Fantastic Voyage: Polydor on the second coming of ABBA

Fantastic Voyage: Polydor on the second coming of ABBA

Polydor co-president Tom March and marketing director Stephen Hallowes have given Music Week the inside story on ABBA's incredible comeback. 

Released on November 5, Voyage has already gone platinum in the UK with sales of 331,657, according to the Official Charts Company. 

For March, working with the pop legends on the landmark campaign - the Swedish group's first new LP since 1981 - has been a career highlight. 

"The journey started three or so years ago, when Benny [Andersson] and Bjorn [Ulvaeus] came over and played us a couple of songs," he said. "We had to sit on that secret - that they'd actually been making some music together - and to then have a chance to work on their first album in 40 years is something we could never really have dreamed of.

"We had to keep it very quiet. There were little leaks here and there and we knew any tiny bit of news would just get seized upon, so it was really important to keep everything to a very small circle of trust because we knew how important it would be to have a huge launch moment. It came together brilliantly in the end, but it took a lot of work behind the scenes from a core group of people to get to that point."

The idea for the launch was to create as much noise in one hit as possible

Tom March, Polydor

ABBA partnered with YouTube for the live announcement of their return in September, and also premiered the first music from Voyage on the platform.

"The idea for the launch was to create as much noise in one hit as possible, because you know you will only get limited time with an artist like ABBA, so everything you do has to have impact," said March. "The YouTube content went viral and we hit the Six O'Clock News, the 10 O'Clock News and the cover of every single national newspaper. When have you ever seen that?

"There was no comeback or launch moment in music [from the past] that we could link this to, so we thought, 'What's the biggest thing we can think of?' And it was like, 'Right, how do we make it as big as when Star Wars came back?' And I think we delivered that kind of impact. Our job was to tell the world ABBA were back and I think we did that."

The album raced out of the blocks, rocketing to No.1 with a huge first week sale of 203,909 in the UK and sold in excess of one million worldwide. Voyage also broke a 21st century record for weekly vinyl units (29,891 copies), but its sales of CDs across multiple editions were almost five times greater, at 148,471. 

"For us to get over 200,000 albums week one was a real target, because we knew that only Adele, Ed [Sheeran] and One Direction had achieved that in the last decade," explained March. "To be there with those artists was exactly where we wanted to be."

Over the years, their music has been reintroduced to people through various mediums

Stephen Hallowes, Polydor

Their streaming figures are similarly impressive - the band have in the region of 20 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

"Over the years, their music has been reintroduced to people through various mediums," explained Hallowes. "In the '90s, it was [1994 film] The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, the original Mamma Mia! stage show and Muriel's Wedding. In the noughties, it was the Mamma Mia! the movie, and then in the [2010s] there was the second Mamma Mia! movie.

"When we were strategising the campaign, we were looking at their streaming data and, actually, their biggest audience on Spotify was 18 to 24-year-olds. Compared to all the other legendary acts on Universal, they had by far the biggest young audience and their audience indexed far younger, which makes sense if you think about the way their music has been reintroduced to generations of people over the last 40 years. So we knew there'd be a streaming appetite for new music."

He added: "It was a completely unique situation to have such a popular act who hadn't released a note of music in 40 years. The curiosity factor and the news story around that was something that we'd never seen before and it made it into such a moment when it actually launched."

Voyage's dual lead singles, Don't Shut Me Down (100,005 sales, OCC) and I Still Have Faith In You (70,038 sales), both charted inside the Top 20, peaking at No.9 and No.14, respectively. 

"We knew the new songs would stream, but I was not anticipating that level of success on the singles," said March. "At that point, we knew it wasn't just going to hit their older fans and it had gone beyond just being a curiosity thing. We could see these songs were connecting to a young streaming audience.

"The week before we relaunched with new music, the band joined TikTok and spent a lot of time leaning into the platform, so they've not just embraced the standard conventional promo, but they're engaging with the new platforms too and they've really enjoyed it."

I'm hopeful they will win Best International Group at the BRITs

Tom March, Polydor

March revealed it was Universal Music UK chairman and CEO David Joseph who drove the "last minute" decision to release two songs on the same day.

"We'd been planning for a long time to go with the one single and it was David's call to say, 'We should show both sides of ABBA here,'" said March. "For about a year, we'd been planning to have [I Still Have Faith In You] come first, but it was absolutely the right call because [Don't Shut Me Down] connected to the streaming audience. It showed both sides of the group and created even more excitement. People could dive in and stream two songs and they fuelled each other, and that fuelled the conversation."

More than 300,000 tickets have been sold to date to see the band perform digitally with a live 10-piece band at the purpose-built ABBA Arena in London from May to December 2022. The digital versions of ABBA were created following months of motion-capture and performance techniques with the four band members and an 850-strong team from Industrial Light & Magic, the company founded by George Lucas, in the company’s first foray into music.

"They've sold a huge amount of tickets to that already and I think we will go with another single from the album to radio early next year to keep things moving and work that into the show," noted Hallowes.

And with Voyage still entrenched in the Top 5 more than a month after its release, March is hopeful ABBA's success will be recognised come awards season.

"I'm hopeful they will win Best International Group at the BRITs," he said. "I think that would be a huge moment and something they massively deserve." 

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