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Daniel Ek’s Spotify: Music’s Last Best Hope


(Corrects price of subscription fee in Europe in 10th paragraph.)

“You can’t work in music. You have to find another job.”

Per Sundin’s concerned mother was on the phone. It was the summer of 2006, and both Sundins were watching a debate between Sweden’s two major party candidates for Prime Minister. Earlier that year, police in Stockholm had confiscated servers and questioned the founders of The Pirate Bay, a file sharing site that had been ignoring increasingly piqued letters from the American entertainment industry. Media piracy had become a national campaign issue in Sweden, which according to Harvard’s Berkman Center is second only to Japan in speed, price, and availability of broadband Internet access. During the debate, the moderator asked the candidates how they felt about file sharing. Both agreed that piracy was too easy, and that it didn’t make sense to criminalize an entire generation of music lovers.

It had been a bad couple of years for Sundin, who runs Universal Music in Sweden. Revenues consistently fell 10 percent per year. Between 2001 and 2008, he would fire 200 employees. Universal, where he is now, dropped from 110 to 40. He was reluctant to tell people he worked for a record label. At parties he would become angry. He asked friends whether they downloaded, whether their children downloaded. No one had a problem with taking music for personal use. “But that,” he would say, “is what we do!”

Even in bad times, the record business has its perks. To get to Sundin’s office, you pass two stands of fresh lilies, a Warhol-style photo of the My Aim Is True-era Elvis Costello, and a Guns N’ Roses pinball machine. To advance in the music industry, you evidently have to agree to hang a photo of Bruce Springsteen in your office; Sundin’s is as big as his desk and has Clarence in it, too. He tells of a major-label project in 2001 that gave a small group of consumers access to 5,000 albums, along with CD burners and color printers. “We thought you’d always need a CD,” he says. Sundin, to be sure, fought hammer and tongs to punish music piracy, but he seems almost sheepish now. “We went through an evolution,” he says. “The consumers went through a revolution.”

Worldwide revenue for the recording industry peaked in 1999 at $27 billion, according to International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). By 2008 it had plummeted to $14 billion. That year, Universal, EMI Music, Sony (SNE), Warner (WMG), and Merlin, which represents independent music labels, each agreed to an experiment: They would give their entire catalogs to a Swedish startup run by a then-25-year-old with no experience in the music industry. That company, Spotify, entered seven European markets and began giving out invites to listen to 13 million songs, on demand, for free. “We had to try everything,” Sundin says.

At the time, the industry was pressing European countries to write laws in line with a European Union directive to stiffen civil enforcement of intellectual-property rights. Record labels had to win not only in court but also among the public. Sundin saw a demo of Spotify and laid out the case to his bosses in London. “To get legislators on our side,” he explained, “we need services for the kids.” “This can’t be true,” he thought after the demo. “It can’t be this good.”

Daniel Ek is 28 now, just old enough to have seen a slide projector and just young enough that he feels he needs to explain how a slide projector works. He is tall and akimbo-limbed—not overweight, but built like someone who spent his youth in front of a computer. Today’s polo shirt, worn above creatively stressed jeans, is green. Tomorrow’s will be red. A felt hat with ear flaps sits on his desk, a gift from a friend. He wore it once, he says, in an internal meeting. To show he meant business.

A glass-enclosed corner has been allotted to Ek, but he sits in an open-plan cluster with the company’s chief technology officer, general manager for Europe, vice-president for growth, and chief product officer, an arrangement he adopted from Facebook. He says “Mark” sometimes, as in “Zuckerberg,” but blushes at the informality, and he’s quick to point out that they aren’t particularly close. Ek doesn’t invest in other companies, doesn’t like to go to conferences, and until now has avoided profiles. Startup stories need megalomaniacs, and he’s wary of being trapped in that role. He isn’t shy or insecure; he’s Swedish. The entire country treats its accomplishments the way people who went to Harvard talk about college: faintly embarrassed that you might see their pride.

Ek likes to say—often—that to succeed, any music service needs to be more convenient than piracy. Spotify is. You open an account. You download a program. And you can listen to any one of 15 million tracks, the result of two years of negotiations with the world’s music conglomerates that began, says Ek, rubbing the wisp and stubble that covers his head, back when he had hair.

