Saturday, 17 April 2010

Muziek Expres, March 1981: The ABBA Business, part 2

Here’s part two of a lengthy article called The ABBA Business, as published in Dutch magazine Muziek Expres in 1981.
ABBA is one of the best selling products in the world. This product consists of the exceedingly strong melodies by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and the good looking and singing duo Frida Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog. But there’s more behind this quality product. For instance, a golden recording method and a flourishing company with twenty-five employees who are all under the leadership of ABBA manager Stikkan ‘Stig’ Anderson. In this second part of The ABBA Business, among other things, interviews with the producers duo Ulvaeus/Andersson, manager Stig Anderson and sound technician Michael Tretow.

Manager and president Stig Anderson comes out of his office, looks around and subsequently puts out his hand to me. “Come on in, have a seat, would you like some coffee, I’ll be right with you, have a cigarette, did you bring a tape recorder, where is your photographer, what time is it, aha, then I still have 45 minutes, wait awhile, I’ll be right back...”
The office is decorated quite modestly, a couple of gold records on the wall. The rest of the trophies is spread over the entire building. A nice arithmetical problem: how many gold and platinum records have been handed over with interim total sales of fifty million singles and albums?
ABBA is the richest company in Sweden and, apart from that, has a considerable amount of financial influence in other companies. There’s no business like ABBA business. For most people, ABBA is a band, for some others a money machine and for many Swedes, except for a music group, canned herring and caviar as well. Because there’s another company in Sweden that’s called ABBA. ABBA with the sea scent had no objection to the ABBA that produced sounds, so today two ABBAs exist. With the difference that the musical ABBA put one B backwards. For that matter, since a couple of years the musical ABBA indirectly has shares in ABBA the fish factory as well. What a coincidence...
He enters the room, meanwhile gesturing industriously to his ex-secretary and now vice-president Görel Hanser. He hands over my coffee with a foot-bath personally. Then we are alone. Anderson (I’m allowed to call him Stig, if I want) drinks his coffee black, but during the entire interview he keeps stirring his cup. From time to time, his other hand puts out a burning cigarette in the ashtray. I only knew Anderson from the pictures that were taken during the illustrious Eurovision Song Contest (April 6, 1974) in Brighton. The boss of the ABBA company now looks like he is sixty years old, instead of fifty, an age that he has yet to achieve.
A little question at the president: has everything been achieved where music is concerned?
A passionate Anderson: “The basic assumption of that question is completely wrong. How often do I have to say that money is not the most important thing. It’s the fun and after that it’s the money. Artistically speaking, you have never reached your peak. ABBA has a recognizable sound, but none of these songs sound the same.”
He’s right about that. However... the money, it keeps coming in. The assets of the four ABBA members is estimated at nearly 200 million Dutch guilders, Stig Anderson himself has plenty of dough as well: 30 million. Such an enormous wealth is not within easy reach for everybody, and certainly not that kind of success. What’s the secret?
Stig: “In the first instance, I think it’s luck. Because you have got to have luck, otherwise nothing will happen. Furthermore, I believe that we as a group have created a rather unique situation. I wanted to have everything under one umbrella. To have a record company and at the same time publish music and so on. This means that you benefit from your own creations one hundred percent. No one will exploit you. It’s a smart, democratic and social system.”
Stikkan’s plan was that smart that even too much money was coming in at one point. And the tax-collection office kept calling ‘Ka-ching’. That’s why the company ABBA, that initially only occupied itself with musical activities, rapidly started participating in other kinds of companies. Buying and especially investing was the device. And all of a sudden, they were acquired faster than the speed of light: warehouses, supermarkets, houses, sports businesses, an art gallery. They invested in oil, cucumbers, horses and bicycles. It’s Anderson’s dream to introduce his ABBA on the stock market. “A sensible fan will then, apart from the latest ABBA album, buy an ABBA share as well...”

A shrewd business man, that Stikkan Anderson. First a salesclerk, then a teacher, after that a lyric writer and president of his own music publishing company. “Why should others make money of my songs.” Anderson already had a lot of hits credited to his name and a lot of money in his bank account before he first met Björn and then Benny. For instance, he wrote the music and original lyrics for the European hit that became well-known in Holland under the title ‘Hou Je Echt Nog Van Mij Rockin’ Billy’, sung into the charts in 1960 by Ria Valk. That gold record is hanging on the office wall as well. Doesn’t he miss this writing?
“Yes, very much. As you know, I’ve contributed to a lot of ABBA hits as well, especially lyrically. But I don’t have any time these days to sit down and write songs myself. Artistically speaking, I still think along with ABBA. The outfits, album sleeves, stage designs, promotion, songs, actually I interfere with everything. Keeping yourself busy on a business level only tends to become tiresome. I think that having conversations with foreign record companies is a creative job as well. As you may know, ABBA’s own record company Polar Records has closed distribution deals with all kinds of big record companies all over the world. In every country, I’ve chosen the best record company. Why? Very simple, because every record company is as good as its president. It might very well be the case that one record company is very good in Holland and that same company in England very bad.”

