Daniel Ek on Spotify’s Next Step: It’s a Chance for Artists to ‘Build Connection’
"If you want to find out what Spotify is going to do … look for a big consumer need and a big creator need," Ek tells Billboard. "That's when we will do something."
Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has been envisioning this day — the launch of several new features and key changes, presented at the company’s Stream On event in Los Angeles on Wednesday (March 8) — for quite some time. The first iterations of Stream On 2023 existed “about two years ago,” Ek tells Billboard. “We ramped it up seriously, like, 18 months ago, and then 12 months ago, it was like, ‘Wow, okay, we need to bundle this thing, that thing — put it all together now.’”
The result was a series of innovations rolled out simultaneously: a new vertical-swiped homepage with an interactive feed for Spotify’s mobile app; the expansion of video-based tools like Canvas, Spotify Clips and Previews, that rely on looped visuals and exclusive content from artists; greater access to its Discovery Mode program, which trades algorithmic exposure for lower royalty rates; and “countdown pages,” a long-awaited pre-save feature for upcoming albums. Some of these features have been long in the works, and have already drawn comparisons to visual-based platforms like TikTok and Instagram, but the 90-minute upfront (which also included presentations by Spotify co-president/chief product officer/chief technology officer Gustav Söderström, global head of editorial Sulinna Ong and global head of artist partnerships Joe Hadley, among others) was aimed at optimizing the listener experience and amplifying artistic voices on the platform. As Ek directly told creators watching the global livestream: “Spotify is open for business.”
Shortly after the Stream On event, Ek sat down for a rare Q&A about the ambitious rollout, heightened tech competition, acknowledging Gen Z listener habits and not being caught up in the “time on app” craze. (Ed. Note: this interview has been edited for clarity.)
During your Stream On presentation, you spoke about how this is the most dramatic period of innovation for Spotify in a decade. Why now? Why this moment?
I mean, there are so many aspects of this that probably won’t get the spotlight. As an example, and Gustav mentioned this on stage, we’ve kind of rebuilt. We’re known for our Discovery platform, and for how good we are at machine-learning and AI and recommending new stuff. But we’ve actually, underneath the surface, redone that entire system, and meantime, our designers have obviously been tinkering around with the best way of promoting content the best way for discovering content.
And, in the meantime, our artist teams have been expanding our Canvas programs — I think we’re up to 70% of covers on Spotify now having some sort of Canvas. More and more artists were taking advantage of the platform, with lyrics and Canvas and all these things already, and we saw that the more rich storytelling we could do on the platform the better it would be. And then, couple that with this algorithm- and machine-learning you need underneath all of that to be able to do this and have a magical experience, all three of them started coming together. And that was when I said, probably 18 months ago, “Okay, we need to pull all of this together as one — because this will be a massive thing, and we can’t do this as separate parts.”
I think that there are two types of companies when when you’re developing products: One tries to get it all together, and [make] it beautiful. Generally at Spotify, we are more kind of agile — we release things quite early, we test a lot of things, a lot of things don’t work, some things work and we double down on them. But we felt this was such an important step that we needed to kind of like bring it all together and release it as one thing, because otherwise, people wouldn’t understand it, and it wouldn’t get the right reception from consumers, but also — frankly — from creators as well.
You spoke about how “individuality and creativity” are being prioritized by this new interface. How much of that is being driven by the way Gen Z listeners want to engage with music over passive listening — is that a big part of what you’re rolling out?
Absolutely. You’re 100%, right, it’s about looking towards younger consumers for inspiration. And I’m a firm believer in the [William Gibson] quote, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
I’ve got two young kids, and quite often, you can just look at your own kids and see what they’re doing, see a glimpse of the future. So that’s definitely been part of it, but I do think that oftentimes, when you look at these types of things, there’s a universal truth in what’s happening here. So yes, younger [listeners] are more interested in visual discovery, and all those things that they’re used to because of all the other apps and platforms and other stuff. But the reality is, if you think about it, in the music industry, when we went from having a radio to MTV, it was a hell of a lot better, and it allowed totally different artists to get a new way of communicating. And that probably meant some artists actually weren’t going to be as successful as MTV took off, but there were other artists that were excellent storytellers visually, too. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” how the storytelling came alive — the sort of backstory that came in this music video — that was one way, right?
The truth is, as someone who grew up with MTV — funny side note, I actually learned how to speak English through MTV — I kind of feel like we’ve been relegated to, just press play and listen to the background. But as more and more music became playlists, there are all these artists that I don’t know anything about. I don’t know what they look like, and [have] no idea who they are, how they express their individuality and creativity. And so what we’re announcing today is really a chance for them to tell part of the story of what they want the world to see, as part of who they are, and get a chance to build connection. And when we’ve tested this concept with artists, the response is exactly that. That’s not just among younger [people], but even slightly older people too. When you discover someone, having this sort of richness, being able to see the person, to be able to see their vision come to life, builds that connection.
