April 24th, 2023

Per Sundin – Pophouse/Former Universal & Sony Sweden [CEO]

From running major labels to combating The Pirate Bay and supporting the rise of Spotify, Per Sundin is one of the most known music executives in Sweden. After leading both Sony and Universal Sweden for 20 years, he moved on to become the CEO of Pophouse, a private entertainment company that made news for buying the catalogs of Swedish House Mafia and creating the ABBA Voyage show. After a few emails back and forth, I was invited to Per’s office to talk about his career, the fight against illegal downloads, the rise of streaming, and his hopes for Pophouse.

– Hi Per. Thanks for having me over. You’re most known for your work in the Swedish music industry, but what were you doing prior to that? 

I’m from Umeå, but I moved to Östersund when I was nineteen to play football and attend university. I got a job there selling T-shirts and college-wear to the surrounding ski resorts and students. Whilst at the store, someone called in and said that CBS Records wanted a promoter for the resorts and university, so I took the gig as a side job because I loved music. After graduating, I got a day-job selling Apple, Toshiba and IBM computers, but once I’d sold them to every company in the city, I realized that I needed a new challenge and moved to Stockholm in January of 1989 at age 25.

– A few years after moving to Stockholm, you became the CEO of Radio City, one of Sweden’s early commercial radio stations. How did that happen? 

I saw an ad that said CBS Records were looking for a Marketing Director, so I applied for the position and managed to get the job. Sweden didn’t have commercial radio at the time, but some stations were owned by political parties and would broadcast for three hours a day. In order to exploit the airtime, I partnered with Radio City to create music compilations called “Radio City Love Songs“. They were inspired by the Kuschelrock albums from Germany and the CDs made the company a lot of money, so they asked me to become their CEO in 1993 when commercial radio became legal in Sweden.

(Below: Radio City Love Songs cover from 1992)

 – After running Radio City for three years, you moved on to TV4 in 1995. What led to that?

I was approached by Lars Weiss, their Program Director. I thought he wanted to discuss a Radio City partnership, but he actually wanted to hire me as Head of Entertainment for TV4. It was tough to leave my colleagues behind, but it was a straight-forward decision from a career standpoint. My new job was to pitch new shows to Lars whilst monitoring the ratings to see which ones became successful.

– One of the popular Swedish shows of the late 90s was called “På Rymmen”. I’ve heard that Lars Weiss didn’t like the idea, but the producer, Anna Bråkenhielm, convinced you to give her 50,000 kronor to make the pilot. What made you believe in the idea?

We needed a new Friday show for the 8pm slot and “På Rymmen” felt crazy enough to work. There were a lot of production companies pitching for it, but Anna and her team were really dedicated and made a fantastic pilot for just 50,000kr. They even got people like David Hellenius to participate, though he wasn’t famous at the time. The pilot was so good that we could’ve broadcast it as the first episode, so we greenlit the show and had Martin Timmell host it. I’d hired him from SVT to work on a game show called Cluedo, which didn’t do very well, but it was followed by Äntligen Hemma which became a huge success. When Martin wanted to host a weekend entertainment show, we put him on “På Rymmen” and the rest is history.

– After TV4, you ended up running Sony Music Sweden, right?

Yes. CBS Records had become Sony Music and I got a call from their London office asking me to become the Managing Director for their Swedish branch in 1998, so I took the job.

– What was it like when Napster came along in 1999? Did that affect the global record sales of major labels?

It’s inaccurate to say that file-sharing sites affected the sales of all major labels globally; the effect was mostly felt in countries like Sweden, so the response from US labels was to prevent that from spreading. 1998 – 2000 was the heyday of physical CDs. At Sony Music, the Titanic soundtrack sold tons, as well as albums like Savage Garden’sAffirmation“. Because our releases did so well, we even put out albums by acts like Vonda Shepard, the composer for the Ally McBeal show, and that sold well too. But things changed when Napster arrived, and it was quickly followed by other file-sharing sites like Gnutella, Kazaa, and eventually The Pirate Bay. These sites made people in Sweden believe that the future of the Internet implied free downloads. Even our Prime Minister and his opposition said in 2006, “We have to allow downloads for private usage because we can’t criminalize an entire generation “. This was one week prior to the election, so they sided with the public in order to not lose votes. It was a scary time.

