Money money money… As ABBA once pointed out, it’s a rich man’s world. But even after the runaway success of the “ABBA Voyage” digital live experience in London, producers say it has yet to recoup the extraordinary investment needed to put on the show.
“No, we haven’t broken even,” says producer Svana Gisla. “I don’t even know if we’re halfway to breaking even! The audacity of how much this show costs – it was all a bit mad. But we will get there…”
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The smash hit show, staged in a purpose-built arena in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, welcomed its one-millionth visitor back in April and is still playing to joyful, sold-out houses every night, 15 months after it first launched. It’s now booking through May 2024 in London and Gisla, fellow producer Ludvig Andersson, and director Baillie Walsh all hope to prolong that stay further.
“If we can extend the lease and we’re still selling tickets, then hopefully it will run as long as ‘Mamma Mia!’ or longer,” Walsh tells Variety. “I’d love it to be going into its 20th year with me as an old codger, walking with a stick, but still enjoying the audience singing along.”
Despite ABBA’s massive financial investment and the band’s pan-generational fanbase, the team tell Variety that launching the show still carried a huge element of risk. “I’m so proud of all of us for having pulled it off,” says Gisla.
However, they have an even bigger plan – the trio are quietly contemplating expanding the show. The potential to update the show is being explored, while there have been rumors of possible openings in Las Vegas and elsewhere. Earlier this year, Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge told his company’s earnings call that “Plans are now in development to take ‘ABBA Voyage’ around the world,” but Andersson notes it’s not quite that simple.
“In the sense of going on the road, it was never an option, because it’s just too big and heavy of a thing,” he says. “You can’t move it around. What you can do is, do the same thing somewhere else and we’ve been looking at that for a long time. There are still options out there, but nothing is set in stone. And if that is North America, South-East Asia or Australasia, we’ll see – but we’re absolutely working on it.”
Gisla adds that the cost of the show remains a hurdle for many locations. “Everyone’s interested until you put the budget in front of them and say, ‘How about that?’” she laughs. “You can’t just pop up in some theater in Vegas, put some lights up and put digital ABBA on stage.”
The team explains the expense is also likely to deter most other artists from developing a similar experience. “People have been in touch, but you’ve got to be a band of a certain stature to even contemplate it,” says Walsh. “Luckily, ABBA are that creatively curious that they wanted to go ahead despite the enormous expense.”
“We haven’t really invented anything,” adds Andersson. “We just did a thing – and it turned out to be a beautiful thing. But there’s no blueprint here that you can take and go, ‘Ok, let’s just do this with another artist’. If you think of it like that, my advice would be that that’s a terrible idea.”
Gisla says the members of ABBA often attend the show incognito and are rarely recognized. But despite the success of Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad’s digital versions, Baillie Walsh says he can’t see avatar shows ever rivaling traditional touring.
“People are always going to want to play live,” he says. “We’ve proved you can get emotion from the audience with avatars – that’s amazing and wonderful. But live music’s never going to stop.”
Reading and Leeds Festival organizers must have wished they could book a few digital avatars to play their legendary stages in recent years. After last year’s late dropouts from Rage Against the Machine, Måneskin and Jack Harlow, 2023 saw Lewis Capaldi withdraw to focus on his mental and physical health, while Trippie Redd dropped out at the last minute due to illness.
For the second year running, Festival Republic managing director Melvin Benn turned to The 1975 – the Red Adairs of Reading & Leeds – as replacement headliners, again paying “a huge amount of money” to get them to step in.
“They wanted to do it to show love to Lewis Capaldi,” Benn tells Variety. “It’s good that [Capaldi] is not playing for his health – as much as it’s a loss to us, it’s the right thing; until he’s well enough he shouldn’t be playing. But there will be a day when he’ll come back and we can’t wait for that day.”
Benn reports that weekend tickets moved more slowly this year than last (which he had called the festival’s “best year ever”), but the event finally sold out on the weekend it was staged. But he does not think the U.K.’s massive summer of stadium shows from the likes of Blur, Arctic Monkeys, the Weeknd, Harry Styles and many more had a significant impact on sales.
