything else, Sara brings interesting people together so that more interesting things can happen. If you look up ‘networker’ in the dictionary, there’s going to be a picture of Sara there. And if you ever find yourself wondering why Sweden does so well at all of these things, well, I’m sure she wouldn’t take all the credit, but she’s certainly a very good example of something special that happens over here. I spoke to Sara in pre-COVID times, which seems now like a decade ago. So, recorded in good old-fashioned face-to-face mode, in shared physical space, inside SUP46, this is Sara Herrlin. Enjoy.

Dubber      So I’m here with Sara Herrlin. And where’s here? Tell me about where we are.

Sara           Here is, actually, SUP46, which stands for Start-up People of Sweden. It is known as Stockholm’s first tech hub. So it’s a co-working space and a very creative community of very early-stage start-ups. And right in the middle of Stockholm, in an area that’s now, in more recent years, become known as Urban Escape due to many similar hubs all working together in the great ecosystem of Stockholm.

Dubber      And what’s your role here? Because you’re not a start-up… That’s not my understanding of what you do.

Sara           No. Well, I literally got dragged in about six/seven months before they started, the day I arrived back in Stockholm. I’ve lived most of my working life abroad, and have often spoken about a hub environment during my career. And friends of mine who were moving back at the same time, they said “You must come up and see what’s going on in the middle of Stockholm.”. Because like so many ex-expats, I felt that “Oh, nothing’s changed.”. Coming back, everything was the same. And I walked into this… Actually, it was in the neighbouring house before moving into where we are sitting now. All in the same area. And this is 2013, early, where I walked into this absolutely empty space where three fantastic co-founders, Jessica and Nathalie and Sebastian, were sitting, and all super excited about this hub they were creating. And they needed a lot of help with contacts.

Personally, I just at once felt this was just fantastic idea. So great that someone’s doing this, and I totally got what they were about. I didn’t consider myself from tech at all, but I realised how many global contacts I’ve got through the music industry where I’ve spent my entire career. Globally, especially. And a lot of people were gravitating, and are even more escalating, in towards Stockholm, and they had a very, very good community they were already building here locally and nationally, and I brought in a lot of the… Everybody that I knew. Not at all just myself, but in my own network, we had a physical space to push people towards. It started that way and grew into a role of an international ambassador, basically.

I think I had a clue that it would become this big, that they were really on to something so great, so it’s just been fun to be part of that. And today, more recently, it’s become much more structured. And, actually, only a couple of weeks ago, we launched, ‘we’ as in SUP46, a mentorship programme, so I’m also part of the mentor programme since they do not have any expertise around music and music tech and the traditional music industry. And also social media and strategies around that, which is something I specialise in.

Dubber      You seem to be a Venn diagram between the music industry, the tech sector, and this idea of connecting.

Sara           Yes.

Dubber      You are very much a connector. Let’s start with the music industry side of things. What’s your background there?

Sara           I usually say I slipped into the music industry through marriage. I was a sports journalist. I was always very into music. And my very early days, I was with the ballet and very much into music on the classical way, and then went from classical to punk. Huge interest in music, but never saw myself as music industry.

Then it was one of those film-like, unreal stories of getting married, deciding what to do, where we would live, etc., but the very day we got married, my husband at the time had a number one, out of the blue, in America. And then, literally, from that day we were travelling on this incredible ten year trip of a career that was just crazy. So it started by just, again, helping and connecting, because they were a band that had never been outside of Sweden, and I had grown up with a family all over the world. And so it just came naturally and started as a way to just help, of course, as I would with anybody.

Dubber      Because when people think of bands from Sweden, the first one they think of is ABBA, the second one they think of, Roxette.

Sara           Yeah, this was Roxette. And it was really incredible because it really came from nowhere. They became number one in America, and we really thought it was… Standing in wedding clothes, 29th of March, ’89. It’s soon 30 years ago, unbelievably. And literally went on a tour, rushed onto a plane to be on The Tonight Show in America, and thought “It’s just this.”. And that’s what we kept thinking, week by week by week. “We’ve just got to ride this.”. And, of course, as time progressed, it became a role, and then I took on a proper job on the team. I usually say initially it was definitely just a way of staying together, because in those days these huge tours were 14 months and 12 months, and even one was still recording albums, promoting albums, touring albums in the older way of doing things.

