Per Sundin had seen the future.
Then the President of Universal Music Nordic, Sundin was invited to Ibiza to see Swedish House Mafia play their 2010 residency at Pacha.
“It was like, ‘When are they going on stage? Half past two? In the morning? Oh my god,'” recalls Sundin, who at this time was not yet fully steeped in dance music’s late-night culture. At Pacha he ventured onto the dancefloor amidst a massive crowd “fist-pumping towards the DJ booth.” It was then he knew: “This is the future of pop.”
Back in Stockholm, Sundin looked around for his own dance act to sign, eventually connecting with a young Swedish producer then going by Tim Berg, along with the artist’s manager, Ash Pournouri. Sundin signed the artist’s 2010 debut single, “Seek Bromance.” The label and the producer, who was by then going by Avicii, followed that with 2012’s “Fade Into Darkness” — and then, of course, the era-defining global phenomenon that was “Levels.”
But the biggest success was yet to come.
Avicii’s debut album, True, came out on September 13, 2013. By its release date, it was already soaring on the wings of its lead single “Wake Me Up,” the first-ever country/EDM hybrid to cross over to top 40, which as of today has 1.18 billion official on-demand U.S. streams, according to Luminate. The song reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October of 2013, marking what would be the highest-charting song of Avicii’s career, and his only top 10 hit. It also spent 26 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart, and this past June, became the RIAA’s highest certified dance song.
Dance music purists may have hated the track — when “Wake Me Up” was mentioned at a business lunch in 2013, one dance music publicist put her finger in her mouth and pretended to vomit — but anyone with ears had to admit it was catchy. True was also a phenomenon: With it, Avicii bucked the trend of EDM artists only releasing singles, instead presenting a cohesive body of work that bore surprising country/bluegrass influences, which were at first misunderstood, but ultimately distinguished him as an innovator and world class creative.
The album currently has two billion total on-demand official U.S. streams, according to Luminate. It reached No. 5 on the Billboard 200 in October of 2013 and spent eight weeks at No. 1 on Top Dance/Electronic Albums. Today (Sept. 13) marks the ten-year anniversary of True, which will be celebrated with never-before-released footage of the album’s production, released on the Avicii social media accounts over the next month.
Sundin — now the CEO of Pophouse, which purchased 75% of Avicii’s recording and publishing catalog in 2022 — here recalls the album’s origins to Billboard, along with the excitement for it within Universal, and how an unlicensed Soundcloud mix helped shift hatred for the LP into global acclaim.
Tell me about the earliest phases of the album.
[“Levels”] really moved my career internationally and inside Universal. At that time when I came into [the dance world], everyone did instrumentals beats, and then they tested that on the audience. If the audience liked it, they called in a topliner or vocalist to write the lyrics, and tried different verses and different topliners.
But Tim was like, ‘I want to be an artist. I don’t want to do one song instrumentals and this [testing] process. I want to do an album.” I said “You know, this is dance music. You don’t do albums.”
But he told me that they were already working on it — so I went to Tim’s studio, which was just a five minutes walk from Universal’s Stockholm office — and they played me me “Wake Me Up.” This was in February of 2013.
What did you think when you heard it?
I tried to hold back, because if I say, “It’s fantastic,” then Ash would increase the price for the advance, so I had to hold back everything. I was like, “Yeah, this could work.”
That was the only song they played me. I went back to the office and I called my superiors — because this was above my pay grade, because he asked for a lot of millions for this album — and talked about it. We did so well with “Levels,” and that really was a breakthrough for us, for me and for Universal Music Sweden, because that really ignited interest around the world for EDM music. So when this album was in place, we went all in on it and just did everything we could [for it].
So you first hear “Wake Me Up” in February, and then a month later the album is being debuted at Ultra Music Festival in Miami. Famously, that show bombed. What was it was like being there?
I invited people from all over the world to Ultra Music Festival. There, Avicii decided together with his management to premiere the album — with the original songwriters and topliners he worked with on the album.
So he first played an approximately 45-minutes set of a traditional Avicii concert. Then, for the audience it was like a changeover, like a new act coming on. The DJ booth was moved to the right of the stage, and then came a guy who started singing “Wake Me Up.” For me, it was obvious, because I love the track. But for the audience, it was a disaster. They hated it.
Then Dan Tyminski did “Hey Brother,” and no one understood. They wanted traditional Avicii songs with big drops, and to just able to dance in their party mode, if I say so. So online it was terrible, like, “Rest in peace Avicii’s career.” It was really, really tough for him. He was devastated. He was like, “Am I wrong? Have I done something bad?” He just really didn’t understand the reactions.
What was that moment like for you?
I remember Andrew Kronfeld, who still is the Executive Vice President of Universal Music, was standing there with me and said, “Don’t worry, this is a fantastic album. It was fantastic yesterday, it will be fantastic tomorrow.”
Did the marketing plan for True change at all, after what happened at Ultra?
Yes. What happened was that… we knew the music was great, but we couldn’t release it, because “Wake Me Up” was supposed to be out in mid-June. We couldn’t play anything until that. Then Ash said, “Maybe we can do a remix of it and put it out on SoundCloud.” And I said, “You can’t do that, because that’s not legal.”