Björn says about Stikkan: “In former times, Stikkan was indeed often on top of the songs, yes. He helped us out with the lyrics, chords and he gave us very valuable advice with his expertise in this business. Obviously, this has decreased over time. Meanwhile, we have become experts in this business ourselves. But despite Stig’s focus on business activities, he remains the most artistic manager. He is still on the same wavelength. Therefore, ABBA consists of five masterminds...”
According to Stig, there are indeed five and he’s certainly not the only one responsible for the Big Success.
“Nonsense. That would be true if I had written and sung everything myself.”
But Stig likes to commend himself for the fact that he put the guys on the girls’ track and therefore he is taking credit for putting the eventual ABBA together. Andersson met Björn Ulvaeus already back in 1964, one of the Hootenanny Singers, who were then very popular in Sweden. He was the songwriter of that successful band, just like Benny Andersson was of another Swedish top group in those days: the Hep Stars. Benny was the pianist and he even came to Holland to perform ‘Sunny Girl’ on television, which was a huge hit in our country at the time. The two B’s of ABBA recorded an album together in 1969. Actually, it wasn’t massively successful. Stig: “I expected more from it. But what was missing from that record became all the more clear later on...”
What was lacking were female vocals, like Frida and Agnetha’s. Vocals as they sounded on the song ‘Waterloo’. The song that started their victory. While most Eurovision winners don’t have a very prosperous career, ABBA managed to work magic with one magnificent song after the other. Songs that are pieced together perfectly soundwise. Therefore, the producers Ulvaeus and Andersson are often called the Phil Spectors of the seventies. Benny: “A compliment, but it’s a bit exaggerated. The most important thing is that we have found a sound that harmonizes with the melodies. I think that the team is smaller than you would think. No, you choose musicians that go with a song. Actually, the team consists of the four of us and the technician. He is crucial, no matter what...”

Technician Michael B. Tretow usually works for ABBA at the Polar Studios. And when he doesn’t have to work for ABBA, he works at home. For himself. In his own studio, an hour’s drive from Stockholm. Goodness knows how Michael looks like in person, but on the phone he sounds a bit like this: “At home, I mostly do recordings for audio visuals or things like that. I don’t have a real studio here, you know. It’s not that advanced. It’s more like a control room and some microphones in the bathroom. But I’ve recorded quite a lot here.”
ABBA as well?
“Haha. No, we only do that in the Polar Studios. We have more options there.”
Tell me, Michael. In what respect do you see yourself as someone whose contribution was vital to ABBA’s success?
“Now that’s a question. I truly believe that every self-respecting technician would have done the things that I did. Do a good job and think along. It’s your job.”
But didn’t you invent a certain technique that made the sound bigger?
“That’s true, yes. I incorporated a couple of speed changes. When you play back a recorded voice at different kinds of speed, you get some kind of enhanced sound. These days, there is equipment to do that.”
What does a recording period for one song look like?
“On the first day, the basic instruments like bass, drums and piano are recorded, the second day is used to add a couple of separate instruments and the next day the vocals are recorded. So that’s when the ladies enter the studio and mostly Benny and Björn are singing along on backing vocals as well. The next day a couple of overdubs are being done and then the mixing starts. That’s mostly the longest period. Sometimes we even spend months on that. We spent eight months on the whole album ‘Super Trouper’.”
Is there some kind of recipe for the ABBA sound?
“As I mentioned earlier, the separately recorded voices. Apart from that it’s really the song that should have enough quality. If that isn’t the case, you can bend over backwards as a technician, but you won’t succeed. And without Agnetha and Frida, the ABBA sound would never have been the ABBA sound...”

Björn and Benny are somewhat vague about their future. The first one says that there are no plans outside ABBA. “There are,” the other then adds. But Björn puts a stop to it. He tells Benny that he can’t say anything about that yet. Bad luck. Let’s give it another try. How about that musical? Four years ago it was announced for the following year. “That doesn’t mean that it’s off the table,” Björn says smilingly. “It will come, when we have the time,” Benny adds.
Wrong, gentlemen. Stig Anderson has just claimed that he has scheduled a meeting about this musical business a day after tomorrow. Basically, everything seems to be settled. Well, financially speaking, that is. Because according to Stikkan, a concept still has to be found. The theme that the musical will revolve around. Only then, action can be taken. That basic theme has to be on the table faster than the speed of light though, because Stikkan already has a couple of things planned concerning this musical in 1981. So there’s work to be done.

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