And suddenly ten years passed and sadly we split up, and I felt “Now I’m going back to being a sports journalist.”, but didn’t realise how much part of the industry I had become. And coincidentally, this very same day, then, as the universe would have it, I got a phone call from somebody at EMI who’d had no clue that I had anything to do with EMI. Was actually a mutual friend of a more senior sports journalist. And he needed help with opening West Asia for EMI and Virgin Music, which had already been acquired by EMI for the last remaining territory. This is in the end of the ‘90s. And that meeting, since we, coincidentally, both were in the same city, Dubai, where not so many people were in ’99/’97/’98, we met and just got on like a house on fire and ended up working seven years together. His name is Adrian Cheesley. He’s still very senior at Universal, who have, of course, recently acquired EMI Virgin. So that ended up with seven years specifically working a lot Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Of course, I was always very involved in any music I could find from Sweden, from all the labels, to pull out into the world. That came as a passion. And then I worked quite a lot on global part. There was a lot of chill-out music and Arabic music being very much integrated into hip-hop at that time, so it became quite a lot of, surprisingly, work with America. I spent quite a lot of time there. And that’s how it went on.

Sadly, my passion, of course, coming what I would say today is very much from the artist side, of course, as you understand, not an artist myself, but I stepped in from the Roxette side, that had become my family, to the music company side, record company. Then, as everybody knows, it became more and more difficult struggle, especially as an artist. Getting less and less, everybody getting less and less. But I promised myself that “I’m doing this for artists, and my passion has always been, within these years with a music company, to find talent and to…”. I always thought it was most fun with a new band, in the early stages. Even those who became giants. Working very early stages of Coldplay and others that didn’t become as big. And then I said “Now it’s crazy.”. I really think that myself and very many colleagues across the industry were feeling the same, that it’s down in such a tiny percentage trickling down to the artist. And, of course, it’s not become that much better today.

And this is at a time, this was about ten years ago, when I, myself, started to feel that “Why is there traditional music industry on the tech side?”, which I was very close to the tech side. I think I didn’t realise until living so much abroad and working with EMI, such a traditional company, and very, very British, absolutely nothing against the British, but it’s more, probably, in reverse. The fact that Sweden was so ahead in tech and in internet and in anything to do with technology and start-ups. And I thought it would be absolutely taken for granted that all of these fantastic innovations would work closely to the music industry, and closely with the music industry. Which, of course, later, getting a bit older and wiser, realising “Well, of course it’s all about the money.”.

Dubber      How did the tech thing start for you? Because you went very deep on the technology side of things.

Sara           Yes. Technology, and in the music side I went very deep, and that was, probably… Well, I’ve always been a tech geek, just self-learned. I’m beginning to feel ancient realising that even in Sweden when I was graduating from high school, that, literally, I grew up with that it was not even thought of that I would go to Royal College of Technology or such. Which, in hindsight, I would have done in a flash. Just recently I’ve studied programming and so on, just at KTH here in Stockholm. It’s really fun that one can do that right through life.

But all around me, and my family, and people in my… I had a lot of male friends who I also realised a lot later were literally part of building the technology and platforms, especially digital technology and internet, and Ericsson, and my friend with Icon Medialab, all these great foundations, and… What’s it called? I just keep on thinking of Skype. Were the first webmail platform, which was Swedish as well, before Hotmail. Starts with an S. I’ll think of it later. So, basically, since a very early age I had a lot of tech interest, and that just carried on in every way.

And when I was, a lot years later, with a music company, it was so close to me when internet came and when all the platforms and social media. I just felt it was so natural to use and utilise, and was quite shocked because it didn’t happen in Sweden. That you were stopped from using these technologies, not even at the record companies. I thought “Wow, fantastic.”, sitting with all the guys in the tech department where to all of us it was so natural to use these tools. And then to suddenly, literally, not be allowed to. And this stuck with me. And then I also thought “Well, a lot of this, giving benefit of the doubt, it’s people not understanding, not knowing how helpful they can be.”. I saw it. I was working very much not just A&R but marketing, and thought “These are fantastic tools.”. I wasn’t even allowed to open a website. But, basically, I did it anyway, and that showed that “Look, this is a good tool.”, and then would be “Oh, that’s not so bad.”. It’s probably like it’s always been. Takes a while for people to adapt and adjust.

