Daniel Ek, a founder of Spotify and its current chief executive, sits in front of a U.S. Senate committee hearing. Or rather: A Swedish actor playing Ek sits in front of a Senate hearing, as imagined by a Swedish production designer. A fictitious senator named Landy is grilling him, hard. “Your business model just doesn’t work for musicians, does it?” she asks. Her tone makes it obvious that she already knows the answer Ek would give if he were willing to tell the truth. As she peppers him with facts and figures about Spotify’s market share and artists’ measly cut of its revenue, Ek tries to fight back, insisting that his streaming service, whatever its shortcomings, is still the best path forward for musicians hoping to make a living from their art. But the more Landy presses, the more shaken Ek looks, as though he didn’t expect the questioning to be so tough. There is a moment in which it seems he might be considering the possibility that her criticisms have merit: Maybe, despite all of his company’s rhetoric about freedom for artists, he really is just a new breed of music-industry monopolist.
After Ek, the committee calls Bobbi T, a fictional musician and, coincidentally, a childhood friend of Ek’s. She is appearing as a representative of Scratch the Record, a musicians’ advocacy group calling on Spotify to distribute more of its revenue to the artists whose work constitutes the core of its platform. Her own songs are streamed 200,000 times each month, yet she struggles to get by. She understands, she says, that “in every generation there are winners and losers.” But lawmakers, she insists, should be able to tell “the difference between change and exploitation.” Ek, sitting in the audience, looks as if he would rather be somewhere, anywhere, else.
These scenes appear in the sixth and final episode of “The Playlist,” a new Netflix series that chronicles Spotify’s journey from Ek’s brainstorm in Stockholm to a worldwide streaming behemoth. The first five episodes, inspired by a book by two Swedish journalists, have the same narrative shape as basically every show or movie that fictionalizes the real story of a tech start-up. Socially alienated coders with a bold vision? Check. An open-plan office with a foosball table? Check. Stodgy industry executives who just don’t understand the coming sea change (until they’re forced to)? Fund-raising woes? Just-in-time software breakthroughs? Check, check, check.
This final episode, though, abandons the source material completely, zooming forward into a fictional near-future: Ek’s big Senate hearing takes place in the year 2025. This future may look a lot like the present, but it is in many ways as fanciful as anything on “Star Trek” or “The Jetsons.” This is a world in which people are moved by the opinions of musicians who aren’t megastars, and there’s some threat of legislative action that could plausibly help bands replace the lost revenue stream of physical albums. It’s a future in which Spotify is bigger than ever — but battle lines are being drawn, and they’re making Daniel Ek sweat.
We love stories about underdogs who, armed only with the strength of their vision and perseverance, hit it big and change society. The world of business used to be a little too slow-moving, complex and impersonal for that kind of narrative. But tech start-ups — with their meteoric overnight successes, unconventional young founders and industry-upending products — changed that, creating a new well of David-beats-Goliath stories.
Of course, we now know that many of tech’s Davids ended up becoming Goliaths of their own, creating at least as many problems as they ever fixed. Others, we’ve learned, were merely hucksters, plying their trade at the intersection of fad-oriented venture capital and loose regulatory structures. None of this has dimmed our appetite for tech-underdog tales. We still want the fun of seeing David outwit slow, out-of-touch Goliath; it’s just that we also want to congratulate ourselves, along the way, for seeing through David’s every move. So we get stories like “The Dropout,” which shows us Elizabeth Holmes turning an undergraduate hunch into the company Theranos (before being exposed as a fraud), or “WeCrashed,” which lets us tag along as Adam Neumann makes WeWork into an international office-space empire (then gets pushed out as the company becomes a financial mess), or “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber,” which traces the company’s dramatic transformation of urban transit (while stressing, at every turn, the amoral ruthlessness of one of its founders, Travis Kalanick). We watch these companies dupe and manipulate the world while, sitting at home on our couches, we enjoy the experience of knowing better.
More people than ever, I suspect, harbor a vague sense that what Spotify offers must, in the end, be screwing someone over. But the company hasn’t had anything close to a significant moment of public reckoning, let alone been revealed as some scam or house of cards. (If anything, the industry has reveled in the money Spotify brought pouring back to major record labels; it’s musicians who often end up empty-handed.) This is why “The Playlist,” notionally a behind-the-scenes imagining of the past, is forced to lurch into a wholly fictional future. Only there can it give Spotify the comeuppance that the genre has conditioned us to expect, but reality has completely failed to deliver.
It’s striking that even after loosing itself from the shackles of the present, the show can’t find its way to giving Spotify more than a slap on the wrist. Bobbi T, the struggling musician, pleads for Congress to pass a law guaranteeing a fixed payment to artists every time one of their songs is streamed. “The Playlist” gives no sign, though, that this will happen, and it has no particular vision of how artists could accumulate the leverage to force the issue. Nor does it suggest that normal people will start paying for albums again. It doesn’t depict the live-music industry reversing the trends making it less and less viable as an income stream, and it certainly doesn’t show masses of people quitting Spotify or other streaming platforms (like, um, Netflix) in protest. All it gives us is the pageantry of a Senate hearing and a few pointed questions, something executives endure all the time without much changing. The show seems to know this: In the end, the fictional future Ek cares what Bobbi T has to say mostly because they went to high school together.
Unlike, say, Theranos, Spotify’s product works — just not for most musicians. That’s one reason it hasn’t imploded. Another is the service’s successful colonization of our imaginations. More than once in “The Playlist,” die-hard skeptics are won over by opening Spotify and experiencing the thrill of a seeming infinity of options, all at their fingertips. The app itself tells a visceral story about what’s possible — inevitable, even. Users have largely accepted this story. Anyone looking to challenge it will have to tell a story of their own, and it won’t be enough for this story to be obviously correct or morally right. It will have to somehow feel as powerful and exciting as Spotify itself: the type of thing you could imagine making a whole TV series about.
Above: Jonas Alarik/Netflix.
Peter C. Baker is a freelance writer in Evanston, Ill., and the author of the novel “Planes,” published by Knopf this year.