A Chat With The King of Music: An Interview With Daniel Ek

What music might look like in 100 or 1,000 years, how Europe can become a place of innovation, whether founders are the same as artists, and more!

  
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Daniel Ek is the cofounder and CEO of Spotify, one of the most dominant music streaming and music discovery platforms in the world today, with 400 million active users worldwide. Daniel was named the most powerful person in the music industry in 2017 by billboard, which I think is a pretty apt description. Previously Daniel held a senior position at Tradera (acquired by Ebay), was the founder of Advertigo (acquired by TradeDoubler), and was CEO of µTorrent (acquired by BitTorrent). Daniel is singularly responsible for saving the music industry and anyone who has a different opinion here is simply wrong, and more importantly he’s also just an overall great guy and this becomes immediately clear the second you hear him express his ideas. To keep up with Daniel, follow him on Twitter here

(Edited for clarity) The structure for today will be a traditional rapid fire back and forth Q&A. The questions will come fast, and I'll jump into the first one now: Spotify saved the music industry (which lost half of its revenue between the turn of the century and 2015) by making on demand music streaming more persuasive to listeners than piracy, and from this fact alone it's easy to decide that the future of music has finally arrived. But what might music distribution and consumption look like in 100 or 1000 years? And how does Spotify see its role in shaping that future with tools like discovery? There has really never been more potential for user centric innovation in music than right now. And my first instinct is to imagine that Spotify’s slogan, the soundtrack to your life, may become increasingly literal. Will algorithms collate user data and curate music according to life events? Will Spotify integrate with one of the many excellent facial recognition platforms today and become a melodic mood ring? What data does Spotify have now that may tell us what listeners in 2121 might want?

I don’t think anyone has ever asked me what things might look like in 100 or 1000 years. I think the longest time-frame I’ve been asked about has probably been only a decade or two, but that's a fun and engaging topic to talk about. To start I want to first think about the basics of music. It's something that's been present with us really throughout the entire existence of humanity, right? Music used to be how we shared knowledge back in the day; our elders and tribes-folk used to share wisdom and stories through music. And so I’d like to believe that in the next 100 or 1000 years music will still be a very important part of our society and how we express culture and belonging. But as you said, I think the real fascinating thing is that music is becoming more and more omnipresent. It's become easier than ever for today’s creators to express themselves, and it's becoming easier than ever for anyone in the world to enjoy and be inspired by that. 

I think there are two ways things may change over the next 100 or 1,000 years, both of which are sort of the most fascinating things I can imagine. The first has to do with the fact that the bar of creation will continue to drop lower. A few hundred years back, if you wanted to write a symphony you basically had to be a genius. You had to hear all the notes in your head of every instrument, and if you wanted a live sample of your ideas you’d of course be restricted to playing one instrument at a time despite needing to hear them all in concert. And the greatest of that era never heard their music being played in full up until the very moments prior to a performance at an opera, there’d be only a few rehearsals before a concert event and so time also limited the ability to actually make changes to the work. The sequence of music creation then was from 1) hearing an entire piece in your head (which is pretty insane), 2) then writing it down on a piece of paper and hardly ever hearing it, 3) and then performing.

Fast forward to the 1950s, or even a bit earlier with jazz in the 20s and 30s, where it was the age of instrumentalism, a time similar to the classical era where you basically had to be a virtuoso at the instrument you were playing in order to express yourself (except with the added benefit that you could more freely play with other people and freelance and freebase a musical response). And then again if you fast forward and contrast all of this with today, you can see that many of the greatest musicians that we have now don't know how to play a single instrument. But what they do know is that they're almost like computer programmers, they're expressing their vision with software and are able to bend sound and bend our reality.

