In an understated, very Swedish way, ABBA co-founder and CISAC president Bjorn Ulvaeus is apoplectic.

We’re talking about the soaring value of song catalogs — a boom that has seen Bob Dylan sell his catalog for nearly $400 million, and Hipgnosis Songs spending more than $2 billion on acquisitions in just over three years, with another billion-plus on tap. And yet throughout the industry, the songwriter is at the proverbial bottom of the financial totem pole.

“It’s immoral!” Ulvaeus exclaims. “Songs are an asset class all of a sudden — a commodity — and the songwriter is out there on the periphery.”

As one of the two songwriters for one of the most successful and influential musical artists in the history of the world — that would be ABBA — one might wonder why Ulvaeus, as president of CISAC, the global non-profit trade organization for creators, is essentially taking on the entire music industry. The only answer is a sense of mission to benefit every songwriter, from superstars like Taylor Swift and Drake to those at the proverbial bottom of that totem pole.

“I became president because think there’s something good about a non-profit having the writers’ back all the time, and the writers’ interest first and foremost,” he explains. “That appeals to me — and that’s why I became president.”

Over the course of a lively, nearly hour-long conversation last week, Ulvaeus talked about CISAC and its annual report issued early Wednesday, but mostly about songwriters, songwriting, the value of songs, and the iniquity of the decades-old payment structure. (We talked about ABBA too, in part 2 of this interview, which will publish tomorrow.)

In some cases, he stressed that he was speaking for himself as a songwriter and not as president of CISAC — particularly when it comes to the “user-centric” model of streaming payments: In a nutshell, under the current model, streaming services put all streams into one pile and pay artists, songwriters and rights-holders based on their percentage of that total number of streams. If you’re, say, Justin Bieber, BTS, the Weeknd or Adele, that’s a lot. If you’re not, it’s often not.

By the “user-centric” model, creators and rights-holders would be paid based on how much each user streams their music — so if someone streams nothing but Maroon 5 or MC Hammer or Frumious Bandersnatch, that artist would receive all of the revenue derived from that subscription. It is a vastly more complicated yet undeniably more equitable standard of payment.

Such complexity is the stock in trade of publishing, streaming and intellectual property, and one’s brain shuts off quickly. Yet as you’ll see below, Ulvaeus — who can talk minutia as well as any publisher — always comes back to the central point: If the music industry is based on songs, why are so many songwriters getting the short end of the stick?

Let’s talk about the CISAC report first — global music royalty collections down more than 10% due to the pandemic.

My take, when I saw it, was that it could have been worse. At one point during [2020], there was a feeling of despair that it could go down 25%! But altogether, 10% is a lot but not [as bad as it could have been]. Digital collections are up, which helps, but it doesn’t help the small songwriters, niche artists, niche catalogs — the big ones get the bulk of the money.

That has to change. Streaming will grow and grow, there’s still so much potential in it — but how will that streaming income go to the small writers, the ones who don’t have gigantic hits? I think one solution is an initiative called Credits Due, where the metadata [of the credits and payments is embedded in] every recording before it is injected into the digital system. That would help a lot. The labels whine a little because they say can never get the [credits] early enough, but that has to change — that’s where the CMOs have to step up, and CISAC has stepped up to that challenge. If the right metadata is in the system, that means a lot more people will get paid.

What’s standing in the way of that? I was told that someone in the industry proposed a similar solution several years ago, and a certain major label declined to reveal their data.

(Chuckling) Well, that might be true, but officially, publicly, they can’t be against it. There is a tool I happen to be involved with — I’m sorry, I’m talking to you as president of CISAC, but this tool happens to be what’s needed — called Session, and it’s about getting the metadata early in the creative process.

Let’s say two songwriters are in a room and they’ve written something — they give it a title, say who were the writers, register that in the tool, and they will get an ISWC [copyright reference number] and an IPI [songwriter reference number] immediately. That’s the first step, and then you can add writers and do your [songwriting percentage] splits in that tool — it’s the creators themselves who enter the data, and they don’t have to worry about the administration because they’ve done it themselves. And then, when they come into the studio, this tool is a button on the workstation that says “Session,” and the musicians and producer and everyone is automatically added to the recording with the correct numbers and their identifiers. Then that recording can be sent to an aggregator, with everything in one package.

Couldn’t that lead to arguments over splits even earlier in the songwriting process?