– Why do you think Napster and file-sharing had such success in Sweden? Weren’t people satisfied with iTunes?

iTunes launched in 2001 and was big in the US and UK, but it never took off in Sweden because people didn’t see the point in buying what they could already download. Basic broadband in those days was defined as 256 KB/second, whereas most of us in Sweden had access to one megabyte per second by the late 90s, which was much faster. This was because our government had passed the “Home PC Reform” in 1997, which heavily subsidized the purchase of personal computers. It also let you pay off the remaining amount in two years with no interest, and the idea was for people to work from home and be more efficient. Everyone bought into it, but no-one foresaw that our kids would use the computers to play video games and download files. The “Home PC Reform” is probably why so many tech and game companies came out of Sweden in the 2010s, from Mojang and DICE to King, Soundcloud, and Spotify. My theory is that it came from having high-speed broadband in the 2000s, along with assurance that the government would soften the blow if your business fails, which made it easier to take risks.

– I’ve spoken with other music executives who felt it was a bad idea that major labels allowed Steve Jobs to distribute their catalog through iTunes instead of creating their own online store. What did you think of that?

I think Steve Jobs was a smart guy. He went to the labels and said, “Physical singles are sold for 99 cents at retail, but how much do you charge for wholesale purchases? “. They said, “70 – 80 cents“, and he responded, “If you work with iTunes, I’ll pay you 85 cents a single “. So he cut into his own profit margins, but you could only play iTunes files on the iPod, so most of the money was made by selling hardware anyway. When other retailers wanted to do similarly, the labels offered the same contract for 85 cents/download, but they said “We can’t work with those margins. Buying for 85 cents and selling for 99 cents isn’t possible“, but the labels couldn’t alter the contract because iTunes already set a precedent. So Steve effectively took out the competition.

– In 2004, Sony and BMG merged to create Sony-BMG, and you were made CEO of the Swedish branch. Do you know what prompted that merger?

Worldwide music revenues were decreasing and everyone saw a shift coming. There were seven major labels at the time and Napster prompted everyone to go rogue as the market shrank. The Swedish market shrank by 50% between 2000 and 2008, but our customers hadn’t stopped listening to music – they just preferred downloading to buying.

Once the merger between Sony and BMG took place, I was responsible for 84 of our combined staff members. My first two days as CEO were spent letting go of 40 of them, many of whom were friends I’d known for fifteen years. It was one of the toughest things in my career, but major labels had been firing ten percent of their workforce every year and it reached 50% in 2004.

– Do you know what led to the break-up of Sony-BMG in 2008?

There’s always going to be compromises when you have a 50-50 venture and it typically affects the management team most. To be honest, the new management weren’t music guys. They didn’t have a vision for what a record label should prioritize, which is to find new artists and create new careers.

– Apparently, none of the big mergers or acquisitions of that period had the effect people expected. There was a lot of talk around Universal acquiring EMI in 2011, but it didn’t lead to any huge changes.

Universal’s purchase of EMI was actually quite smart. After the acquisition, the regulators said they had to sell off one third of the company, which they did for 50% of what they paid for it. So they kept two thirds for only half the money. Also, that deal gave Universal control over EMI’s shares in Spotify, so it was a fantastic move from their side.

– Major labels were getting a bad wrap during the mid-2000s for being greedy corporations that were against file-sharing. Is it true that your wife would tell you to not talk about your role as Sony’s CEO because of the conflict it created?

Yes, it is. There’s a Netflix series called “The Playlist” where I’m doing just that in a scene. I tell someone that I work in the music business and they say, “That can’t be easy when we’re not buying CDs anymore. My son downloads all his albums for free“, and I’m like, “So you endorse your kids to steal? Are you serious? “. So my wife says, “It’s better just to have a drink and not tell people what you work with tonight. It only leads to arguments ” (laughs).

– When I spoke with Claes Uggla, he mentioned that one of Timbuktu’s singles was released on The Pirate Bay for promotional reasons, but without the label’s permission. As the CEO, what did you think about that?

Sometimes you have to do things to get attention, so I wouldn’t judge an artist for giving away their music. Even U2 gave away “Songs Of Innocence” through iTunes, though the reception was quite negative. Others sell their music at Walmart, which is only possible if the album went #1 and you’re willing to lower the retail price. Everyone has their own strategy.

– Some would say your opposition to Internet downloads was obligatory because you represented the major labels and their shareholders. Had you not been the CEO of a major label, would you have had the same position? Or would you have seen the benefit in file-sharing?

