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The Billion-Dollar Business of ABBA: A Statistical Analysis
ABBA's never-ending commercial afterlife and the creation of the ABBA-verse.
Intro: London is for ABBA Lovers
If you love ABBA, then London is the place for you. You can begin your day by attending a production of ABBA's jukebox musical Mamma Mia!, where you'll listen to theatrical singers belt "Dancing Queen" and "Money, Money, Money." After this rousing performance, you can take the underground to ABBA Arena, a purpose-built stadium where you can watch holograms of the band perform "Mamma Mia" and "Take a Chance on Me." And if you're hungry, you can head over to Mamma Mia! The Party, a theatrical dining experience where you can eat a four-course Greek meal while being serenaded with more ABBA tunes.
Once you're tired of shuffling from theater to theater, you can return home to watch Mamma Mia! the movie and its sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, or you can play ABBA: You Can Dance, a dance rhythm video game on Nintendo Wii. London is effectively Las Vegas for ABBA tourism, a central hub for fanatics to celebrate the work of a much-beloved musical act with near-religious devotion. In London (and almost everywhere else in the world), you can consume as much ABBA as you want through numerous mediums.
Somehow, improbably, a band of quirky Swedes and their catalog of happy-go-lucky pop tunes has become the basis for highly lucrative intellectual property on par with comic book films and The Fast and Furious franchise. So today, we'll explore ABBA's unique appeal and the band's wildly profitable commercial afterlife.
ABBA's Unique Commercial Longevity
Part of ABBA's origin story begins (quite surprisingly) with tax regulation. In the 1970s, Sweden introduced taxation laws surrounding the deductibility of poorly-styled work clothing. Those who could prove that their work outfits were unwearable in everyday life could claim these outfits as tax deductions. Seeking financial relief, newly-formed ABBA decided to capitalize on this incentive, and thus, out of frugality and tax strategy, the band's iconic aesthetic was born.
A few years later, ABBA would catapult to international acclaim after winning the Eurovision Song Contest, their massive popularity partially propelled by their flamboyant stage outfits.
ABBA's iconic look has remained central to the band's legacy. These thrifty outfits are a fixture of the band's commercial afterlife, serving as a central setpiece in Mamma Mia! and inspiring children's Halloween costumes (which can be purchased for only $60!).
ABBA formally retired in 1982 after a 10-year run during which the band produced 20 Billboard hits and sold over 385 million albums. Most bands typically see a gradual decline in fanship following their retirement, but not ABBA.
In the late 90s, Mamma Mia! took the theater world by storm, offering audiences ample ABBA music amidst a breezy and largely nonsensical plot. When Mamma Mia's New York City production ended its 14-year run, it was the ninth longest-running show and Broadway's first successful jukebox musical.
Since then, the ABBA-verse has grown through subsequent Mamma Mia! adaptations and other commercial spin-offs. Estimating ABBA lifetime music sales and streams, ticket sales for various Mamma Mia! adaptations, and ABBA Voyage attendance (where audiences watch holograms of the band), we can project over $4.8B in sales for the ABBA Music Universe (AMU).
However, this estimation does not include ABBA's 1970s and 1980s touring revenues, additional Mamma Mia! adaptations, dining reservations at Mamma Mia! The Party, or purchases of ABBA: You Can Dance video games, so consider our projection a gross underestimate.
These adaptations have vaulted the band into perpetual relevancy. According to data from Chartmasters.org, ABBA is the ninth most streamed musical act amongst artists who produced music pre-1980, with over 6.7B lifetime streams—a shocking figure considering the group retired 41 years ago.
At this point, you may be wondering why and how ABBA was fortunate to achieve neverending commercial success. How did a band of unassuming Swedes who produced music for less than ten years (over 40 years ago) spawn a preeminent universe of musical performance? Why ABBA?
ABBA's Unique Geographical Appeal
Twenty-one of the world's twenty-five best-selling music acts come from the US or UK. Of the remaining four acts, three of these bands come from former territories of the British Commonwealth (Australia, Canada, Ireland). As you might have guessed, ABBA is the lone exception within this group, hailing from Stockholm, Sweden.
Indeed, ABBA is a European phenomenon, with a core fanbase spread throughout the continent. Using Youtube streaming data visualized by Chartmasters.org, we can compare the band's geographic fanbase to other musical acts. For example, when we examine worldwide streaming activity for Drake, we see the rapper's listener activity is primarily focused in North America. Similarly, listenership for The Beatles is heavily concentrated in North and South America as well as a few European countries.
