Money, Money, Money: ABBA is back and bigger (business) than ever

In March 1980, a now-defunct magazine called High Fidelity declared that one of Sweden’s enduring supergroups had hit a new milestone: “ABBA: Ready for the Fortune 500.”

The headline was tongue-in-cheek—the band did not, in fact, appear on the Fortune 500 that year—but only just: The four-member pop group, along with their business-savvy manager, Stig Anderson, was indeed at the helm of a sprawling business empire. By that year—just two years before the band dissolved after the breakup of both couples in the group—their unconventional financial interests included a Monark bicycle factory, a leasing group, and even a doomed oil trading company, which would go on to lose more than 3 million pounds in a poorly timed spot crude deal.

Throughout their rise and fall, such deals only added to the perception of ABBA as a financially driven pop machine—an image that was not always positive at the time.

It’s a perception that persists decades later, with the band’s announcement last week of a new album and an upcoming concert series—featuring virtual, de-aged versions of themselves—following years of big-budget success with the Mamma Mia stage show and movies. But this time, in contrast to the band’s active years, there is a notable lack of cynicism about their projects. In fact, the Swedish supergroup finds itself being celebrated both for their pop genius—and for their business acumen.

“I’m just full of admiration-slash-jealousy for the brilliance of it, actually,” says Alex Connock, a fellow in management practice at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.

I have a dream

ABBA garnered its first Swedish hit in 1972—a song called “People Need Love.” Two years later, the band had their international breakout with the song Waterloo, which won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest.

The four members—Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad—were already veterans of the Swedish music industry by the time their first song came out. Andersson and Ulvaeus had worked as songwriters and Agnetha and Frida as singers. They also had a savvy relationship with their manager, who was both a record producer and a music publisher, and an ownership stake not just in the band but eventually in his label, Polar Music.

Picture taken in 1974 in Stockholm shows the Swedish pop group ABBA.

It was a dynamic that put the band on the right track in a way that was unusual at the time, says Carl Magnus Palm, a Swedish ABBA expert and the author of Bright Lights Dark Shadows—The Real Story of ABBA.

“All the bad music business deals, all the naivete, was behind them when they joined forces,” he said.

That experience allowed them to have a level of both financial and creative control that’s still rare in the music business. The band controlled songwriting, performance, and production, and they managed their careers centrally from Sweden; in each market, they picked the best record companies for distribution. Using this approach, they passed on the quick thrill of hefty advances, Palm notes, and negotiated for better royalty rights instead.

Their touring strategy, too, was efficiently planned: Rather than indulging in long, exhausting tours, the band simply picked the TV show in each market with the largest audience, and made an appearance.

“They were very rational,” he says. “We think of rock stars, of pop stars, as these kinds of free spirits, who only think about making music, and then touring, and drugs and booze and groupies.”

In the 1970s, however, such efficiency was actively viewed with suspicion. Not only was ABBA’s music often critically panned as formulaic and commercial, but their marketing strategy was treated with cynicism. Three years before the High Fidelity article, Rolling Stone put out a lengthy feature about the band titled the “Sound of Business,” in which the journalist Dave March noted that the band’s “methodical” rise led “some to suspect that the group is more interested in marketing than music.”

Today that level of control is more likely to be seen as masterful—recall Taylor Swift rerecording her earlier albums to recapture performance rights—but the impression that the band put business before music stuck, exacerbated by the willingness of manager Stig Anderson to talk freely about their business interests. (“It wasn’t good for us,” Ulvaeus admitted in an interview for Palm’s book.)

In fact, the band’s business acumen was in service of the creative control, Palm says, rather than the other way around—and it wasn’t always that successful, either. One of ABBA’s persistent challenges was finding legal ways to lower their stratospheric Swedish tax bills, which at the time were so high they could totally eliminate profits for high earners. To get around them, the band and Anderson created complex networks of companies and sometimes accepted bartered goods in exchange for royalties, especially in the Eastern bloc. One bartered oil deal, which fell through, resulted in the creation of Pol Oil, a trading company.

As Palm relates in his book, the trading company bought 55,000 tons of crude oil in January 1980 on the spot market in Rotterdam at $40/barrel, planning to resell it at a profit. But the deal went sideways: Pol bought it when prices were high due to unrest in Iran, Palm writes, and misjudged the quality. An initial deal fell through, the price slumped, and the barrels were eventually sold at a loss, after ringing up substantial storage costs. The deal lost £3.3 million, about £13 million ($18 million) in today’s money.