And so I like to believe that with respect to overall creativity, in the next 100 years it will be even easier to express yourself than ever before. The barrier to be creative is just going to become lower so that more people can become creatives or musicians, but that’s not to say that the bar isn’t still high. Of course you have to learn the software, you have to learn all the plugins, the notes you have to use, composing, and stretching, and beat. And that's something that takes a lot of time for people to learn today even though there's a lot of knowledge on how to do it. And I think that's a huge barrier for people creating today. But I like to believe that even that's going to get lower. 

The second aspect to the changes I imagine involve just the consumption side of music itself. To start I like to describe where music consumption is now. It's quite obvious to avid music consumers that you can create a better playlist yourself than could an algorithm. If you really wanted to sit down to create that perfect playlist for your day, you'd probably be able to do a pretty good job by yourself doing it. Spotify will do an okay job at it, but it's pretty clear that you, with just 20-30 minutes of work, can do a much better job. For now Spotify is like your friend who knows music in general, but we don’t understand you that well. In the next decade or so Spotify will become that friend that really knows you and also knows music. You might still be able to do a slightly better job yourself in expressing what you want in that moment, but given more time I'm not so sure you will be able to do a better job than we can. It's very possible that Spotify will be able to create a much better Soundtrack To Your Life than you could potentially even imagine doing yourself. And this is kind of a crazy thought for people.

Next I think a good comparative example for potential changes I see in music is video conferencing. I love going back in time to 10 or 15 years ago when we were first talking about remote conferencing, and I remember using an early service which was insanely expensive and difficult to use. You had to have a separate ISDN connection, you had to put in the IP address of whoever you were calling, and they had to have a similar, very expensive, very difficult system. It wasn't a great experience. And so people then said, well, it's pretty clear that physical meetings that humans organize are always going to be superior to digital ones, but now in 2021 we can have these video conferences on whatever equipment we want, wherever we are in the world, and communicate easily.

I don't have to know your IP address, you don't have to know mine, we're just communicating and we can interact with 50 or 100+ people at the same time. But we still think somehow that meeting virtually can’t be as good as meeting physically, but I actually believe that the virtual meeting might even supersede the physical meeting in the future and we will have even better experiences virtually than we are having physically, which is kind of insane to think. But if you believe this is all possible, then it's not a stretch to imagine that future musicians will create songs that can do things like alter based on who you are.

So there'd be a song and the general structure of it, but it would adjust and adapt based on you to become something perfect. I had this thesis for some of our folks that are working on better music software that went, “What if we could create a song that always updates itself and tries to become the number one song all the time, a song that just constantly updates?” And even if it sounds pretty crazy, I do think that something like that will be possible and transformative sometime in the future, I just have no idea when and where. And I think we'll have some amazing musicians and artists and songwriters that will imagine-up some crazy way to express that in the future.

I'm going to jump straight into the next question and I'm really excited to hear your thoughts since this is one everyone is more or less anxious to know: 

Spotify has never been more essential for stress management, personal growth, work motivation and leisure than since the beginning of the pandemic. We've all had to find some way to maintain our bearings as the world hit turbulent and uncharted waters, and some of us, separated from friends and family, had to go it all alone. But Spotify led the way back to each other and back to ourselves through music sharing and discovery, seeing a whopping 50% increase in TV and game console usage in 2020 alone. With Spotify becoming something like a center of gravity in everyday life, and with the new shipment of Greenroom, Spotify’s live streaming platform, is Spotify’s emergence as a full scale social media platform in the works?

Well, we're certainly trying to become the soundtrack for every moment, whatever that may be. And that obviously means that we're trying to make it a lot easier for people to consume music and audio in more places and in more ways that fit their lives. I don't believe we're trying to become a social media platform, but in the sense that a social media platform is just a means to have lots of users interacting with each other, and that being the center of the experience, what we are currently trying to do is allow music artists and consumers to interact in more ways than we have in the past.