Spotify is slick, intuitive, and fast; it can, for a verifiable fact, instantly serve Graceland to a phone resting in your shirt pocket on a highway in North Carolina at 1 a.m. In Europe, if you want to listen longer than 10 hours per month, avoid ads, or move offline with a music player, you pay a subscription fee that comes to about $15 a month. According to the company, 1.5 million Europeans already do. Although it serves only seven countries, Spotify is the second-biggest digital retailer in Europe after iTunes, according to the IFPI. On July 14, it arrives in America, and people familiar with both companies say a Spotify music sharing function on Facebook is in the works.

It plans to repeat its European compromise between cool and revenues. To seed the market, Spotify will invite a lucky beta crowd to stream for free, unlimited and with advertisements, for six months. Everyone else can listen up to 10 hours per month free of charge, after which Spotify will offer two tiers: $5 a month to listen without ads on your desktop, $10 to go mobile.

In an e-mail, Irving Azoff, executive chairman of Live Nation Entertainment (LYV), the world’s largest entertainment company, writes: “Spotify is going to be a great resource for artists and the music industry.” Azoff also manages Christina Aguilera. “It’s refreshing,” he writes, “to finally see emerging companies get a chance to change a broken playing field.”

According to filings obtained by ComputerSweden, a Stockholm-based magazine about the IT industry, Spotify was launched with €12 million in venture capital (about $17 million) from Creandum and Northzone, both based in Stockholm. After the European launch in 2009, Wellington Partners, a British venture fund, contributed €7 million, and Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong magnate and the world’s 11th-richest man, kicked in €20 million. Based on Wellington’s stake, the round left Spotify with a valuation of €170 million. After it closed, Ek got an unsolicited e-mail from Sean Parker—that Sean Parker—telling him what was wrong with his service. The two began a correspondence. “For the first time,” says Ek, “someone had thought about this more than I have.”

Parker introduced him to Peter Thiel, and to money from the Founders Fund. This June, Spotify confirmed for Bloomberg Businessweek that it had taken on capital from Accel Partners, DST Global Solutions, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. At Davos this year, British Prime Minister David Cameron, describing how big ideas flourish in free societies, offered two examples: Facebook and Spotify.

Rich men and prime ministers have been wrong before. Spotify plays music from a large catalog on demand; in this respect, it’s no different from Rhapsody or the relaunched Napster, two companies that have failed to generate the same excitement. ITunes organizes what you already own and lets you buy more. Cloud services from Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG), and Amazon.com (AMZN) make it easier to take what you own with you. If Spotify is special, it’s because Ek is obsessed. He wants to reduce continually the time between click and sound, to erase the distinctions between what everyone else is doing. Technically, Spotify combines a local cache, peer-to-peer sharing, and traditional streaming; all consumers notice is that it happens immediately, that it feels like you’ve got it all on your hard drive.

Small improvements in convenience can make a huge difference online. The market for podcasts didn’t take off until Apple started accepting them in iTunes. Facebook did what blogs were already doing, but cleaner, faster, and with less setup time. On a bus in Stockholm, Alexander and Stephanie, both teenagers, stop kissing long enough to answer a question: How do they listen to music? They share a Spotify account; she listens on a Sony Ericsson handset, he on an iPhone. “It’s easier,” says Alexander, “it doesn’t take any time. There are no files, but it feels like I own it.”

Ek’s 300-person company shows all the signs of a third round of funding. In Stockholm, Spotify has abandoned its place above a coffee shop for three floors of a gray modernist cube on the Birger Jarlsgatan, some of the city’s most expensive retail property. Glass-lined conference rooms have been named for Swedish musicians: ABBA, of course; Petter, one of the first Swedish-language rap artists; and Robyn, best known outside the country for a song titled Konichiwa, Bitches. Bean bags and a Beatles: Rock Band kit rest unloved in a corner. (Two twentysomethings, at least, are playing foosball.) Spotify is growing, fast; Ek wandered into the canteen one afternoon to discover that he had hired his own brother.

