2019 American Music Awards

Can Fine Art Thrive On Spotify? Sofia Ek, Wife to CEO Daniel, Tests Waters With New Audiovisual Project

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Chris Rock, Sofia Ek, Emmy Rossum and Daniel EK attend "The Minefield Girl" Audio Visual Book Launch at Lightbox on Jan. 31, 2018 in New York City.

Ahead of its impending IPO, Spotify is chasing maximum accessibility and appeal for media creators and listeners alike. This ideal seems to be diametrically opposed to the culture of fine art world, which is notorious for its hefty price tags, limited consumer choice and social exclusivity.

But according to Spotify, these two worlds are more aligned than you might think -- and one of the creative minds spearheading this convergence is none other than Sofia Ek, the wife of Spotify CEO Daniel Ek.

As part of going public, Spotify needs to convince Wall Street investors that it can bloom from an unprofitable music streaming service into a diversified multimedia brand. In this vein, the service announced a brand-new ”Spotlight” format last month, which enables creators to layer photos, video, text and other visual elements atop podcasts, audiobooks and other non-music audio content.

Where does fine art come in? It turns out that Spotify is already investing in ambitious fine-art projects of its own -- such as the recent “RapCaviar Pantheon” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, which featured life-size, Greco-Roman-inspired sculptures of SZA, 21 Savage and Metro Boomin. The interest travels in the other direction as well: several museums around the world, including the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Romanticism in Madrid, have leveraged Spotify as a social engagement tool beyond their exhibition walls.

Spotify hopes the Spotlight format will translate this growing allegiance into innovative visual content that can thrive on, in addition to off, the platform, in part because its original strategy to date has failed to take off as hoped.

One of the first pieces of content to receive the Spotlight treatment is Sofia Ek’s 2017 novel The Minefield Girl, which is based on the writer’s real-life experiences working in ad sales for the Wall Street Journal's magazine SmartMoney in Libya, under Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. The Spotlight version of the novel is repackaged as a “playlist” of 18 audiovisual tracks -- one for each chapter, ranging from two-and-a-half to 41 minutes long -- that can be consumed in any order, rather than keeping listeners locked into going through the chapters in sequence.

In partnership with digital video-art marketplace Blackdove and NYC-based artist Molly Surno, Ek commissioned 18 different artists to create original videos for each chapter of her book. The videos themselves last only around two minutes long, and loop for the duration of their corresponding chapters. For many of these artists, The Minefield Girl marks their first literary project, and/or their first video-art project entirely.

Blackdove itself offers a Spotify-esque, subscription-based alternative to the traditional art market. Customers can pay anywhere from $5 a month for access to a randomized set of landscape video artworks, to $250 a month for an unlimited set of artworks for commercial use (individual art pieces are sold separately atop the flat monthly fee). Much like on Spotify, Blackdove subscribers can browse, purchase and stream artworks from their mobile devices, and, as a software company, Blackdove integrates with nearly all internet-connected video displays (e.g. Samsung TVs).

Of course, such a multifaceted project would be incomplete without a full-fledged physical counterpart. On Jan. 31, the Eks hosted an immersive installation and reception of The Minefield Girl at Lightbox in NYC, counting Hailee Steinfeld, Nick Jonas, John Legend, Chris Rock, Tory Burch, Camilla Belle (who recorded the voiceover narration for the book) and Julie Greenwald (chairman/COO of Atlantic Records) among its guests.

Eighteen floor-to-ceiling panels projected the video artworks in sequence around the room, while six Sonos Play:5 speakers delivered a bespoke surround-sound experience designed by VisiSonics, the company whose 3D audio software was licensed for use in Facebook’s Oculus Rift VR headsets. LIFEWTR, PepsiCo’s premium bottled-water brand, offered free bottles and tote bags emblazoned with a variety of works by emerging visual artists.

Sofia Ek and her collaborators want the world to see her revamped novel as a singular, innovative piece of art in its own right. In fact, a long-term exhibition of The Minefield Girl is currently on display at Fotografiska, a photography museum in Stockholm, Sweden that has housed collections by legends in the field such as Annie Leibovitz and Robert Mapplethorpe.

