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Review: The Spotify Play, by Sven Carlsson and Jonas Leijonhufvud

· By · 3.5 minutes to read

“The David vs. Goliath story of Spotify CEO and Founder Daniel Ek―who bet everything on disruptive innovation, and played the giants of Silicon Valley, the music industry, and the podcast world in his quest to build today’s largest online source of audio”

Spotify is quite a secretive company. It’s quite hard to know quite what’s going on in it - and this book, The Spotify Play, is an interesting view of it from many people who have been involved with it.

The story of how it started is interesting, and in many ways is the typical “naive startup in an apartment” story. This one is a little different, though: it does start with a quite accomplished team, but more importantly, quite a bit of money. Spotify was never a boot-strapped company in a garage.

The book focuses on Daniel Ek, the founder and CEO, and tries to highlight his metamorphosis from unsure, scruffy awkward tech guy to the CEO of one of the largest companies in the world for music. Ek’s story isn’t quite a rags-to-riches story, being more riches-to-riches, but he clearly had the right advice and the right affinity to learn to make a success of the company.

The book contains many interesting details - Spotify’s strange attempted pivot to trying to be a video service, as one thing, which appeared to have consumed a large amount of money and be entirely unsuccessful. You’ll hear Spotify talk now about their ambition to be the place people consume audio - and it appears this is mainly driven by a failure to make themselves a media aggregator as they were hoping to be.

As Carlsson and Leijonhufvud make clear, the main thing holding Spotify back was the record companies, who dragged their feet at every opportunity - a strange thing for them to do, given it revitalised their industry and simultaneously eradicated much of the music piracy problem that they were dealing with. And, as comes as no surprise, Steve Jobs comes across as a Machiavellian schemer, whispering bad things into the record companies’ ears. There is little in the Steve Jobs story to admire - and this is yet another book that makes very clear what an unpleasant shit of a man he was.

Spotify’s foray into podcasting started in 2015, so it appears. This is an English version of a Swedish book, Spotify inifrån : så blir man störst i världen, published in 2019; and though it has since been updated, Spotify’s dizzying acquisition trail in podcasting is compressed into a few pages. You don’t get that much of a view into the company’s vision there.

You do get a sense of the time that an IPO takes in any company; and the clever way that Spotify achieved their flotation. As Ek is quoted as saying, it was a choice to either float onto the stock market or sell the company to someone like Google or Apple (both apparently sniffed about a bit). It is possibly a little disappointing that this takes up so much of a company’s focus, given that this is ultimately nothing that a consumer will ever notice.

You also understand how important Spotify’s “influencers” were to its success, given the slew of copycat services in the US. It appears it isn’t always very important what your product does, as long as the right people are using it.

The method behind 'Discovery Weekly’, the clever personalisation method that Spotify uses to keep you listening longer (and act as a product differentiator), is discussed which is fascinating - spoiler, they use user playlists as a way to get similarities of songs. You don’t get much more insight into the black box of how Spotify works, albeit there’s probably not much more to it.

But perhaps that’s the slight disappointment - that Spotify refused to take part in this book.

It’s a positive, and quite Swedish, history of the company - respectful to everyone, with lots of detail though few real surprises. Spotify missed an opportunity to work more closely on this book - and any criticism I’ve heard about this book has been from ex-Spotify people, who’ve pointed out the detachment of the authors from the story; it’s especially told from a Swedish, rather than US or UK, viewpoint.

But if you’ve any interest in how Spotify works as a company, this is a good book to spend time with. You’ll end up with a renewed admiration for what the company has achieved, and the way in which it all happened.

(I was sent a preview copy as a watermarked PDF, which I read on my e-reader).

The Spotify Play: How CEO and Founder Daniel Ek Beat Apple, Google, and Amazon in the Race for Audio Dominance by Sven Carlsson and Jonas Leijonhufvud was released last week by Diversion Books. It’s here on Amazon ($)

James Cridland is the Editor of Podnews, a keynote speaker and consultant. He wrote his first podcast RSS feed in January 2005; and also launched the first live radio streaming app for mobile phones in the same year. He's worked in the audio industry since 1989.

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