ABBA's SOS call to rebalance music economy

ABBA member Bjorn Ulvaeus has led a report looking into rebalancing the music economy after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Video Transcript

STEPHEN DIXON: Well, Bjorn Ulvaeus joins us now. It's quite frankly, amazing to talk to you, Bjorn. Thanks for joining us this morning. And look, tell us--

BJORN ULVAEUS: It's a pleasure, Stephen.

STEPHEN DIXON: Tell us about this report, and just how concerned you are with the impact the pandemic has had on royalties for artists.

BJORN ULVAEUS: Well, in a funny way, it has put the focus on the plight of songwriters. Because artists suddenly found themselves in the same place as songwriters had been for a long time. That is trying to make a living out of streaming, which is very, very difficult.

And the core of the music industry for me has always been the song. But somehow the songwriters have always been regarded as something in the periphery rather than the star of the whole thing.

STEPHEN DIXON: So what needs to change, then within all of this? Perhaps giving a bit more focus onto the songwriters, but in terms of rebalancing the money, is that even possible?

BJORN ULVAEUS: I think so. And I think there's a movement on both sides of the Atlantic now. I think that more and more people realize that the ecosystem is dysfunctional. It needs to be so that no part is unhappy. And as it is right now, more and more songwriters have to drive Ubers because of the imbalance.

And there are several factors in this. There is the way that royalties are calculated from streaming services, which is-- you know, every month the money goes into a big pot. And then that is divided by the total number of clicks that month, which means that each click gets, you know, very, very little money.

But most clicks go to the people who have been-- the mega players. And very little money goes to the people underneath that absolute elite layer. And so what I propose is a kind of user-centric, a kind of fan-centric model in streaming, where your subscription goes exactly to the people that you play.

STEPHEN DIXON: I mean, in terms of the companies behind all this streaming, I mean, do you think they will be willing to look at this? Is this the sort of change they'd be happy to make?

BJORN ULVAEUS: Not happy to make, perhaps, but it will be something they have to make, I think. Because it used to be that the elite songwriters, of course, could always make a living out of songwriting. But there was a layer underneath as well. And they could make a living during-- in the physical era.

And they could manage to push themselves up to the upper level through having, you know, the time and being able to afford to spend time on becoming better as songwriters. And it's, you know, it's a talent, but it's also a craft. And you have to hone your craft.

STEPHEN DIXON: With that in mind, I mean, just how real is the possibility? If it's just not paying enough money under the way the current system works, well, we're going to miss out. We're going to miss out on some real talents, aren't we?

BJORN ULVAEUS: I'm afraid so. I mean, I'm an example of what I mean. Because before we won the Eurovision Song Contest with "Waterloo," Benny Andersson and I had been in a rat race. We were running around, producing other people's records, writing songs for other people, even going on tours, you know, in different constellations just to pay the rent.

But from "Waterloo," when the royalties came pouring in, from that time, we could afford to say no to everything else and just concentrate on the writing. And that's when you get better at it. And that's what I wish for more songwriters today.

STEPHEN DIXON: In terms of the public, in terms of us as listeners to music, do we pay enough then? Should we be expecting to pay more for streaming services? Because it is cheap at the moment.

BJORN ULVAEUS: It is very cheap. And this is a legacy from the beginning of streaming when it actually saved the music industry from illegal downloading. But it's time, I think-- and I think that the streaming services are thinking about higher prices in the future. Because after all, to get all the music from the whole world, from every century for $9.99, is you know, very cheap.

STEPHEN DIXON: I can't let you go without asking about ABBA directly. Because people wouldn't forgive me. My father wouldn't forgive me. Joe, our cameraman who's a Super fan would not forgive me.

You have written music which all these decades later has stood the test of time. There isn't much in the world of pop which you can listen to in 2021 that still sounds as fresh as the day it was released. How on Earth did you manage that?

BJORN ULVAEUS: Yeah, I-- you know, I'm constantly amazed at that. And really, I don't know how it happened. We just recorded, you know, the songs the best we could.

And why it has stayed the way it has, I don't know. It's kind of a miracle. And I don't mind it being a miracle.

STEPHEN DIXON: It's a little bit of magic. Bjorn--

BJORN ULVAEUS: Yeah.

STEPHEN DIXON: --for me, personally, a real pleasure. A real privilege to talk to you this morning. Thank you very much, indeed.

BJORN ULVAEUS: Thank you, a pleasure.