How Spotify Saved the Music Industry (But Not Necessarily Musicians) (Ep. 374)
Daniel Ek, a 23-year-old Swede who grew up on pirated music, made the record labels an offer they couldn’t refuse: a legal platform to stream all the world’s music. Spotify reversed the labels’ fortunes, made Ek rich, and thrilled millions of music fans. But what has it done for all those musicians stuck in the long tail?
For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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Over the past year or two, we’ve done a couple special series of episodes. One was called “How to Be Creative”; the other was “The Secret Life of a C.E.O.” You wouldn’t think those two themes would intersect all that often. But today, they do — in a rare conversation with this man:
Daniel EK: My name is Daniel Ek and I’m the C.E.O. and founder of Spotify.
How does Daniel Ek define Spotify’s mission?
EK: So the way I think about our mission is to inspire human creativity by enabling a million artists to be able to live off of their art and a billion people to be able to enjoy and be inspired by it.
Spotify, if you don’t know, is a Swedish music-streaming service with roughly 100 million paid subscribers. Another 100-million-plus listen free on an ad-supported model. But it’s the subscribers that drive 90 percent of the company’s revenue. Ek co-founded the company in 2006, at age 23. It went public in 2018 and its market cap is now around $25 billion. For a company that doesn’t really make anything — other than making the connection between a beloved product and people who want to consume that product. The Spotify story is a singular story about the sudden transformation of an old, hidebound industry; it’s also a story about digital piracy, bandwidth, and of course about creativity; oh, also: it’s about the future of podcasting. In person, Daniel Ek is mild-mannered and unexcitable; he doesn’t sound like an anarchist. But don’t be fooled.
EK: I think we are in the process of creating a more fair and equal music industry than it’s ever been in the past.
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Depending on your personal perspective, Spotify is either an idealized digital jukebox or, as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke once put it, “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” Yorke wasn’t the only musician to hate on Spotify, especially in its earlier years. The Beatles and Pink Floyd famously kept their music off Spotify, as did some younger musicians:
Today, Taylor Swift, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and Radiohead can all be heard on Spotify. The barriers that might have made Spotify seem impossible have mostly been leveled. Primarily by one person: Daniel Ek. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Stockholm. These days, he spends about one week a month in New York, but he still lives in Stockholm.
EK: Yeah, and I have two very young kids, so one has just turned four and one is about to turn six.
DUBNER: You’re in the middle of it, aren’t you?
EK: I’m definitely in the middle of it.
One constant throughout Ek’s life has been music.
EK: My grandfather was an opera singer and my grandmother, she was an actress but also a jazz pianist. So, in my family learning music was almost an essential. It was probably more important than you going to college or university at that level. And in Sweden, we have public music education, so it almost costs nothing to get music education in Sweden and my cousin told me — he was way older than me — and was like, “You should learn how to play the guitar because that’s how you get girls.”
And I was four or five at the time and definitely didn’t realize why that was a big thing. But I really thought he was really cool. So I was like, “Okay, well, he must know something,” so I learned how to play the guitar. And then about the same time, I got my first computer. And that was a seminal inflection point because I had these two parallel interests that were both formed at a very, very young age.
For a time, Ek thought he might become a full-time musician. But the other interest began to win out.
EK: I think it was 1996 I got broadband Internet. It was like 10 megabits and when you think about it today — because it took until maybe two, three years ago until the average person in the U.S. even had that. But I had it in 1997 and—
DUBNER: And that was just a Swedish thing.
EK: That was just a Swedish thing, because the Swedes said, “Look, we believe everyone should have broadband. That’s going to be a big thing and by the way, we’ll subsidize your P.C. too, and it will cost $500 and you can get state-of-the-art P.C.” So I had this virtually new computer which was subsidized by the government. I had this broadband that was subsidized by the government. And I went on the internet obviously all the time. The problem was there wasn’t really a lot to do on the internet except reading stuff. So I read a lot of stuff, but it wasn’t like the internet had movies for streaming or music or any of that stuff. And on came Napster. And it was a pure epiphany for me because you can search for any kind of music in the world. And within 10, 15 minutes you could have the entire album and you can listen to it, which was amazing.
Napster, which launched in 1999, became the most prominent peer-to-peer file-sharing service. And by “peer-to-peer file-sharing service,” I mean a piece of software that let a user like Daniel Ek download music files directly from the hard drives of other Napster users all over the world. Which meant that if one person bought a C.D. and copied it onto their hard drive, and shared it on Napster, all of a sudden, an infinite number of people could own it. For free.
One problem: this is an infringement of copyright, and totally illegal. At least in most places. Sweden did not forbid the downloading of pirated content until 2005; the country became an international hub for illegal downloads and even gave rise to a political party, the Pirate Party, that won seats in the European Parliament. I asked Ek whether he had thought about the legality of music piracy.
