The year was 2009. Sean Parker, already five years into his ground floor investment in Facebook, felt the itch to strike gold yet again. He fired off a 400-word love note to the founders of Spotify, a Swedish streaming music startup, gushing about the software’s user experience. He crowned it the next evolution of his founding claim to fame, Napster. Little more than a year later, he sat confidently on stage at The Daily Beast’s Innovators Summit as a Spotify board member and opined on the company’s strategy for tapping a relatively untapped American market.
“You end up building a music library that’s 100 times bigger than anything you’ve ever had. And at that point, you have no choice,” Parker explained. “We’ve got you by the balls.”
Fast forward another year. Thousands of early adopters in the States, myself included, waited eagerly for an invite to start using the service in spite of the potential hazard to said balls. Unlike many product launches, the product lived up to the hype. An expansive library, sleek interface and effortless social integration delighted the senses. After a few months of using the free ad-supported tier, I went all in and started rebuilding a sizable mp3 music library and beyond as a paid subscriber.
The (Turn) Tables Have Turned
Four years in and I’m still relatively satisfied with the service, but the silhouettes of trouble can now be made out on the horizon. A once quick and streamlined interface has bulked up to make room for new features and jettisoned less sexy shortcuts that made for easy navigation. Spotify now aspires, for better or worse, to offer most types of audio and even video. The dreaded “more than [insert internet company’s bread and butter]” complex seems to have taken root in the company’s brain trust.
None of this would be cause for much concern in usual consumer scenarios. The quality of Netflix’s product freefalls? No biggie, pack up and take your subscription dollars over to Amazon Prime.
But remember the balls.
Because it’s essentially an on-demand music leasing agent, Spotify employs a fair amount of leverage against its customers. Users with hundreds of hours invested in building their music libraries don’t technically own any of the fruits of their labor. One deal-breaking bad decision by the company, or multiple tiny ones, will leave them feeling the squeeze Parker so vividly described earlier.
The blow might not come from the hands of the company either. Its current bedmates, a small number of recording labels, hold the keys to a bulk of the music Spotify leases and ultimately pull the strings. Worst-case scenario: those who dove head first into the service and use it as their primary means of savoring music would be forced to cut their losses and start from scratch with another streaming service.
You Gotta Fight, For Your Right
It’s obvious why Spotify hasn’t addressed this issue to date. Why make it easier for your customers to leave, especially if you’re the market leader and have the most to lose in the short term? It’s the long term they should be most concerned with, however. The streaming music business, on-demand streaming music in particular, enjoys growth but still sits far, far away from maturity and market stability. The same can be said for the electric car industry, which is why Elon Musk made all Tesla patents freely available to competitors. Tesla needs healthy competition to expand a fragile market and lift all boats in the process.
In Spotify’s case, that competition exists only with consumer protection in the form of a bill of rights. First and foremost is the right to export your library and playlists, not the music itself but the lists of songs in a usable format. This right cuts both ways, sometimes in Spotify’s favor. If I’m a Google Play Music subscriber becomes disgruntled, they could hitch their carefully curated library to Spotify and see how the other side lives with a few clicks of the mouse.
Without this framework of rights, innovation will slow. Spotify and its competitors will suffer from self-inflicted wounds and be left singing a sad tune. Lucky for them, a well-manicured playlist exists for just that scenario.