So when I think about Greenroom, I think about the ability for you, as a creator or a host, not just to host the room and invite people but actually moderate and steer the event or conversation. And that's a very different social experience than what you'll have on Facebook or WhatsApp or any of these other social platforms that exist. Our view is we want to make it so that artists and creators have more ways to express themselves, more ways to interact with fans, and ultimately more ways of monetizing their art so that they can sustain themselves as artists. And that medium of interaction between artists and their fan base is something that Spotify hasn't done up until now, but it's certainly one of the areas we want to develop and offer since we're now at the point where we have about 400 million people on the platform. So there's a huge audience there, and we just want to give artists more tools to interact with their fan base.

So is Spotify considering adding a like button and a comment section? And will these features be worth transforming Spotify into a platform which is no longer opinion free?

I think we'll add something like it. But it won't be what most people probably imagine when they think of a like button or a comment button. So again, the most important thing for us is that we put creators in control. One of the big things we started doing just a few months ago, and you can see it already in the product, is that if you're a podcaster, you can actually use some of these features already. You can have polls where users respond to some of the content you're putting out and ask questions, and you can also, as a creator, choose whether you want to share what the answers were from the audience. There are also other things like surveys and so on that we're working on as well as ways for creators to express themselves, but also get instruction from the fan base.

But I personally think that many of the things that we talked about, like buttons, comments, etc, are things that are very much old social media norms. And I think the newer social platforms like TikTok and others are innovating past that in a new way. They still have the same type of functionality, but it doesn't work in the same way as many people perceive something like social media should work. And we are sort of the same way, we're definitely creator-control centric rather than a usual social media network.

I want to go back for a second and touch on something you mentioned before about online space approaching a point where meeting a person over your phone can supersede the quality which you might experience physically. And my question is: Tech innovation is no longer confined to physical places because of the mass adoption of things like zoom, which exploded ever since COVID arrived on the scene, so how can we make Europe a place of innovation?

This is a matter that's near and dear to my heart. I think the good news is that in some ways, it’s already happening. When I started as an entrepreneur, the reality was that many of us didn't know how things like venture capital worked. There was no norm about how to work with venture capital, what a Series A round was, what a series B round was, how to pitch a venture capitalist, none of that stuff existed.

The good news is that, today, if you're a budding entrepreneur, wherever you are, you practically can find all of that stuff online in five minutes, how to do all of it. You can even reach out directly on Twitter or LinkedIn to venture capitalists and get a meeting set up, and there are many VCs now in Europe, there are many all over the world that are happy to look at pitches, there are even angel investors and other helpful people in the business community, a lot of these things just didn't exist when I was starting. And that's led to a lot of growth.

So I think when you look at entrepreneurship, the crazy stat is this: You’re right to assume that Europe is behind the US. But what's fascinating to me is even when you look at the US, and if you take Silicon Valley and Seattle out of the equation, the US would actually do worse than Europe. So really, up until now, innovation has been confined mostly to two places, Silicon Valley and Seattle. All the tech innovation that you think about, all of the Apples and Googles and Facebooks and Microsofts and so on have been in a very confined, small space. I think that barrier has been broken now. You're starting to see more companies pop up all over the place. You have Snap in LA, you have companies in New York, you have Klarna and Spotify in Stockholm, you have UI Path out of Romania. There are companies all over now that are breaking ground and serving as inspiration for those spread-out clusters of people. So I think to some extent it's already happening. But I think the primary way for it to continue to happen is just the spread of knowledge that's happening, with podcasts being a prime example of this, It’s so amazing how much knowledge is available to you just by searching for it, you can now find more about almost any topic that you want.

And so many people are paying it forward and sharing their experience and expertise and I wish I had the same amount of resources when I started out. So I think that means that we're going to see more innovation spread out in more places now. Of course the rest of the ecosystem needs to get there too, with venture capital and so on, and I'm hoping that that will catch up eventually.