EK: Yeah, I thought about it. But I was 14. It wasn’t like it was a big thing. And since it was so easy to access and the alternative was for me to go out and buy a record with money I didn’t have, it was like the only option. So it was this weird thing where you start off with something and all of a sudden, maybe I wanted to listen to Metallica and all of a sudden realized that this person also had King Crimson. Which was like, “Oh, holy shit, I didn’t know that Metallica was inspired by those guys.” And Led Zeppelin and Beatles and all the seminal ones that all of a sudden you start listening to. Or prog music or Jimi Hendrix’s entire discography.
It brought me this weird sense of very broad music education and quite eclectic taste, which in turn got me even further into music. I mean, I don’t think I would have been that interested in music if it weren’t for piracy, to be honest, because I come from a working-class family. We couldn’t afford all the records that I wanted.
Napster became very large very fast. You might have thought the music industry would see this growth as a natural expression of demand for their product, and try to find a way to exploit that demand. But they didn’t see it that way. They saw piracy as nothing but theft. And as the music industry began to go the way of many fading 20th-century industries, they blamed their decline on piracy.
A pair of economists wrote a research paper at the time which found that illegal downloads in fact did almost nothing to affect music sales. They wrote: “Our estimates are inconsistent with claims that file-sharing is the primary reason for the decline in music sales.” The idea here was that the kind of people who illegally downloaded music weren’t the kind of people who were going to pay $15 for a C.D. anyway. Daniel Ek certainly wasn’t going to pay $15 for one C.D. What he found ludicrous was that the only choice the music industry gave you was $15 for one C.D. versus $0 for all the music in the world.
EK: My view is that the music industry has always been excluding the vast majority of its potential. And what do I mean by that? Well, at the peak of the recorded-music industry, 2001, it was about 200 million people who were participating in the economy, who bought records. So was it 200 million people who were listening to music? No, of course not. That number was in the billions. So, what the music industry did fairly well was they priced a product at a premium for an audience that was willing to pay for it.
But it only captured a very, very small portion of the revenues. What was obvious to me as I started using Napster back in the day, it was just, this is a way better product than going to a record store, there ought to be a way where you can give consumers what they want and at the same time make it work for artists.
DUBNER: As you got to know the record labels over time, years after Napster started, do you think they regretted not having partnered with Napster earlier?
EK: I definitely think so. I mean, in hindsight they probably realized that it was the wrong thing, but they thought by shutting it down that they’ve contained the problem and didn’t realize that it would just create seven new ones.
The music industry did get Napster shut down, but it had to keep playing whack-a-mole with a bunch of new pirated-music services.
EK: If you think about piracy for music, what it really forced in this first incarnation was the unbundling of the album.
Unbundling the album, that is, into single songs.
EK: So Apple then created a business of that by selling songs for 99 cents.
Apple, by way of iTunes, introduced the world to legal music downloading. It had taken Apple a while, but they finally succeeded in negotiating the rights with record labels. Daniel Ek, meanwhile, was having a lot of success himself.
EK: I started web-design companies, web-hosting companies, and a bunch of different companies.
He actually started doing this work when he was 14. By the time he was 18, he had a couple dozen programmers working for him. He enrolled at the Royal Institute for Technology but only lasted a couple months. Starting and selling internet companies was more fun. Ek was a millionaire by the time he was 23, and he started living like one: a fancy apartment, nightclubs, a red Ferrari.
All this left him flat, and depressed. As he’d later tell Forbes magazine: “I was deeply uncertain of who I was and who I wanted to be. I really thought I wanted to be a much cooler guy than I was.” He moved into a cabin in the woods, back near his family; he played guitar, meditated, and over time thought up the idea for Spotify.
It was very simple, really: an essentially infinite library of all the music in the world, available instantaneously, to anyone with an internet connection. How hard could that be? Ek and his co-founder, Martin Lorentzon, had two fundamental problems to solve: building the technology to allow for the instantaneous streaming of music; and persuading the rights-holders of all the music in the world to go into business with a brand-new company from Sweden — a country famous for its music piracy — and headed by a man who’d grown up on pirated music.
EK: There’s many different pirates, we would put it. There’s the pirates who just religiously feel like everything should be free. We were never that. Sean Parker definitely was never that either.
Sean Parker as in the co-founder of Napster; Parker later provided some venture capital to Spotify.
EK: There’s the other group who just looks at it like, this is the kind of consumer experience that makes sense and that’s how the world will look at it.
DUBNER: So then how professional of a pirate were you? What was the highest level of professionalism of piracy you ever accomplished? It was uTorrent, was that the name of the company?
EK: So actually this is probably an unknown part of the story. I wasn’t very much at all a professional pirate. At the time as I was thinking about starting Spotify, my co-founder, who’s not very technical, said to me, “Hey, there’s my friend who’s asking me about this programmer and he needs some advice.” And I was kind of dismissive about the whole idea and then he told me the name of this programmer and this guy was the founder of uTorrent.
This guy was Ludvig Strigeus, and uTorrent was a piece of file-sharing software that was particularly useful for digital piracy.
