‘The music industry revolves around the song.’

‘The music industry revolves around the song.’


MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters collection celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s largest hits. This time, we discuss to ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus, who, alongside his co-writing accomplice Benny Andersson, has loved almost 400m album gross sales globally — a determine that was just lately bolstered by the band’s comeback album, Voyage. World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the world digital music assortment society which strives to maximise worth for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.


When the thought for a brand new ABBA album took place, which might be their first new materials in 40 years, band member and co-chief songwriter, Björn Ulvaeus, wasn’t positive how it might be obtained.

“I was a bit nervous,” he says. “Would people think, ‘Oh my God, they are old geezers, why do they have to release this album?’”

Ulvaeus needn’t have nervous. Voyage, which arrived in November by way of Universal Music, topped the chart in 18 international locations with worldwide gross sales exceeding greater than 1 million in its first week. To date, the set has collected greater than 275m mixed streams and has hit Platinum in the UK. 

“People appear to understand it for what it’s — everybody is aware of that we’re in our ‘70s,” Ulvaeus acknowledges.

The success is down to the strong and long-lasting legacy of ABBA, of course, but also perhaps because Ulvaeus and his fellow band member and songwriting partner, Benny Andersson, didn’t change their tried and examined strategy in an effort to slot in with the remainder of the charts.

Voyage is unmistakably ABBA: arguably tacky, Swedish pop, adore it or hate it (and a few critics did hate it, “rather than reflecting poignantly on the past, much of Voyage feels terminally stuck there,” reads a disenchanted Guardian evaluate).

“We decided early on that if we recorded new songs, we will write the best songs we can, not by glancing at what other people are doing right now but just by tapping into our own resources,” Ulvaeus explains. “The songs are timeless in that sense — we could have written them long ago.”

“I was a bit nervous — would people think, ‘Oh my God, they are old geezers, why do they have to release this album?’”

Back in the ‘60s, Ulvaeus wasn’t banking on music being his profession. His first band was Swedish-folk outfit Hootenanny Singers, the place he was biding his time earlier than anticipating to return to school and examine civil engineering. 

Aside from a number of makes an attempt at writing pop songs in his early teenagers, Ulvaeus didn’t take writing critically till The Beatles got here alongside in ’64. “The idea never struck me that I could write my own songs because you didn’t do that in those days,” he explains. 

“Elvis would sing songs but you never bothered with who the songwriters were — they were totally anonymous. Then The Beatles came along, and all of a sudden, wow, they were writing their own songs.

“At that very same moment, songwriters around the world cropped up because they showed that you can be in a group, you can be an artist, and you can write your own stuff.”


The music that modified every part for Ulvaeus and precipitated him to scrap his engineering plan was the first that he and Andersson wrote collectively. Titled Isn’t It Easy To Say, it was for the latter’s then group, Hep Stars — not a very good music, says Ulvaeus, however the one which marked the starting of what’s since been a profitable five-decade lengthy artistic partnership. 

Alongside the virtually 400 million albums bought worldwide, 17 No.1 hits and over 16 million weekly world streams garnered throughout ABBA’s nine-album catalog, fruits of the Ulvaeus and Andersson partnership have spanned quite a lot of musicals, together with the ABBA-soundtracked Mamma Mia!

The band have additionally been concerned in creating the Voyage tour, which can see avatars of the 4 group members, together with vocalists Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad, carry out a number of dates from May to December 2022 in a custom-built enviornment in London, which Ulvaeus says may journey past the UK in future.

(ABBA have been by no means eager on touring and enjoying dwell themselves: “We thought, why waste time on tour where you can’t write? We were so geared towards creating new things,” says Ulvaeus.)

Beyond ABBA, Ulvaeus is at the moment making a circus musical primarily based on the youngsters’s books about Swedish fictional character Pippi Longstocking, and he’s additionally President of CISAC, the place he advocates for the rights of songwriters. 

Here, we chat to him about his songwriting craft, artistic partnership with Andersson, and get his perspective on the fashionable music scene. 


