Will Songwriting Survive Streaming? Abba’s Bjorn Ulvaeus Is Worried.


One of pop’s most successful songwriters on fighting for the value of his craft, and on the young talents he admires most.

“The song has always been where it all begins in the music industry,” Bjorn Ulvaeus said.
“The song has always been where it all begins in the music industry,” Bjorn Ulvaeus said.Credit...Vianney Le Caer/Invision, via Associated Press
Ben Sisario

In Abba, Bjorn Ulvaeus tasted the highest reaches of musical fame, selling millions of albums that defined earworm 1970s pop and remain an inextricable part of the pop-culture fabric. Somewhere around the world, at least in normal times, a wedding reception is always bopping to “Take a Chance on Me” or “Dancing Queen.”

A key part of Abba’s success — and of the wealth of Ulvaeus and his writing partner, Benny Andersson — was its songwriting, and in recent years, Ulvaeus has become an outspoken advocate for songwriters. Last year, he became president of CISAC, an umbrella organization for copyright collection societies around the world.

Ulvaeus, like many others, is worried that the streaming economy that now dominates the music industry has put songwriters at a severe financial disadvantage. Low payouts, split among teams of writers, mean that even the composers of major hits make a relative pittance from streams — despite the clear importance of songwriters and producers in crafting the material that propels the careers of star performers.

“The song has always been where it all begins in the music industry,” Ulvaeus said in a video interview this week from his home near Stockholm.

Last month, Midia Research, which specializes in music and digital media, released a study, “Rebalancing the Song Economy,” that was commissioned by Ulvaeus. It includes some surprising findings — in a survey, twice as many streaming users said a song mattered more to them than the artist who performed it, rather than the opposite — and sounds an alarm about the need to reform the economics of streaming to better support songwriters.

In conversation, Ulvaeus grinned widely when reminiscing about his creative process — promising, with tantalizingly little detail, that new Abba songs would be coming this fall — and dove into the minutiae of the songwriting business, calling for broad changes while also pushing writers to remember to properly fill out all copyright registrations to make sure they get paid.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

ImageFrom left: Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson of Abba. Ulvaeus said there would be “some new music from Abba released this autumn.”
From left: Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson of Abba. Ulvaeus said there would be “some new music from Abba released this autumn.”Credit... Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Streaming has been a boon for the music industry. Why has it not benefited songwriters, and what can be done about that?

The pandemic has put the focus on the plight of the songwriter. Suddenly the artists were in the same situation. Their only income was suddenly just streaming. “My God, I can’t live on this. I can’t pay the rent.” And we songwriters said, “Hey, welcome to the world of songwriters. This is what it’s like for us.”

So it’s time for change. And I think because of the pandemic, there will be change. There’s movement now, on both sides of the Atlantic. There’s a realization that the song is such a valuable asset to the industry and that we need to treat the songwriters better.

If songwriters are unable to make a real living from streaming, what’s going to happen if this problem is not fixed?

Everyone is going to find out that more of the songwriters have turned to driving Ubers instead of songwriting. There will be a lot of do-it-yourself people. But people with long careers? Oh, that’s going to be very, very difficult in the current climate.

The top, elite layer, they will always make it, of course. But there was a layer underneath that used to be able to live from their songwriting, and sometimes would push their way up to the elite because they had the time to develop. Benny Andersson and I are prime examples of that. Before we wrote “Waterloo” and won the Eurovision Song Contest, we were in a rat race as well, running around, producing other people, writing songs for other people, sometimes touring in different constellations, just to pay the rent.

When the copyright money came pouring in after “Waterloo,” we said no to everything else. And we just sat down and decided to write from 9 to 5 every weekday. Some songs got finished in two months or two years, even. We would pick up a bridge from two years back that would suddenly fit into the song we were working on. That’s how we became, I think, good songwriters. And that’s what I want for more people, but they have to start off by being able to live off their songwriting.

How do you get ordinary fans to care about songwriters? They tend to care the most about the performing artists and not know as much about the writers.

That was the case up until the Beatles came along. Then every group wrote their own songs, and for a while the songwriters were well known. But now we’re back into pure songwriters and artists. [Laughs.]

People like me, what we can do is to talk about it whenever we can. When people choose what to play on Spotify, they choose a song title twice as many times as they choose an artist. So I think it should be possible to convey this message to people out there that it matters; their decisions matter.

One thing that I would like to push for, which ordinary people should know about, is how a click is calculated. There is a big pot of money, and then there is a huge number of clicks. And the first is divided by the second. Niche artists, artists that have 10,000 devoted followers, those artists — and the songwriters — get almost nothing, even though they have these devoted followers, which is why I push for user-centric subscriptions. If you explain this to people, they think, “Yeah, of course, that’s fair. We didn’t know that we gave our money to the mega streamers, rather than to the people we stream.”

For a long time now, there’s been the argument that if the financial incentives for musicians fall, then people will stop creating. But we’ve seen the opposite, with more music being created than ever.

Music will always be created. People will feel the urge to create. But the music that you get — with 60,000 recordings a day added to Spotify — what you get is someone writing what they think is a song. And sometimes, by accident, they write something that’s got a hook, and it’s a hit suddenly.

But the thing is, they don’t know what they’ve done. “What did I do?” Because to know, you have to be a craftsman as well. You have to realize what a good song is. And if you can’t recognize garbage, it’s very hard to know what a good song is. And that’s what time gets you, to become a good craftsman.

In the current model of pop songwriting, you have teams of writers, with a separation of roles like an assembly line — somebody does the beat, somebody else does the melody. Is that good for music, and good for songwriters?

For me, those songs most of the time become products. There’s no sense of, this is coming out of someone’s heart. Take Elton John and Bernie Taupin, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” That’s not a product; that is something else. I prefer the ones where you feel this is who is sending this song out to people — that you get some part of them as well.

I can hear that those pop songs sometimes have really good ingredients, are ultraprofessional and sometimes very catchy. But they lack that sense of personality, I think.

What songwriters do you like today?

Billie Eilish is interesting. And of course I admire Taylor Swift as well. And Rihanna. I think it’s the whole package — the way they develop and the way they partake in the songwriting and create an artistic entity. I find that very interesting, much more interesting than the kind of pop packages, Disney stuff. [Laughs.]

Is it a coincidence you mentioned all women?

I think it is. But maybe in my subconscious I choose women. Maybe because I’ve been in the studio with two women not too long ago.

Benny and I have written some new songs, and there will be some new music from Abba released this autumn. But I’m forbidden to say anything more about it. I’m sorry. I would have told you everything, but I can’t. All I can say is that it was fantastic in the studio because it was like yesterday. It was so strange coming into that studio and the four of us looking at each other and thinking, “What is this?” It all came rushing back.