EK: And he’s a legendary engineer and I knew about him from engineering circles as being one of those persons who wins a lot of competitions for being great engineers. And I was like, “I have to meet this person.” And he had started this thing, just a fun side project, and it was uTorrent and it was growing very massively. We were actually trying to recruit him to come to Spotify. And he was like, “Well, I got this thing, uTorrent, and I don’t really know what to do with it.” So we persuaded him to sell uTorrent to us instead. And the whole idea from the beginning was actually to fold it because we didn’t really care about it.
DUBNER: Because by then you’re saying you already had a vision of how to make this the legit model work?
Spotify did install Strigeus as a top engineer at Spotify; and they didn’t shut down uTorrent — they sold it, to BitTorrent, the huge peer-to-peer protocol. I asked Daniel Ek which early task had been harder: building out Spotify’s technology or persuading the record companies to let him stream their music.
EK: Well, it’s hard at different stages. So first, you need to have a really good idea of what it is that you’re trying to solve. And in our case it wasn’t necessarily that the technology had a worth in and on itself. It was more around, how do we solve a real problem? And I think the problem that we were trying to solve was it needs to feel like you have all your music on your hard drive. So, if you think about that, that means instantaneous. So we probably have to solve that.
It probably means also all the world’s music. Okay, well you have to solve all the rights issues and all of those different things all encompassed in this one thing. So, it was very clear to me that if we could deliver something that felt like you had all the world’s music on your hard drive, it would likely be way better than piracy, which was the dominant force of music consumption at the time.
From the outset, Spotify partnered with the record companies, first in Europe and eventually the U.S. What enticed the labels to participate? Actually, they would have been fools not to. Remember, the music industry was in steep decline thanks to changes in technology, economics, and consumer preferences. As Ek noted earlier, the industry’s model had always been inefficient: charging relatively high prices to capture only the top layer of the listening market. Most people got most of their music on the radio, which was free.
Now, before you start feeling too sorry for the record labels, let me say this: in the history of the creative arts, and in the modern history of business generally, it would be hard to find an industry that was sleazier, more exploitative, and more deserving of its comeuppance than the music industry. Through means legal and illegal, from sham contracts and bribes to strong-arming and collusion, the industry had for decades stayed fat by making relatively skinny payments to the people who actually made the music. Their royalty statements were masterpieces of creative accounting. Yes, they did provide venture capital to thousands of musicians with no money, but on the rare occasion when one of those musicians recorded a smash hit, the label made sure to capture most of the profits.
What about the industry’s role in discovering new talent? That’s a bit of a myth — like saying that publishers “discover” great authors or NFL coaches “discover” great quarterbacks. They mainly cherry-pick the talented people who’ve already worked their way up, and then squeeze out as much juice as possible for their own use. Many industries exploit their labor force, but few had done so with as much vigor as the music industry.
Now that they were starting to go under, Spotify was offering a lifeboat — and a fairly luxurious one: 70 percent of streaming revenues and an equity stake in the company. The big record labels — Sony, Universal, and Warner — were reportedly each given between 4 and 6 percent of Spotify’s shares, with a consortium of independent labels getting another 1 percent. When Spotify went public, in 2018, these stakes would be worth billions. The labels would also get to keep drawing down 70 percent of Spotify’s revenues, and distributing it to their artists according to their own royalty formulas.
DUBNER: So that 70 percent flows then to the rights-holders , which are primarily still the three big music labels.
DUBNER: But in terms of the money flowing to the actual creators of the content, that’s complicated and problematic. So can you talk about your views on that and how actually involved you are or can be or want to be?
EK: Yeah, sure. Music copyrights generally is probably one of the more complicated areas of both law, just because of how copyright law is treated by society, and then just how it actually works and how it flows down. It’s pretty complicated for a lay person to understand. But the best way to start is just taking two steps back.
So, the birth of the music industry, and if you think about the role that everyone had, a record company was both — it used to cost a lot of money to make music. A record company could help you by paying for the studio, the studio engineers, all the people to help you record your music. So, that was a pretty big value-add.
The next thing that ended up being a big problem was getting promoted in the U.S. onto thousands of different radio stations. And internationally it was multiplied by 10 times. It was a pretty big thing. And then distribution ended up being very expensive. So why we have major record companies — it ended up being easier for them to aggregate around distribution. And that’s how they were formed. That’s how they grew to power.
If you look at it right now, some of those things have obviously shifted. So the recording of music ends up becoming fairly cheap today in most instances because anyone can record if they have a laptop and a mic. Distribution also ends up becoming fairly cheap because you can just put your music on Spotify or Apple Music or any other service virtually free and get distributed.
Now, the flip side of that is the problem of then getting heard ends up becoming harder than ever before.
DUBNER: Because the supply is so much greater.
