Friday, May 29, 2020

Meet CISAC’s new president, ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus: ‘I’ll be outspoken!’ | Music Ally

CISAC is the global body representing collecting societies. Its last president was Jean-Michel Jarre, and before him it was Robin Gibb from the Bee Gees. Big shoes to fill for its next president, right?

Step forward… Björn Ulvaeus. The co-founder of ABBA will serve a three-year term as president of CISAC, having been elected by a meeting of its General Assembly this week.

He won’t be running the body – that’s director general Gadi Oron‘s job – but Ulvaeus’ role will be to support CISAC’s work around creator rights, royalties and technology in music and other artforms.

“They’ve told me that the presidency is what you make of it. I can give my views, and I can talk about things that I think are important, and maybe there will be some kind of debate. I can reach governments at this level, from CISAC,” Ulvaeus told Music Ally in an interview ahead of the announcement.

“I’ve given free reign, and I will suspect that they will regret that they gave me free reign, maybe! I’ll be outspoken, I think. I find it very difficult to hold back and be diplomatic and like a politician.”

During the interview, conducted via Zoom, Ulvaeus talked about his hopes to make CISAC more approachable for young songwriters; why he thinks songwriters should go “side by side” with artists to campaign for a bigger slice of the streaming royalties pie; why he backs the idea of user-centric payouts, and other topics.

‘Pop music has always been tech-driven’

But rewind first to a year ago, when someone first suggested to Ulvaeus that he might be an excellent next president for CISAC.

“I thought, are you kidding? It was so far from my mind that I’d be president of anything! But then I heard it again from other people, and I started to think about it: myself, my career, my experience,” he said.

“I’m a songwriter, I’m experienced in film, theatre, in almost every field. I know the business side of things fairly well as well. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea! Maybe it’s something I should do for my fellow songwriters.”

Ulvaeus also intends to bring a keen engagement with new technologies to the role. He was involved in metadata app Session (formerly Auddly) from its early days, while since 2016 he’s been working on the plans for an ABBA ‘entertainment experience’ tour using digital and virtual reality technology. Not that an interest in technology is a new thing, as he pointed out.

“Pop music has always been tech-driven, as such. Certainly the creative part of it. Benny always had the latest synth. he had the first Minimoog! That’s what you heard on S.O.S. So it was very hands on, and whenever you heard a new sound on somebody else’s record, you’d go: what the hell is that?!” he said.

“So that was one side of tech, which is always close to me in songwriting and producing, but there’s also the tech that can help the songwriter get paid, fairer and more quickly, more efficiently and more accurately, and with less conflicts along the way.”

“There is technology that can do that. I have a vision of almost songwriters being paid in real-time. That will come, maybe not during my presidency! But that will come.”

‘It’s time to talk about everything now’

In the 1970s as in other decades, musicians were often at the cutting edge of technology, but many were much more in the margins when it came to the music business – including the deals governing how their music was distributed, and how they’d be paid for that.

That seems to be changing: songwriters’ voices have been more and more prominent in the industry debates around topics like streaming and copyright in recent years.

“They’re getting more engaged than ever, I think,” said Ulvaeus. “That used to be the weakness of the songwriting community, if there was one: there was never an engagement for that side of the business: the business side of things, and the tech side of business things. Now there is.”

Ulvaeus has been following those recent debates, including the current #BrokenRecord campaign in the UK, which is focusing on a number of challenges, from bad label deals and the split in streaming royalties between recordings and songs, to the current ‘pro-rata’ system of payouts.

“Oh yes, I’m aware of that,” he said, adding that the Covid-19 pandemic is creating a significant moment for these and other topics to be discussed more openly.

“It’s a very good moment for that: quite perfect, with such a severe disruption. It’s time to talk about everything now. Everything is going to change, so it’s a perfect moment.”

As a Swede, Ulvaeus has had a ringside seat for the growth of streaming in one of the earliest-adopting countries, Spotify’s homeland. That’s given him an appreciation for the positive aspects of streaming’s emergence.

“You can hear songwriters and artists complaining about getting too little from the DSPs, but I remember a time in Sweden when the industry was more or less dying. Illegal downloading was close to 90% [of music consumption]. That’s when Spotify appeared and saved Sweden!” he says.

“So I saw streaming as a saviour then: physical is going to go, and this is the carrier of music. But then it’s a matter of the cake: where you get a slice, and everyone gets a slice, and as long as the cake grows, and as long as there are not too many artists and songwriters, people will get more.”

“Unfortunately, everything is growing: the number of songs written is growing as well. So it’s a very difficult dilemma. It’s very difficult to say whether Spotify and the DSPs make too much money or not. There’s a certain lack of transparency because of business: you can’t give away too much if you’re a business like a DSP or a label or a publisher,” he continued.

“But I think what’s going to be discussed now during corona is: are these slices really right? As a songwriter, I would say it’s too small, and someone else has to give! Because the song is where it starts, in my world.”

‘I really want to pay for the music that I play’

This is one of the most sensitive debates in the modern music industry. Should songs – compositions – get a bigger slice of the streaming pie (or cake) and if so, does that mean that recordings should get a smaller slice? And if so, how will that discussion play out in an industry where the major labels have more clout than the major publishers?

The boundaries here aren’t fixed: many songwriters are also performing artists. But Ulvaeus also thinks that conflict between these two communities over royalties would be a mistake.