Photo credit score: Baillie Walsh

What is it about your partnership with Benny that works so properly?

First of all, each of us are nonetheless keen to take dangers, to take one other step ahead, like we’re doing with Voyage. Not a lot the album, however the precise present in London. We’ve all the time tried to enter uncharted waters — like after we cut up up with ABBA and tried our hand at musicals.

We nonetheless have one thing to provide one another. Very typically in songwriting groups, one in all the workforce stagnates and writes the similar factor over once more after which they don’t work. But we work as a result of we’re nonetheless having fun with it. I don’t know anybody higher to work with and hopefully he feels the similar. 

“Very often in songwriting teams, one of the team stagnates and writes the same thing over again and then they don’t work.”

Of course, we now have this incredible benefit of getting the similar frames of reference. I simply have to say a phrase and he is aware of precisely what I’m considering — what music I’m fascinated by, what style and so forth.


How about the most irritating factor about working with Benny?

He’s very cussed however that can also be a top quality that has been useful by way of the years as a result of he by no means provides up. Sometimes, when he was searching for a sound in a synth or one thing and turning the knobs, I’d suppose, ‘Wow, this takes forever’. But you need to carry your self as much as a degree which is above the degree the place most individuals would surrender in an effort to make one thing that we thought was worthwhile and we might be actually pleased with, each in songwriting and recording. 

Back in these days, lots of people gave up too early — when the music or the recordings weren’t fairly completed and that little further 1% as much as 100 means a lot. Nowadays, with all the know-how obtainable for each songwriters and producers, every part sounds actually good, in fact, however in these days, you needed to check out the drum sound for hours in the studio. Mixing was a lot harder once you didn’t have the computerised mixing desks. 

So the stubbornness is typically infuriating but it surely’s a very good high quality in the finish. We’ve had powerful discussions however don’t let that come between us in our skilled relationship, and never in our private relationship, both. We’ve all the time managed to kind it out by way of the years.


How have you ever navigated the harder durations of time, whether or not that’s resulting from you having disagreements or maybe durations of artistic block?

Hard work — simply realizing that, even when it takes every week or weeks to supply stuff, a bridge that’s helpful or one thing, you need to have persistence as a result of in the finish, it comes. You can’t simply sit down with a guitar and a glass of wine, it doesn’t work that method. And I haven’t heard of a composer, apart from Elton John, who says it comes really easy and rapidly. I used to be listening to Stephen Sondheim discuss just lately about his work and the way painstakingly onerous it was, how he needed to put down the hours to get it proper. I feel individuals generally don’t take into consideration that. 

“even if it takes weeks to produce stuff, You have to have persistence. You cannot just sit down with a guitar and a glass of wine.”

But it’s a indisputable fact that sure, you need to have expertise, and you’ve got to have the ability to hearken to no matter is up there and is keen to come back all the way down to you. You have to grasp when it’s good, and, much more importantly, maybe, when it’s rubbish. You have to search out the 5% that’s actually good. 


Do you’ve gotten a songwriting course of or is creating extra spontaneous for you?

I’m completely free. I can do it anyplace. At the starting, Benny and I used to sit down collectively, enjoying different individuals’s songs to get inspiration after which developing with one thing of our personal, and fairly often singing some form of gibberish, which I feel virtually all songwriters do.

Even if most of the musical concepts got here from Benny, we assembled the songs collectively. Very typically, it’s about connecting stuff that you simply did two weeks or two years in the past, maybe that you simply thought was good however that didn’t lead anyplace at that time. But abruptly, it might click on with one thing you’d written that second. And then it’s magic. We spent a lot time doing that, virtually workplace hours in his basement or at some workplace or cubicle someplace, so long as it had a piano. 

Then we took on a really heavy venture, a musical primarily based on a giant Swedish novel known as The Emigrants. I had already grow to be an increasing number of of the phrase man and so then we separated — he did the music, I did the phrases and that’s the method it’s been from then on. 

