Interscope Records chairman/CEO John Janick says that after Holmstén shared his idea for vertical videos -- eight-second loops that play in tandem with songs -- Janick convinced Selena Gomez to film herself at home with her iPhone so that she could be the first to use the feature for her single “Bad Liar.”
Justin Lubliner, the founder/owner of Billie Eilish's label Darkroom Records, says it took less than a minute for Holmstén to get behind the 17-year-old breakout star’s vision for a fan-listening experience for her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?: an immersive interactive journey through a series of rooms, each inspired by one of the LP’s 14 songs. “I sat down, shook Nick’s hand and started to explain the idea,” says Lubliner. “And Nick said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ” The concept, he adds, was executed “flawlessly -- I felt like they took a picture of the inside of my brain.”
Holmstén attributes his ability to grasp artists’ needs to his own past as a singer and songwriter. Growing up in Karlstad, a town 200 miles from Stockholm, he dabbled in catering after high school; at age 30 he formed a Brit-pop band called Apple Brown Betty -- “like the dessert,” he says -- in which he was the frontman. The group scored a recording contract and a tour of Japan, but both fell apart along with the band, At the time, Stockholm was a hit-making mecca for American artists such as Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, who were venturing to “The Hit Factory,” aka Cheiron Studios, to write and record albums with pop gurus like Max Martin, so Holmstén focused on songwriting and at one point worked with Simon Cowell.
When Spotify launched in Sweden in 2008 -- it eventually signed up almost 90% of the population -- Holmstén says he noticed right away that navigating the abundance of music choices was overwhelming. He knew from his catering days, curating dining experiences and shopping at specialty food stores, that customers were interested in sampling things they hadn’t tried before. He decided the same principles could be applied to music and created Tunigo, an app that allowed people to choose music based on moods and activities. Tunigo -- which for a time ranked higher than Spotify at Apple’s App Store -- caught Ek’s eye. Holmstén first partnered with Spotify, then in 2013 let the company buy him out. He joined its ranks, and Tunigo became the foundation of Spotify’s playlist strategy.
“It’s crazy to think about it, but in 2013 Spotify didn’t have any of its own playlists,” says Holmstén today. “I told Daniel, ‘I promise you: In the future, some of these playlists are going be bigger than the biggest radio station.’ He sort of looked at me like, ‘Let’s see about that.’ And that is what happened. It changed the music industry.”
Despite Holmstén’s artistic beginnings, some in the business regard him as more aligned with what one high-ranking executive describes as Spotify’s “heartless” tech culture. “Spotify doesn’t seem to be able to hold on to people that are genuinely artist-friendly,” says the source, and it’s true that over the last 18 months the company has seen the departures of at least six executives with strong ties to the creative community, including Troy Carter, global head of creator services. Point out the addition of Erlich, and the response is that while he is respected, he’s more of a numbers guy.
Although Holmstén was based out of Stockholm (in other roles) until May 2018, two industry sources say he was, as one put it, “a contributing factor” in the departures of some of those executives. One source familiar with the situation says Holmstén “was obsessed with nobody on the music team speaking at conferences or to the press” but would post his own media mentions on Instagram. The insider says Holmstén also sowed anxiety by openly discussing the salary negotiations of exiting staffers.