"The Playlist": A Fragmented History of Spotify

By Thought Leaders Archives
Cover image for  article: "The Playlist": A Fragmented History of Spotify

The vision. The industry. The law. The coder. The partner. The artist. These are the building blocks of Spotify, according to Netflix’s new Swedish-language series The Playlist, which recounts the history of the world’s largest online music streaming service, from its founding in 2006 through its imagined state in 2025. With a spotlight on each of these essential building blocks -- each of the series’ six episodes follows the perspective of a new individual, representing a different facet of the company -- The Playlist offers a thorough, if incomplete, account of the extensive negotiations, machinations, arguments, brainstorming sessions and breakthroughs that facilitated easy and instantaneous access to the world’s music.

While we now know that Spotify’s founders succeeded wildly in their mission to make the first legal streaming service, looking backwards and remembering that they had no reason to expect anything but failure makes their stubborn persistence all the more remarkable.

Unfortunately, The Playlist falls short in making a compelling story out of this gargantuan, ethically fraught feat of innovation. The shift in perspective from episode to episode bears the brunt of the blame. While the presence of many points of view allows for deep exploration of many aspects of the company’s founding, each episode largely rehashes the same few events from a different perspective, which quickly becomes repetitive. This heavy focus on the months leading up to Spotify’s founding makes scattered scenes from later years in the company’s history feel superficial and forced. In addition, each new episode brings a dramatic change in tone and style; the episode centered on the company’s top lawyer, for example, takes a surrealist bent and takes place entirely within an empty, wood-paneled hallway, which doubles as an airport, a bar and a closet. While these stylistic shifts make each episode immersive and character-specific as an independent piece, they rob the series of any stylistic cohesion. The pacing is inconsistent, too; in some -- but not all -- episodes, the opening or closing of a door can signal a time jump of anywhere between a few days and a decade, which is disorienting and often unclear.

The changes in perspective do, however, lead to a few interesting gold nuggets. An important conversation outside a nightclub is shown from three characters’ perspectives, with the event unfolding on a slightly different path each time based on the narrator’s flawed memory. A brief spotlight on the possible neurodivergence of the company’s "quirky" co-founder, Martin Lorentzon (Christian Hillborg), is particularly effective in providing a deeper emotional context to scenes that we have already seen a few times. But these shining moments of history being retold are few and far between. Inexplicably, several of the series’ narrators -- the CEO of Sony’s Swedish division (Ulf Stenberg), the company’s star coder (Joel Lützow) and the career-obsessed lawyer extraordinaire (Gizem Erdogan) -- disappear almost entirely from the series after being introduced, with no opportunity for character development.

While the first five episodes of the series are discombobulating and sometimes tedious, The Playlist is still engaging, as a result of its interesting subject material, until its final episode, which jumps -- without explanation -- into an imagined future in which Spotify’s founder Daniel Ek (portrayed by Edvin Endre) is forced to testify at a congressional hearing in 2025 amidst an international movement calling for the company to compensate its artists with a livable wage. By showing a future Daniel unwilling to engage in productive conversation with the impassioned protesters, The Playlist seems to assert that the company has lost its way and become a profit-hungry monopoly, an argument that lacks nuance and finds little emotional resonance in Endre’s one-sided, unruffled performance. In addition, while The Playlist never purported to tell an objective history of Spotify, the illusion of any truth in the first five episodes is broken by this abrupt foray into pure fiction. Put simply, it just feels disingenuous to attach events that haven’t happened yet -- and that may never happen -- to an account of history. Moreover, with such a rich body of real-life controversies and ethical complications in Spotify’s history (underpaying of artists and proliferation of COVID-19 misinformation, to name two), nothing but laziness on the part of the writers can explain why all of this real-life conflict has been ditched in favor of an easier, fictional solution.

The Playlist, with its disappointing, villainizing conclusion, amounts to a heavy-handed commentary on recent history. With such a significant sociohistorical phenomenon to explore and such complicated implications to unpack (what does it mean to be an artist in today’s world?), it is a shame this series shied away from mining Spotify’s (real) history for conflict, nuance and feeling. In the end, with an endless library of content at our fingertips, this fragmented history of Spotify is not worth putting on your playlist.

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