ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus puts artists’ interests center stage

December 2020

By Catherine Jewell, Publications Division, WIPO

Following a stellar career as a singer and songwriter with ABBA, one of the world’s most successful pop bands, Björn Ulvaeus is now devoting his time to ensuring that creators are fairly compensated and properly credited for their works. In May 2020, he took over as President of the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC), the world’s largest network of authors’ societies. In this role he will be representing over 4 million creators of all artistic genres across the globe. Björn Ulvaeus outlines his ambitions as CISAC President and shares his vision of the role that technology will play in placing creators at the heart of a transformed music industry ecosystem.

What do you hope to achieve as President of CISAC?

One thing I have learned is that writers in general know very little about the mechanics of copyright and the other rights they have. As CISAC President, I want to share my knowledge and experiences to help ensure songwriters are properly compensated for their work.

"With technology the creator will move to the center
of the ecosystem and a new understanding will emerge
among music publishers and labels that their role is
to serve creators,” says Björn Ulvaeus.
(Photo: Courtesy of Björn Ulvaeus)

I would also like to see that collective management organizations (CMOs) survive. The small ones do a tremendous job in supporting local culture, but they find it difficult to invest in the technology needed for the digital world. I would like CISAC to take a bigger role in developing tools (in collaboration with third-party companies) that all CMOs can use so they don’t have to invest songwriters’ money in technology that already exists.

Traditionally, CMOs have been like siloes. That is not good for songwriters. I want to see more openness and efficiency and less rivalry. I want them to be driven by the ambition to serve creators and make their lives easier. That is what they should be doing.

I am also looking forward to meeting with senior policymakers to explain how important it is for governments to support creators. Next year (June 7, 2021) is the deadline for implementation of the EU Directive on Copyright and Related Rights in the Digital Single Market, which among other things, introduces new rules for online content-sharing providers (Article 17). It is extremely important to lobby for creators’ interests. Creators across all genres have been at the core of European culture. Politicians don’t always get that; they think they need to back consumer interests. But in the music industry, it makes no sense to chase the listener; the listener should be chasing the creator.

Technology will help ensure that creators get fair and accurate payment for the use of their work and can make songwriting their profession.

How has COVID-19 affected the creative sector?

The industry has taken a big hit and is down around 30 percent on last year. The pandemic has been especially hard on songwriters and artists. Pre-COVID, streaming was a way for artists to promote their live shows. That’s where they made their money. Now, they’re in the same situation as songwriters and are finding it difficult to earn a living. COVID has really focused attention on the unsustainability of the music industry ecosystem. It is just not working for artists and songwriters and it has to work for all the players. The songwriter can no longer be on the periphery. There will be disruption. Technology will bring change and the creator will move to the center of things. The old CMO and music industry world will have to get used to the openness and transparency that technology enables. That is the future. The transformation is gradual, but it is happening. As CISAC President, I would like to nudge the transformation forward, I have a clear vision of what I want to achieve. I can see what is going to happen and want to be around when it does.

"Technologies like those developed by Session will significantly improve the flow of accurate data about all those who contribute to the creation of an audio work," Björn Ulvaeus notes. (Photo: Anders Hanser © Premium Rockshot)

Technology has made music more affordable and accessible for fans, but what needs to be done to ensure creators are fairly compensated?

Technology will help ensure that creators get fair and accurate payment for the use of their work and can make songwriting their profession. Right now, with the right information, Spotify could pay an artist or a songwriter directly, at least monthly and soon in real time. With technology the creator will move to the center of the ecosystem and a new understanding will emerge among music publishers and labels that their role is to serve creators. If someone has a talent to write songs, and is able to hone that talent (because they are paid for their work), they can become a better songwriter. I was distinctly average when I started out. After ABBA won the Eurovision song contest with Waterloo, the money came in and Benny and I were able to write every day and became quite good at it.

Tell us about your involvement with Session.