But this, since you were asking, the technology part, it’s basically, for me, self-learned. And I still would never consider myself very good or an expert at it in any way, but I’m just so happy I have an understanding for it.

Dubber      Well, this is where you, as a connector, are really interesting because you have this knowledge of the music sector, you have this knowledge of the tech sector, and while you say “I’m not an artist. I’m not a technologist.”, but you know how those things fit together, and you seem to be the point of connection for all of those things. So tell me about what you started here in Stockholm when you came back.

Sara           Well, in Stockholm, when I came back, and going back to being pulled into SUP46, Start-up People of Sweden, where we are sitting now, it was very much aligned. And friends who were part of supporting and investing here were friends I’d got to know, incredibly tech in-depth entrepreneurs, and successful, who had been there wherever I have been during both growing up and during tour years, as I call it. In other words, London, New York, L.A., Silicon Valley, later on Dubai and Singapore. And also all started to move home here to Stockholm, as I mentioned, at the same time, and had heard this idea of mine about ten years prior that “Wouldn’t it be great with an environment that people from the music side and the tech side meet in real life or shared ideas and do innovations and workshops together?”, and that’s why these people who were starting this had this in mind when they said “Sara, come up and check this out. It’s like your idea but in broader tech.”. So I at once got the idea of how great it is when people meet, and that’s when the magic happens.

So, of course, SUP46 was much… There was very, very little music tech. This is five years back, exactly five years, that they celebrate. But, of course, I could easily apply the same to anything. Any problem that needs to be solved, of course, anyone would agree, everything is better when you share your knowledge and your expertise and your viewpoints from the user end to the person developing something. It goes without saying.

Very early, after supporting SUP, who then had heard all about my idea to have it as a music side, they said “Well, maybe you can do it as a niche within what we’re doing.”. I was very for that, and I appreciated the support, but one thing that is very… Which I adamantly said, at once, and a colleague of mine always quotes that, which is that “Don’t forget that music in Sweden, or globally, but specifically in Sweden, is definitely not a niche.”. It’s larger than all tech together, and many people don’t realise that. Then, of course, music tech, as one would call it today, is fairly small, but it’s really buzzing and growing, and it’s incredibly interesting to see how many new companies are being formed, and fantastic ideas.

And that, to me, who left the record company and band because I just felt, as many of my colleagues who did the same, that “We’re here for the artists. We can’t accept that they are getting so few percent. This has to become a better world for the creators and a much healthier music industry in every way. Not just financially, but in people’s quality of life.”. We need the creative arts in general to be able to continue. We need to be able to eat, otherwise it will die out. I find in a lot, sadly, there are a few gatekeepers who are not thinking long-term in that aspect.

Dubber      Are there technological solutions to that?

Sara           Absolutely. I don’t even know which ones yet, but there are ideas popping up all the time. And in what subsequently has become a community, that I initiated and started with a fantastic group of people, is called STHLM Music City, which is based out of Stockholm. Very much thinking globally, just the way that SUP46 mean with Sweden. It’s definitely a global community. And our tagline is “Where music and tech meet.”, because then you have the people who need solutions, and the traditional music industry, meeting the tech side.

And the traditional music industry doesn’t necessarily need to be people like myself who worked forever in it. It can also be a new, young, 17 year old artist who just realises he needs tools, or she. And what’s great with the really young traditional music side is that they themselves start to develop.

But when you have the tech side of things, the music tech companies that come with these amazing solutions to everything from how to reach out, or companies that are like a record company in your phone, it’s all there. It’s just a matter of supporting these new, very early-stage start-ups so that they can get funding and also find the people in the traditional music industry and the people who can try the product and also who can give feedback that “Are we developing something that’s actually needed? Or that’s even possible to use?”. And it’s fun to see.

And it’s only a couple of years since we launched this community, which is a multi-space community and is very much in the digital world, community-wise. Although I really believe in meeting in real life, which is what we do as much as we can, or in usually informal meetups or attending local conferences or workshops.

