Björn Ulvaeus, a co-founder of ABBA who wrote the group’s hits with his bandmate Benny Andersson, was today (May 29) named the president of CISAC, the global confederation of authors societies. Known for his business-savvy, as well as his interest in technology, Ulvaeus steps into the role at a time when Internet companies and collecting societies are learning to live with one another but still have very different views on how streaming services should work and what they should pay creators.
“I tend to think that creators get too little, of course, because I’m a songwriter, and I think that in the long run we have to take a closer look at how things are divided,” Ulvaeus told Billboard over Zoom before his appointment became official. “It all starts with the song, as far as I’m concerned. What’s more important – ‘Dancing Queen’ [the song] or ABBA? And since you can’t say, wouldn’t it be more natural to split it down the middle?”
CISAC – the Confédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Auteurs et Compositeurs, or International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers – represents 232 societies in 120 countries around the world, and advocates for higher royalties and better terms for creators. While the Paris-based nonprofit is run by a director general – currently Gadi Oron – a creator serves as president, a high-profile job that involves standing up for the rights of creators around the world. For the past seven years, that role was filled by Jean-Michel Jarre, the pioneering French electronic composer and musician, who criticized technology companies like Google at a time when the kind of copyright protection that songwriters depend on often seemed to be under attack.
Ulvaeus tends to be softer-spoken, and thus well-suited for a time when a public debate about whether creators have the right to be paid for their work has given way to private discussions about how best to divide the spoils of the fast-growing streaming business.
“We’re always striving to be at the forefront of technologies that are relevant to creators,” Ulvaeus, 75, plans to say to CISAC’s online General Assembly, according to selections from his speech provided to Billboard. “Tech that can win them both more royalties and greater recognition for their role and importance in society.”
For the past few years Ulvaeus has played a role in developing this kind of technology as an investor in Session – formerly Auddly – which makes software that helps songwriters and musicians get proper credit, and thus payment, for their contributions to compositions and recordings. “That taught me a lot about what the problems are in terms of lack of efficiency and outdated systems,” says Ulvaeus who’s calling from a comfortable chair in his home in Stockholm.
Ulvaeus also thinks that better technology could make possible a “user-centric subscription” model, where services like Spotify would divide the money from each consumer’s subscription among the acts they listened to in a given month, rather than pool and divide total revenue. “If I listen to a few songs a week and my neighbor plays Justin Bieber all the time, it becomes incredibly unfair,” Ulvaeus says.
“I talked to Daniel Ek and Spotify can do this.” (The two have met a few times but don’t know each other well). That doesn’t mean that services, or labels that have structured artist deals around the current system, would favor such a change, of course. “But what does the consumer think?” Ulvaeus asks, in a way that suggests he will agree with him.
Over the years, Ulvaeus and his former bandmates have gained a reputation for being business-savvy as well as successful. Although ABBA was more popular in Europe than in the U.S., it’s one of the biggest acts of all time, with well over 100 million in album sales. But while many major acts from that time continued to tour, ABBA had its music – especially Ulvaeus and Andersson’s songs – go to work instead. The ABBA musical, “Mamma Mia,” became a hit on London’s West End, as well as Broadway – then spun off two movies and versions of “Mamma Mia! The Party” in Stockholm and London, with plans to open in Gothenburg, Sweden, and eventually New York and Las Vegas.
In 2016, ABBA announced a reunion of sorts, in the form of a virtual tour with “ABBAtars,” as well as a television special and new songs. The special isn’t happening and the tour has been postponed, but the group recorded four songs that “are very much ABBA,” Ulvaeus says, and they all got along well.
“Benny and I were very lucky in that we got time to hone our craft, with royalties coming in – and royalties buys time, and time makes you a better songwriter,” Ulvaeus says. “This is what I want to work for at CISAC.”