The Playlist Episode 1 Review: The Spotify Music Network Is Not All It Seems. Is it?

Netflix has been busy. As the Crown is on the cusp of release to investigate the career of Diana Spencer, deceased ex-wife of Charles III, the new Carolingian age is anticipated by another TV series which echoes the brilliance of the 2010s series The Social Network, starring Jesse Eisenberg as the young Mark Zuckerberg, who needs no introduction (partly thanks, if that is the right word, to the film and its prophetic narrative). Perhaps the Spotify CEO Daniel Ek does. Comparable digital tech pioneers such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, or even disgraced Theranos upstart Elizabeth Holmes, have each received film or televisual portrayals (Daniel Boyle’s Steve Jobs starred Michael Fassbender in the title role, while Disney+’s series The Dropout stars Amanda Seyfried in a chillingly compelling portrayal of Homes, who faces up to twenty years in prison for defrauding investors in Theranos). Meanwhile Elon Musk has been the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, but has not yet received a comprehensive theatrical portrayal of his beginnings. Perhaps this is one step in that direction, as early 2000s founder of Spotify finds new artistic life in this TV series that feels more like an investigative drama than a biography (make of that what you will — David Fincher’s Social Network certainly looms large over The Playlist, which takes the form in new and promising directions). Let’s dive straight in, shall we?

The producer and the prophet.

‘You do not have a university degree,’ reads Daniel Ek’s rejection letter from Google. The 90s dream of universal university education and meritocratic social climbing did not take long to shatter in the minds of many. The elites stayed attached to this dream for longer than most — but here it is completely obliterated. ‘You can’t just hack Google,’ Daniel’s advertising boss says to him after he tried boosting the company’s appearance in search results by, well, hacking Google and discovering parts of the algorithm (the totality of which remains a mystery to those who code — or, at least, those who speak about coding). The music pares back and rises to a climax — and there, Daniel is gone from his job, wipes his whiteboard clean, and starts again. The words, translated from Swedish: ‘Launch and sell my own business within a year! What?’

‘6 months later,’ and the radio reads: ‘More and more Swedes are using the service Pirate Bay to download music for free. But record labels warn that this is a gross violation of copyright.’ Edvin Endre’s lead performance contrasts with Eisenberg’s energetic character or Fassbender’s more suppressed vision. In this portrayal, Ek enjoys watching his mother dance to Aretha Franklin. He wants to bring music to the people. He wants to make a difference like music had for his family. But how?

Pirate Bay, as Ek saw, was just a step towards the new future. ‘One day everything will he digital.’ He complains of commercial leaflets flooding her mother’s postbox. But what is to stop the same clutter from filling the digital future? Might the future just be more cluttered, not less, than the past? Of course, these questions don’t concern this driven and focused portrayal of a driven, focused, but also often laid-back man.

Ek watches as competitors go in and out of fashion. Taking place initially in 2006 when Ek was twenty-three, the months go by as Ek prepares the way for his future without doing much. He watches, he waits. Sometimes he makes a move. And he is constantly working. But in terms of significance, his work does not come to fruition to some time — and much of that work is simply the art of focused, diligent patience. You must, to build the kind of empire Ek has built, be at once committed to working relentlessly while also patiently waiting for anything substantial to come of it. But sometimes, as with Ek’s resignation from his advertising company, you have to just say: damn it, I am going to take a leap of faith.

Ek receives some advice from his new upstart tech employer: ‘You’ll learn as an intern [that] tech entrepreneurs are never on time. They think they own the world, They’re right, they actually do. Like the guy we’re working with today: Daniel Ek. He’s built a genius company. Advertigo. Online marketing. That thing is brilliant.’ Well, well.

‘How old are you.’ ‘Twenty-two. OK, so how much are you going to pay for my company?’ Nicely done, Daniel.

But Ek’s real passion remains music. The fusion of online marketing and music clubbing is his dream — to bridge the gulf in his life. At the club after selling his company, Daniel Ek expresses his wish to compete with Silicon Valley. The boss/buyer is shocked. ‘If you want to compete with the big boys, there’s nothing stopping you.’ Is there?

Daniel goes to a classier club with electronic-sounding jazz playing, although it is a band that is performing. I am reminded of Netflix’s The Eddy. The echoes between our time and the origins of jazz are startling. The song goes: ‘Tomorrow is my turn.’ Daniel is captivated by the singer of this prophecy for the lost souls of the world.

But what if there is no tomorrow? What if there is no success? What if the story rises and falls but never settles? What if there is no return — only a resolute running away from the pull of destiny? To these deeper questions, The Playlist seems strikingly mute.

