Stream it or skip it?

There have been a number of series about the beginnings of the tech giants, but most of them have an element of schadenfreude; In other words, we watch because we want to see arrogant braggarts like Travis Kalanick (Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber) or Adam Neumann (we crashed) go down. But there may also be interest in seeing how many hurdles and hoops a successful tech company needed to jump through to become the behemoth it is today. That’s the purpose of a new series from Sweden, the home of music giant Spotify.

Opening shot: A Rolls Royce stops in the bowels of an arena. A voiceover says: “What is music really? Technically speaking, it is a series of sounds put together to provoke a reaction in the human mind.”

The essence: That’s the voice of Daniel Ek (Edvin Endre), the co-founder of Spotify. We heard in his voice how much music influenced him, like when he and his mom danced with Aretha Franklin.

He’s in the arena to give a talk about his company’s huge success, but then we flash back to Rågsved, Sweden, in 2004. Ek is a programmer for a small auction website, but he has much bigger ideas. After receiving a rejection letter from Google, he decides to quit his job and work for himself; he takes a few months to develop a website that digitizes coupons and generates revenue for businesses that sign up. The site catches the eye of two big businessmen, including Martin Lorentzon (Christian Hillborg); the couple buys Ek’s company.

He celebrates by going to a club to see his old high school classmate Bobbie T (Janice Kavander) sing. She complains to him that her concert recordings are constantly posted on an illegal torrent site called Pirate Bay. She gives Ek the idea, which she pitches to Lorentzon: beat Pirate Bay at its own game by providing a fast, lag-free music streaming service. The music remains free to users, but the company (he calls it “Spotify”) will pay the license fees for the songs; revenue will come from advertising.

Ek and Lorentzon put the company together and hire what Ek calls the “coders nobody else wants,” but they’re brilliant and he wants the coders to be in charge. One problem: they can’t just buy the license rights from Sweden’s main licensing agency, as Ek thought. They have to go to the individual record companies to get those rights, and Ek finds that they are so reticent and afraid of everything digital that they don’t want to deal with him. He is hopeful when it comes to Sony Sweden CEO Per Sundin (Ulf Stenberg), who seems to believe that the future of music will come sooner than the industry thinks.

Maxine (Severija Janusauskaite), a Sony executive who was on Ek’s side, encourages him to go on another Bobbi T show, where Sundin might be. But when he meets up with Sundin and tries to release it, Sundin curses him as just another coder who wants him to give away music from his label.

the playlist
Photo: Johan Bergmark/Netflix

What shows will it remind you of? How many series have we seen recently about the origins of technology companies? Of course, most are in the line of we crashed Y Super Pumped: The Battle for Uberwhere the drama is about some kind of fall of the founder of the company, but both are similar to what we see with the playlist.

Our take: the structure of the playlistbased on the book untold spotify Written by Sven Carlsson by Jonas Leijonhufvud, it tells the story of Spotify from several perspectives: Ek, Lorentzon, Sundin, lead coder Andreas Ehn (Joel Lützow), Bobbie T, who challenges the paltry income artists receive from the service, and Petra Hanson (Gizem Erdogan), the corporate lawyer who started working for Spotify and handled how the company would cooperate with reticent record labels.

That structure helps break up a story that doesn’t have much conflict. Yes, artists have complained that Spotify pays them too little when their songs are streamed hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of times. Spotify has gotten some flak lately as it got into the podcast game and paid big bucks to controversial podcasters like Joe Rogan. But, for the most part, the company has been a huge success, with Ek remaining as its CEO. There hasn’t been a crash like Travis Kalanick at Uber or Adam Neumann at WeWork.

So instead of telling the story linearly, the writers fictionalized the story a little bit and then told it from those multiple perspectives. Now, will this get repetitive after a while? Maybe. But the first episode, told from Ek’s perspective, moved well enough to give me hope for the rest of the season, if the writers can find enough about each perspective for mine.

Sex and skin: None in the first episode.

Parting shot: As Ek and his team hand out cards with the Spotify URL to some kids at a school, Sundin sees his son with a card. “What the hell? That’s not how it happened,” Sundin says into the camera.

sleeping star: We’re giving this to Janice Kavander as Bobbi, because she sells the fact that she and Ek were actually friends in high school. Maybe they were, but it doesn’t even seem like they were in the same social circles back then.

Most of the Pilot-y line: Bobbie asks Ek what he’s been up to. He nonchalantly replies, “Not much. I just sold a company for 10 million, but other than that…” What humble bragging, right? Plus, that feels like something a TV character would say.

Our call: TRANSMIT IT. Weather the playlist doesn’t give the audience the satisfying dose of schadenfreude that other tech bioseries have provided, it effectively shows how many prospects there are for the start of a massive hit like Spotify.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting, and technology, but he’s not kidding himself: he’s a couch potato. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, vanityfair.comFast Company and elsewhere.

Leave a Comment