On the other hand, ABBA sees high levels of fandom across Europe, with significantly less streaming activity in the Americas.
The band's success in Europe is likely tied to its ascendence via the Eurovision Song Contest, its uniquely European image (anyone who has seen Eurovision will understand this), and its strong connection to its home country of Sweden.
This global appeal plays a heavy role in ABBA's second commercial life as film and theater producers typically seek intellectual property with genuine worldwide appeal. In the case of Mamma Mia!, the show has been headquartered in London and New York City, two locations that thrive off attracting tourism from across Europe. And if you're a Hollywood producer attempting to de-risk your films via global box office sales, then a Mamma Mia! movie adaptation is a low-risk endeavor.
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ABBA Makes People Happy
Musical acts are often associated with the mood they bestow upon their listeners. Grateful Dead "Deadheads" enjoy the band's chill vibes and messages of transcendence. Eminem listeners thrive off the rapper's pulsating anger. Celine Dion devotees enjoy the singer's melodic ballads of love and loss (and perhaps they just want a good cry). ABBA fans appear to be looking for a good time—to let loose, dance, and revel in unbridled joy.
Using Spotify's music dataset, we find ABBA's songs rank in the 83rd percentile for average positivity behind other high-energy acts like Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool & The Gang, Donna Summer, and The Spinners—an artist lineup often associated with celebratory events.
Much like Donna Summer and Kool & The Gang, ABBA's music is a staple of festive occasions, such as my Bar Mitzvah or wedding. In fact, when analyzing a large sample of Spotify playlists, we discover that ABBA songs are frequently included in wedding mixes alongside Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, and The Beach Boys.
And when we examine the most commonly played wedding songs, "Dancing Queen" ranks as the second most popular piece of music.
Certain songs can become the soundtrack to our happiest moments, whether a life milestone like a Bar Mitzvah or wedding, or an impromptu dance party in the living room. ABBA's music serves as a respite from all that is frustrating or painful, evoking joy, nostalgia, and connection—highlighting some of the best moments on our happiest days.
Final Thoughts: Does ABBA Offer Nostalgia as a Service?
I saw a West End production of Mamma Mia! this past spring. At the show's curtain call, once the nearly nonexistent plot had been resolved, the entire cast rushed on stage, with the lead characters dressed in stereotypical ABBA costumes, and the group mounted a second performance of "Mamma Mia" and "Dancing Queen."
I found the final ten minutes of unapologetic ABBA mimicry enjoyable yet absurd. Why did I have to sit through this loosely plotted show if they could have just come out and performed these songs concert-style? As this thought crossed my mind, the woman beside me started to cry.
Now, I don't know why this stranger was crying—nor will I ever know. She either:
Had other stuff going on in her life, and just happened to be crying at this show.
Was so overcome by her love of ABBA that she could not help but cry.
I prefer the thought of her crying due to the enormity of her ABBA fandom. Perhaps she had come to hear the music of her youth, and the wistful joy of hearing these songs sent her into a state of bittersweet reflection. She paid to hear songs associated with her happiest moments, and this transaction clearly provided her with something meaningful.
While this person may have been a satisfied customer, I couldn't help but wonder whether there is something wrong with the commercialization of our nostalgia. If people yearn to hear their beloved ABBA hits via a neverending collection of media (musicals, video games, movies, etc.), is it wrong to give the people what they want?
In 2015, researchers conducted an analysis of Spotify usage data and found that users largely stopped seeking out novel music in their early 30s. By age 33, new music listening dropped off almost entirely, with listeners tending to stick to favorites they'd already identified.
Human taste calcifies in our early thirties, and from this point on, we like what we like. I am not a baby boomer; nostalgia is not currently a strong driver of my cultural consumption. But maybe twenty years from now, I'll be paying to see a jukebox musical utilizing songs from The Killers, Miley Cyrus, or Bruno Mars—music I associate with my happiest formative experiences. Maybe I'll be more than willing to fork over my hard-earned money to see Mr. Brightside: The Musical, Bruno Mars: The Video Game, or a Miley Cyrus hologram. Maybe I'll be sobbing tears of nostalgic joy as hologram Miley Cyrus sings "Party in the USA," and maybe I should just accept that this is my future.
Happiness can be hard to find, but somehow, ABBA provides us with a reliable dose of celebration and belonging, no matter the medium.
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