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The Playlist: An origin story like no other that charts the rise of Spotify

Daniel Ek is no Adam Neumann, and Spotify is definitely no WeWork – unlike the much-hyped coworking space company, the music-streaming service is alive and well. And now it has an origin story on Netflix – The Playlist.

Ek, the co-founder of Spotify, continues to be as successful as ever – it’s safe to say that the music industry was revolutionized for good by his platform. The music-streaming giant does not have a monopoly but, with just under a third (31%) of the global market, it is easily the biggest player in the industry.

Yet it wasn’t always like that. A couple of decades ago, people still bought physical CDs and illegally downloaded music from websites like The Pirate Bay – on an industrial scale. Services like Pandora, iTunes, and, finally, Spotify, founded in 2006, changed all that – for good.

How did that happen? And how did the idea itself come about? A new Swedish mini-series The Playlist is a smart take on Spotify's origin story – although it is a fictionalized account, not a documentary.

Cybernews binge-watched the six episodes, and here are five things we noticed:

1. No downfall

The Playlist is not that different from other recent series about the origins of tech companies – but lacks schadenfreude. That is, there’s simply no downfall.

For example, Apple’s WeCrashed told us about the failings of Adam Neumann’s company WeWork, and Showtime’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber details the story of Travis Kalanick, the former Chief Executive Officer of the ride-hailing company.

Viewers surely feel a certain amount of satisfaction when they see an arrogant wannabe visionary brought down to earth.

The Playlist somehow avoids all that: as we all know, there was no tremendous collapse. Spotify is thriving, and the show simply describes just how many obstacles a tech start-up has to overcome in order to become a success.

2. Different perspectives

Sure, Ek’s ego comes into play numerous times during the six episodes. But it’s not really painful on the eyes, as it is outweighed by the decision to tell the story of Spotify from the perspective of six different people.

There’s Ek himself, but there’s also the charismatic lawyer Petra Hansson, the record company boss Per Sungin, and Martin Lorentzon, the entrepreneur. Another episode is told through the eyes of the head coder Andreas Ehn, while the fictional singer Bobbie T leads the last segment of the series.

This clever structure actually helps liven up a story that doesn’t really have a huge amount of conflict. Of course, there were disagreements and risky negotiations, but by focusing on six related but slightly different accounts and avoiding personal histories, the show is effective in telling us how a small Stockholm-based company turned into a music-streaming giant.

3. What does the artist think?

The last episode is probably the most interesting – and most important. It’s told from the artist’s perspective, and even though Bobbi T, an aspiring and hugely talented singer, is entirely fictional and not even based on a real person, her angle is crucial.

Bobbi T, as told in the series, was one of the first artists to be included on Spotify’s roster and obviously has high hopes to succeed. Yet it turns out the royalties she receives from streaming are not nearly enough to help her pay rent.

Spotify is extremely convenient and available at a click, so it’s really easy to forget how difficult it is for artists to make money on the music juggernaut. That’s why this last episode is necessary.

The streamer has been criticized for exploiting artists in real life: Spotify pays musicians $0.003-$0.005 per stream on average, with the money split 70-30 in the artist’s favor.

At the high end of this pay scale, artists need to have their song streamed 200,000 times to make $1,000. Yes, if you’re really a superstar, you can make hundreds of millions, but how many superstars are there, actually?

4. No paywall

Another theme explored by the series is how Spotify attained its current form, and this relates to current discussions in the video-streaming industry.

No matter how deep the stereotype is, Spotify – unlike, for example, Disney or HBO Max – is actually free. Instead of building a paywall, Ek and his crew finally came up with the idea to introduce Spotify Premium.

In other words, you don’t have to pay for music at all – unless you want to be able to download content for offline entertainment, shuffle between songs, or avoid ads.

Let’s face it: the model works. And some experts claim that Netflix, which announced a cheaper ad-supported version, and other streamers might decide to go a step further: take a leaf out of Spotify’s playbook, and make the basic service free.

5. It's still fiction

We already mentioned Bobbi T was a fictional character. It’s important to remember the production is not a documentary – critics say the series is not as historically accurate as some other shows, and it bills itself as a fictionalized representation of events.

The Playlist is based on – inspired by, to be more precise – the book Spotify Untold, written by Swedish business reporters Sven Carlsson and Jonas Leijonhufvud. Published in 2019, this is a work of nonfiction and a behind-the-scenes exposé that draws on more than seventy interviews.

But the series goes its own way – as adaptations tend to do. Real events have been heavily dramatized, as it probably is a lot easier to drive the plot with invented dialogues and characters.

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