Spotify is entering a market that’s overdue for a change. According to IFPI, America’s labels haven’t seen more than 2 percent growth in digital revenue since 2008. And digital provides a much greater percentage of overall revenue in the U.S. than in European markets, in most cases by a factor of two. The company points to a Billboard analysis of the same IFPI data that shows that digital revenue in the European countries with Spotify last year was more than three times that in countries without, a trend that began after the service was launched. But differences in the way Americans and Europeans pay for music online point to a cultural hurdle.

In 2010, close to 80 percent of the labels’ $2 billion in digital revenue in the U.S. came from the sale of tracks and albums, or, more simply put, iTunes. This is the same basic transaction as with an Edison cylinder: Give us your money once and you may have our sound forever. In Sweden, album and track sales together provide only 20 percent of the country’s $38 million in digital revenue; 60 percent comes from streaming. Privately, industry executives say the streaming is all Spotify. You can buy albums for keeps from within the service. But paid downloads increased 28 percent in Sweden the year Spotify launched. But the revenue isn’t catching up to on-demand streams. In Stockholm, no one brings a laptop or a hard drive to a party anymore. They just log in to Spotify. Americans own their music; Swedes rent it. For 100 years, the recording industry has traded one durable good for another, and the need to store it all has defined habits, courting, and home design. In Sweden, this era is slipping away.

If Spotify gets what it wants, your records will no longer define you. Your playlists will. To know whether Spotify will make it in America, you need only ask yourself: Do you still need your collection?

Ek, naturally, believes you do not. “Spotify has 13 million songs,” he says. Nod. “By any measurement, that’s huge.” Nod. “The problem is that this doesn’t mean anything to you. You were saying, mmm hmm, like there’s nothing amazing about it, and I agree. … But if I told you that we have your library, with all the songs you love, that you put effort into, your playlists, your honeymoon playlists, your friend’s wedding playlist, or 20, 30 years from now, this is my Sweden playlist from when I visited this wacky Daniel character.

“The promise is this,” he continues. “Once you’ve invested in building that library, that’s value.” It’s also, he believes, what people ultimately are prepared to pay for. Spotify has allowed other companies to build tools to import playlists, including from iTunes, and export them as well. To create the universal playlist standard, though, Spotify has to overcome a problem: Any single song by the same artist can have more than one product number. Ek offers the example of The Police’s Roxanne, which can show up on a greatest hits album, a movie soundtrack, a remaster, and the original album, Outlandos D’Amour. Ek wants every song to have a universal resource indicator, or URI, a way for any site or app to call up a unique item on the Internet. “The URI,” he says, “becomes the new MP3. Or the URL. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

 

Ek always thought he’d be a musician. He grew up in Rågsved, a cluster of three-story row houses on a hill 20 miles south of Stockholm. He drummed with knitting needles on a lampshade at two. He cried when Kurt Cobain died. When he was five, his mother and stepfather bought him a Commodore Vic 20, which was soon replaced by a Commodore 64. If you were born after the Baby Boom and mess with computers, the C 64 carries the fetish value of a first-press of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One C 64 now sits in the Spotify office in Stockholm, awaiting assembly.

By the time Ek was 10, in 1993, his stepfather had retrained as an electrical engineer, and the two strung a local network at home with coaxial cable. Ek used the Internet, he says, to cheat on games while playing against friends in other rooms of the house. When he was 14 he taught himself HTML, began undercutting design firms to build websites for local companies, hired his friends to code for him, then hired them to do his homework, too. He kept the servers in his closet and would hang up wet clothes to dry in the heat they gave off. Ek estimates he was making about $5,000 a month.

Ek studied computer science at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm until he found that he disliked math. He sold his Web hosting business in 2002 and started new companies until he ran out of money. In 2005, Index Ventures, a venture capitalist, approached him with a Finnish website run by a woman who drew paper dolls. She was unemployed and had attracted so many viewers that she couldn’t pay her bandwidth bills. He came on as CTO, hired engineers from his failed ventures, took the site to 10 million users, and left. Now called Stardoll, it attracts an audience of 100 million girls who assemble virtual outfits.

