This has been Ek’s plan all along: to get the music industry so dependent on Spotify that even the doubters can’t live without it. “We need this company to be robust,” Borchetta says of Spotify. “It’s important to the ecosystem of the whole business that they are successful.”
The Spotify team realized that they needed a mobile product that could be accessed by everyone, not just paying subscribers. And they needed it quickly. They had already been negotiating with labels about licensing rights for a free mobile version, but the deals weren’t done. Nor were engineers ready with a product. The sudden crisis sparked company-wide urgency. When the licensing deals were finally signed, in December 2013, “we literally just pushed the button on the same day to get it out there,” says Soderstrom of the new app. There was no time for rigorous testing. “If it had taken another six months, it might have been too late to recover.” The strategy worked: At the end of 2013, Spotify had 36 million users and 8 million paying subscribers; by January 2015, it announced 60 million and 15 million, respectively. Forty-two percent of time spent on Spotify was now via phones and 10% on tablets, the first time mobile listening surpassed desktop.
The new free tier has been a top priority for more than a year. It reflects how important it is for the company to keep acquiring new customers (and turn them into paying ones), but it also has its own commercial element. “Billions of people listen to radio, and most of that today isn’t monetized very efficiently,” Ek says as we chat on the couch in his Stockholm office. “Commercial radio, that’s conservatively a $50 billion industry globally. The U.S. radio industry is $17 billion, close to the size of the whole global recorded music industry, which is $23 billion. And what do people listen to? Primarily music.” Ninety percent of Spotify’s current revenues come from subscriptions, but if the free product expands, so can Spotify’s radiolike advertising business. As Ek notes, with typical understatement, “We still have a lot of room to grow.”
Ek didn’t see the value at first—”Oh, this is going to be a disaster,” he recalls thinking about one playlist innovation—but playlisting did more than increase Spotify’s consumer appeal. It turned Spotify into a user’s personal DJ. The company told investors in its prospectus, filed last February, that “we now program approximately 31% of all listening on Spotify” via playlists, which has created powerful new brands within Spotify such as Rap Caviar and ¡Viva Latino!. There are now Rap Caviar and ¡Viva Latino! concert series, pointing the way toward an even broader role for the company within the music business, where it’s generating live event and merchandising revenue without having to pay record labels.
He’s succeeded in the [music] business because he’s extremely patient and not high on his own supply, meaning he has not been susceptible to the vices that ruin people in entertainment. Ek’s personality has opened the door to a different kind of relationship with musical artists from what prevailed in the era of cocaine-snorting, thieving record execs. So far, Ek has been focused on changing how creators get paid; in streaming, an artist is compensated every time a song is played, creating lifetime revenue (albeit a fraction of a penny at a time), whereas in the old model they got paid (sometimes) after selling a CD or download. But that’s only the beginning. “Spotify’s first eight to 10 years were focused on consumers,” says R&D chief Soderstrom. “The next eight to 10 will be focused on artists.”
Spotify for Artists is the most visible example of this new directive. The service, which launched in its current form in 2016, allows musicians to access data on who is listening to their work on the platform and to personalize their presence to enhance engagement. Iconic rock band Metallica, which once helped sue Napster out of existence, used this data on tour to customize its setlists based on what local fans listen to most. Smaller artists have used it to identify where to tour, and to activate their superfans. “Whatever your genre is, you can find an audience,” says Spotify chief marketing officer Seth Farbman.
Ek has been talking a lot this year about Spotify’s mission to get 1 million artists to make a living off the platform, but he doesn’t mean there will be 1 million Lady Gagas or Bruno Marses. Financial analysts often compare Spotify to Netflix—a comparison Ek pushes back against—but Ek’s vision of the future looks more like YouTube: a meeting spot for creators and fans, in groups both large and small, and Spotify benefits when transactions happen in this “marketplace.” Ek says: “In that model, it’s almost like you’re managing an economy.”
“The major-label system was built out for the 5,000 biggest artists in the world,” Carter notes. “If we’re going to [enable] a million artists to make a living, that’s going to require an entirely different ecosystem.” In this world, “an artist might be happy making $50,000 a year, supplementing income from other work to help pay their mortgage, raise their kids, by doing what they love. I’m just as committed to that kind of artist. How do we make it so there are a lot more winners,” Carter says, “to redefine what it means to be a winner?”