Returning back to music and music’s future for a second, my next question for you here is: Most developments in the state of any art emerge from combinations of popular culture and niche cultural forms that are hardly ever considered, with the history of rock being a great example. Rhythm and Blues eventually met with country and folk to effect the huge change of combining what had initially been exclusively black and white forms. And now something like the syncretism singularity may be on the verge of happening with all the world's music being made available everywhere by Spotify. Is Spotify seeing anything like a blending of music across cultures? is Swedish music becoming more South African? Is South African music becoming more French? Is everyone becoming more American? That's sort of what I'm wondering about.

This is something so fascinating to see, because, if you look at the history of pop music, it's very much been the case that American and British artists have ruled the world. But what we're seeing for the first time now is a sort of new world order (if you'd like) where you have BTS from Korea, making it big, you have several Latin acts. I mean, right now as an example, one of the popular songs that my kid loves is the song My Universe, which is Coldplay and BTS. They're singing along to Korean lyrics and loving it as one of these crossovers.

So I think you can see that already. And it's happening in the ecosystems where streaming has matured. I don't think it’s a coincidence that South Korean and Latin music are making it since both are heavily streamed areas. For me, I'm more excited about what's next. So if you think about the sort of next regions, you have India, and Bollywood music I'm sure will have a big moment on the global stage in the next few years, and then past that, I'm super excited about African music, where we're still much more nascent, but West African beats are already influencing a lot of hip hop, Kanye West and Drake, amongst many others. But I think that's just the beginning. Because right now, no one in the western world understands that that's actually very much inspired from Africa.

So I think you're going to see for sure in the next decade a lot more African songwriters and artists also making it on the global stage and more collaborations between artists across the world. And what's cool for me is that a lot of them are writing these songs not even together, they are literally on opposite sides of the world speaking via technology and FaceTiming some of their work and then recording it in their own studio and then sending over their files. And I believe in the future, you might have a live recording across two rooms, working in real time on a single song. Right now it's kind of a tedious process where if I do the vocals on your song, I have to record it separately, send you the file, you have to incorporate it into mixing, you then have to export it out, which is a tedious process, and then send it back to me, and we have to bounce it back and forth like that. But obviously in the future it should work like Google Docs, we should be able to do it at the same time, somehow, and Spotify actually has a product called Soundtrap, where we're trying to do exactly that.

My next question is probably the most important for young people today, and it's that in my interview with Andreessen Horowitz co founder Ben Horowitz, I asked whether or not college is still necessary to achieve the American dream, considering that technology now makes it possible to access the same learning material and communities that have mostly been confined to campuses for the last few decades, and his answer was that unless you want to be at the leading edge of a field like physics, the value of college may not be worth the current cost. Is that sentiment true in Europe in general, and Sweden in particular? I mean, one thing which really makes you so interesting to me is that you left college early as have a lot of the most brilliant founders and artists in the world today, and Spotify makes it possible for millions of people to do the same thing and make careers doing what they love without any formal certification hurdles. Will the internet end up eating the university?

I think the value of education, obviously, is immensely important. But there are many ways to educate yourself, as you rightly pointed out, and I do think education needs a fundamental reform in order to keep up with where the world's going, both the wealth of knowledge that's now available online and the ability for us to realize that as individuals we all learn in different ways.

Some of us may prefer just to hear the content, some of us want the visual interaction, some of us actually want to write it down, some of us want to teach it to another person in order to understand it. And so my view is we have to do a fundamental educational reform, because the reality is, going through a formal education system just once in our lifetime probably doesn't make sense anymore, we have to continuously educate ourselves.

With that said, I do think when you're dealing with a base level of knowledge and a breadth of knowledge, something like a college or a university still makes a ton of sense. It's not for the faint-hearted to drop out of college and have nothing to lean back on. And it's not something, when people ask me, that I would highly recommend unless you're absolutely certain what you want to accomplish in life. So actually, for those that aren't sure what they want to do, having an education to fall back on could be very important and valuable.