“It’s challenging in some respects,” he says. “But it doesn’t seem to have affected festival tickets, which is great and reinforces how important live music is. Despite all the economic difficulties – and it is very tough for people – people still find money to go and see live music. It’s an incredible testament to what our industry is.”
The 2022 festival was hit by some Sunday night trouble on the campsites – which Benn blames on “copycats” who had watched the Woodstock ’99 documentary, “Trainwreck,” a big hit on Netflix at the time. Campfires were banned this year, with no subsequent reports of major incidents.
Reading and Leeds have become a “rite of passage” for British teenagers, with thousands heading straight to the festivals after receiving their GCSE results. The youthful audience means the events have moved away from their traditional rock-heavy line-ups in recent years, although the upper echelons of this year’s bill featured the guitar-toting likes of the Killers, Sam Fender, Foals and Imagine Dragons (Billie Eilish was the sole female headliner this year, something Benn says he hopes to improve upon in 2024).
Further changes are also on the way. “There will be a shift change next year,” Benn adds. “I’m not publicizing what it is yet, but there’s a musical shift change among young people and Reading/Leeds always has to reflect that and maintain its relevance. Musically, it’s never stood still – and it doesn’t intend to.”
Meanwhile, the U.K. music industry is hoping the launch of a new, northern version of the famous BRIT School will help produce the next generation of British festival headliners.
Trade body the BPI had its proposal for a “BRIT School North” in Bradford – which will be the U.K. City of Culture in 2025 – approved by the government and is now working towards a launch in 2026 or 2027. The bid was a collaboration with the three major record companies as well as the East London Arts & Music (ELAM) school and the London Screen Academy, with Universal, Sony and Warner all committing to contribute funding.
Since it opened in 1991, the O.G. BRIT School has had a remarkable track record in producing hit artists: the likes of Adele, Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis and Spider-Man actor Tom Holland have all passed through its halls, while a quarter of this year’s nominees for the Mercury Music Prize with FREENOW attended the school.
And new BPI CEO Jo Twist hopes that the northern site will be every bit as successful as its southern counterpart.
“I have no doubt that we’re going to see some real stars, both in the performance space and the production space, coming out of this school,” Twist tells Variety. “We need a diverse set of young people coming into our industry, taking up all different kinds of roles.”
Twist says the Bradford school will “put an emphasis on talented young people from under-served backgrounds” and help young people pursue a creative arts career without having to move to London.
“It’s an encouraging sign that the government is taking creative arts education more seriously,” she says. “In a world of AI, we’re moving into a different kind of industrial revolution and we need people who have emotional intelligence, which you gain through our creative arts.”
Twist started her BPI role in July, having joined from Ukie, the trade body for U.K. games and interactive entertainment. She has already been busy meeting people from across the U.K. music business and gaining insight into its many current challenges.
“There are lots of parallels with the video games industry,” she says. “An exchange of perspectives is always really healthy. It is challenging – and that’s exactly what I was looking for.”
Although one in every 10 songs streamed globally is by a British artist (per the British Phonographic Industry), many local executives are concerned that the U.K.’s long history of punching above its weight musically is under threat, with a lack of recent global breakthroughs. But Twist says she is “confident we can maintain our place and do even better.”
“The investment that labels put into artists and the industry is brilliant,” she says. “The government has set a vision to grow the creative industries, support extra jobs, and help build a pipeline of talent for the future – and we are so well-placed as a sector to help fulfill and power that ambition. I’m looking forward to really getting stuck in.”
Elsewhere, another of the U.K.’s big trade bodies is looking for a new leader after the announcement that U.K. Music chief executive Jamie Njoku-Goodwin is to become Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s new director of strategy.
Njoku-Goodwin seemed like a leftfield appointment for U.K. Music when he joined in 2020, having previously worked as a special adviser to the government. But he soon established himself in music circles and helped steer the industry through the effects of the pandemic. His contributions have been widely praised by the bosses of other U.K. trade bodies, including the BPI, AIM, the MMF and the Ivors Academy.
His leaving date has yet to be announced, but Variety understands it will be sooner rather than later, with the search for his successor beginning shortly.
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