In 2006, he became CEO of uTorrent, now the most popular client for Bittorrent, the standard protocol for sharing files. UTorrent and Bittorrent are perfectly legal; the files shared through them aren’t always. Ludvig Strigeus, who created uTorrent, served as chief architect of the Spotify beta. Around the same time, Ek shared an idea with Martin Lorenzton, who had bought one of Ek’s companies for €1 million. Ek’s idea: Anyone should be able, legally, to listen instantly to any song at any time. Lorenzton suggested that the two start a company. According to the filing obtained by ComputerSweden, the two men together retain a controlling interest in Spotify.

Ek reached out to a contact in the music industry and asked what he would need to do to make his idea legal. (That Spotify asked first was an important selling point for the labels, which had grown tired of the beg-forgiveness approach.) “What you’re asking for,” his contact said, “is not possible.” Will it take three weeks? “It will take six months.” It took two years.

Ek can code, but it’s not his passion. His central skill lies in talking other people into doing what he needs them to. His stepfather, he says, pulled cable for Spotify’s first office. Daniel Ek is a Tom Sawyer: He finds fences that need painting, and he gets the world to pick up a brush.

Per Sundin, for one, is painting furiously. “I used to wake up and go straight to the charts,” he says. “Now I go to Spotify analytics.” Spotify pays labels an undisclosed percentage on every stream, and each of the four major labels has purchased a share in the company (according to the ComputerSweden filing, between 2 percent and 6 percent each). Merlin, which handles transactions for smaller labels, owns 1 percent. But in addition to subscription and ad revenue and a share of the growth, the recording industry gets something from Spotify it craves: data.

Without Spotify, labels know only when an album is sold. If a CD is ripped for a friend or borrowed for a party, they know nothing. Spotify gives them a record, by location, age, and gender, of every single time a track is played. Jay-Z used to think he was big in London, based on U.K. album sales; it turns out he’s big in Manchester. Spotify has discovered that radio plays—on real, terrestrial, electromagnetic spectrum—still drive interest in artists, as do Sweden’s summer talk shows. Sundin has a Spotify chart tracking Rihanna and Lady Gaga over seven weeks. Both show a bump on Friday and a spike on Saturday. They are weekend artists. Spotify knows when your party plays Gaga.

“We know now,” says Sundin, “that the ROI on TV commercials doesn’t work.” Outreach to 15- to 30-year-old female bloggers does. Hits and stars are still important, he says. For albums—both CDs and MP3s—revenue spikes with the release, then trails off, then disappears. On Spotify, whenever an artist appears on a talk show or releases a new single, plays of her entire catalog increase on Spotify, then plateau at a higher level. Albums follow a bell curve. Spotify is a ratchet, a step function. “LOP,” Sundin says, “life of product, it used to be six months. Now it’s 10 years.”

Spotify provides much more revenue for Universal in Sweden than iTunes, and the kroner per stream is following a linear path upward. In a meeting set up by Spotify, Mark Dennis, Sundin’s counterpart at Sony, explains the exact same ratchet effect. (Dennis’s Springsteen photo, the size of a walk-in closet, shows a pick in blurred motion.) He says the industry has had a hard time understanding that, as streaming takes hold, the way it makes money will change. Labels get an immediate payout when an album is purchased by stores. Spotify provides only slow growth. “It’s hard for people to grasp,” Dennis says. “Would you rather have a million dollars now or over time?”

Like Sundin, Dennis says he trusted his business to Spotify because “it was working.” This alone was significant; Dennis had seen his share of streaming ventures. He, too, pleaded with his bosses in London for a Spotify license. “This is where we’re headed,” he told them. “It’s just such a seamless experience, a gateway into a legal environment. If the service is good enough, they’ll pay.” Spotify does something strange to music executives: It makes them preach like the converted. “You show Spotify to anyone,” says Dennis, “they become a believer.”

