Brit Beat: ABBA ‘Voyage’ Producers Speak on Hot-Selling Virtual Concert in London

The reunited ABBA — who announced a new album and virtual concert earlier this month — are building a special venue in London to host the “immersive digital concert experience,” which will see singers Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad and instrumentalists/songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus performing digitally via avatars with a live 10-piece band in a purpose-built arena in London, beginning on May 27, 2022. Variety caught up with producers Svana Gisla and Ludvig Andersson as preliminary rehearsals started in London for the ground-breaking show.

“Every day brings a new set of nightmarish problems but we overcome them!” quips Andersson. “It’s an adventure to say the least.”

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Demand was so high for the first batch of tickets to go on sale that the site crashed.

“We knew ABBA was popular,” says Andersson “But that was not a guarantee that this would be received the way it was received. That’s a nice feeling but also scary of course. The responsibility increases with every sold ticket, as it should.”

“We’re going to put another three months on sale very soon,” says Gisla. “We’re going to be in London for quite a while. And it’s obviously nice that people are buying tickets for something where they’re not quite sure what they’re going to get.”

In simple terms, Gisla says what people will actually get is “an ABBA concert – we can go into detail about what that concert experience is and why it’s a slightly different experience to any other concert, but essentially it’s an ABBA concert.”

But, adds Andersson, people should not concern themselves with how closely “Voyage: compares to ABBA’s live gigs back in the day.

“I don’t think that’s the way to look at it,” he says. “I mean, it will be incredibly close – it will be as close as it’s possible to get. But this is more than that. I don’t think you will come and feel you’re getting close to something, you’ll feel like you’re going past something and out into space.”

The pair say the setlist will consist of 19-22 ABBA songs, designed as “a setlist for a concert, not for a ‘Best-of’ karaoke session – they’re not just the ‘ABBA Gold ‘hits.” There will be potential for the setlist to change in future, and for the show to be moved to other locations – in the best traditions of Swedish design, the purpose-built venue can be flatpacked and moved – or even run at multiple locations simultaneously.

Germany and Australia are potential future destinations, with the U.S. (“Is ABBA big in America?” ponders Andersson) and Sweden also in the mix. But the producers say they have no plans to recreate the experience with other artists.

“I don’t think other bands should look at this thinking, ‘Great, we don’t have to tour anymore, we can just do this’,” says Andersson. “The only chance we have of this becoming a success is because ABBA themselves want to do it exactly like this. They think this is the best way they can connect with their fans, better in fact than if they had actually been there in the flesh.” …

+ The U.K. government may have held off ordering new legislation to regulate the streaming business – at least for now – but Britain’s fierce #FixStreaming debate is far from over.

After an ambivalent government response to the Department for Digital, Media, Culture & Sport’s Parliamentary Committee’s scathing report, there is now the intriguing prospect of both sides sitting down around a table as part of a new “music industry contact group.” That group will provide further evidence to government before ministers make their final judgement on whether legislation is necessary.

While the committee had made a string of radical recommendations, including introducing a right to equitable digital music remuneration (ER) that campaigners say would significantly boost performers’ earnings, the government seemed less persuaded by the arguments. Instead, it clearly favors the industry coming up with its own internal solutions. But how likely is that when the two sides have seemed poles apart during months of debate? Variety spoke to two leading executives likely to feature on the contact group.

“To be honest, I don’t think we’re going to get what we want unless there is government legislation,” says Horace Trubridge, general secretary of the Musicians’ Union, which runs the #FixStreaming campaign with the Ivors Academy alongside musician Tom Gray’s #BrokenRecord campaign. “There’s just no willingness from the labels to entertain the idea of equitable remuneration.”

Geoff Taylor, CEO of the BPI, confirms to Variety that the labels body remains “absolutely convinced in our view that ER would be a profound mistake.” But, he adds, “If we are talking about other ways of trying to improve the lot of artists, then of course we’re very interested in doing that.”

