ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus: Data kills creativity

I’m nearing 50. This means that at most conferences, the “young kids” shuffle in awe around me, and go out of their ways to assist me in finding the way to the coffee bar. They discretely look for my rollator. Björn Ulvaeus –yes, the one from ABBA- is almost 75. At my sheltered coffeecorner at the Me-convention in Sweden, I heard some young hip marketers jokingly ask their friends if they were “ready to go listen to grandpa.”

Abba, you know. Waterloo. Blond, glitter pants and one-two-three dance combo’s. Surely, a thing from the past. Well, forget about that, quickly. Björn Ulvaeus and Universal Music President Central Europe Frank Briegmann rocked the stage in Stockholm. Ulvaeus proved he knows probably more on the future of tech and music than the first seven rows of the audience combined.

The fourth wave

First things first, Ulvaeus loves progress. “How can I be against it”, he started sweetly: “we sold our whole repertoire on vinyl, then we sold the whole thing again on those horrible cassettes, and we passed the bank again when the whole ABBA discography made it to DVD.” While the audience tried to add up the numbers (ABBA has an stimated 450 million records sold) he hammered the nail home: “With streaming, we ‘re clocking in at over 2 million a day.  You have to love progress.

Spotify saved the music industry

It is sexy to look at the music industry, and the many challenges it faces, and blame digitalization”, the ABBA front man continued: “But truth is: Spotify and other streaming platforms probably saved the music industry. It was dying, fast and hard.” Briegmann sketched the industry’s growth from the ‘old’ vinyl eras to the introduction of streaming as a sustainable source of income for artists.

Backing artist-to-fan transactions

Ulvaeus puts his money where his mouth is. He bankrolls a model where the digital rights of music-creators, artists and writers are automatically locked and paid. “For upcoming artists, direct artist to fan transactions are golden.  The certain shift from ownership-based to usage-based business models require new thinking, new technologies. Blockchain and other tech can and should help,“ he said: “but there will still be a roll for record labels, even if artists have a plethora of ways to release music independently these days.”

Quality versus quantity

But Björn Ulvaeus is a 73 year old. To the bone. “Having digital tools, new platforms… it gives you a canvas to express yourself, to produce yourself. It does not guarantee you quality”, the composer smiled: “Benny and I composed at our height 12 songs a year. A year. Some young composers laugh at me, and claim to total over 200 a year. I’m sure they do, but I might disagree with their definition of ‘composition’. I know a thing or two, on winning compositions.

A mediocre AI will always beat a bad songwriter

Lea Steinacker pushed Ulvaeus further into new tech. Can AI beat the singer-song writer? “The moment the AI composes something that touches people on an emotional level, the song is made” said Björn Ulvaeus without the slightest hesitation: “Nowhere is it written that good songs are the privilege of humans. Human songwriters produce an amazing amount of crap. A mediocre AI will beat the ass of a bad human every time. Will great AI compose great songs? I’m convinced it will.”

Abba on stage! New song!

The septuagenarian is a bit busy. ABBA recorded two new songs that it’s going to release. There will be a worldwide tour. “Don’t dream,” Björn Ulvaeus said sternly: “the four of us will never be together on a stage again. We’re past that. But, Abba will be touring. We will have digital copies of our 1970 bodies. In AR, VR, holograms and lookalikes. The technology is there, we are going to use it. Why our seventies bodies? Well, the girls claimed we looked better then….”

Data kills creativity

It’s good to be able to measure everything. But data gives you insights on what was, on what worked. When we created ABBA, there was no data. We had no benchmarks. No virtual modelling software. We had the building blocks of music, our art, our craft, and our intuition. We sculpted every song to perfection, from the gut and the heart. I’m convinced that data would have killed that creativity. There is a massive amount of songs out there, that made it, because somebody followed his guts. Against all odds. That means, against all data.”

At the end of the interview, I could sense a bit more respect for ageing people. Someone even fetched me coffee. Thanks Björn!

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