I am a shareholder in the company and have been working with Max Martin and Niclas Molinder, Session’s CEO, for many years. In collaboration with key music industry players, Session is creating technologies that will support creators by making it easy for them to register their works so they are duly paid and credited for them. Session is a data hub for creators, it tracks who does what, where and when, at the point of creation. This information is essential for artists – from the lead singer to the drummer and the percussionist – to be paid and credited for their work. Technologies like those developed by Session will significantly improve the flow of accurate data about all those who contribute to the creation of an audio work. A lack of accurate data is a big problem in the music industry today. It means a lot of money that should be going back to artists isn’t being paid out. Session’s platform has been developed in collaboration with leading music industry players, including CMOs, record labels and streaming platforms. The aim is to embed the software in the digital workstations, like Pro Tools, which are used by songwriters and producers everywhere. It will definitely help to ensure that creators in less developed countries are properly credited and compensated for their work.

What were the key challenges in developing the platform and the app?

Securing buy-in from the music industry and streaming platforms has taken a long time, but Session is now getting the support it’s been waiting for. Another big challenge is the low level of IP awareness among creators and the need to educate them about what they need to do to register their work so they are properly credited and compensated for it. If creators don’t understand how to register a work, a platform like that offered by Session is worthless. That is why Niclas Molindar, Max Martin and I set up the Music Rights Awareness Foundation (MRAF).

The Swedish pop group ABBA formed in 1972 and includes Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. They are one of the best-selling music groups of all time, giving us hits like The Winner Takes It All, Dancing Queen, Mamma Mia and Money, Money, Money. (Photo: Torbjorn Calvero © Premium Rockshot)

So how is MRAF linked to Session?

Session is a tool that creators can learn about through the Foundation, which is a non-profit entity. Its aim is to educate creators about what they need to do to get properly credited and compensated for their work. The Foundation runs various education programs for creators free of charge.

And how is that linked to WIPO for Creators?

We rolled out MRAF’s first project, Music Rights in Africa, in Malawi, Rwanda and Tanzania. It was great, but we soon realized a scaled-up digital music rights education platform for creators was needed. So, we began talking to the team at WIPO, who really liked the idea – it fit well with their own ideas. The outcome was the launch of WIPO for Creators, a consortium that will initiate activities to raise awareness of IP rights for creators around the world. There is huge potential for CMOs in Africa, in particular, to leapfrog legacy rights management systems and take advantage of innovative IT tools. It will be interesting to see what the WIPO for Creators consortium can do to improve the situation of creators in developing countries.

About Session

Swedish songwriter and founder and CEO of Session,
Niclas Molinder (above). Session’s technology platform
makes everything that happens in a music studio fully
transparent so the right people are paid and credited
for what they do, with no room for misunderstandings.
(Photo: Courtesy of Niclas Molinder)

Founded by Swedish songwriter and producer, Niclas Molinder, and backed by Björn Ulvaeus and songwriter Max Martin, Session is a “data hub” for creators. Session’s technology platform is designed to make the management of music rights very simple for everyone. It makes everything that happens in a music studio fully transparent so the right people are paid and credited for what they do, with no room for misunderstandings.

“Session enables music creators to better manage their rights and to collect song data that will allow them to be correctly credited and paid for their contribution to its creation,” says Niclas Molinder.

“Having worked as a songwriter, producer and publisher for 20 years, I discovered how much the absence of standardized data reference points affects creators. Creators, publishers, labels, managers and CMOs often spend huge amounts of time grappling with missing information, credits, disputes and incorrect payments. The best way to get creators to supply accurate data is to involve them in data collection as early as possible in the creative process,” Mr. Molinder explains.

Session’s technology records creator metadata, embeds them into a work at the point of creation and automatically feeds the information downstream to managers, record labels, CMOs, distributors and streaming platforms. “Our technology performs a handshake with music society systems to authenticate creators and associate industry identifiers with their account,” Mr. Molinder explains. “This is a critical step in ensuring that creators are compensated for their contribution to the creation of a work.”