“As we speak [during the Covid-19 pandemic] artists who had planned to go touring are finding that touring made sixty or seventy per cent of their money. But streaming is still happening, music is still listened to. They’ll be queuing up to the labels for a bigger slice!” he said.

“I think that the songwriters should go side-by-side with them, not be left behind as they usually are.”

It’s going to be fascinating to see how Ulvaeus pursues the related debate of user-centric payouts – where each streaming subscriber’s royalties only go to the music they listen to: our longer primer on the topic is here – in his role as CISAC president.

Its members, the collecting societies, will be among the industry entities whose support will be required to make it happen, and opinions vary on whether they’ll see it as a positive development. Ulvaeus certainly does, though.

“User-centric DSP subscriptions? I really want to pay for the music that I play to the ones who play or who have written the music,” he said.

“I feel that when I play The Beatles or I play something, I might play it four or five times a week, but I know that teenage girls might be playing something 10,000 times a day! It seems very unfair to me, and as a consumer, I oppose that.”

[He’s referring to one of the aspects of the user-centric debate: whether artists with younger, heavier-streaming fanbases have an advantage over others under the current pro-rata system, where the pool of royalties is divided up by total streams. Deezer has more on that here on its user-centric information website.]

“I would appreciate it if one of the DSPs could start that [user-centric payouts]. I would immediately go over to that DSP. It might be complicated, but… it’s good timing for me to start talking about it.”

bjorn interview

Björn Ulvaeus talked to Music Ally via Zoom

‘The business and the creative side belong together’

As he pointed out before, Ulvaeus sees his new role at CISAC as a chance to speak up for creator rights and new models like user-centric payouts to governments and decision-makers, not just to collecting societies and the music industry.

“The problem when you’re dealing with politicians and civil servants is that mostly they do not understand what creating something like a song is. They intellectually might get it – ‘Yes, we listen to music’ – emotionally they might like a song, but they don’t connect with creators that easily,” he said.

“I think maybe I can be a bridge, because I’m kind of a hybrid. I devoted a lot of time to the business side as well, not only to the writing, because the business side and the creative side belong together. That’s when you get the best result, when you’re in it from the word go to the end.”

Ulvaeus is also keen to help CISAC to evolve in its relationships with the songwriting community, particularly younger, emerging songwriters.

“I want CISAC to be more approachable, more human. It is, after all, a global organisation that is totally for creators. It’s non-profit, and it is started by creators for creators. If some young people see it as a kind of bureaucracy, I want them to see it in quite another way: as something that is there for them,” he says.

“CISAC has a role to educate too, I think. That’s an ambition of mine. It’s a very complex industry, the music industry, and it’s a bit old-fashioned and opaque. Before, they never bothered to learn! You’re in your creative bubble and you’re not interested in anything outside. But that’s changing.”

He also sees a role for CISAC as providing a technology service to its member societies: “A toolbox that’s cloud-native, and that can be shared by every collecting society. It’s crazy that they should have to build their own stuff!”

CISAC represents more than 230 collecting societies in more than 120 countries, and Ulvaeus was thinking here particularly of societies in countries where the digital music market is still nascent.

“Songwriting in Africa should be on a par with songwriting in America as far as the toolbox is concerned. They shouldn’t be discriminated against just because they are in a smaller territory.”

“The future is that everything will be integrated into the creator tools: registration, codes, the tracks, music, and it will generate loads of metadata that the DSPs will love to receive.”

‘I always look at technology with an open mind’

Ulvaeus is also prepared to get to grips with new technologies that may seem more disruptive to the songwriting world, including music generated with artificial intelligence technologies – something we dug into for a recent Music Ally report.

“I always look at technology with an open mind: I see it as tools, and wonderful things can happen. I’ve never seen technology developing into a threat. AI might, we don’t know that yet. But so far I think it will only complement a creator who has enough imagination,” he said.

Ulvaeus has listened to AI-generated music, including one of the more famous examples, Daddy’s Car, a song created in 2016 within Sony CSL Research Laboratory’s ‘Flow Machines’ project.

“It was very bland: you could hear the Beatles in there, but it was not original. There was no edge!” he said, while accepting that there is the potential for these systems to improve.

“If it does create a song that is on a par with any Beatles song, well then we have to accept that it does. Tough luck! ‘This is really a good and original song’. That might happen.”

It promises to be an eventful three-year term as CISAC president, not to mention the ongoing activity around ABBA’s digital reinvention. Ulvaeus is relishing the opportunity, but he’s also aware that many songwriters are feeling much more nervous about their immediate and longer-term future.

How does he think he’d feel if he were starting out as a songwriter in 2020, given the trends we’d been discussing?

“I think that as a songwriter, it’s scary to think ‘this is exactly what I want to do, but can I make a living out of it?’ I was there myself. I didn’t trust in my ability, in my talent,” he said.

“I literally lived for two periods when I only had money for the next three months, and was hoping for a gig, so I certainly know what it feels like to be vulnerable like that. You doubt your ability: ‘This is what I burn for, but am I good enough?'”

He noted that with so many songwriters and songs, the competition is more intense than ever before – “it’s much harder now than when Benny and I started out” – but also stressed that self-doubt can be a positive thing.

“People say ‘Oh, it takes me an hour to write a song’. Well, I’ve written 2,000 songs now, and I don’t trust that. You have to have self-doubt, a lot of self-criticism, to go from 99 to 100. That extra difficult part, when you reach a little bit more.”

“It happens to every songwriter a couple of times that it comes easy, but most of the time it’s work, work, work!”

Stuart Dredge


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