The band played down the bad deal, but Björn later admitted that the loss “wasn’t peanuts.”

The name of the game

In the years after the band’s breakup, ABBA’s back catalog—full of such undeniable smashes as “Dancing Queen,” “Voulez-Vous,” and “Take a Chance on Me”—wasn’t immediately recognized as the money fountain it would turn out to be. Benny and Björn’s lasting influence on the pop songwriting cannon was also largely unacknowledged. Never exactly “cool,” ABBA was now truly unfashionable—”with a capital U,” says Palm.

But a resurgence started to gain steam in the early 1990s, in part due to the band’s celebrated status in gay culture and spurred on by the release of ABBA Gold in 1992. The greatest hits album is believed to have sold at least 31 million copies worldwide, and this July it became the first album to spend 1,000 consecutive weeks—or more than 19 years—on the U.K. music charts.

Then, in 1999, came the stage musical Mamma Mia, which has now appeared in over 440 cities and been seen by 60 million people, according to the group’s official website. That was followed by the Mamma Mia movie in 2008, and the Mamma Mia sequel 10 years later. The first film made $609 million at the box office, making it one of the highest-grossing musicals of all time; the second film was also a respectable box-office smash.

Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and later Lyngstad were all investors in the original Mamma Mia musical; Ulvaeus is also an investor in the ABBA Museum in Stockholm. Beyond their original hits, the musical and movies have been the real source of their expanding wealth, says Palm.

Clarke Thorell, Judy McLane, John Dossett, Lisa Brescia, Patrick Boll, and Jennifer Perry at the curtain call for the 4,000th Broadway performance of Mamma Mia! at the Winter Garden Theater on May 31, 2011, in New York City.
Bruce Glikas—FilmMagic

Though it’s not clear exactly how wealthy the band members are as a result, Palm estimated in 2013 that both Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson were Swedish “kronor billionaires,” or worth about $117 million each; Lyngstad was estimated to be worth about £175 million (at today’s exchange rates, around $242 million); while Fältskog is estimated to have the most modest fortune of the group, with under $100 million. It’s possible, as the movies and music empire has expanded, that they’re now worth much more.

Even still, the band’s members have often had to be individually persuaded to take on new projects, from the Mamma Mia musical to the ABBA museum. Famously, they have also said no, in particular to touring: In 2000, they turned down a $1 billion offer to reunite for a 250-show tour.

With some legacy bands that do reunion tours, you get the impression that “okay, it’s too much money to turn down,” Palm says. “Whereas with ABBA, it’s more like, nah, can’t be bothered, I’d rather tend to my flower beds. It’s a very kind of Swedish approach.”

Thank you for the music

In early September 2021, the band officially announced an elegant solution to their reticence to tour: an official concert, complete with 1970s era, de-aged, virtual figures based on their own performances back in Sweden. (The official promotion featured photos of them in outfits tagged for motion capture.) The band will build a custom venue for the show, in a trendy bit of east London, and a brand new album will also be released in November.

The “ABBA Voyage” project, announced with interviews with the band members and ABBA watchers worldwide, was greeted with near-universal delight. The approach, which is technologically cutting edge, could also be a pilot project for other aging bands looking to continue their legacy, says Connock of Saïd Business School.

“It’s just brilliant, on a whole number of levels,” he says. “It gives you all the scale of the tour, without any of the risks.”

It’s also scaleable, he points out; if it works in London, it could easily be rolled out around the world.

The band itself, which initially teased the concept and the new songs in 2018, has been clear about their motives: a chance to have fun, go back to the studio, and perform—without going on tour in their seventies.

And in the decades since the band released its early pop hits, criticism of its absurdly catchy songs have gone from mocking to celebratory, while tales of the members’ business acumen have gone from suspicion, to, well, respect.

“The ABBA catalog is kind of a case study, were we in business school, of the resilience of IP—which underpins almost all the developments we’ve seen in media and tech in the 21st century,” Connock says.

“The ABBA catalog is almost like the Goldman Sachs of the music industry, isn’t it? It’s almost like a long-term U.S. government bond.”

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