Regardless of what happens in the sessions, ER could yet be introduced via MP Kevin Brennan, who has a Copyright (Rights and Remuneration of Musicians, Etc) Private Members’ Bill due for a second reading in December. Private Members’ Bills rarely make it onto the statute books, but Trubridge remains hopeful.

“For us, it’s another brick in the wall, another way of getting the problem aired and bringing it to the attention of Government,” he tells Variety. “We’re not going to stop, we’re going to keep going and – whether it’s this government or another one – I think we will achieve legislation on this eventually.”

“Of course we will engage with that Private Members’ Bill,” says Taylor. “But we think government was right to conclude there was not the quality or range of evidence necessary to intervene with far-reaching legislation at a time which could be so disruptive to the future prospects for the industry.”

Campaigners note recent record profits for the major labels, as well as Universal Music Group’s sky-high valuation after its IPO, as evidence record companies could afford to offer artists a better deal. But Taylor says labels have already made reforms.

“The majors are already giving their artists more,” says Taylor. “We’ve seen commitments to share digital breakage, commitments to share the proceeds of equity stakes in DSPs, the Sony announcement on recoupment… We’ve seen a bunch of issues addressed and progress made over the last few years. The question is, beyond that, is there more than can be done?”

Trubridge certainly thinks so.

“What Sony did was OK, but [there’s been] nothing from Warner or Universal,” he says. “You would have thought they would have gone, ‘Let’s throw these people a bone to show we are modernizing and sorting some of these problems out’.”

If you could sell tickets to the contact group sessions – which will carry on for a year, with a progress report due in spring 2022 – you suspect they’d be a sell-out. But Taylor is hoping talks remain constructive.

“We’ll look back on this period as regrettable in some instances because of our failure to work together and the bad blood some people have injected into these industry conversations,” he says. “But I’m confident that – if the industry turns its focus to recognizing the value everyone brings to the table, and tries to work together to make sure everybody prospers – then good progress can continue to be made.”

Could there be peace in our time? Watch this space…

+ Are the majors too powerful? The DCMS Parliamentary Committee had also called on the government to investigate that issue, referring the major labels to the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) to investigate what the committee called the majors’ “market dominance.” However, as above, the government instead opted to leave it to the CMA itself to decide whether a market study is necessary.

“We acknowledge the concerns raised about the music streaming sector and the government’s view that there may be value in a market study,” a CMA spokesperson says. “Our staff are developing initial proposals for the CMA Board to consider at its October meeting and we have committed to updating the government and the DCMS Committee on the outcome of that discussion.”

The CMA will also be busy with an in-depth Stage 2 investigation of Sony’s bid to acquire AWAL. Sources tell Variety the CMA is expected to deliver its initial findings shortly before Christmas, with a final verdict expected in early March. The deal has been approved in other territories without conditions, with insiders convinced it’s only the political shadow cast by the streaming inquiry that has prompted the CMA to flex its muscles. Whether that will be enough to see the deal blocked, however, remains to be seen…

Whatever happens during the various processes, one company looks set to come out of the streaming debate with its reputation considerably enhanced. Publishing and records powerhouse BMG was the first music group to welcome the committee’s call for a “complete reset” of the sector, and Horace Trubridge praises their work to reform contracts and improve deals.

More artist-friendly moves are expected soon. But U.K. boss Alistair Norbury, president of repertoire & marketing, tells Variety that’s just one factor in helping the label secure high-profile recent signings such as Craig David, Natalie Imbruglia, Duran Duran and One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson.

“Certainly, lawyers and managers – and in many cases artists themselves – are aware of it,” Norbury says. “It’s important, but it’s equally important to be able to deliver on creativity, entrepreneurship and having a long-term, international view.”

Indeed, things are also going well commercially, with the U.K. company’s focus on established talent, supplemented by some key new artists, paying off at retail. BMG’s U.K. album sales grew by 10.5% in the first six months of 2021, hugely outpacing the overall market’s 1.4% rise.

