“Without music,” Nietzsche famously stated, “life would be a mistake.” OK, true, but how much worse would life be without free music? The infinite streaming era was not invented by any one person. Several key figures and companies played a part. One was a little-known Swedish coder named Daniel Ek and his much-better-known company Spotify, the subject of Netflix’s new series The Playlist.
The six-episode limited series chronicles the birth and rise of the streaming behemoth, the one that has become so wealthy that it’s been able to dish out $100 million deals to Joe Rogan and the Ringer podcast network, but the ascent of which was anything but assured.
The Playlist begins with a chronicle of Spotify’s humble origins in the mind of young, newly rich, and somewhat lost tech geek Ek, played by Edvin Endre, a Swedish actor best known in the United States for his role as the son of King Horik in the History channel’s Vikings. Ek was a legendary computer wizard in his high school who parlayed his keyboard skills into coding jobs. He pulls stunts such as hacking Google as a bit of payback after it rejects his job application on the grounds that he does not have a college degree. When his bosses express their displeasure with his online mischief, he decides to try to go out on his own. His bet on himself pays out. Within a year, he creates an online advertising company he is soon able to sell for the tidy sum of $10 million. After his big coup — what would be the biggest windfall of a lifetime for most mortals — Ek is understandably satisfied with what he has accomplished, at 22 years old no less. He is content to not do much more with his life and with his technological gifts besides just sitting at home listening to music and buying new household appliances for his mother. That is, until some heart-to-heart conversations with loved ones and an encounter with an aspiring musician he went to high school with, setting him to try to do something more.
Ek and his fortune were coming of age during the early 2000s, when music file-sharing sites such as Napster in the U.S. and Pirate Bay in Sweden were threatening to end the music industry as we had known it. Ek decided to dedicate himself to the cause of perpetuating both — of saving the music industry and of preserving the newfound pleasure that so many of his generation were refusing to part with: free online music.
In order to save the music industry, Ek would need to find a way of ensuring that artists could continue to get paid for their music in the digital age. And in order to preserve the pleasure of free online music, Ek would need to create a music-sharing service that was not illegal and would not be threatened with nonstop copyright infringement litigation. And, of course, he would need a bit more capital than the $10 million he had earned for the sale of his first company. Ek convinced the entrepreneur who had bought that company — Martin Lorentzon (played by the uber-playful Christian Hillborg) — to go into business with him. He would also need a whole Ocean’s 11 team of fellow tech savants to help him realize his vision of creating the world’s greatest music streaming service.
We know that all this resulted in the creation and explosive growth of the giant company Spotify, but the heart of this surprisingly dramatic series beats in The Playlist’s writing and directing more than the subject matter. Each episode is told from the perspective of a different principal player in Spotify’s creation. This risk-laden narrative tactic could have resulted in some needless duplication, as in Rashomon or the Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying. In the capable hands of directors Hallgrim Haug and Per-Olav Sorensen, however, the first five episodes are instead irresistibly watchable, a feat especially miraculous in light of the subtitles necessitated by the Swedish dialogue. It is a dizzying collection of puzzle pieces that reminds us that this musical golden age was anything but inevitable.
The Playlist also meets the challenge of making the perennially boring pursuit of computer programming interesting, mostly by focusing less on the coding and programming and more on the human elements that allowed the puzzle pieces to come together and work as a team. These include Ek and Lorentzon’s collaboration with the excellent Per Sundin (an underutilized Ulf Stenberg), the executive of Sony Sweden who, after much resistance, sees the light of the oncoming digital music revolution before many of his colleagues and decides to work with Ek instead of fighting him.
The series goes off the rails in a tendentious sixth episode. The show switches from telling the story of Spotify’s past to imagining what its near future might look like. What could have been a fun exercise instead plays as grating grandstanding, a bleeding-heart attempt to squeeze some pious editorializing — however important those issues may be — into a television drama. But if you skip that, we’re left with the beginning of a series that is as fun and interesting as any movie or TV series on tech entrepreneurs I can remember.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a Washington Examiner contributing writer and the author, most recently, of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema.