It’s Day One of Daniel Ek and Ash Pournouri’s inaugural Brilliant Minds music-tech conference, and a polished, sharply dressed Swedish gentleman is sitting down for coffee in the lavish white and gold lobby of Stockholm’s Grand Hotel. To the nearby diners, he looks like any established businessman, with his cherry red-framed glasses and crisp, camel-toned suit and fresh copy of Swedish newspaper SvD Näringsliv placed in front of him.
But as he sits down for a rare interview, it becomes clear that no either knows or at least cares to make a scene that the businessman in question is Björn Ulvaeus, one-fourth of pioneering Swedish group ABBA and one of the most successful songwriters of all time. That’s thanks to the global success of Mamma Mia!, the jukebox musical based on ABBA’s extensive catalog that has grossed more than $2 billion from more than 40 international stage adaptations and been seen by more than 55 million people. In September, the original Broadway production will finally end its epic 14-year run (longer than Grease, Rent and Fiddler On The Roof, among many others.)
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Of course, Ulvaeus hasn’t recorded a song under the ABBA banner since 1982, and he and his fellow bandmates have fiercely maintained in the 33 years since that they never intend to do that again. So long has Ulvaeus been out of the game, he can’t help but come off as blissfully unaware of certain aspects of the current music business.
“I haven’t talked to Billboard in a very long time. Tell me, Cashbox is not around anymore is it?” Ulvaeus says of the other long-defunct weekly charts magazine which shuttered its print publication in 1996. “When did that die? So it’s only you now, and in England Music Week?”
Over the next 15 minutes, Ulvaeus generously spoke at length about ABBA’s legacy even as he gazed longingly at the shimmering Lake Mälaren just outside the hotel plaza (he had originally requested the conversation to be 10 minutes). Topics ranged from the surreal foundation of the two-year-old ABBA Museum in Stockholm, Mamma Mia!’s next chapter, the relief of avoiding reunion tours (“it’s kind of good to be the only group that never came back”) and the imbalance of the new streaming economy.
The ABBA Museum has been around for two years now. Was there ever any resistance to be a part of something like that, given that all four members are still very much alive?
You bet. [laughs] It was kind of weird to be part of your own museum, so there was a huge resistance from me and the rest of us. But the City of Stockholm wanted it, and it seemed to be a good thing for Stockholm, and anything that’s good for Stockholm I’m for it. So we said yes without really thinking too much about it. But then it suddenly became very real when they said, “We have this building, it’s being built right now in Djurgarden, in the perfect place for it, but I realize it’s very close to home.”
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And I also realized, what would it be like if I had to hear comments about the museum like “It’s not really good, is it?” or “I expected more from it”? Because I’m gonna hear that not just for a year but for the rest of my life. And that’s when I decided to get involved myself. But it wasn’t as difficult as I thought because immediately when I started doing it I could take a step back and immediately see myself as a historical pop personality, the guy from the 70s in the funny outfits, and I told his story. And quite unattached from myself, who I am right now, so that was a way to get over it. And then after that it was pure joy, actually. We wanted to give it a sense of honor, to show that we were not taking ourselves too seriously, a bit of warmth, a bit of analog mixed with digital. But it had a kind of closeness for people — because foreigners, they see us up there as something beyond the sky. Whereas when you walk into the museum, there is the humble beginning which is very, very down to earth and I wanted people to have that feeling.
What’s been the most rewarding thing about establishing the museum and the Swedish Music Hall of Fame?
I think the most rewarding part will maybe be in the future when this becomes the House of Music in Sweden. It is on the way to becoming that, but you want it to be the physical manifestation of the Swedish music wonder, whatever they call it. So that’s what I’m working on at the moment, so maybe next year if there are press conferences or seminars from the Stockholm Symposium, it could be in Pop House Stockholm instead. We’ll see. It’s also very rewarding to hear from people who enjoy the museum. I’ve never heard any comments from people who say, “well I expected more than that.”
You were the lead speaker at Brilliant Minds today, a conference that celebrates Swedish entrepreneurs. As you were forming ABBA at a time when Swedish music had no international profile in the early 70s, did you feel like an entrepreneur yourself at the time?