I think I’ve always felt that way, as you say, as a connector, but it’s also… I see it more as an initiator, or seeing people that would work well together. I don’t even really know how or why sometimes, but I really, definitely feel it’s just initiating, and then they do something amazing. And the more we can connect people, and the more this pay it forward mentality spreads, the quicker these companies can get off the ground. And in the same way as other hubs are doing in technology in general, with contacts with investors, speed-dating, and applying, testing, and beta rounds, etc.

Dubber      Because I see what you do as not just a connector in terms of a passive “Oh yes, I’ll introduce you if you want me to.”, but very much curatorial, and saying “Okay, you need to meet this person. You need to have a conversation over here because I can see something that will result from that.”. Is that how you think of it?

Sara           Yes. I don’t even think I think it. I didn’t even realise what I’ve realised more lately, that it’s a talent, too, or something that’s just more an instinct to me. That’s why I often say that “I don’t even know why I feel that you have to definitely meet this person.”. It’s the subconscious has already worked out that there’s something there. And sometimes it could just be that “Oh, you two just will get on great as friends.”, or “These two groups of people can start a third.”. It’s just fantastic. Some people have come, even, with a very similar start-up, and then they’ve just developed one together. And so I don’t really think about it much, but I know that I can suss out very quickly who should meet who and what will initiate greatness.

So I’m really trying, personally, with STHLM Music, of course, as I mentioned, it’s a lot of people, but personally to just try and hone in on this, where many people will say “Well, it’s great because you have such a large network.”, and I’ll always retaliate or answer that with “It really doesn’t matter how many people you know, it’s how you know people.”. And I think that’s about really, genuinely liking people and being interested in people and wanting good.

And it’s fantastic to come everywhere in the world and find like-minded, because, of course, thank god, luckily I’m not the only one. There are lots of people who partly have this talent, and also really feel the same. And the more we hook up and connect together, and don’t see each other as competition, the greater things we can do. I’m happy that the people I have good relations to are so open to meeting each other.

Dubber      What’s a good outcome for you? I know you see good things happen because you were there and you made things happen between other people. At what point, or to what extent, do you get involved as a personal outcome that results from these things?

Sara           Well, the personal satisfaction when it becomes a successful company or a successful band, on the music side, or successful recording. Or successful something new that I didn’t even see coming, but not surprised with the people that were connected or involved. Sometimes they are very surprised. Then, often, I will hear that “Oh, you could never have imagined.”. Yeah, I could have. I did.

Dubber      Do you ever get written into projects?

Sara           Yes.

Dubber      Or are you very much the mentor?

Sara           Of course, since this has become, and been, not become, very much part of my work on the living side, as well. And for those around me, as well, it is very important not to forget the financial aspect. At the same time as that’s never been my driving force, which I also think is something that people genuinely feel. That “Okay, it’s a genuine interest and passion.”. Of course all of us should be able to live on this somehow. Being written into projects, apart from that, of course, wanting some financial solution, it’s more where I also can add a bit more other than just the connection or connecting people.

For example, I was very involved just as an advisor in… Well, not just, but as an advisor in with Soundtrap in the early days because I had a lot of expertise from the industry and also understood the technology and the platform, which was quite easy to grasp, and so I could give more in-depth advice. Same as within the SUP46 community, which is very separate to my own company, where anything that is music related, they will at once call me because they don’t even know if it’s something that works or what it is about, and then I’ll come in for that area. And several of the companies I’m more and more involved in the beginning. I try not to do more than ten per year because it’s a bit too much.

Dubber      Is Stockholm particularly good at this? Is there a reason that it’s Stockholm for you, other than you’re just from here?

Sara           Actually, it’s surprising that I’m back because when I came back in 2013, I thought I would just be here very temporarily and hadn’t picked up on how incredibly big Stockholm had become in all these other areas within tech. I was, of course, very aware of the music side. And also, going back to what I was mentioning earlier, I related, then, to these people I’d grown up with, not understanding that they were working on something that has such a global impact on the digital revolution.

