Is Spotify the Darth Vader of Music?

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Spotify Premium GraphAs Spotify launched their iPhone app, the crowd cheered. The talented SEO-expert (and comedian) Simon Sundén publishes the follwing graph of Spotify Premium sales that went viral amongst us nerds. Half us us thought is was true, and who knows, it may be.

But even if this graphic joke isn’t true, it illustrates something quiet scary. Something scary that starts with an “M”.

Let me tell you a story to explain:

Chapter 1 – The Music Industry

Think for a minute about how the music industry works. This is an industry that has built it’s entire business model around their monopoly on information distribution. Largely, the monopoly has been built on the control over distribution of plastic circles. In recent years, as silver became the new black in the plastic circles industry, the information started to find other ways of distributing itself over the internet, and the monopoly of distribution started to break down.

Desperately, the record industry tried everything to stop these new an superior modes of information distribution by trying to sabotage them with destructive and inefficient “inventions” like DRM. When that didn’t work (because Darwinistic innovation always gravitates towards the efficient), they cried foul, and tried to persuade their friends “in Washington” to legislate and punish anyone who had the audacity to use these new and efficient modes of distribution instead of using theirs.

Why so desperate, you may ask? Well – this was all they knew. It was not them, but the musicians who created the music. What they, the record industry, had to offer was marketing and distribution. And when their monopolized mode of distribution was suddenly outdated, and marketing was suddenly taken over by the music itself, it’s own viral distribution, communities like MySpace, and crowdsourced services like LastFM, the music industry was suddenly cut out of the loop, unable to provide value. And like the dinosaurs before them, their fate looked sealed.

Chapter 2 – The Innovators

But the file sharing systems, though hugely more efficient than the plastic circles, was not perfect. Billions of redundant copies of the information had to be kept on harddrives where you wanted to access the music, sharing the music meant sending over entire files, and meta-information was incongruent. Instead, thought a group of innovative individuals, one would like to take the route of the semantic web and have ONLY ONE instance of every file, with congruent meta data, stored in ONE place so that we could share it by only sending links pointing to the specific files. Then each of us could have access to all information and create a hugely efficient market for sifting out the very best. A more efficient model to be sure, and as we know, Darwinistic innovation always gravitates towards the efficient. The group of geniuses created and productified this new and superior mode of distribution. And they named it – Spotify.

Chapter 3 – The Cartel

And here, the music industry saw it’s chance. In one of the weekly meetings of The Cartel, the organisation they had set up together “to act for the common welfare of artists everywhere”, one executive stood up and said – “we can’t stop every single individual on the internet, but we can stop one company! We can threaten to destroy their new value, and claim part of it as ransom! We can regain our distribution monopoly by using their own value against them! But we have to act quickly! If more inventive companies emerge and compete, like Chilirec for instance, we will loose this last chance for survival of our kind. Sure, Chilirec will try to sue us, in fact, they already did, but that’s no match for our lawyers. We have our own people in the courts”.

One young assistant’s assistant, who had observed them in silence from the end of the table, mumbled quietly “but what value will we contribute? How will we make things more efficient? Will this not stifle competition and put an end to innovation?”? BE QUIET! Roared an executive at the end of the table. THEY NEED US! THEY WILL SUBMIT OR BE DESTROYED!

Said and done. The Cartel cheered and applauded. “If we all agree to let Spotify use our music, and let Chilirec use none, we can cut any deal we want. They have no chance to do this without us. We can use their new invention to return to the times of the distribution monopoly! We can be rich! Maybe we can even keep all new releases within Spotify and NEVER NEVER NEVER release the files to anyone else! Trying to hack Spotify and batch down these files will be easy enough to stop! We couldn’t control the data on the plastic circles, but we CAN control the data on the Spotify servers! We can even demand to own part of Spotify“! The room went silent as his words resonated through the spines of The Cartel directors like a chilling wind. Own the only source of music… on the planet.


When Apple realized what hit them it was too late. A year earlier, soon after The Cartel’s spirited meeting, Apple had given away their last line of defense and allowed the Spotify client on their iPhone. As the power of the iTunes store faded away, Apple tried in a last attempt to launch their version of Spotify, called iTunes Unlimited. The service was impeccably polished, integrated into their brand new Wild Cat operating system, and could play songs while texting on the iPhone, something that the Spotify client couldn’t. But what was the use of all this if they had no music. Or at least, just enough music not to be able to compete with Spotify. The number of Spotify exclusive songs and artists soared and left the rest of the industry in rubble. A lot of people said that “we should have seen this coming when Spotify restricted the iPhone app to paying premium users”. But now it was to late. The war was over. They won.

At least until the rebels on the far moon of MySpace started their indie music rebellion. But that is a whole other story.

About the Blog

This blog is written by Walter Naeslund and has been around since 2007. The blog is about the journey of starting an advertising agency and a sneak peek behind the scenes of what goes on at the Honesty HQ in SoFo, Södermalm. It is also a blog about communication & technology. The blog has gathered almost a thousand posts over the years with several longer and shorter breaks. Welcome and enjoy.
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