EK: Yeah. The supply is infinite, so in order to stand out you have to do quite a lot more. And where we have been as an industry just a few years ago was that you couldn’t rely on one income stream alone. So even if you felt, “Okay, this is digital distribution or streaming and I kind of get that,” the truth of the matter is radio certainly here in the U.S. is still a massive, massive force. So you needed to do a lot of radio both for promotion but just generally distribution and even how you did royalty accounting and all those different things was a massive thing. And then physical still matters greatly. Certainly in the middle of the country. So the value-add by record companies is fairly great and is very important certainly as you’re thinking about how to get this out.
Now the roles going forward is changing quite dramatically. You’re finding that there are a lot more younger record companies coming out that are formed by maybe being specialists in a certain genre. They’re now finding equal opportunities to get their music heard. So they’re being distributed via indie labels or they may even go and distribute their record companies through one of the major record companies in order to get the support that they’re getting.
So, the industry is really changing. And we’re obviously a huge part not so much in the change but just being a participant in that dialogue about where it’s going, what is the role of a manager, what’s the role of a label, what’s the role of an agent, what’s the role of a publisher. Because all of those roles are now moving along as the industry is becoming more and more digital.
DUBNER: Right. But from what I gather Spotify has little leverage or maybe even interest in, once you turn over the royalty share, in how they distribute it to their artists, correct? You have nothing to do with that, I assume.
EK: We have nothing to do with that. What we are trying to do, however, because this is such a dramatic shift in an economic model for artists, one of the big things was just how do we educate people about this. Because really even the iTunes model was fairly simple. Because I’m selling my goods and I’m getting X for it. We can argue what X should be, but it’s really that.
Here with streaming it’s like I’m getting a revenue share of something, and it’s streaming, and it looks like it’s a very small number per stream. But what is a million streams? Is a million streams a lot? Is it a little? Is it — how should I think about it? That ended up being a very big shift.
DUBNER: Are you saying that independent artists are over time via Spotify gaining leverage in the revenue ecosystem or not really? Because the common complaint is this: Spotify is great for customers.
DUBNER: Spotify has turned out to be a life-saver for labels. Spotify has been great for Spotify, and for you. And it’s been great for some musicians. But then there are others who feel that they’re worse off than they would have been. Now, every case is a little bit different. But to those who feel like, “Great, I’m glad all music is available to everybody all the time and I’m glad everybody else is making out well” — what do you say to those artists, or maybe what do you say to someone who’s starting in music now? Can it be a sustainable future for them?
EK: I think we are in the process of creating a more fair and equal music industry than it’s ever been in the past. I’ll take an example, back in 2000, 2001, at the very, very peak of the music industry, peak of C.D., all of those different things. Our estimate is that there were about 20- to maybe 30,000 artists that could live on being recorded music artists. Now, they could be touring, they could be doing other things, and the number could be far greater than that. But there were only 20- or 30,000 that could sustain themselves being that.
Why? Well, because, again the distribution cost so much, which ended up being that there’s very few artists that could even get distributed to begin with. And because the costs were fairly high for a person buying the music, you ended up going with what you knew and wouldn’t take that much risk on unknown artists.
So, in the world with streaming, what’s really interesting is the alternative cost for you to listen to something new is virtually zero. It’s just your time. And because of that, you do listen to a lot more music than you did before and you listen to a bigger diversity of artists than you did before which in turn then grows the music industry.
DUBNER: You were saying there were 20, to 30,000 artists that could be supported. Do you know what that number is now?
EK: I don’t know what the number is now but it’s far greater. Even on Spotify itself, it’s far greater than that.
The economist Alan Krueger taught for years at Princeton and worked in both the Clinton and Obama White Houses. He was also fascinated by the economics of the music industry. Krueger once gave a speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame comparing the music industry to the modern economy at large. In both cases, he argued, most of the earnings were going to fewer and fewer people at the top of the pyramid. It’s what some people call a tournament model, where the winners get most, if not all, of the profits.
Krueger died recently at age 58 — by suicide. He left behind a book, to be published soon, called Rockonomics. In it, he writes that there are roughly 200,000 professional musicians in the U.S. today, accounting for 0.13 percent of all U.S. workers. That percent has stayed about the same since 1970.And what’s the median annual income for these musicians? $20,000.
The argument Daniel Ek is making sounds good in theory — that digital distribution should make it easier for lesser-known artists to find listeners and get paid. Remember how Ek defines the Spotify mission:
EK: To inspire human creativity by enabling a million artists to be able to live off of their art.
This was one of the great promises of the digital era — that you wouldn’t have to be a superstar to make a living. In 2006, the journalist Chris Anderson published an influential book called The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Daniel Ek, in a 2010 interview, called The Long Tail his favorite book.
But Alan Krueger’s findings don’t support the long-tail promise. Social media and algorithm-driven recommendations — including Spotify’s own playlists — seem to magnify the bandwagon effect, whereby popular songs become even more popular by virtue of their popularity. In 2018, Spotify’s most-streamed artist was Drake, with 8.2 billion streams. Assuming a typical streaming royalty rate of 0.4 cents per play, that’s nearly $33 million going to Drake’s camp. But the pyramid is sharp, and things fall off really fast once you go beneath the top. Alan Krueger cites an industry survey which found that just 28 percent of artists earned money from streaming in 2018, with the median amount just $100.