Sweden’s independent labels never needed to be converted, but they are now more guarded about Spotify. “I was downloading myself to start with, of course,” says Magnus Bjerkert, head of Adrian Recordings. “I wasn’t ever mad. The listeners were there.” Smaller companies found themselves at odds with the Big Four. In 2007, Bjerkert’s label released work from the band Familjen on The Pirate Bay; that year Familjen won a Swedish Grammy. People in the recording industry told Bjerkert he was cheating. “[Per] Sundin was like, we need to find and sue everyone who’s downloading,” says Bjerkert. “We were saying maybe it’s not so black and white. Now he kind of agrees that he was wrong.” His artists begged him to get on Spotify, and it’s now such an essential part of his work that he finds it difficult to communicate with countries that don’t have it; he can’t just send them a link.

From his perspective, though, Spotify has maintained the traditional power relationships between large and small labels. And it lacks transparency. He and several other independent labels suspect that their payouts per stream are lower than for the Big Four; if true, this would put them at a disadvantage when signing new artists. When asked about this discrepancy, Spotify doesn’t deny it, but it points out that independent labels are a “crucial” part of its service to whom it has paid millions of euros since its launch. Martin Thörnkvist, of the label Songs I Wish I Had Written, suggests that the major labels’ back catalogs lend bargaining power. “There’s the long tail of more obscure music,” he says, “but Elton John’s getting paid for Yellow Brick Road, too.” Spotify works only with a complete catalog. The major labels have a bigger piece of pie to offer. Daniel Ek hasn’t changed absolutely everything.

 

Malmö lies on Sweden’s West Coast, by train six hours of gently stunning farmland away from Stockholm. Malmö is also home of Peter Sunde, a co-founder of The Pirate Bay. He is currently appealing a judgment of about $3.5 million, after a trial in which Per Sundin, head of Universal, served as a witness for the prosecution. Sunde suggests a meeting at a vegan restaurant. The chef, a friend, has a tattoo of the logo of the Commodore 64 on his forearm.

The Pirate Bay started as one of many file sharing sites, then distinguished itself mostly by ignoring threatening cease-and-desist letters from the American entertainment industry. As other sites around the world buckled, traffic increased. Each time a new site shut down, The Pirate Bay would see a spike in downloads for Swedish language courses; meant at first for a domestic audience, it was originally run in Swedish. The 2006 raid on its servers only provided a blast of PR; the site was back up in days, and traffic increased a hundredfold. The trial made the founders into folk heroes. “People were getting tattoos of pirate ships,” says Sunde. “We were getting one or two e-mails a week with photos—‘Look, I have a tattoo, can I get a T-shirt?’ People were buying me drinks. And I don’t drink.”

Leif Dahlberg, who teaches communications at the Royal Institute of Technology, wrote a paper this year for the journal Law and Literature looking at how pirates, real and metaphorical, shape laws. The Greek origin of the word “pirate,” he writes, means both a sea pirate and “one who attempts.” Pirates patrol fluid spaces, where there are no laws; the Romans turned the Mediterranean Sea into Mare Nostrum, Our Sea, by ridding it of pirates. A nation establishes rule, laws are codified, and disputes become legal, not political.

The distinction between what is public and private property on the Internet, according to Dahlberg, is still fluid and undefined. It is both legal and political. The Pirate Bay turned a legal process into a political movement; by refusing to give in, it created space for public opinion to change, for laws to bend. Per Sundin was open to Spotify only because an entire country came to believe that downloading was just. He knew, and argued to his bosses, that he had been forced into a compromise; he couldn’t plead for stricter laws unless he gave something in return. Mark Dennis at Sony spoke of bringing people “back into legality.” An entire generation had rejected the idea of ownership; Sony needed them to pay for something. If not files, maybe they would pay for convenience. Without The Pirate Bay, there is no Spotify.

“I want to replicate my first experience with piracy,” says Daniel Ek. His time on Napster has informed many of the decisions he’s made with Spotify. As a teenager, he would find someone on Napster with similar taste and copy an entire library. He discovered Ella Fitzgerald. “The world,” he says, “opened up.” Sharing playlists is still the only real social function within Spotify. “Napster, as a service, worked for the consumer,” he says. “What eventually killed it was that it didn’t work for the people participating with the content. The challenge here is about solving both of those things.”