But as an analysis of the social network, so to speak, behind the biggest music network on the planet, it is neat. In the car, Ek listens to Ludacris’ ‘Rollout’, as the genre of hip hop is taking off. ‘It’s not just about making money,’ Ek’s mother assures Daniel, who protests: ‘So plumbers fix people’s toilets because they think it’s so much fun?’ Alas, this is capitalism. His mother responds: ‘Plumbers help people,’ and help can you can become happy by helping people. ‘Maybe I should become a plumber,’ Daniel responds. He may not have a degree, but that is no escape from snobbery.

Sony Music is cast as the villain of the story: ‘These [online music distributors and pirating sites] are not freedom fighters but common criminals.’ The state and its laws are clamping down on dissent, as old money demands recompense. But new money is waiting in the shadows, preparing to enter the light. Netflix must have loved the pitch for this one. A certain narcissism runs through The Playlist as it does through The Crown: Aren’t the wealthy, whether powerful by inheritance or acquisition, so great? And aren’t those who prevent the further expansion of the market to new domains so greedy? Such is the motif of what Schumpeter termed the ‘creative destruction’ of the market economy, which benefits from a state to underpin it and a monarch to legitimise it — but not so much from the monopolies which leach off it. Et tu, Brutus?

And here we are back with Daniel’s new friend who bought his company. ‘What’s the thing Silicon Valley can’t pull off?’ ‘Becoming rich without becoming an asshole,’ is the grim reply. ‘Music,’ is the correct response. ‘Nobody wants part of this war between record companies and the new generation.’ His friend is black with incomprehension. So what? ‘So any company that could actually capitalize on this is just backing away,’ Daniel goes on. There’s a gap in the market, and Pirate Bay won’t capitalise on it because they are waging ‘ideological World War III.’ The comparisons with the Social Network and the transition from Napster to Facebook couldn’t be clearer. The old is dying and the new is not yet born — it is just kicking in the womb. Maybe all it needs is a little push.

Enter Andreas Ehn, the coder in chief. The businessman, however, wants to know: Why not film and music? ‘Music is personal,’ Daniel answers. ‘Spotify’ is ‘music for all’. But the music rights protection agency (something like that) wants to protect its relationship with the music industry. It thought an ‘online radio station’ was the pitch; but hearing ‘music streaming service’ set off the alarm bells.

‘You have to take that up with the record companies.’ ‘What for?’ ‘You’ll need to convince them to give you their music.’ The music establishment retains a certain neoclassical elitism to this day.

The businessman laughs, but Daniel is cool. ‘We’re gonna get the rights.’ How? Daniel’s coolness is striking. He is not rushing. He is waiting — even as the company needs to up its game, in the language of business. ‘We go directly to the labels. We just need to find one person who gets it. And I will find that person.’ ‘Where will you find this person. Google?’ ‘F— off,’ is the cool reply.

The labels have the same response. So many no’s. No ‘yes’ to be found. Many smiling secretaries and attendees greet Daniel. But no union with his old-time singer friend, and no solace from the grind of music licensing. On the TV (another metaphor for this film within a film), the Sony Music representative admits that times are changing — and that, while Pirate Bay is illegal, the alternatives may be better. Daniel’s prophecy is starting to come true.

‘You think you can replace us actual people with an algorithm, right?’, an executive rhetorically asks Daniel. The old may own the day — but the young own the night. Janice Kamya Kavander’s Bobby T, the singer, returns to give a show to the Sony executives and Spotify upstarts. ‘I’m trying to fulfil my dreams and prove to my mum that I’m not completely crazy for doing it.’ ‘Same with me.’ It just takes time. Right?

Perhaps the more arresting backstory, however, is to the show and its context. If the main critique of social media and music streaming platforms is from TV-esque streaming platforms, then what kind of world are we left with? We seem to be consuming our media from a variety of monopolistic corporations, each of which are competing with the other, while also cooperating with one another in a cartel-like manner (echoing debates about imperialism among European states in the early twentieth century). If the critique of each institution (by, as it happens, another not-so-very-different institution) is shallow but not deep, how can we hope to form a balanced view in all this manufactured controversy? Alas, we cannot. But we cannot avoid this economic hegemony of ideology either. As Gramsci once said, ‘The old is dying, and the new cannot yet be born’. The new digital media is growing up, but it — like its analog predecessor — has a definite lifespan and a fixed sell-by and use-by date. We do not know when that is, however. We only know that, as with all things under the sky, to which the system of totalitarian-monopoly capitalism is no exception, everything ends.

Everybody asking a question, they want to know: I know he’s gonna wild out, he gonna do something crazy. [But more importantly:] Everybody want to know what I would do if I didn’t win … I guess we’ll never know.

Kanye West, Academy Award acceptance speech for The College Dropout, 2005.

Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?

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