No, not one bit. When we split up in ’82, I thought that was that. It never crossed my mind, you know? It was so far from what we thought, that we’d be sitting here today talking about this. But I guess there is some truth in it — that before ABBA there was nothing. That an American label would come to Sweden and listen to something from Sweden seemed totally impossible. And now, totally different, and I guess we had something to do with it. Although there’s certainly been other people through the decades. But a lot of people saw that it was possible for Swedish writers, Swedish producers to have success abroad. Because I think the mentality was it’s not even worth trying, it’s impossible. And I think that changed, which always changes when there’s role models. So, I’m very proud of that.
Are there any Swedish artists or producers who you feel are carrying on your legacy today?
In a way, Max Martin of course. And, well, all those writers — they have a different way of writing today, but still they’re songwriters very part of the mainstream right now like we were in the ‘70s. And soon they’ll be past it, and someone else will continue.
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Do you still write?
Benny [Andersson] and I write the occasional song, yes. It’s mostly, we’ve written musicals after we finished with ABBA. There might be another musical in us, you never know. But directly after ABBA we wrote Chess of course, which had “One Night In Bangkok,” and then we’ve written a couple more — Mamma Mia! of course. And speaking of Mamma Mia!, I’m currently involved in a very interesting experiment — there is a fun part of Stockholm called Gröna Lund, and they have an old restaurant [Tyrol] that we’ll be transforming into a Greek taverna type of thing with olive tress and a fountain. And much like Mamma Mia!, where this is a huge wedding party at the end, I want to re-create that kind of happy mood and while people are eating and having fun and drinking, they’ll be in on a real-time story at the same time. It’s not Mamma Mia! 2, it’s completely different, but it’s told in the same way and it’s kind of interactive with the audience. So that’s Mamma Mia! The Party, which will open in Stockholm in January.
And I’m sure you saw that when you teased the show online, people were saying, “Wow, could this finally be the reunion?” Did you expect that speculation?
I mean I don’t know if ever those speculations will stop. [laughs] But it’s kind of good to be the only group that never came back. Because I think we’re virtually the only group that could have a reunion that hasn’t had one.
Do you see bands like The Rolling Stones and The Who right now and think, “I don’t want to be touring like that”?
You. Bet. Every time I see that I’m so happy that I don’t have to be there. But to those guys it’s become a way of life, I suppose. Because we didn’t tour, really, all that much — effectively there was a five to six month period over 10 years that we spent touring. To us touring meant nothing. I’m just relieved I don’t have to think about a tour, I can go out on my boat this afternoon in the archipelago…it’s wonderful.
Certainly you recognized the importance of documenting those relatively few performances, however, as ABBA filmed over a dozen music videos and countless concert films before the age of MTV had arrived.
Yes, but touring was something we never really liked. It was like reproducing something we had already done. I was so oriented towards the next recording, that after a few concerts it kind of became boring.
With the Broadway musical coming to a close in September, does The Party feel like the next chapter of Mamma Mia! to you?
It could be the next chapter, but it has nothing to do with the closer of the show. But if this takes off, I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work elsewhere. So we’ll see. But it’s an experiment, and in the beginning Mamma Mia! was an experiment as well. Nobody knew — I mean, look at all those jukebox musicals that came after Mamma Mia! And now 55 million or something have seen it, just mind-boggling.
How do you assess the digital music landscape for musicians right now?
Well I think streaming services, as I said in my talk today, YouTube is a streaming service and should pay the way that premium subscribers pay for Spotify. Digital has not taken off for writers at all. And one other thing I think premium subscribers should do is, I’m a premium subscriber and I may click on something 50 times a month for my 10 dollars. Whereas next door, the neighbor’s daughter clicks 800 times on Justin Bieber, and she also pays 10 dollars and we’re all put together in one lump. Which means the artists I play get so little in comparison with Justin Bieber, and that’s totally unfair I think. Why should it be different than when you went and bought a CD? That money went straight to the people who made the CD. It should be the same as streaming I think. I’m feeling so disenchanted about that.