Spotify owes a more direct technical debt to file sharing: The very technology that makes it so fast is borrowed from techniques honed while sharing pirated files. Both Ek and, later, two of his engineers say that once you click a button, anything that happens within 200 milliseconds seems directly under your control. To beat 200 milliseconds, Spotify runs not as a Web service but as an application on your computer. (According to Ek, the local application allows the company to supply labels with more granular data than other streaming services as well.) Songs you listen to often on Spotify sit, encrypted, on your hard drive. The application looks first for these; if it doesn’t find them, it pulls down 15 seconds of the song from the closest server while it looks for copies of the rest of the song on the hard drives of other users near you. This is file sharing. It increases speed and lowers the demand on central servers by spreading it among several connections. Spotify and The Pirate Bay don’t just share a country; they share an operating system.

 

In the late 1980s, Paul Goldstein was consulting for the Recording Industry Association of America when an executive began to wax about a “celestial jukebox”: a satellite in low-earth orbit, packed with every version of every song ever performed, ready to drop at the hour of need to the ears bent skyward of anyone who asked. This, all for a very real nickel. Goldstein included it in the title of a book about copyright in 1994. It’s such a pleasant idea that it’s since been attributed to several people, among them Edgar Bronfman Jr., now head of Warner Music Group, and David Bowie. Goldstein can’t remember who said it. He has since asked around, and no one can tell him who thought of it first. The celestial jukebox sprang, evidently, from the fondest, innermost wish of the recording industry.

In 2005, Siva Vaidhyanathan declared that the celestial jukebox had arisen. Vaidhyanathan, a well-respected specialist on Internet law who now teaches at the University of Virginia, said that counter to Goldstein’s book, listeners would not have to cede control entirely to the record labels. The Internet, he said, is the celestial jukebox. If he was right, Spotify has a problem: Something free is a perennial threat to something paid for.

But theft, in life and online, carries a time cost. It takes time to learn how to use file sharing programs such as Bittorrent. Search results are inconsistent. The sites that quasi-legally share music files regularly disappear. These costs may seem minor, particularly for the young, for whom time is a currency freely given, but time costs increase with age. And even the young are sensitive to them.

For Universal in Sweden, Bon Jovi’s Greatest Hits sold 25 physical or digital albums for every album-length play on Spotify. For Lady Gaga’s latest recording, that ratio drops to three sales for every Spotify play. For Taio Cruz, the Bon Jovi ratio has inverted: 4.5 Spotify album plays for every album sold. (“I showed this to the manager of Taio,” says Sundin. “He loved this.”) If you don’t know who Taio Cruz is, that’s precisely the point: It’s the kids, formerly the most likely to steal, who are most likely to use Spotify. It brought them in from the cold.

Easy, legal, and comprehensive: Each of these would be impossible without the labels’ cooperation. They dreamed up the celestial jukebox, and it has now ascended to the heavens over Sweden because they allowed it to. The Internet can make music available; only the labels can make availability convenient. Tucked in this year’s Recording Industry in Numbers from IFPI is a hopeful full-page diagram labeled “The Evolution of Music Services.” Step One: “Online Downloading, your music library on your computer.” Step Two: “Online Streaming, from ownership to access.”

Ek says that when he began shopping the Spotify beta around to labels, he needed to fill it with something, so the staff pooled its pirated music to fill the database. “We’re Swedish,” he says, “so we’d already taken it.” Hearing this anecdote, Sundin winces, places his hands over his ears, and looks at his desk. “I don’t want to know this,” he says.

Stockholm in June smells like a bar. For two weeks graduating high school students charter fleets of flatbed trucks, load them up with sound systems, potted trees, pallets of beer, and their half-naked selves. The trucks drive around the city, and the grads lip-synch and fling booze at anyone who stands too close. They sing and drink to fend off age and winter, and the rest of Stockholm ignores them.

Gathered in front of a metro station on the Birger Jarlsgatan are Alex, 18, and five of his friends. They are wet from the ride. Do they use Spotify? “Of course,” they say. Exclusively? Of course. “Well,” says Alex, “we use Spotify to find music. Then we go download it somewhere else for free.” When Ek hears this story, he smiles. “Yeah,” he says, “that happens too.” Ek has time. The kids will pay, someday.

Greeley-brendan-190
Greeley is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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