I haven’t been asked that question before. Most people are resistant to change even when it’s necessary, and that’s why we need disruptors to move things forward. In that sense, I can say that file-sharing played an important role in today’s landscape since the major labels would never have licensed their music to Spotify without The Pirate Bay conflict. Their resistance to streaming was actually a bad decision because now artists and labels are earning more money than ever.

– As file-sharing spiraled out of control, what did the government do to combat the issue?

In 2008, Sweden enacted an EU directive that made it illegal to download copyrighted material, and Swedish Internet traffic dropped by 44% soon after. Ironically, that law has never been used in Swedish courts because Spotify ended up being so much better than The Pirate Bay by eliminating the hassle of viruses and malware. Why download unknown files when you can just stream for free?

– What’s your relationship like with The Pirate Bay today?

We have no relationship, though it was fun watching the events be recreated for “The Playlist”. There’s a lot of dramatization, but it’s more or less accurate in terms of overall events.

– Can we say that online piracy is dead? 

I’d say it’s dead, yes, but it’s been replaced by newer issues. The DSPs are being flooded with new music, and frankly, most of it is AI-generated. Spotify releases 100,000 songs a day, which will probably become 250,000 – 500,000 in ten years time. It’s going to flood the systems and will affect an artist’s ability to breakthrough. It’ll also make a lot of music sound the same, so anyone who does things differently will have a better chance to stand out.

– Is it a coincidence that Spotify launched around the same time as The Pirate Bay was going to trial? Was there any connection between the demise of the former and the rise of the latter? 

No, there wasn’t; it was just a perfect storm. Spotify started in October 2008 and The Pirate Bay verdict came in the spring of 2009.

Daniel Ek spent the mid-2000s trying to generate interest in Spotify, and you were an early believer in the company even when the major labels weren’t. How did you meet him and why were the majors hesitant to work with him?

Daniel was taking meetings and presenting his ideas to different people, including myself, because he knew Sweden was in a bad spot and needed a new leader in music. Needless to say, I’m glad that he and his co-founder, Martin Lorentzon, saw things through.

The major labels in the US and UK had been selling large amounts of physical units, which was followed by the success of iTunes, so when Daniel said his platform would stream their music for free, there was pushback. That’s why Spotify didn’t have a global launch in its early stages; they started in five countries, with the US and UK taking until 2011 to embrace it. That was when Daniel and his team asked me and my peers to give talks and presentations about it in places like Italy and the UK.

People thought I was smart to bet on Spotify, but I was just desperate because file-sharing had taken a toll on the industry. In terms of digital revenue, I was the worst-performing CEO at a major label when I took over Universal Sweden. Three years later, I was the best-performing, and that was purely because of Spotify.

– I’ve heard that a few months after Spotify launched, Universal Sweden was making more money from streaming payouts than from iTunes. Is that true?

Yes it is, but to be honest, we never made much money from iTunes. Denmark and Norway each have half of Sweden’s population yet their iTunes revenue was always more than ours, so it was easy for Spotify’s payouts to surpass our iTunes revenue in less than a year.

– Did your artists ever benefit from Spotify being a Swedish company? Did that lead to them getting more exposure?

There was definitely a window of opportunity for Swedish artists in the 2010s, though it probably doesn’t exist in the same way today. Back then, many of Spotify’s early artists were Swedes, so if they had a Top 5 song on the Swedish Spotify charts, it automatically made them Top 50 on the Global Charts. It was a big boost for acts like Avicii and Tove Lo to be Top 5 in Sweden and Top 50 globally. It meant that Millennials and Gen Z:ers were mostly hearing Swedish music on Spotify.

– Let’s talk about your time at Universal. Was it a sudden transition in 2008?

It was sudden, yes. Universal had been pursuing me since 2007, but I was considering moving on to a different industry because of how the music business was performing. Universal reached out via an executive recruiting firm and asked for a meeting on two occasions, but I turned them down. I remember talking to my wife about it during Christmas and wondering if maybe I should’ve taken the meetings. Ultimately, I ended up sitting down with Lucian Grange and Max Hole in London and we talked about the position. I felt they had a different kind of leadership than Sony did, and that’s what motivated my decision to leave.

– How did Sony react when they learnt you were leaving?

They didn’t take it well. They somehow got wind of it and the management team had a meeting without me. When I tried to pass by the offices to say goodbye, they shut me out. I couldn’t get into the building and was even locked out of my email. I was shocked at first, but it may have been naïve to not expect that to happen.

– Once you got to Universal, were things positive from the start or did you need an adjustment period?

