Meet CISAC’s New President: Hit Songwriter Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA
Björn Ulvaeus has written more than 150 hit songs and shows, co-founded one of the most commercially successful acts the music business has ever seen, and been recognized as one of the greatest songwriters in history — but one role the Swedish hitmaker never expected to be in was that of an industry spokesman. In the earlier days of his career, he was “completely uninterested” in topics like royalties, copyright, and rights management, Ulvaeus says.
Today, Ulvaeus is the incoming president of global rights group CISAC — fully, the Confédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Auteurs et Compositeurs, also known as the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers. Based in Paris but operating internationally, CISAC is the world’s biggest network of author societies, representing 4 million creators and publishers across fields that include music, literature, drama, and the visual arts. The group advocates for advancements in copyright law and helps protect creators’ interests in 120 countries. Ulvaeus takes over for bestselling French electronic composer Jean Michel Jarre, who led CISAC for the past seven years.
The ABBA superstar spoke with Rolling Stone over Zoom, from his home in Sweden, about his surprising journey to the new position atop the music industry — and the ambitions he already has for it.
How did you arrive to this role?
I was asked by several people a year ago, independently, who knew that Jean Michel Jarre was going to leave this year. I said, “Forget it! No way. Me?” I just didn’t have, you know — I couldn’t see myself as president for anything.
But they persisted. I started thinking about it. Undeniably, I have a long career and I am a songwriter who has seen it all from the inside. I’ve been successful with theater and film and records, all that stuff. I started to realize that I had the right background to be the president of a global organization for creators.
I have also been involved for five or six years in a creators’ tool called Session, which is about capturing creative thought at the source in the recording studio and in the writing process. I have a vision of how technology can make lives fairer and more transparent for so many songwriters.
In the end I said, “OK, I’ll do it.” I plan to be more active than making a couple of speeches now and then, because I think it’s great fun — and because I have access to almost anyone in the music industry. With a global organization like CISAC, I also have access to governments. It’s going to be very interesting. I hope I can do something to better the lives of creators.
What do you see as the greatest challenge for songwriters right now, and how can CISAC help with that?
The greatest right now is obviously COVID, because royalties will dry up when touring artists cannot tour. It’s horrible for musicians whose livelihoods really depend on this and are already hand-to-mouth. They have to be supported somehow. I don’t know how yet, because I haven’t actually become president yet, but collecting societies, labels, publishers, and governments all have to support the creative sector; it means so much to society.
As a songwriter yourself, what has been your biggest frustration with the music industry?
A lot of my frustration comes from the lack of transparency. It is so convoluted and complex. There is no knowing where something is played or how it goes through various channels and ends up giving only a fraction to the songwriter. That is one thing I will be working for. I know we can create tools that allow the songwriter to look at the whole value chain. This kind of transparency is what I have a vision of, and it needs transparency from all sides.
The source of all this is the creator. Benny Anderson and I have always said that this business starts with a song. But as a community, the songwriters are maybe the weakest in the whole value chain, compared to labels, publishers. I see a future where the creators have more power.
Has the industry become more transparent since you were in the early days of ABBA?
It has, but it’s very slow. It hasn’t been disrupted in any serious way. You can say that Spotify was to be expected as a tech development. The industry still needs to be much more open.
It does seem like songwriters are often at a disadvantage because they are so siloed from one another. How can CISAC help with that?
The picture I want to paint is that it’s a global organization totally on the creators’ side. It is a nonprofit. There is nothing else like that. What I’d like to do is build trust that from CISAC emanates education. It is an organization they can turn to whenever they have questions or issues that we can take to a higher level. I want to be approachable in that way.
Sometimes I feel songwriters look at their collecting society as something of an old boys’ club, something stuffy that they get some money from every now and then; but the society is a nonprofit and on their side.
“I realized, when the first royalties came in for Benny and me for ABBA, that it gave me time. It gave us freedom. It gave us possibility to hone our craft, to become good songwriters. We could take time writing.”
How long, in your own career, did it take to learn about the existence of collection societies and performing-rights organizations and that whole sphere?
I had my first hit when I was 18, and I was completely uninterested in stuff like that, obviously. It was there in a peripheral phenomenon — but I never gave it any thought. It must’ve taken 10 years into my career before I started to wonder, “How does it actually work?” I think that goes for a lot of songwriters.
I realized, when the first royalties came in for Benny and me for ABBA, that it gave me time. It gave us freedom. It gave us the possibility to hone our craft, to become good songwriters. We could take time writing. We didn’t have to finish that bloody song in the evening. Now, we could continue the next day — and the next. That kind of security is what I wish a lot of young, talented songwriters could have, so that they don’t have to drive a taxi at night to pay the rent.
I know what it’s like to be able to just work on the craft. Inspiration is one thing. You need to be good at it as well.
Money can buy the time to get good at it.
So what advice would you give to young songwriters today?
It’s hard to give advice, because you can’t explain to anyone how to write a good song. “Keep at it” is the only advice I can give.
Actually, there is one more. I’ve noticed that a lot of songwriters give up too early. They have a really good chorus, and then they don’t bother so much about the rest because they think that’s enough. And I don’t think it is. I think every part of a song should be good and should be the best you can do. Don’t consider a song finished until all parts are the best you could do, that’s what I’d say.
The role of a songwriter has also changed quite a bit.
It varies. Max Martin is a songwriter who has a lot of power over everything — some others don’t. But songwriting itself has also changed. Benny and I used to sit in a room together with a stand-up piano and an acoustic guitar. Now, there can be 15 songwriters on one song, with each songwriter good at a different thing. Pop music has evolved a totally different method of writing. Sometimes it can produce really fantastic results, and sometimes it can be a product.
You brought up Spotify earlier, and I’m curious because of the Swedish connection here — what were your initial impressions when it introduced a new business model for music in the early 2000s?
I was quite open to it. Here in Sweden, illegal downloading was taking over and the industry was dying, really. I could see that Spotify was the future carrier of music. I understood why they put a price on it as low as they did. But it was miles away from what consumers had spent on CDs, and that meant a lot of songwriters were very irritated about their royalties. I know some do still protest against the small slice they get.
Do you see any promising innovations on the horizon that will help bring in more revenue for creators?
There will be more virtual concerts; we can be absolutely certain that the gaming industry is huge and doing things that music will be utilized in.
One thing I would like to see in streaming is a user-centric subscription model — meaning my subscription can go to the artists and songwriters I play [as opposed to the dominant pro rata business model]. For people who get played a little but not all the time, and for some catalog artists, a user-centric model would be fairer than the one right now. I want my money to go to the ones I enjoy, and not the bulk of it going somewhere else because someone is clicking much more than I’m doing! I think the consumer would want a user-centric subscription if they knew about it.
Have you watched any livestreams in quarantine?
Parts. It makes me realize how important an audience is [laughs]. An audience is a living organism, you know, and an artist is in the middle of that experience — it all comes together in one experience. One is only half without that.
I hope some people in Silicon Valley are on the way to inventing a virtual audience that is credible, so that you can have an experience at home with the artist and other people together. That would be something.
How do you plan to bring technological innovation to CISAC?
One thing that attracted me to becoming president is that CISAC is so global. It has almost 240 members that are collecting societies of various shapes and forms. I see CISAC having cloud-based technology and tools that can be shared by all the collecting societies all over the world, so a local society in Latvia working for Latvian culture could be more equal to the big ones in other places that already have their own developed technology. That’s a vision I have, that I hope will come true during my time as president.