When you look at how much of this presentation today emphasized video expansion — from Previews to Spotify Clips to extending video with podcasts — how much are these innovations driven by feeling in your gut where things are headed, and how much is driven by competition on other platforms and social media?
A bit of both. I think everyone who says that they’re not inspired by anything that’s going on around them, it’s complete bullshit, to be honest. So I mean, I’ve played around with everything — I play around with the Voice apps, where you can Auto-tune yourself to sound really good. We take inspiration from all of that, of course. But we try to also look at more than just copying features for features’ sake — we try to look for, “What are the needs?”
If you want to find out what Spotify is going to do, it’s actually very simple. All you’ve got to do is look for a big consumer need and a big creator need, and when there’s a win-win between the two of them, that’s when we will do something. It’s really as simple as that. And so that’s the bar for me: is this something that consumers want, first and foremost, because if you don’t want it? It doesn’t matter that the creator wants it — it’s not going to be a great thing. And vice versa: if the consumer wants something, but the creator hates doing it, it’s not going to be sustainable long-term. So you’ve got to try to find out what that middle [ground] is. And a lot of times, I wish I could say that there’s this kind of defining moment, where you sit together in a room and figure it out. It’s not how innovation works, in my opinion. It’s organic.
You mentioned podcasting — we started uploading lots of videos there. Canvas has worked out really well. So it was this natural evolution where we started seeing that visual expression together. One of my fears honestly was like, does that mean we’ll be more like the other platforms? But both because of the types of creators that we have, and also the fact that we don’t expect you to sit two hours in front of that endless screen and watch stuff — we expect you to find something you really like, press play, put it in your pocket, and use that visual way of going from point A to point B faster. We’ve done the algorithms, we’ve done the UX, to do exactly that, opposed to some of these other social platforms that want you to stick around and watch the entire time.
I wanted to ask about something that Gustav said during the presentation that I found really interesting: “Our goal is not to steal time — it’s to help users save time.” There’s so much emphasis across every platform right now of “time spent on app” — getting users from a few seconds with an app open to a few minutes — whereas Spotify wants users to find something they like and then keep it moving.
Yeah, it’s exactly right. I call the concept “nutritious versus delicious.” I feel like everyone’s trying to go towards shorter, shorter, shorter-form content, more bite-sized. And then we have this counter-movement with podcasts, where someone’s willing to listen to two hours of someone going super deep on a very slim topic as well. We obviously want to allow creators to create whatever way they want to do, but out of the two extremes, we’re definitely more in the latter camp. We want creators to really form a connection with their audience rather than just trying to get a viral clip going, and next morning, it could be 50 other people who are successful [instead].
In terms of Discovery Mode, and giving artists a better chance of finding that first play and gaining a new listener — is there any concern of that tool like that losing some efficiency once you open it up to a much wider population of artists, where at some point it becomes to discern what’s worthwhile and what’s noise? Does that tension exist for you?
I mean, there’s absolutely that kind of tension. However, I think this is the beautiful thing — with these algorithms and personalization, we’re not all the same. So the kind of artists you like and the kind of artists I like might be very different. And some of these artists will get exposed to people more like me, and then other artists similar to you will get that exposure. There’s room for all of these things to play together, whereas in the past, you had a commercial radio station that had like 50 or 60 songs on rotation. We can actually cover a lot more than ever before in terms of giving artists exposure, and I think that’s also visible in our numbers.
I talked about onstage the notion that even the 50,000th most-streamed artist, which is kind of far down the list, is still making probably $50,000 across not just Spotify, but across all the other recorded music sources. And if you add touring, if you add all the other stuff, that’s probably a full time musician. It’s a very different music industry today. So I see the tension — and obviously, you’re right, on the long tail of things, it means some people won’t get that attention. But I think on the quality side, we will be good, and we will constantly improve, just like we’ve always had to, to give you better and better recommendations.
You are building Spotify for the long haul, and today was about continuing that building process. I was curious about how you strike the balance between growth and over-extension — finding the right opportunities that make sense for Spotify, without becoming too unwieldy?
I mean, look, it’s not easy, and I wish there was like a silver-lining way to answer it, but I think it comes back to what I talked about. We have three main constituents at Spotify, and two of them are dominant, and the third one, I have to pay attention to. The three main constituents are creators and consumers — they’re the ones that are front and center in everything that we do — and then the third is Spotify itself, my employees, shareholders, all that other stuff. So as I’m working on something, or we’re considering something, it really honestly is as simple as I mentioned: Do I believe that there’s a win-win-win, that gets us there all the faster?
I will probably do stuff that’s great for consumers and great for creators, and not great for Spotify. We’ve done a lot of those things, but I can’t do that endlessly — we’ve got to run a business as well. So it’s about trying to have those three things, the list that every decision goes through. It’s a very simple thing. Is this a win-win for creators and consumers, and will this work out for Spotify? If the answer is yes, then we will do it.