Yes, but once this song has an ISWC, the money will sit there for you until you make your minds up.

What can the industry do to help this process along?

I think the small CMOs do their best to collect money from restaurants and radio stations and all of that, but it can be better technologically as well — it could be much more exact. There are gadgets that track what is being played [on the radio or other broadcast medium], down to the second, and exactly who it is. That’s the world we’re entering now, where everything is exact because it’s zeroes and ones. It would cost the societies a pittance to use.

How did we get to this situation, where the songwriter creates the art but is often at or near the bottom of the payment structure?

Historically, the labels had to manufacture and distribute [records, tapes and CDs], pay printers and things like that — they had so many costs that the publishers didn’t in those days, and that’s why historically the division has been almost like it is now. And that is the excuse that the labels still have, but it’s not true anymore and everybody knows it. Publishers invest a lot in new writers, nearly as much I think as labels invest in new artists, but it’s not in the interest of the labels to change that division between publisher and label. They’re very, very reluctant to do that.

What might a more equitable solution to the streaming problem be? Streaming services say they can’t pay more, and that the labels should be the ones. Where might the money come from?

If there were complete transparency, if we knew exactly what happens in the [streaming services] and the labels and the publishers, we could make it more fair. But everything is hidden, we don’t know. Meanwhile, the streaming services say “We can’t pay any more, we’re rolling out and getting new subscribers and it costs a lot,” and I know that the division between label and publisher cannot be fair — I’m not saying it should be 50-50 but it could be 30-70 or 40-60 or somewhere around there. But as I said, there’s strong resistance against that.

Where is the resistance?

It’s common knowledge that it’s more valuable to have a smaller publishing company and a bigger label.

Why hasn’t that percentage changed more, if music is basically a sound file and vinyl and CDs are such a small part of the equation these days?

It should: What’s more important, the artist or the song? We can debate that. But Gallup not too long ago asked Spotify listeners in some Western countries, “When you search for a song, do you choose the song or the artist?,” and 60% said the song and 30% said artist. I’ve got a teenaged grandchild who streams, and half the time she doesn’t even know who the artist is. So the song is in that respect more important than ever, especially with [big financial organizations] investing in song catalogs.

It would definitely help the small songwriters and niche artists if we could have user-centric subscriptions — if the music that each subscriber played went [only] to those artists and songwriters. It’s the only fair way to do it, but oh God, everyone in the business seems so reluctant.

Part of the concern is that users could sit there clicking on a song for hours and hours and artificially inflate plays, right?

They can click a million times if they want, but they are still just one subscriber. Doesn’t that seem more fair?

Looking at a different topic, what would you say to a songwriter who is considering selling their catalog? I know someone who had some hits in the ‘90s who’s thinking about it — their catalog may be near or past its peak value.

Obviously, it depends on what kind of financial situation you’re in, and it also depends on whether you can imagine something like doing a “Mamma Mia” [musical] that will lift the catalog a little, or anything that will create some new excitement. But if you absolutely cannot think of anything and need the money, then I suppose yes. Also, the deals are not always that you sell everything — some people sell the money streams and keep the right of refusal, or sell half the catalog or the masters. There are all kind of deals being made right now.

Are there any songwriters now that you particularly like?

Billie Eilish and her brother [Finneas] are writing really innovative, great songs that will lead pop onward and have an impact on where pop goes in the future. I think Max Martin and all the guys who’ve worked with him, they’ve made a mark as well, pointing to what’s going to happen. [In other interviews, Ulvaeus has also mentioned Taylor Swift.]

Max Martin is like your spiritual musical offspring.

Yes, he is! But I have to say I’m not following so closely; Billie is the one who stands out to me. So many of these pop hits are [written] by 10 or 15 people, so it’s difficult to have particular songwriters as favorites.

What advice would you have for young or working songwriters in terms of how they can fight for themselves?

There is something getting started right now called “WIPO for Creators,” which is a platform where they can educate themselves and ask any questions about the music industry. And we at CISAC and a lot of other people are fighting for the songwriter — I feel a momentum, and I feel that it’s hard to withstand this avalanche of facts that point to the song being the most important asset in the whole music industry.

So I think that young songwriters can be hopeful that things are going to change. I’ll do whatever I can, at least.

Come back tomorrow for part 2, where Ulvaeus talks ABBA.  

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