And then the amazing thing with that such a small country in the numbers as Sweden has so many innovative people. Of course, I believe that people are innovative everywhere, but we are lucky here to have the chance of reaching out with your innovation and getting support, and going to school and having a very open community, and creativity is good and free. These are, of course, foundations.

And also I was talking to someone the other day that, on the music side, just the fact that we have the most choirs in the world or something. I didn’t even realise. And then when was said “Well, who hasn’t been in a choir?”, “Oh, it was just a thing you did.”. And as most things, you assume it’s the same everywhere. But I still don’t really know if anyone can answer “Why exactly are there such a huge amount of successful innovations out of Sweden?”. Always has been.

And I was talking to a colleague of mine. I’m sitting in the Stockholm city innovation award, which is also very exciting, and, of course, I’m there representing music and music tech within creative industries. And Tobias, who has worked for a long time with Nobel, he has a passion of showing how Alfred Nobel, who, of course, is so well known for the Nobel Prize, and people see him as this classic figure that he was, the entrepreneur of entrepreneurs, travelling all over the globe and with an endless amount of innovations, not just the dynamite.

Dubber      A lot of people that I’ve spoken to seem to equate the social aspect of Sweden with the innovation aspect of Sweden. That there is a correlation between gender equality, for instance, or non-hierarchical structures, to “This is why Sweden is good at innovation.”. Do you agree with that?

Sara           Yes. I think the non-hierarchical, I never say that properly, is definitely very important. And, of course, gender equality, even if, as I was mentioning, even myself in my lifetime experienced a lot that it was women didn’t work with tech. But, of course, compared to the rest of the world, we technically could, one has the possibility, to go to any school. And also, as I say, has the possibility to go to school full stop. So, of course, socialism and that revolution that happened to Sweden, I think, really contributed, even if, ironically, it’s also what these days works against.

But from my personal point of view, it’s definitely this, wherever it comes from, the fact that people treat each other equally, and that there’s not “You are the boss, and you are the this, and you are the that.”. One sees each other as teams. People are absolutely shocked if someone doesn’t. And that is something that, in reverse, I was very surprised at when I came to what I thought were very modern parts of the world, where it was that this is the structure of “No, you are paid to do this.”. And I experienced it myself, which is probably why Swedish people from our generation working out in the world must have been really difficult for all these bosses because we would question everything, and say “But why don’t you do this?”, whereas people were taught to just not say.

That’s why I think it’s fantastic to see countries like China where traditionally it’s been “You just do your job.”. And I always have been upset since a kid when people say that people from other countries are not creative. I say “No. If you’re taught to not say what you feel, then you’ll just be quiet with your idea.”. You’re losing all this incredible talent of people because of structures that make you feel that one person decides, and whatever you say, it’s not going to affect or impact anyway.

Dubber      I think it’s a nice way to think about it. The idea that innovation is somehow linked to the ability to question authority and ask “How else can this be?”.

Sara           Yes.

Dubber      I think that’s a really nice way of thinking about it.

Sara           Of course, I do believe in leaders. So does Sweden, and we often say that. That just because you don’t have the structure of hierarchy, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have leaders, and leadership is very important. But the best are, of course, those who encourage this, and I think one finds that. I see that all the time. That you find a lot in Sweden, and always have done. It’s ever since going to school, that as a child you’re taught you can question. It’s not “Everything you say as a teacher is right or wrong.”, it’s “There might be another way of doing it.”.

Dubber      Fantastic. Sara, thanks so much for your time today.

Sara           Thank you.

Dubber      That’s Sara Herrlin, and that’s the MTF Podcast. If you want to find Sara, SUP46, STHLM Music City, Nordic Music Tech, and all of the rest of Sara’s many activities and connections, just go on the internet, basically anywhere on social media, or simply ask anyone remotely connected with music, technology, innovation, or start-ups in Stockholm. They’ll know where to find her.

I’m Dubber, you can find me @dubber on Twitter. And you will find everything MTF, including our next innovation labs in Aveiro, at @mtflabs on Twitter and at www.mtflabs.net online. This episode was edited by Jake Dubber. The intro music was by Rex Banner, this is music by airtone, and the MTF audio logo, as always, was created by Run Dreamer. Stay safe, have a great week, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.

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