“Where we’re particularly strong is bringing somebody back who’s been away for a while,” says Norbury, citing successful comebacks by the likes of Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue. “It’s quite hard if somebody’s put out an album every year for the past five years. But these are artists that have kept their powder dry, which means there’s an excitement and appetite at media to work with them.”

Norbury is hoping that will continue in a packed Q4, where releases from Duran Duran, JLS, Imbruglia and Minogue will compete with the likes of Ed Sheeran, ABBA and Coldplay. He says BMG has secured key media slots for its artists, despite huge competition.

“It’s the healthiest Q4 I can remember and I’m anticipating a huge amount of walk-up at stores,” he says. “It should be good for all of us, but particularly good for BMG because we’ve got a strong label identity and a huge amount of music publishing interest in all these big records.”

Physical retailers will certainly be hoping for a Q4 boom after a dismal, pandemic-afflicted 18 months for the High Street. But the last couple of weeks have certainly seen the buzz return to Central London. First, Jack White opened the London branch of his Third Man Records in Soho, and now Queen has debuted its Queen The Greatest pop-up shop, just around the corner on Carnaby Street.

It will sell exclusive vinyl and merch ranges and offer a journey through the band’s five decades. And, while it’s currently scheduled to remain open for three months, David Boyne – managing director of Universal Music’s merch company, Bravado – tells Variety it could become a long-term institution if there’s enough demand. Bravado has a permanent Rolling Stones store on the same street.

“The one lesson we’ve learned [from the Stones shop] is the enduring value and magic that these iconic bands create,” Boyne says. “We should never take that for granted. Over the last four-to-six weeks we’ve seen a real increase in footfall. You can feel central London starting to open up again, so the timing on Queen is absolutely great.”

Boyne also says Bravado is considering bespoke physical retail options for a number of other iconic acts.

+ NQ – the 360-degree entertainment company, comprising management, label and publishing and behind one of the U.K.’s most successful rappers, Aitch – has just expanded its operations by opening NQ House, a studio and events space/private members club in its home city of Manchester.

“Manchester is a big and growing powerhouse,” CEO Michael Adex tells Variety. “With its heritage in music from the Hacienda [nightclub], Factory Records and Oasis and a new wave of music coming out of the city, it’s very important that we champion that and create the infrastructure within the city to take it international. You don’t have to be based in London to make it.”

Adex plans to hook up Ed Sheeran-approved Aitch, who goes through 10K Projects in the U.S., with American collaborators for a big Stateside push next year. He also has ambitions to open another NQ House in the States in the future.

In the meantime, NQ is one of the fastest-rising independents in the U.K., but with a voracious market for music acquisitions at the moment, Adex does not rule out a sale of his company.

“I’ve had so many of those offers!” he says. “With what we’ve already done, there’s very little that we need. But if something was presented where it makes sense on all levels, the added value and the finance, we’re always willing to hear it out.”

Whatever happens, however, Manchester will always remain close to his heart.

“I’m always going to have a house in Manchester,” he says. “But I like to class myself as a world citizen. I might be in Paris one day, and LA the next, so you catch me wherever you catch me.”

+ Finally, the U.K. industry is bidding a sad farewell to legendary booking agent Steve Strange, who helped guide the likes of Coldplay and Ash to stardom and represented everyone from Eminem to Queens of the Stone Age. Strange, co-founder of the X-Ray Touring agency and one of the biggest characters in the business, known for his enthusiastic backstage presence and infectious laugh, died last week, aged 53, after a short illness.

So many tributes were paid to him from across the industry that Strange trended on Twitter last weekend. Amongst them, Coldplay called him “a giant of the music industry,” Ash said he “changed this business forever” and fellow super-agent Neil Warnock, head of worldwide touring for UTA, hailed him as “an absolute icon in the world of music”. RIP.

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