Ash said, “But maybe if I do it…” And I was like, “I’m not involved in this, but yes, do it. Just put the mix together.” Avicii remixed all 10 songs from the album and put a mix on SoundCloud. You can still find it there. It’s a fantastic. The reactions in the comments — everyone was like, “This is really good.” “Why did people say this was bad? This is fantastic.” I have goosebumps talking about it again, because it was like, “Oh my god, this is really happening.”
That must’ve been exciting.
It created a hype on SoundCloud. Ash could do it, but we [at Universal] couldn’t, because it was licensed to us. [At that time] they didn’t have a deal for for releasing music on SoundCloud that was under contract. So that’s why I was reluctant to do it. If it went wrong … we couldn’t really handle it. But again, I said, “OK, do it.” And they did.
That’s how it took off. That’s how the other conversation changed from being brutally tough and hateful to love for this True album.
Was it always obvious that “Wake Me Up” would be the lead single?
Yes, it was obvious. It wasn’t even a discussion. “Hey Brother” is a little bit too country, so that wasn’t it. “Addicted To You” was one that was discussed. In hindsight, you can always say, “This is what we believed in the whole time.” And, you know, sometimes you lie about it to sound smart. But in this case, it was, “This is the single,” and it was from the beginning.
I was going to ask if this album felt like a business risk within Universal, given the country influences, but it sounds like there was a lot of goodwill around it.
Yeah. Everyone that heard it said, “This is going to be sensational,” because there were so many singles on it. We could work for a long, long time on it… We believed then at Universal Music that EDM was the new big wave. And it was, with Swedish House Mafia and Tiësto and David Guetta and Calvin Harris. It was just, bang.
Was there anything you’d have wanted to change about the album?
One sad thing is that my favorite song on the album was “Heart on My Sleeve” with Imagine Dragons. The interesting thing is that Ash, and I think this is quite clever, didn’t want to have any features on the album. Every other EDM artist had “featuring whoever” on the on the songs. Everyone did at this time.
But Ash decided no one could be featured — because if someone like Imagine Dragons gets featured, then it’s going to be “Imagine Dragons featuring Avicii.” If you take all that away, then it’s just an Avicii song, and Avicii is the artist. So when radio station played the song, it’s Avicii.
So that was a negotiation with Imagine Dragons. And [the band] said, “If we don’t get our full credits, you’re not going to get us on the album.” That’s why the song was taken off and why [that track] is an instrumental on the album. It was ready to go. It was recorded.
Then when we did the [posthumous] Tim album, we contacted Imagine Dragons and said, “You will get credit; we really want you to be part of this.”
Was there a feeling of anticipation within Universal around the album of like, “Wait until they hear this”?
Yes. That’s why it was such a crazy feeling when we were at Ultra. I had drink tables paid for. I was spending a lot of money to have everyone from Universal there: marketing directors, managing directors. I played the music the day before the festival, and they loved it.
So it was a shock, because we believed this was going to be so good, and everyone that heard it said it was fantastic … Maybe it was badly presented from stage, so people didn’t understand. It was not communicated that this is what they were going to do … It was a combination of people wanting to party to hit songs they’d heard before and not good presenting from stage. There could have been a voiceover with someone saying, “And now ladies and gentlemen, you’re going to hear the new album from Avicii.” And that wasn’t done. Was I shocked about it? Yes, I was.
So you’re in the VIP section at Ultra with bottle service and all the business people — what’s the mood?
You question yourself. “Am I totally getting this wrong?” “Am I reading in the wrong way?”
I’d always considered that moment for Tim and everybody on stage, but I hadn’t considered your perspective.
No one cares about the record execs. [Laughs.] But it was worse for Tim, of course. He was devastated. He went to his parents, I think it was in Los Angeles, and [his father] Klas told me that he was just shocked.
But it all turns itself around rather quickly, and obviously the album becomes a massive hit. At what point do you start celebrating?
Everywhere in the world, you heard “Wake Me Up” on the radio, but you never celebrate. That’s the crazy thing about being in the music business — you can celebrate when you give an artist a plaque or whatever it is, but then you’re already onto “OK, what’s next?”
Do you think Tim felt that pressure of “what’s next?”
I never talked to him about exactly that. But he was just — he was a very, very good igniter when it came to creating music. When he unfortunately died too early, if you look at sketches, demos and songs on his hard drive, he was close to 100 [projects]. He loved to study, loved to work with other people.
When he when he landed in Oman [editors note: Avicii died by suicide in Muscat, Oman on April 20, 2018], we had a conference call and talked about the music. He was so in a positive mode. “This is what we’re going to do, and please book a studio in [Kenya]; I want to work with people there, and then I want to go to New Hampshire, then l want to go to London.” He just wanted just to have studio time, he loved to be in the studio and do his thing. So yeah, so he was looking forward.
10 years on, what do you think True‘s legacy is?
It’s hard for me to say. Billboard did a thing about the 100 biggest moments of EDM, and the number one was Tim’s career. I just…I get emotional because it’s… [a pause while he tears up, then collects himself], because what we accomplished during this short period of time, it’s just unbelievable.