So if you think about the streaming-music revolution as a sort of tournament, let’s think about how the various constituencies are making out. Spotify and Daniel Ek are doing very well; so are the company’s original funders, who got a huge return on their investment. The record labels have also been big winners: not only did Spotify reinvigorate their industry but it seems to have substantially improved their overall valuations. The Universal Music Group, for instance, which is currently for sale, has recently been valued at more than $30 billion; in 2013, its valuation was just $8.4 billion. Other winners in the Spotify tournament are customers, who get much more music than they used to get for much less money; and the most popular musicians are also winning big.
One constituency that’s not obviously sharing in the winnings: the long-tail artists, of which there are many.
DUBNER: So if you weren’t you, and you were looking at this revolution from the outside, what would you say about the fact that a company like Spotify, which doesn’t produce content — well, it’s starting to, more — but is essentially a friction-remover and a distributor, is worth more than the entire music industry was about the time of its creation?
EK: Well, I mean I don’t want to — I’m actually very little focused on what a company is worth or isn’t, or if that’s fair. There’s something called a Wall Street which is really focused on that instead. I don’t really focus on that. We at Spotify are interested in is how do we get a music industry which actually participates in all of the income streams?
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Daniel Ek was a teenage entrepreneur; a millionaire in his early twenties; and now, at 36, a billionaire, having built Spotify into a streaming juggernaut that is now worth more than the entire music industry was at the time of Spotify’s founding. Spotify is in the news pretty much constantly these days: launching their service in India, filing an antitrust lawsuit in Europe against Apple, claiming that Apple’s App Store is unfairly favoring its own Apple Music over Spotify. For Ek, the biggest challenge at the moment would seem to be figuring out a way to derive more value — more revenue — from the massive, sprawling ecosystem of recorded music, an ecosystem whose business evolution has been very slow.
EK: So if you look at say the video industry — I say video and I really encompass the entire TV industry, the movie industry, all in video. What I find fascinating is it used to be a conversation where it started off only as paid. Then it added advertising as a component. And then there was a bunch of firms that were only focused on the advertising part of it and then a bunch of firms that were only focused on the subscription income. So, most notable, you had CBS on one end, on the advertising end of the spectrum. You had HBO on the other end of this spectrum, asking for subscription income. And then if you look at it today, the truth of the matter is CBS is about 50/50. So it focuses as much on subscription income as it does on advertising. And HBO still is paid-only. But as an industry, it’s moving that both of these revenue models are equally important.
And that’s my point with the music industry too. My point it’s like, what would happen to the music industry if you all of a sudden combined the the power of advertising as a revenue model, the power of subscription as a revenue model, the power of a la carte on top of that as a revenue model. The three of them on a base of the three billion people around the world that are interested in music easily, just by virtue of looking at how much time people spend listening to music, ought to be at least multiples greater than what the current music industry is and probably larger than the music industry’s ever been.
DUBNER: And you just added 1.3 billion or so in India, yes, potentially?
EK: The Indian music market, what’s fascinating to me, is 90 percent of that market is about Bollywood films. And they are throwing off music and that’s what’s selling in India.
DUBNER: Is it being well-monetized still? I mean people buy it—
EK: It’s not well-monetized. But the music industry is essentially a byproduct to the film industry, which for me tells a very interesting story, that there’s so much development left to do. What would happen if the ecosystem there was healthy? Then people wouldn’t think about making music just for movies.
DUBNER: So the India Spotify story could turn out to be exactly the opposite in a way of the American Spotify story, where some people feel here small artists are getting — the long tail is so skinny that you can’t make a living. And theoretically it may disincentive some people from creating. Maybe there’s incentives to join, even the middle of the long tail there would be a step up, yeah?
EK: Yeah. Well, I mean it’s virtually non-existent. So it’s in a much earlier development stage than the U.S. music economy.
DUBNER: Let me ask you about consumer surplus, which is something economists love to talk about — those rare cases where you get something for much less than you’d be willing to pay. So Spotify is, relatively, super cheap, $10 a month for all the music I want. And that $10 would buy two-thirds of one downloaded album. So if you like music enough to buy two-thirds of one album per month, then to get all the music in the world essentially for that same price is ridiculously cheap.
So, I’m curious to know two things. What do you know about willingness to pay more? And what do you know, if anything, about the disposable income that’s now been captured by consumers by not having to spend more than $10 to consume the universe of music — where that disposable income goes, I’m curious to have any data on that.
EK: Well, I mean, obviously we agree. We think $10 a month is a very, very cheap and an amazing proposition. But the amount of people who wake up in the morning thinking, “Hey, I want to pay $10 a month for music,” isn’t as great as most people would believe. And we believe that is because not only did piracy exist in a big way just a few years ago, but there are all of these other sources where you can access music very cheaply. Mostly free.
