by MATT BACON >
Regular readers will know the fervor I have for ABBA.
They are after all one of the most vital bands of the twentieth century and probably the band that I have logged the most hours listening to this year. Scratch that, they are without a date the band I have logged the most hours listening to this year. I’ve found in my music industry adventures that seemingly no end of folks from all over the industry, have a deepset passion for this band. This suggested to me that ABBA aren’t just some campy pop artist from the 70s who happened to sell a ton of records, but rather that they were a truly important musical force and one that a lot of folks in the music industry could benefit to learn from. So I decided to step back and try and figure out what helped to make ABBA such an industry force and why they have perhaps the most important and enduring sound of the disco era. You don’t just luck into that sort of thing after all!
I think first and foremost is the songwriting.
Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the core songwriters of ABBA had a unique partnership that extended years before and after ABBA’s reign. They realized that they had something special going on and they channeled this into some of the best and most important songwriting of their generation. The way that the band has constantly been able to balance their work between rock, pop and disco speaks to the power of these composers and the incredible hooks, genre defining harmonies and danceable rhythms came on to be the sound of a decade. These guys got past the limitations of having poor presentation (Have you SEEN that first album cover?) and grassroots beginning almost singlehandedly with the power of their songwriting. Once they started to get things off the ground thoughwas then the impeccable branding of this band ended up coming to the fore.
It’s difficult as a millennial to understand all that ABBA did in terms of branding.
But there are a few key aspects that I think we all should focus on. First and foremost was the fact that they were made up of two married couples. That defined a large part of what made ABBA so special. This balance is scene in all of their art and videos. When they ended up getting divorces it was obvious that this would be a death knell for ABBA. On that front by the way, I think it’s also important to realize that ABBA were one of the first groups to pioneer with music videos, and not only that, they developed a very unique fashion aesthetic that would go on to be synonymous with the band. This is a fashion aesthetic so powerful that we still see echoes of it today. Sure they borrowed from other places, but no one gave it a bigger platform than ABBA.
A key thing to understand with ABBA though is their unique ability to balance opposite sides of the spectrum.
For example, they always placed an emphasis on their marriages and their songs often discussed working class values. Simultaneously though they were hugely popular in the gay scene and were a major part in normalizing that culture and making it ‘safe’. By the same token there was a certain innocence portrayed by the female singers of the band counterbalanced with revealing outfits and an eventual status as international sex symbols. This unique positioning allowed them to service a broad variety of markets in a way that most other acts of their time could only look on with envy. Defining their brand was an overall sense of fun, but there was so much content and ways to present the group that they were driven t be, at one point, Sweden’s single largest export, across the board, a stunning accomplishment.
Ultimately what it boils down to with a lot of ABBA’s work is the amount of content they put out.
They dropped a record almost every year from the 70’s through the early 80’s. They had a non stop barrage of singles and their pioneering work in music videos and fashion along with constant live performances across the globe meant that they were able to access fans constantly and use that to maintain their growth. Hell, this is band who realized that they had a strong following in South and Central America so they stopped everything and recorded a bunch of their songs in Spanish! If that’s not direct servicing to your fans I don’t know what is. The sheer quantity of ABBA related material out there also led to a collectors mindset, in the years before the boxsets became the ubiquitous way to listen to ABBA, countless people spent hundreds of dollars collecting every last record, thus creating a real sense of ownership.
Yet none of this would have been possible if it weren’t for one basic truth, ABBA are really fucking good.
People aren’t really marketing ABBA anymore, at least not to the millennial set, and yet they still generate interest in that fanbase. They have won over the parents so goddamn hard that kids, even those who want to rebel can’t help but to end up falling in love with this band. There influence is almost unmatched and their legacy truly epic, and it’s because the band was able to routinely build from their basis of excellent songwriting. Once they went from there the world was their oyster. They had a unique product, knew that the world demanded it, and then were able to give it to everyone to spend years digesting.