The staff were a bit on edge because of my reputation for being angry, which I was at the time. My predecessor had been the opposite – he was seen as a good guy whereas I was seen as the devil. Being aware of this, I started our first meeting with a presentation of who I was and what I expected, but I did it in a nice way, which took them by surprise. Things got easier after that, though we had to make some changes. The only reason Universal Sweden made money in those days was because of ABBA, so I invented a model called “EBIT-ABBA”, which meant “revenue before ABBA”. One of my first goals was to make the company profitable aside from ABBA’s catalog.

– What was the biggest difference between running Sony and Universal Sweden?

When I was running Sony, I didn’t have the same confidence I had at Universal. Everyone was downsizing their staff and cutting costs when I switched companies, but I knew that Spotify was coming so I couldn’t afford to be cowardly with my decisions. I went all in and signed a lot of artists like Tove Lo, Axwell & Ingrosso, Håkan Hellström, Kent, etc. Tove Lo went from being unknown to being #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, which was great, and I also signed most of Sweden’s EDM acts from that time, including Avicii, Dada Life, Rebecca & Fiona, Alesso and Otto Knows. So when the market finally turned, my decisions were rewarded.

– Let’s talk about that. What led you to take EDM seriously?

Jonas Wikström is the publishing executive for Swedish House Mafia, and he invited me to the opening night of their Pacha residence in 2010. Kylie Minogue was the supporting act, which made no sense to me. How was a pop superstar supporting three Swedish DJs? I knew about SHM but didn’t know they were that big. When they came on, the energy was incredible and I saw a dancefloor of 80% men dancing and fist-pumping, so I realized it was the future. EDM as a genre was taking off, but SHM were already signed to Virgin UK, so I had to find a new act for Universal and it ended up being Avicii.

– Avicii was one of the bigger acts of the 2010s, with over 30 million singles and 5 million albums sold. What’s the story behind signing him?

I was sent a YouTube link to his “Bromance” track. EDM artists would first play their instrumentals in their DJ sets and then add a topline if the track tested well. So Avicii’s next release was the vocal version called “Seek Bromance“, which I signed for release in Sweden, Norway and Finland. We had to release it under “Tim Berg” because his manager, Ash Pournouri, had signed a contract that prohibited him from using “Avicii” on that track. The release was a success, and he followed it up with another instrumental called “Penguin” and a vocal version called “Fade Into Darkness“. I signed both tracks to Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Then came “Levels“. Ash knew it was a monster hit, so I signed it for the world, excluding North America. I would later meet Lady Gaga’s manager, Troy Carter, at a Universal convention. We were introduced by Andrew Cronfield, and I learned that he’d started his own dance label, Atom Empire, in partnership with Interscope. Troy signed “Levels” for North America and that led to the Bud Light sync at the Super Bowl in 2012. Then came “Silhouettes” and “Wake Me Up“, and I continued to work with Tim until the end. Once I left Universal, his father, Klas Bergling, asked if I wanted to join the Tim Bergling Foundation, which I proudly accepted.

– What were your biggest accomplishments as the head of Sony and Universal Sweden respectively?

My first two years at Sony were fantastic. Leif Käck was my Head of A&R and CD sales were booming. The tough years only began when the file-sharing platforms arrived.

My main accomplishment at Universal was signing Avicii in 2010 and Tove Lo in 2012. Then came the journey with Spotify and my support of them.

– Having left Universal, you’re now the CEO of Pophouse. What’s the masterplan for that?

We’re exploring new things everyday, but our focus is on investing in music IPs and entertainment projects. The goal is to market our music catalogs to new demographics, as well as in countries that previously weren’t at the forefront of monetizing music. Much of that has changed thanks to social media and smartphones.

– Pophouse made news in 2021 by acquiring 75% of Avicii’s masters, as well as 100% of Swedish House Mafia’s. Given all the money being paid out for music catalogs these days, can you unpack how these investments pay off?

It’s quite simple. Goldman Sachs has a yearly report called “Music Is In The Air” where they forecast the next ten years in the industry. Their estimates are low, but they still believe in a 10% – 12% increase in the music business every year until 2030. So at worst, if your music assets increase in value by 100% over a decade, you’ll make all your money back. If the market increases by 12%, you’ll break even in seven or eight years. Once that happens, you’ll own a catalog that can be sold for two or three times what you paid for it. Plus, if you can amplify the value of the catalog through syncs, bio-pics, podcasts, etc, then you reach your goal even faster.