You can go on radio and listen to it, but you can also go on YouTube and you can find the entire archive of music, including all the bootlegs and videos and you can listen to that entirely for free. That’s what we’re competing against. So in order to do that, you can imagine then it’s a free product versus one that’s $10 a month. That’s a pretty big stretch, certainly, since all of these other things may have other things like convenience — in the case of radio, works in your car, works in all those different things. And then, in the case of YouTube, it’s just, it’s everything. It’s even greater than what Spotify’s library is.
So that’s where we’re, from a competitive set, wrestling with. Now obviously as cars get more and more connected, I do think streaming service is a way better user proposition.
DUBNER: Although I did wonder with autonomous vehicles theoretically coming maybe relatively soon.
DUBNER: It does strike me that listening to music in a car is a perfect complementary activity. Because you need to drive, you need to keep your eyes on the road, but your ears are free. I do wonder with autonomous vehicles whether it may actually be harmful to streaming music because now my eyes are free to something that might be more interactive.
EK: Right. I mean, you may be right. I don’t know. I think that what’s really interesting, however, is that countercultural force right now from people looking into their phones is all of these well-being things, both Google and Apple released “screen time,” which is supposed to restrict your screen time. And we have the Alexa in your home, which is another device which you’re not supposed to look at, which are all great countercultural reactions to this, watching a screen, which we wouldn’t probably have imagined just a few years ago.
DUBNER: Do you have those kind of aspirations for Spotify to get into, health and wellness and hand-holding of various sorts?
EK: Not directly. To the extent that we do something like that, we’re already very big in terms of meditational music, wellness music, sleep, pink noise, white noise, everything on the spectrum. And now with podcasts obviously on the service too, there’s a lot of people who are focused on those things, which I’m very excited about.
Spotify has been streaming podcasts for years. But it made news recently by spending a few hundred million dollars to acquire two podcast-production companies, Gimlet and Parcast, and a firm called Anchor that’s primarily a podcast technology platform.
DUBNER: So, that really changes things in a number of ways. Because you have been successful not being a content creator or producer — too much, at least. I guess first question is why, and then the second question is, how will it unfurl?
EK: Right. Well, in the future, I don’t think people will make a choice whether they’re subscribing to a music service. We think that they’re making a choice whether they will have an audio service of their choice. It wasn’t this well-thought-out master plan. “Hey, we need an adjacent business, and we don’t know which one it is.” It wasn’t like that at all.
What actually happened, because Spotify is a platform, was we started seeing in my home country Sweden actually, we started seeing record companies buying podcasts and uploading them to the platform as another revenue opportunity for them to grow. And it resonated really well with listeners. And that was the first step.
And then in Germany, record companies there had massive amounts of rights to audio books, which I wasn’t aware of. And they started uploading that to the service and very quickly, we went from no listening to that and now we’re probably if not the biggest, the second-biggest audio book service in Germany. And this is without our involvement. This just happened by proxy of us being a platform.
So we started seeing it resonating really well into people’s lives, and they thought of Spotify not just as a music service but as a service where they can find audio. And it played really well into our strategy of ubiquity — i.e., being on all of these different devices in your home, whether it’s the Alexas or TV screens or in your cars or whatever as just another source where you could play your audio.
DUBNER: But why do you want to go to the trouble to pay a couple hundred million to buy a firm that’s creating it when almost everybody making podcasts would probably willingly have their content on Spotify?
EK: Yeah. Well, the reason why is really twofold. So one is that the format of podcasts, we’re still very early on into what it will be. If you really think about it, for most people, there’s all of these basic things for creators that haven’t been solved, like how well am I doing. It’s not that easy to find out. How am I monetizing the show and the value for advertisers, it’s just not that easy to find out. And thirdly, what are people saying about my show, feedback. Those are three very elemental things that if you think about it almost all other formats, if you’re a journalist today and writing in text, there’s ways to solve all three of them. We can already—
DUBNER: I mean what you’re describing does exist to some degree on Apple Podcasts, which I realize Spotify has a complicated relationship with. But that’s also, like Spotify, it’s a closed ecosystem. It’s not part of the web, quite. So if Apple Podcasts data existed in a non-closed environment would that have been enough for Spotify to not need to buy its own firm?
EK: Probably. I mean, in the end I mean it’s all about solving needs that creators or consumers are having. That’s what we’re focused on. And if someone had solved that need then obviously there would be less of a reason for us to do anything about it. And you know the same thing, if there was massive amounts of audio-book services in Germany I’m sure we wouldn’t have been successful.
DUBNER: Can you talk about Spotify customer data? What do you have and what do you do with it?
EK: Well, what we do with it now is very tightly regulated because we’re originally a European company and in Europe, I believe, five or six years ago there was a new initiative called G.D.P.R. that officially became a law some time April, May I believe last year. And obviously we’re complying with that. And what it basically says is that all the data that we have around you as a customer, you need to be able to ask us for it and we need to deliver it back to you. You need to have an opportunity for it getting deleted by us.
