Writing the early history of Spotify (excerpt from a forthcoming book)

As mentioned in my previous post, and by my colleague Pelle, we just delivered the manuscript to MIT Press for our academic book focusing on Spotify. The book is co-written by five researchers; I have been mainly in charge of writing a history of Spotify (which includes not only a chronological narrative, but also a whole lot of theoretical and methodological considerations that may have a broader relevance for those writing digital history).

Just like Pelle has previously posted a snippet at his blog, I will here post a short section cut out from the historical chapter. (Remember, this is just the first manuscript and will of course be edited on the way to the final product. Also, this snippet is lacking the footnotes and references that are in the manuscript.)

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The Beta Period (2007–2008)
On the first of May 2007, Spotify released its initial beta version to a smaller circle of acquaintances. Among those were some of Sweden’s leading technology bloggers. This immediately resulted in a number of enthusiastic blog posts, and the comment fields were flooded with invite requests. Being invited to use Spotify was a sign of exclusivity, and Spotify controlled the growth of the circle by rationing the number of invites that existing users could pass on. If one would look at the early user demographics it would probably be rather affluent, dominated by men in the age between 25 to 40 years, living in inner-city Stockholm, working with technology or media. Many of these saw themselves as passionated fans of new pop music, but their enthusiasm for digital technology was probably even stronger.

One of the first beta testers was Eric Wahlforss, a part-time musician and entrepreneur who at this time was just about to found SoundCloud—another kind of music streaming service (that Spotify years later would consider for acquisition). Wahlforss immediately recognized Spotify as “a preview of the future.” It may be noted, however, that his enthusiastic blog post had little, if anything, to do with music:

The thing that wows me the most is that the app is faster than iTunes on my local machine. Repeat, faster than iTunes. And now we’re talking fancy peer-to-peer architectures, special audio codecs, custom databases, etc, etc. […] If this thing scales it will be bigger than Skype. Big, big ups to the Spotify team.

Spotify’s first interface did indeed look very similar to iTunes: the user could search for music and add tracks to personal playlists. In addition, it also offered a radio-like mode of listening in which the user was asked to select one of 18 predefined music genres (and one or several decades). Compared to today’s personalized radio stations, this seems primitive indeed—but in fact, this was how Spotify Radio worked until late 2011.

Illustration 7. The possible options for the user in Spotify’s early radio interface—present already in the beta version. Screenshot taken during the summer of 2010.

Spotify, during its Beta Period, consolidated a kind of on-demand doctrine as a service centered around the search box, giving access to “whatever you want.” The user was effectively conceived as a sovereign individual who already knew exactly what he or she wanted to listen to, and did not need help with music recommendations. Indeed, this doctrine was probably reinforced by the sample of beta testers.

The buzz over Spotify intensified in early 2008, essentially focusing on two aspects. First, that the new service would actually ‘make music free’ by relying entirely on advertising. Secondly, buzzmakers affirmed the move ‘from ownership to access’ and presented the personal archiving of MP3’s as a practice soon to be outdated. If commentators saw anything lacking in the beta version, it was that users still could not easily upload their self-made music to Spotify—as a web 2.0 service was supposed to function. However, it was a feature that many expected to see implemented soon.

Period A (2008–2009)
The first public version of Spotify was launched in October 2008. But what exactly did it mean to ‘launch’ a music service that was already up and running, serving thousands of users each day? Maybe it is better to say that Spotify was legalized. For a year and a half, Spotify’s beta had in effect been run as a pirate service, distributing music without any license to do so—to users that had come across an invite. As stated, in many cases the music files had originated from The Pirate Bay and other file-sharing networks, but this changed when Spotify signed its first deal with the big record companies and collecting societies—in essence, moving itself into legal territory.

To many of the existing users at the time—and some of us researchers living in Stockholm were initial listeners—what really happened in October 2008, however, was that parts of their playlists suddenly became unavailable. Spotify simply had to remove unlicensed music from its service, and in early 2009, even more music disappeared on request of record companies that enforced country-specific listening restrictions. In addition, only users with a special invite could access Spotify Free; this did not change with the official launch. The only real addition was the addition of paid version, Spotify Premium. Now being legal, the company could now also begin to really sell advertisement—which gradually became ever more present for users of Spotify Free.

Spotify’s ‘launch,’ in other words, was not the launch of a new service, but the launch of new efforts to monetize an existing service.

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And so the chapter goes on, structuring the history of Spotify according to the successive rounds of financing which has let the company survive, despite making ever larger losses.

Oh no, now I said it again: “the history of…”. According to a newly published article in Rethinking History this is a “bizarre notion”, because history is not the same as the past. I do agree that it would be more correct to say that our book provides a history of Spotify, because it could certainly be written otherwise. But so far, I dare to say that our forthcoming book provides the only academic attempt to write Spotify’s history at any length. Yet, the history told in chapter one is only a part of the book.

Spotify Teardown. Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music is to be published by MIT Press in 2018.

29 kommentarer ↓

#1 3 – Writing the early history of Spotify (excerpt from a forthcoming book) on 1 July 2017 at 2:46 pm

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#2 Knyttet on 12 July 2017 at 2:34 am

Antar att du sett?

#3 COPYRIOT | Vad händer efter Soundcloud? on 15 July 2017 at 7:38 am

[…] Writing the early history of Spotify (excerpt from a forthcoming book) […]

#4 Widing on 27 July 2017 at 11:24 pm

Jag skulle verkligen vilja höra ett samtal mellan dig och Eric Wahlforss. Han är ju inte bara soundcloud-entreprenör utan även visionär “på riktigt”. Han byggde ju ett tungt underground community “underfund”, runt millenieskiftet som var långt “före sin tid” och som finansierade små kulturprojekt genom direktdemokratisk fördelning av resurser mellan medlemmarna. Inga projekt röstades bort, det tog bara längre tid att finansiera dem om man hade lägre stöd. Minns inte när det startade men jag minns att det stängde 2003. Allting var hemligt och medlemmar initierades på rekommendation. Det finns kanske en historia att skriva där i skuggan av Spotify/Soundcloud.