With phrases, I simply want headphones or a very good hi-fi system. Benny sends me a fairly elaborate demo with overdubs so it’s good to hearken to after which I take that anyplace I’m going in my automobile or I hearken to it at residence. I play that demo again and again after which the strangest factor occurs, which is that one thing pops up in my head from the music itself. It might be a phrase but it surely may also be photographs or a sequence of photographs, like slightly film. That’s what’s so fantastic about working with songwriting — to enter that new world that has been opened by the music and describe it.


What are the components that make a very good music, in your eyes?

I feel that each a part of it must be taken care of and has to have a top quality of its personal. I’m speaking about intro, verse, bridge, refrain, counter-melodies, what the guitar is enjoying — all of that. When it’s at it’s finest in a Beatles music or when it’s easy however but every part that’s being performed is precisely the proper factor. That’s when it’s actually good. 

“a lot of songwriters end up delivering a song when all the parts aren’t up to the same level of quality.”

But again then, and much more so now, plenty of songwriters find yourself delivering a music when all the elements aren’t as much as the similar degree of high quality. It could be a extremely good refrain, a extremely good hook after which they suppose the verse and the relaxation will not be that vital as a result of the hook is there. But that’s not the method The Beatles, the Eagles or The Beach Boys wrote songs.


What do you make of contemporary songwriting at the moment?

I feel that the music corporations need fast outcomes. Everything may be very fast and it’s straightforward so that you can see if individuals catch on or not and that has modified songwriting. You should hook individuals in a short time on a streaming service, in any other case they’ll choose one thing else. I feel Max Martin was quoted complaining about the indisputable fact that you need to place the hook in the first 30 seconds of a music. It’s very tough to catch curiosity straight away, until you’re a well-known artist.


What affect have you ever seen which have on music?

There aren’t any album tracks anymore. There was tracks that you simply knew would take individuals 4, 5 or 6 instances to hearken to earlier than they began appreciating what it’s. Those sorts of tracks are uncommon now as a result of the bodily album is on its method out. I simply hope that one thing will come instead. Yes, individuals launch albums digitally however you don’t uncover one thing that’s an entire physique of labor and isn’t destined for the prime of the charts on Spotify. It’s very onerous to find that today.


Both you and Benny have talked about how vital it has all the time been to maintain your songwriting course of between the two of you, which is kind of completely different to the majority of the method standard music is written today, which tends to be by committee. Why did you stick with yours and Benny’s strategy all these years?

Because we need to categorical one thing that has a sender, a bodily particular person behind it, in order that it’s not a product, it’s a music that comes from the coronary heart. It’s very tough to try this by committee.

“we want to express something that has a sender, a physical person behind it, so that it’s a song that comes from the heart. It’s very difficult to do that by committee.”

It turns into rather more private if it’s simply two of you. I feel that’s what you are feeling with the songs that may be actually good songs however there’s one thing lacking, some form of persona or originality, which one can find in songs by Lennon, McCartney, Billie Eilish and generally Taylor Swift, as properly. 


What’s your favorite ABBA music and why?

It’s very tough for me to choose only one favorite!


Okay, slightly than a favorite, do you’ve gotten one which’s actually memorable to you due to the method it got here collectively between you and Benny?

Yes, that may be The Winner Takes It All. We had summer time homes on an island exterior of Stockholm and we used to go and isolate ourselves on the market generally. Especially at the finish of a writing interval, after we had performed the workplace hours and had plenty of materials. That’s what we did — we had a helicopter take us out in the center of winter to this little island. There was a cottage on that island, which was in my property, and that’s the place we sat down to put in writing but it surely grew to become too chilly. 

I nonetheless don’t understand how we did this to this present day however someway we carried slightly get up piano all the way down to the fundamental home the place it was heat. And there, swiftly, two issues caught collectively. The first bit was one thing that was written earlier than after which ‘da da da da da da’ was one thing else. By placing these two collectively, we had an entire music and we have been so deliriously proud of all of it night time lengthy. 