DUBNER: What are your abilities to monetize that data, though, to third parties?
EK: Well, our ability to monetize it is obviously based on the contract that we have with our users, so obvious things that would be what genre of music are you listening to, what’s your age, what’s your demographics. And those are things that advertisers can target against.
DUBNER: Right. And how well do you monetize that currently?
EK: You mean if we do monetize it?
DUBNER: Yes. If you do monetize it how well do you—
EK: We monetize some of those aspects, of course, like any normal ad platform. It’s very important though to note that we’re not selling any customer data.
DUBNER: That’s what I’m asking. So there’s ads on the Spotify platform.
DUBNER: You’d be fools not to target those to listeners based on their demographics and their listening tendencies.
EK: Of course.
DUBNER: But you do have a lot of data that would be valuable to third parties.
EK: Oh yeah, massive amounts, but not even just for other advertisers. But you can imagine even for the music industry, there’s tons of data about how their songs are performing or other people’s songs might be performing that could inform them about what they’re doing. We’ve taken the stance that we don’t monetize the data itself at all. We don’t sell the data.
EK: Well, it’s an important one for us that users should be able to rely on us — my fundamental view is, it’s their data. If we can use the data in order to make the Spotify experience better, then all good and great. And I think many users would say, “Yeah, I agree with that.” But because now of G.D.P.R., which I do think is the right step, we can argue about like was it the right implementation of it and all those things. But I do think it’s great for customers that there’s something like G.D.P.R. there. And you can delete the data. You can also say opt out of specific things that we are gathering about you and say, hey I don’t want you to know X or Y.
DUBNER: I’ve read that you operate your life in a series of five-year commitments. I don’t know how finite or real that is, but if it is real—
DUBNER: Where are you now in the five-year cycle, and what happens next?
EK: It’s not always been five years, by the way. So, when I started the company, it was a five-year commitment because being 23 at the time, having started lots of different companies before I really wanted to see what would happen if I applied myself to one thing and only one thing and do it for a meaningful amount of time, how far I could get on that problem. And the longest I could imagine spending on anything was five years. So that’s how it ended up being five years.
And then when the five years passed, I was 28 so I said, well when 30 — so it was a two-year increment. And now I said to myself, just before going public last year, is this what I want to do? And what would happen if I made a 10-year commitment? which felt pretty daunting, and what is it that we would have to do, what does the company have to look like for me to be interested to do this for another 10 years? Well what would my role have to look like in order for me to be interested?
DUBNER: Is that a key component, how interested you can remain — I mean it needs to be constantly challenging to you?
EK: Yeah, definitely so. I mean, to be honest, because otherwise if you don’t have that passion and you don’t feel like you’re growing and challenging yourself, someone else will probably do a much better job.
DUBNER: So, where are you right now?
EK: I’m in year two now of a 10-year commitment.
DUBNER: So, what did you see in the future of Spotify that you thought was going to be so amazingly, excitingly challenging for 10 years?
EK: Well, there’s really two things. The first and more important one is really from the inception of Spotify, the assumption was that we would solve the user problem. I.e., get people to listen in a much better way and then they’ll contribute back to the music industry. The core assumption was that the music industry would take care of all the other things — how people get signed, how they get heard. And I realized that that just didn’t happen.
So, we’re largely doing business the same way as we were doing 10 years ago. There’s been some evolution of that. But I want to work with the music industry. I was never a disrupter. That’s the big misunderstanding about me. I’ve — I believe the record companies are important and will be important in the future. But we believe we can be the R&D arm for the music industry, that we can develop better tools and technology to allow them to be more efficient and thereby creating more, better solutions for them and for artists.
DUBNER: Can you give an example of how the efficiency happens?
EK: Well, one of the hardest problems right now for an artist is to get heard. One of the biggest platforms to be heard at would be Spotify, right? Today the primary tool that an artist has to get heard on Spotify besides putting the music on there is getting known by one of our editors. So in a weird way, while we want to democratize music, we’ve become gatekeepers as well.
So the question is: can we develop tools that enables artists to promote their music more efficiently just by themselves on the platform? And that could be in the form of being able to talk to their existing super fans that are on the platform. It could be in the form of better promotional tools for record companies in how they pitch music and get the music out there.
Spotify having become a gatekeeper — whether inadvertently or not — is an important point. A song that Spotify adds to one of its playlists will get many more streams than one that doesn’t. And streams translate into money for the rights-holders. So having that power is important, especially from a profit-maximizing perspective. If Spotify were primarily concerned with profit-maximizing, it might promote content that is cheaper for Spotify to stream. Maybe it’s content they produce themselves; or just content that comes with a lower payment rate than others. It may not sound like a big difference to pay a rights-holder 0.4 cents per stream versus 0.3 cents, but if you’re talking hundreds of millions or billions of streams, it adds up.