The technology is built around standard industry identifiers that are assigned to creators when they become affiliated to a CMO. For example, an IPI number is a unique identifier that is assigned to a songwriter and publisher to identify them as a right holder. Similarly, performing artists are assigned a unique IPN number. Other important identifiers include the International Standard Recording Code (ISRC), which identifies a particular music sound or video recording, and the International Standard Musical Work Code (ISWC), which, like an ISBN for books, is “a unique, permanent and internationally recognized reference number for the identification of musical works.”

Session’s platform is expected to go live in around 18 months. It will be licensed to CMOs and will be available free of charge to creators.

How important is it for creators to be IP savvy in today’s rapidly evolving creative landscape?

It is extremely important; their livelihood depends on it. If they are savvy, they will make technology work for them, make more money and become better songwriters and make it a profession.

Streaming services are often characterized as the saviors of the music industry, but are they undervaluing musicians’ contributions?

Streaming platforms were, indeed, the saviors of the music industry. At one point, the industry was dying from illegal downloading. But the impact the platforms are having on the industry and musicians’ livelihoods today is an interesting and complex question. At present, most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) keep around 30 percent of their subscribers’ monthly payments. Of the remaining 70 percent, CMOs currently get around 16 percent and the recording label gets around 54 percent. That isn’t sustainable. Some new thinking is needed. The labels and musicians haven’t yet figured out where the separation between publishing and recording lies. This is a hot topic. COVID-19 may well help even things up for publishers.

Today, creators need to be entrepreneurs with a vision of how their work can transcend different forms of entertainment.

But that is just one part of the challenge for songwriters and artists. The other is data, which are often inaccurate. And when data inputs are wrong, so too are the outputs. This means the right people don’t get paid. When data are captured manually, there is great scope for inaccuracy and error. Take for example, The Winner Takes It All, which Benny and I wrote. It should have one unique identifier or code, but the last time we checked it had 84 different codes and many unrecognizable names attributed to it. With technology, we can remove these inaccuracies and ensure the right identifiers are in place. That means more money will be paid out to the right people. That is why it is so crucial to assign these codes and verify the artists early on in the creative process, and why Session has been working so hard to get industry-wide support for its technology. You can no longer say it’s too complicated to assign payments to the millions of songs played every month. It’s just a question of having the right technology and using it.

"A lack of accurate data is a big problem in the music industry today. It means alot of money that should be going back to artists isn't being paid out," says Björn Ulvaeus. (Photo: Anders Hanser © Premium Rockshot)

What impact do you think artificial intelligence (AI) will have on the way content is created, produced and consumed?

Without doubt, AI systems will write songs and some of them will be as good as those composed by humans. A lot of music today streams in the background. It’s a utility, like electricity and water. AI will write perfect utility music. But for the disruptions, there needs to be the human element and the courage of a human heart to break boundaries - a new Dylan, a new Elvis, a new Beatles. I don’t think any machine is capable of creating such shifts. The Beatles weren’t chasing the listener. There is something to learn there.

I think it is inevitable that creators and consumers will become closer in future. With the technology for consuming music and for producing it, the distance between creators and consumers will be very short. And that’s positive.

AI will write perfect utility music. But for the disruptions, there needs to be the human element and the courage of a human heart to break boundaries - a new Dylan, a new Elvis, a new Beatles.

You have set a standard in leveraging your music catalogs to create new experiences for your fans. Do creators need to be more creative in leveraging the value of their work?

Today, creators need to be entrepreneurs with a vision of how their work can transcend different forms of entertainment. For me, it wasn’t a conscious strategy to make our music live longer. I was intrigued by ideas and visions and wanted to fulfill them. That’s what pushed Benny and me to write Chess and Kristina. It’s why we are releasing ABBA avatars next year. These projects were opportunities to expand and find new and interesting ways to express ourselves. But I always return to the song. There is a universe in a song that is so interesting. With a song you can move people in seconds. The only thing I haven’t done yet is to find some way of creating a world for children. I have eight grandchildren so I am thinking about that.

Who is your biggest musical inspiration?

The Beatles.

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