For some cause, not solely do I bear in mind writing the music but additionally the lyrics as a result of, I’m a lot quicker now, but it surely used to take me some time and this one got here flowing in only one night throughout a few hours. I used to put in writing down the lyrics by hand very neatly on sheets of paper after which I’d make copies once I acquired to the studio in the morning. So I bear in mind this morning distinctly after we gathered in the management room and Michael B Tretow, who was our sound engineer, performed the backing monitor, which we had recorded already. We gathered and I gave everybody a sheet of the lyrics, Agnetha sang and it was magic.


Voyage caps off many years of success with the band. What is it about ABBA that’s ensured such a long-lasting legacy?

I feel one issue have to be how we’ve sustained the music catalog by way of the years by, as an illustration, Mamma Mia! the musical and the motion pictures. And then the songs themselves. We made such an affect in the ‘70s that there are people who’ve grown up with our music and carry that with them, enjoying it so that children hearken to it. And for some cause, children like our music. I’ve heard that lots. 

Before we launched Voyage, I feel our songs had by no means been performed greater than they’re proper now and it’s so world. Every nation you go to, they know these songs, they don’t essentially know ABBA as such however they know the songs. 

I suppose it additionally has to do with the sound of the voices of Agnetha and Frida. It’s a singular sound. And it’s completely by likelihood — we simply occurred to fulfill these ladies who have been incredible singers and we began a bunch ultimately. Agnetha is a soprano and Frida is a mezzo and when Frida tries to fulfill Agnetha up there, there’s a metallic, typical sound, which I can hear miles away.

There’s additionally a selected form of joyous, jubilant high quality to the sound, which may be very attention-grabbing as a result of generally the lyrics are unhappy and the songs could be in a minor key but it surely nonetheless sounds uplifting in some unusual method. The music has Nordic roots, too, which could be unique to the remainder of the world, however not too unique, and defines the songs amongst predominantly Anglo-Saxon music.


What recommendation would you give to a songwriter early on of their profession?

It’s a tricky query as a result of ordinarily, a younger songwriter can’t dwell on their songwriting so that they should have one other job, which implies they don’t have time to get good at songwriting they usually should go on working at the different job. It’s a catch-22 when you don’t break by way of and copyright cash is sufficient so that you can dwell on.

“a young songwriter can’t live on their songwriting so they have to have another job, which means they don’t have time to get good at songwriting. It’s a catch-22.”

To grow to be a craftsman will not be solely expertise, it’s onerous work. That takes time and time is cash. Young songwriters at the moment dwell on a pittance fairly often as a result of the songwriter is in the periphery, when she or he must be at the centre. The music industry revolves around the music. 

So what recommendation would I give? I suppose they’ve to begin by getting a number of songs recorded and have a number of hits, dwell off these for some time and grow to be good at it. And don’t churn out songs, don’t throw them out earlier than they’re prepared, save the great things till the complete music is sweet. That occurs very hardly ever at the moment as a result of they’ve the writer or the producer respiration down their necks to ship it they usually have much less time defending it.


Final query: what would you alter about the music industry and why?

Two issues: one is that the division between publishing and label is like 15% versus 55% so it’s completely weighted in direction of the label. I feel there’s cause to alter that stability in order that the music, the writer and songwriter will get extra of the pie. If you ask, ‘What’s extra vital, the singer or the music?’ it’s completely not possible to say so the affordable factor can be to separate it 50/50.

The different factor is the method that streaming is paid [via the marketshare model] may be very unusual. A French jazz artist may need been performed 500 instances by his followers, who’re maybe 1,000, whereas as a result of Justin Bieber has been performed hundreds of thousands and hundreds of thousands of instances by his followers, little or no of the month-to-month subscription charges go to this French jazz artist compared to what goes to the mega streamer. As President of CISAC, I’m continuously speaking about user-centric subscriptions as a result of that can give the French jazz artist one thing to dwell off.


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