DUBNER: What do you listen to these days?
EK: Music-wise or podcast—
DUBNER: Well, both.
EK: So, music-wise I’ve been really interested in African music lately. Particularly West African dancehall music has been something that’s been pretty cool. We launched in South Africa a year ago. So all of those playlists started bubbling up and there’s been a lot of really cool—
DUBNER: It must be so cool to launch in a new place as a means for you guys to discover what’s the music—
EK: Oh yeah, for sure, and there’s a lot of things that you just don’t even know about. So that’s been for me the biggest thing over the last year that’s been really interesting.
And then on the podcast side, it’s such a fascinating format to me. There’s obviously people who can listen to Crimetown or whatever it may be, just to get entertained. For me it’s more the educational part of it. So it could be a Freakonomics Radio. There’s one called Invest Like the Best that’s quite interesting and thoughtful about investments and how you do that. I do listen to quite a lot of history podcasts as well. Just to get an hour uninterrupted about a subject. There’s no other format that goes to the same depth as I find that podcasting does.
DUBNER: Are there still holes in the Spotify music library that you really want to fix?
EK: There are. But obviously by now the holes that we have are probably more regional holes than the fact of the big ones. I’m sure that there are — Garth Brooks being probably the best-known example right now. But most of it is really about old music, getting the archives up. I’m very proud that we did that deal with the BBC a few years ago where we’re now bringing the entire archive onto streaming. Same with Deutsche Grammophon, the German equivalents as well.
DUBNER: Would you ever consider in a case like Garth Brooks — I mean, I’m sure you’re going to say no to this, because it would be illegal — but would you ever consider saying, “Look, we’re Spotify, we’re just going to put the music there,” and then he will see how well it does. And then the first check gets written. And then that will bring him to the table in a proper way. Would you or did you ever do that?
EK: No. We’ve never done that. It goes against the ethos of what it is we’re trying to do. I mean, again, when we started, that was the modus operandi. There was all these—
DUBNER: A sort of terrorism in a way, yeah?
EK: Yeah, a lot of these services, where people just uploaded all the music and then they figured out the problem later on. That was never the approach that we took.
DUBNER: And why was that? I mean, do you consider yourself a particularly ethical person? Is that the way Swedish business is done? Because to be fair, Uber pretty much did that. They would go into cities where they knew that local authorities wouldn’t allow them to operate.
EK: Right. Well I don’t like to say that we’re more ethical than other people. It just felt like the right thing to do. And I believed that the problem for the music industry with the past had been just that fact, that it always felt like it was people who wanted to disrupt the existing music industry. I don’t believe that the music industry has to be disrupted. I believe it has to be evolved. So we like to work with them as partners. That’s always been our approach. There isn’t music on Spotify that the copyright owners haven’t authorized us.
DUBNER: I have one last question. If you weren’t doing this now — let’s just pretend Spotify really hadn’t worked, that either the technology or the rights-gathering proved impossible. You’d be doing what now, and where?
EK: If I weren’t doing this, I would probably do something in health care. And it’s a weird revelation, if you asked me 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have said that. But right now it’s like I came to that realization because people always said, “Oh, Spotify is so amazing,” and my response was always, “Well, it’s not saving lives, but it’s good.”
A few years ago I was thinking to myself, “Why am I not saving lives, and what would I do if I did that?” And I talked about these technology currents, and I think in healthcare a lot of those technology currents are starting to play out. And it’s not just about the sort of digital part of these things. It’s just the advancement in biotech overall, CRISPR, proactive medicine. It’s going to be the next decade or two decades, we’re fundamentally moving from a place where we will look at doctors or the way we treated people like it’s almost witchcraft two decades from now. We’ll just know a lot more. And that’s fascinating, to think about the implications that that will have economically, because I believe in the end it means that we can spend a lot less of our GDP on healthcare and as a consequence hopefully treat a lot more people.
So yeah, I’m really interested in that part, and what’s going to happen in that space.
DUBNER: Do you think you will do that, I mean, in eight years? At the end of this 10-year, “commitment,” you’ll be only 44.
DUBNER: Do you think you will try something radically different for you like that?
EK: I hope so. My interests — I love music. It’s been a passion really since the beginning of my life. And that will always be a passion and always be something that I’ll do in some shape or form. But we’re here a very, very short period of time on Earth. And I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility having — you know, it’s insane that I’m 30-plus years old and having had as much fortune as I’ve had, so I feel like I need to do a lot more than what I’m doing to leave the world a better place than what I entered it.
If you want to learn more about Spotify — including how a team of Swedish social scientists tried to reverse-engineer it to see how the platform really works — check out a new book called Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, Matt Hickey, and Corinne Wallace. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Daniel Ek, co-founder and C.E.O. of Spotify.
- “The Effect of File Sharing on Record Sales: An Empirical Analysis,” by Felix Oberholzer‐Gee and Koleman Strumpf (Journal of Political Economy, 2007).