But the VIP reception in New York may have been an indicator of how Spotify users will actually consume The Minefield Girl: as a lean-back rather than lean-forward experience that provides an ambient, non-interruptive backdrop to other activities, rather than capturing listeners’ full, undivided attention as an art museum would. What was an engaging, 360-degree immersive experience at Lightbox will be collapsed into a single mobile screen (over 60 percent of music streamers now listen on mobile), while not even the best pair of headphones can perfectly preserve the full-room design delivered through the Sonos speakers. As a result, while the content itself may be multidimensional, the ultimate user experience will be diluted to the dimensions of a typical music playlist on Spotify.

Is this a disservice to the story and to the art? Sofia Ek says no, emphasizing that she aimed to adapt to, rather than resist, consumer trends in the overhauled design of The Minefield Girl, from the unbundled playlist format to the looping GIF-like video layers. “I didn’t want to make a seven-hour movie straight through, because that would be demanding too much from the consumer,” Ek tells Billboard. “We’re always on the go now, and I wanted to elevate that experience, not steal from it.”

In fact, all the commissioned artists were instructed from the outset to create their videos with a lean-back end-user experience in mind. “We were told to think of our works as ‘artistic screensavers,’” Jon Kessler, a veteran multimedia sculptor and kinetic artist who was commissioned to make a video for chapter eight of The Minefield Girl, tells Billboard. “Like something that you know is there and that you can watch at anytime, but atop which you can also multitask and do other things, without sacrificing access to the artwork.”

The videos don't directly follow the characters or plot, but rather present the artist’s abstract representation of the chapter as a whole -- indeed resembling a screensaver. “Initially, you might not see the connections between the story and the artworks, but you might look at it with completely different eyes as the chapters unfold and as you start to familiarize yourself more with the visuals,” says Ek. “There’s no one singular meaning to art. It will awaken something different in each person.”

Despite being available to stream on Spotify for free, the videos from The Minefield Girl are also selling for four-figure prices on Blackdove. Only 100 copies of each video artwork are for sale on the site, with prices ranging from $2,500 to $4,000 apiece or $48,000 for one bundle of all 18 artworks. The single bundle comes with a 55" wallpaper display from LG (a $6,000 value), which will get installed in the buyer's home in portrait orientation. In a tough media-arts funding landscape -- Kessler calls making money from video art “an oxymoron” -- the artists involved in the project expressed praise for this multi-tiered pricing option, which caters to both extremes of the wealth spectrum (Spotify's freemium option on one end, Blackdove's premium option on the other).

Even still, there is something odd about The Minefield Girl clinging so staunchly to some of the fine art world’s most dominant paradigms, as Spotify aims to prove its viability as a mass-market media platform. In general, Spotify faces the challenge of telling a coherent brand story that veers in opposite directions across multiple axes -- niche versus scalable tastes, undivided versus fragmented attention, unlimited versus bounded options, driving versus lowering the value of recorded music -- without being pulled apart into pieces in the process.

But the art world wants to learn from Spotify, too. Amidst decreasing funds from government and philanthropic organizations, as well as a strained membership culture with churn rates as high as 70 percent, museums are increasingly looking to Spotify and other digital media platforms for inspiration around new subscription models, short-form programming and innovations around the value proposition of “free admission” (the analog to Spotify's free tier). Ray Weaver, former assistant professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, argued that some of the most profitable internet businesses, including Apple and Facebook, are like museum curators in their own right: serving as decision-making proxies for an ever more distracted consumer base by organizing noise and limiting choice, while at the same time crafting engaging, honest stories behind each choice.

Kessler says at the end of the day, Spotlight will open more opportunities for artists.

“This is just like how actors used to have only two career paths: go to Hollywood, or perform onstage on Broadway,” says Kessler. “Now there are so many more possibilities for actors compared to traditional media, from distributing your own web series to starring in original shows on platforms like Netflix and Hulu. In the same way, [Spotlight] is a brand-new, expansive territory for audiovisual media which is going to offer more possibilities to artists from all backgrounds.”


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