But It's ironic when we talk about the American dream because there are two things that are fundamental for it to happen which have gotten insane, the first is that education has gotten so expensive, and the second is that healthcare has gone the same way, while almost everything else in society has gotten cheaper, like electronics, food, all of that stuff. Both of them, for me, are the foundational aspects of an equal society and equal opportunity. So I think it's essential that we, as a society, and broadly speaking, all societies, spend a lot more effort and resources both on reforming health care, but in particular, reforming education too so that more people can participate in it and have success.

And I think many of the founders that you're talking about, including myself, we just always knew what we wanted to do, and it just so happened that that was the bleeding edge anyway and wasn't being taught in schools, so there was no knowledge to be found there. So we ended up going out in the world and gathering it in a different way. 

My next question is that I always wonder how extremely successful founders managed to do what they do, and then also have kids. So I'm wondering, how do you do it all?

I think most successful people I know are just very good at managing their time. And it really starts with that. It's not that we have more hours in the day, even though it might seem so sometimes. What I've observed is that, and certainly in my case, I start with a very different principle in mind when I allocate my time, which is, most people I've found allocate their time on a first come first serve basis. They basically try to fill up their day with as much as they potentially can, and whoever comes first gets the time slot, and then they just keep building on that.

I actually start off with a pretty much blank slate, and then ask myself what I want to accomplish during the day. And then I start there and say no to everything else. So sometimes my days, surprisingly, have almost nothing on them. And sometimes my days are very full. But it's not unusual that they are almost blank.

And obviously of course when speaking about family and kids, this is something that I prioritize very, very high up on my list. I make sure that comes number one, whether it's putting my kids to bed, like I just did, or showing up at a recital or something else, that has the highest priority. Unless the house is burning down I'm just simply going to prioritize that above and beyond everything else. I think it starts there and most people haven't thought out what their clear priorities are.

And as I said, they already start with a calendar that's pretty full, and then it's very hard to prioritize. But if you just clean it all up and say this is what I want to accomplish for the day, and then if you're ruthless about prioritizing, It'll do wonders for you. But this is the thing, time is the most precious commodity we have, we just can't get more of it, right? So, for me, it is way more important to prioritize and be ruthless about that than any other thing in the world.

So going a bit into prioritizing time and doing things which are meaningful, I'm wondering if you listen to any podcasts?

Generally I should probably say I do listen to podcasts at about two times the speed which has become a good time hack, and it's strange for me to listen to a lecture or anything like that in real life because I keep wondering when I can turn up the pace to 2x the speed.

And my final question for you is: why does it seem like the people in tech and the people in art are so similar? My background is almost exclusively in art, but the people I wind up connecting to most are all in tech, and every single one of these guys is virtually indistinguishable from a writer or painter or composer, and it's really the strangest thing. Since you live in the nexus between the highest levels of both spheres, art and tech, and you're also an engineer, I'm wondering, is tech a sort of veiled art?

This is a good question. I'm not sure we can say this universally about all tech entrepreneurs, but I certainly agree with you that there's quite a few of them that honestly could have been artists as well if they just applied themselves to this different field, but the reverse is true with many artists, too.

Many artists I know, if they had just chosen to apply themselves on a different path, they could have been amazing entrepreneurs, and a lot of them actually are amazing entrepreneurs as well in their own fields. So I certainly think that there is a lot of skill-overlap and some of that is sort of just seeing the world in a different way and being willing to be misunderstood. This is an interesting observation, I haven't thought too much about it, but now that you say it, yeah, I guess it's kind of true. I do hang out with both a lot of artists and founders and there are a lot of similarities between the two.

Well, it's been an absolute pleasure of a lifetime because I consider you, without a doubt, one of the top 10 most important people walking on this planet today, so it's a total honor to have been able to ask you a few questions, and I appreciate you coming in to talk to me today.

That's all too kind Sotonye. And by the way, I'm a huge fan of the show so I really appreciate you doing this with me.

To keep up with Daniel, follow him on Twitter now!

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