For ABBA Voyage, UX Is "The Name Of The Game"
Updated: Jun 7
People everywhere, a sense of expectation hangin' in the air...
It was May 26th, 2022, and East London was a-buzzing.
The occasion couldn't have been more special: it was the long-anticipated return to the stage of one of pop music's biggest and most beloved bands who, almost 50 years after facing their "Waterloo," continue to draw attention and admiration from millions of listeners around the world.
All four members of ABBA—Agnetha Fältskog, Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, and Anni-Erid (Frida)
Lyngstad—walked the red carpet together (a rare setting for a group long defunct since 1982) and set the arena that bears the name of the Swedish quartet into a total frenzy when they took a bow in front of thousands of screaming fans.
One year later, the "ABBA Voyage" machine moves on at a relentless pace. The concert residency, featuring CGI representations of the band affectionately referred to as "ABBA-tars," has been seen by over a million people and is scheduled to run in its current location until 2026. Meanwhile, multiple markets are calling, from Las Vegas to Singapore, in the hopes of hosting the event.
We all know why ABBA's timeless music has become legendary...but what is it about "ABBA Voyage" that has captivated audiences, and keeps them going back for more?
If we look at how the show was created from a user experience standpoint, there would be no doubt about it.
When you're gone, how can I even try to go on…
Regretfully, I did not see or hear ABBA in its prime. I was born only three years after their final recording sessions which yielded just a handful of finished tracks, a couple of them included on their late 1982 greatest hits compilation, ironically titled “The Singles - The First Ten Years.”
After a whole decade of dominating the charts, the group was left shattered by the divorces that inspired such devastating stories like “The Winner Takes it All,” “When All Is Said and Done,” and “Slipping Through My Fingers,” and had simply run out of steam. Almost collectively, ABBA and the world around them agreed it was time to put the phenomenon to rest.
They expected the music to linger for a little bit before ultimately fading away. It didn’t turn out that way.
The wave of 70s nostalgia that swept the world during the early 90s brought a reappraisal of long-forgotten bands, and ABBA lead the pack when their “Gold - Greatest Hits” album spawned an unlikely revival that is still being felt to this day, thanks in great part to the outstanding success of the “Mamma Mia” musical and films.
People were once again clamoring for the gentle Swedes. There was just one little thing: they didn’t want to be on stage again.
“We are the group that never came back,” Björn said at a time when the offers for a reunion tour flooded their Polar Music HQ. The wildest offer was in 2000 for $1 billion to perform up to 250 shows. All four of them rejected it.
Years went on, and the popularity of ABBA’s catalog in the TikTok generation continued to surge just as technology advancements helped breathe new life into cherished acts like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, 2pac, and Whitney Houston, all converted into holograms with various degrees of success.
Simon Fuller, the man responsible for creating the “Idol” franchise and for taking the Spice Girls from rags to riches, had been involved in such cutting-edge work for some time, bridging the worlds of entertainment and virtual reality to bring music lovers a whole new kind of immersive experience. Benny and Björn, long keepers of the ABBA flame, were intrigued at the thought of creating their own brand of holograms, and the wheels were once again in motion for another ABBA revival.
I’m not the one you knew, I’m now and then combined…
The project was complemented by the contributions of film and music-video producers Svana Gisla and Benny’s son Ludvig Andersson who shared the same futuristic vision as Benny and Björn, one of a concert like no other.
However, as quickly as it was being developed, the creative team hit a roadblock. “We found out that hologram technology is old-fashioned and is not suitable for touring at all,” Björn said in an interview with CNN.
It was back to the drawing board, and the pop music legends were weary about whether they had bitten more than they could chew. Enter Industrial Light and Magic, and a crew of 1,000 visual effects artists who worked on the task of de-aging the ABBA members’ image all the way back to their 70s heyday. In order to fulfill this ambitious endeavor, and create the band’s digital copies, Agnetha, Benny, Björn, and Frida spent almost five weeks crammed in a Stockholm film studio wearing motion graphic suits to perform a 22-song set in front of 200 cameras that captured every single move they made. Body doubles choreographed by Wayne McGregor was brought into the mix to naturally emulate their movements and bring a youthful energy to the now 70-something musicians.
This experience brought the group together in more ways than one: after deciding to include a couple of “new” songs in the setlist and much to the surprise of their adoring fanbase (myself included), the collaboration blossomed into a fully-fledged ABBA album called “Voyage,” released in 2021.
Do I have it in me? I believe it is in there…
Four decades after their last disc of original material, ABBA was back!
“Voyage” proved to be an incredible success, hitting the top spot in more than a dozen countries, and giving the band its highest placing ever on both the Canadian and US albums charts.
The record’s announcement coincided with further details revealed on the “ABBA Voyage” concert residency, which wouldn’t take place in any arena or stadium around the world. A state-of-the-art, 3,000-seat venue had to be built in London to especially accommodate the event. The choice of London made sense. Not only is it an international destination but it’s been a place where ABBA always felt welcome during its prime.
The project encountered its share of hiccups before its public premiere a year ago. Originally scheduled for 2019, it was delayed due to technical reasons. The Covid-19 pandemic brought yet another pushback.
The most important iteration of this project came as a new member of the creative team walked in with his expertise in merging the physical and digital worlds, just as he did with supermodel Kate Moss for Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter show in 2006.
“Our director Bailey Walsh had to crack the code, and as simple as it sounds, he did it with light,” said Svana Gisla during the “ABBA Voyage” livestream announcement in September 2021. “Light is the connector. Light, audio, and this environment is going to be a unique space to be in which is neither digital nor physical.” The presence of a 10-piece live band also played a part in making sure that the boundaries between the physical and digital worlds would disappear for the audience.
There is a deeper mission that sits at the heart of the “ABBA Voyage” experience, and it is to tug at the heartstrings. “The most important factor of all is that people who go there don’t see the tech but they feel emotionally connected to these ‘ABBA-tars’,” Björn Ulveaus said to Bloomberg.
A lot was on the line—a whopping $175 million expense, to be exact. Although he has always shown a brave face as the media representative of the band, Björn expressed that he was indeed worried about the audience’s response or whether the concert would be dismissed as just a film being shown on screen.
A crucial test came with previews, which took place 12 days before opening night. “That’s when we knew the truth because people did connect.” Many concert-goer reviews of that period, and even later as the show began its run with several of my own personal friends in attendance, reflected that same sense of disbelief. Your brain tells you it’s not them on stage but your heart thinks otherwise.
Some people have left the ABBA Arena unsure of what they had seen there. Some bawled their eyes out with images of their childhood flashing before their eyes. Some have even gone again and again, sitting in different areas of the arena to capture as much of the experience as they can.
All in all, the creative team led by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulveaus pulled a mind-blowing achievement that is bound to be followed by many of their contemporaries: leveraging tech to satisfy an international and multigenerational demand for their songs to be heard and experienced fully in a concert setting.
An expensive risk that paid off in spades, and a true “Voyage” through time, life, and music that has changed the game for live entertainment forever.