When I was young, TV shows like Dallas and Falcon Crest were popular, but they’re hard to watch today because the editing is too slow and the set design is outdated. That’s why movie studios do remakes, but it’s the opposite with music – records from the 60s to the 90s generally sound better than what’s released today, and a considerable amount of streams are being done by older catalogs. As an example, ABBA made more money in 2020 than they did in 1982 when they broke up, and that mainly came from their streaming income. In 2022, 72% of all streams in the US came from music that’s older than eighteen months, and that number increases everyday.

– Given the large numbers being paid out for artist catalogs, is there any downside to these kinds of investments? Is it possible to over-invest?

The only downside I can think of is an artist getting caught in a scandal that leads to them being banned on streaming services. Aside from that, the market is increasing due to the prevalence of smartphones, and only 11% of all smartphones have a music subscription on them, so there’s definitely room for growth.

– Pophouse works with some of the most popular Swedish catalogs like ABBA, Avicii and Swedish House Mafia. What’s the next acquisition for you?

It’s just a coincidence that we chose to work with Swedish music thus far. We’re currently talking to American and English artists, so our next purchase probably won’t be a Swedish one.

– Tell me about your different ABBA projects, like the Voyage show and the Museum.

ABBA Voyage is located in London and receives 21,000 visitors a week, with 3000 attendees per show. We need to sell three million tickets to break even our costs, and we’re currently at 1.25 million. ABBA The Museum receives 7000 visitors per week and the ticket price is one fifth of Voyage, but it’s a very successful setup and remains popular.

ABBA Voyage started in 2016 when I met Simon Fuller. He wanted to take holograms on tour and asked if Universal were interested in something similar to the 2pac hologram at Coachella in 2012 or the Michael Jackson one at the Billboard awards in 2014. We enlisted a company in San Francisco to develop the technology using CGI and motion capture, but they were unable to deliver the promised results and Simon wasn’t able to keep funding it. The project stayed on ice until we resumed with Svana Gisla as a producer and she brought on Industrial Light & Magic to create the technology.

– Do you think Live Nation is upset that the Voyage show eliminated ABBA’s chances of reuniting for a tour? 

Live Nation tried for years to take ABBA on the road and were unsuccessful. I don’t think they would’ve done it because neither Agneta nor Frida wanted to, so this was the best we could do, and frankly, it’s a jaw-dropping show. You have to see it to believe how big it is.

– Let’s conclude with some questions about the names you’ve worked with. Can you tell me anything interesting about working with the following?

Veronica Maggio: I thought she was the new Swedish Madonna when I first heard her music, so I went all in on her second album “Och vinnaren är…“. We did a big TV campaign around it and I remember having lunch with her and saying, “Your current royalty rate is so low that it’s embarrassing, so I’m gonna increase it without requiring more albums because I believe in you “.

Oskar Linnros: He was the producer on Veronika’s first album and was also her boyfriend at the time. After they broke up, he asked for the same support for his debut album that I’d given Veronica. It was a fantastic record, though it did have some lyrics directed at her, which caused her to respond on her third album, “Satan i gatan“. That was also the album that turned her into a Swedish superstar.

Petter: He’s a true entrepreneur who never stays still and is always working on something. He actually put into his record deal that we would have lunch once a month (laughs). I really admire his style of entrepreneurship and he often challenged me in a good way.

Daniel-Adams Ray: I didn’t sign him, but Johan Wikström did and Universal distributed his first album, which was a success. We took over his contract for the second album and released it in 2013. I still talk to him when we cross paths but I don’t know him as well as Oskar.

Lucian Grange: He called me when I resigned from Universal and said. “You can’t resign Per. We can’t lose you at a time like this !”, but they couldn’t come up with another job for me that made sense and I didn’t want to move away from Sweden, so I knew it was time to leave. I’d spent enough time running Universal Sweden, even though the compensation was generous and it was great to work under Frank Briegmann. But as you get older, you know when it’s time to move on.

– Wrapping up, who would you say is the smartest music executive in Sweden at the moment, not including yourself?

Mark Dennis is running Sony Music Sweden and he’s a good guy; I hired him at Universal and he later took over as Managing Director at Sony. But to answer the question, I think Joakim Johansson at Universal is the smartest guy in the business right now.

– Many thanks for talking to me, Per. This was a great chat. What’s next for yoù?

I’m very eager to show what we’re doing at Pophouse in the coming years. We’re not looking at Sweden as our only market, but rather the world. We have both a great team and business plan along with resources and owners that really believe in us, so we’re aiming to do big things.

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